A former Google Play marketing champ gets his edtech game on.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Patrick, aka “Mad” Mork, leads Marketing at Course Hero. Previously at Google, he built the first Play marketing team and led the creation of the Google Play brand. Born in Belgium, he’s lived in 11 countries and is an avid cyclist. He has deep experience in mobile applications, content distribution, consumer packaged goods and entertainment. While at Google, Patrick built and led the marketing team that launched the Google Play store and all its associated services (books, movies, music, etc.). He was a core part of the executive team that propelled the business from $700M in sales in 2011 to over $2.5B by 2013. At the board level, Patrick has also been an active board advisor to several startups including Onavo (Acquired by Facebook), Distimo (Acquired by App Annie), Connect and Nextinit and served as an EIR with Signia Venture Partners. Multicultural at heart, Patrick speaks four languages fluently and has worked in 7 different countries across 4 continents. A charismatic and visionary leader, he has spoken at numerous conferences including CTIA, South by SouthWest, Ad:Tech, MWC, Omma Digital and the MMA Forums.
I really want to make a difference. I think there are a lot problems out there and strongly believe that as a society we could benefit enormously from improving how we educate our students.
His passion is to grow technology companies using technology to disrupt an existing industry in a way which creates a meaningful social impact for users. Now at Course Hero, an online learning platform that empowers millions of students and educators to succeed, Patrick is involved in a major rebrand and growth phase for the crowdsourced learning platform where students and educators share and access millions of course-specific educational resources, get 24/7 online tutoring, and create flashcards. In the last 12 months alone, the platform’s content library has grown over 50 percent, it has added 170,000 pieces of Course Advice (from virtually zero) and its user base now exceeds 12.5M users. Patrick talks edtech, growth, and adventures along the way in this far-ranging, in-depth discussion.
With Gates pouring billions into the future of learning and Zuckerberg announcing a 50M edtech invest, both toward personalized learning, what is personalized learning? What should it be?
Patrick: At Course Hero our primary goal is around helping students and educators master their classes. For students, mastery really is a function of their ability to learn collaboratively in a personalized manner.
The Challenge. The challenge today is that our educational system is essentially designed for an industrial economy, and not well suited to a knowledge economy that stresses collaboration, innovation and creativity. In fact, many of today’s educational initiatives function on what Sal Khan, of Khan Academy, refers to as a Swiss Cheese model. It assumes that all students learn the same way and at the same pace. It doesn’t really recognize that students are different, learn at different paces, and even require different perspectives to master the same material.
The Possible Solution. In our view, personalized learning is the ability to provide students with personalized teaching as well as support outside of the classroom. Practically speaking, this means students should have access to someone – a tutor, teacher, friend, or group – who can provide answers to their questions at any time of the day and on any device.
Personalized Learning. Aside from 24/7 tutoring, it also means 24/7 access to study supplements that can provide new and different perspectives on subjects that students are learning in the classroom. For example, some students might respond well to a class lecture on “Alice in Wonderland”. However, others might be lost, bored or confused. If we can offer these students multiple “angles” on the same material this might help unlock their curiosity about the topic and/or answer a question which had them stumped.
Visual learners, for instance, might respond much better to an Infographic on Alice in Wonderland compared to a class lecture. If we want to unlock the potential of each and every student, whether a teenager in high school or a divorced mother of two who is taking night school, we need to find a way to offer them learning tools and materials which cater to the way each of them learns best and not attempt to impose a one-size fits all model on them.
What should the goal of education be? What makes you say that?
Patrick: That’s a great question! The goal of education should be to help identify the hidden strengths that each one of us has as individuals and to build a foundation around it that both enables us to match those strengths and passions with an engaging and fulfilling career while also providing meaningful value to society.
Steve Jobs once said that if you find what you love “you’ll never work another day in your life”. Personally, it took me 20 years to figure that out but today I really enjoy what I do and never see my job as “work”. When I look around and see people motivated and fired up about something, they never seem like they’re really working. They’re doing something that they enjoy, that helps them grow and that makes a difference. Maybe I’m an idealist but I strongly believe that each and every one of us has innate strengths and abilities. Things we’re really great at and things that can make a meaningful difference to society. Sadly, so many of us never find a vocation that taps into these strengths. We fall into something, it provides us enough income to get by and we lack the courage to stretch ourselves to find something we love. We can and should do better.
Are there traps and pitfalls that we must be aware of when envisioning the future of education? What are they? What is the ideal path forward? Toward what general goals should we be moving?
Patrick: Yes. There are many. A few key pitfalls we need to look out for include:
- Technology as the silver bullet
I think particularly in The Valley, there is this notion that technology can solve everything. That’s not necessarily true. As technologists, we sometimes live in our own bubble and don’t see the human applications of the tech we build.
Take Glass for example. We all focused on the potential it could unlock. But some of these things don’t keep the “consumer/user” in mind as well as privacy. We didn’t seriously consider the “invasion of privacy” some people would feel. We didn’t think of how consumers would respond to engaging with someone wearing them.
Tech by itself doesn’t solve problems unless a) you have a specific problem that needs to be addressed and b) you’re keeping the consumer front and center.
In the case of education, we must separate what’s happening inside the classroom from what’s happening outside the classroom. Technology professionals and educators each have roles to play here. We have to be cognizant of both and build technology in a smart, consumer centric fashion that enhances and complements the best of what our educators have to offer. What’s more, we should not be looking at technology to replace the classroom.
- Money solves everything.
We’ve seen this time and again. Funding – whether coming from the government or private parties – needs to be aligned with clear, measurable goals and needs to be properly managed to be effective. From the research I’ve seen it doesn’t feel like we in the educational space (or society as a whole) ever have enough money but I do think there is a broader question around whether the industry is spending the money as well as we could and whether we have the right systems, people and processes in place to best manage the funds we do have to solve our most pressing educational problems.
What is democratizing of access entail? What sort of access specifically? How is access to that going to benefit students?
Patrick: Democratizing access in our view is about giving students access to the biggest and best online library of course-specific study materials to enhance their ability to learn deeply and efficiently. For us, that means that a student at a community college should have access to the same study materials that a student at Harvard has. It means that the divorced mother of two taking night school and juggling two part-time jobs should have access to the same study materials that a second year MBA at Insead has.
Access is also critically influenced by time. At Course Hero, we often talk about the 4L’s: Lack of time, lack of mastery, lack of personalization and lack of collaboration as the key barriers to education.
One of the biggest challenges facing our students today is time. Between sports, community activities, kids (for some), and trying to retain some semblance of a social life, time is often in scant supply. So “access” must solve that problem. We need to ensure that we provide help to students when it suits them best. Some students are going to be able to attend educator or TA office hours. Others need to work and can’t make those office hours.
Thus, access is as much about having access to the right materials as it is having access to them 24/7 no matter where you are or what device you have at your disposal. I should be able to study on my laptop in my dorm or home as much as I should be able to study or ask a question from my cell phone.
So, in essence, Access = Universal Access + 24/7 Device Agnostic access.
How has your Google experience informed your current approach?
Patrick: Google’s culture is built around “Moonshots” – trying to solve the world’s’ most pressing problems. Google also has an ideal that stresses pushing yourself (akin to Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset) and being, as Larry Page would call it, “comfortably uncomfortable”.
After I left, and when I asked around and spoke to people in education whether I should get into this space most told me I’d either have to be extremely passionate about education or simply “crazy” (see next question).
Luckily, my experience at Google taught be a few things:
- You have to stretch yourself.
You have to tackle the hardest problems. You also have to be prepared to fail since the only way you learn is through failure.
- Always put the user first.
The strongest and most successful tech companies are those that marry amazing technology with a product development philosophy centered around the user. At Course Hero I always say: Know the User, Connect The Magic, Build the Love. If you know your user, you can connect their needs with a product that really meets those needs and solves a problem you’ll build a truly long lasting and emotional connection with them (which could result in “love”).
- People are your first, second and third most important assets.
If you surround yourself with truly great, smart, growth-minded, and humble people, then you’ll maximize your chances of success and become a better person. My success at Google Play was more a testament to the great team I built than any individual initiative I was responsible for. There is no “I” in “Team”.
Why are you ‘mad’ Mork?
Patrick: I’m a bit of a Maverick [grin]. I’ve lived in 12 countries, tried my hand at many different things personally and professionally (I’ve sold nutritional supplements door to door and organized Electronic Dance Music events), and like to do things outside of the box. I’m passionate about what I do and have high energy. Some might say that might make me a bit nuts, but that’s all good. I enjoy what I do and try to live life everyday like it’s my last.
More importantly though, I really want to make a difference. I think there are a lot problems out there and strongly believe that as a society we could benefit enormously from improving how we educate our students. Increasingly, people are living longer and “studying” as we know it is becoming a lifelong endeavor. The truth is that Mad Mork was actually a nickname I earned while in business school at Insead. But that’s another story!
You’ve pushed a $700M business north of $2.5B. Big plans for Course Hero? How do you see the next year, year and half, unfolding?
Patrick: Google Play was a big team effort and marketing was simply one small part of that. Yes. Big challenges require big initiatives but I’m still fairly new at Course Hero so it’s probably a bit early to talk about some of those initiatives right now. Plus, I need another reason to talk to you again next time right?
What’s with the rebrand? what problem were you trying to solve? how has it changed things?
- The symbol (the graduation cap) was a bit old fashioned and behind the times. As I stated previously, we view education as a lifelong initiative – not just something you do in your teens or your 20’s to land a job. We wanted a logo that reflected this thinking.
- We wanted a logo that clearly showed what we’re really trying to achieve. The “book” reflects knowledge and learning while the “star” reflects mastery. For Course Hero, learning isn’t enough. We really believe that to succeed, students need to master their classes. The logo is a reflection of that belief.
- Our color scheme was simply off. When you look at our old corporate colors – Light blue, white, grey – these felt a bit cold and impersonal. When choosing a color palette we were looking for something that spoke to education but that also worked for both men and women while also being fairly neutral across age groups and other demographic factors. The new logo is bold, unique, modern while still being focused around education and learning.
So far the rebranding has been really positively viewed. It’s early days but our team and campus ambassadors have been incredibly enthusiastic. The feedback has been amazing and I think it’s safe to say we’ve gotten an A+ on this test 😉
When you peek in on an edtech startup, what are you looking for? How do you size them up?
Patrick: If you mean what was I looking for when I joined Course Hero? A couple of things:
- How good is the team / team culture? What I love about this place is that it’s packed with smart, driven people that want to solve a big problem and are excited, passionate and super humble about how they do that. Culture and people is what builds great companies. I’m a huge believer in that.
- How big is the problem? Education is a huge challenge not just in the US but globally. Students everywhere are stuck in the same industrial -era model of studying and many of them are failing. We have a moral responsibility as a society to fix that. Most people will tell you it’s impossible to fix – but that’s what makes life worth living.
- Personally, I also look at how much can marketing make an impact at the company. Course Hero has been incredibly successful if you look at some of our metrics. We have a wonderful team, great product and a strong story. Marketing can only serve to broaden that message and accelerate our growth. Despite our success to date we still have some fantastic challenges which marketing can help solve. I’m excited about that.
What advice would you give any startup in the edtech space? what makes you say that?
- Focus on solving a real student and/or educator problem. Spend a lot of time with your target users / customers and really let them drive your product strategy. Know your user. Even at Course Hero, surrounded by smart, young and high energy people I’m always amazed at how a good, old fashioned focus group can breathe new life into a product and even make the smartest engineer have an “aha” or “OMG” moment.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure helps us learn and grow and eventually leads to success. The biggest problems are the ones worth going after. They turbo charge your employees and excite your other stakeholders, like investors. In startups, particularly in EdTech, you’re going to some degree of failure. The reality is that I’ve learned more about failure than success. Every time I’ve failed, and there have several times, I agonized over what went wrong and spent lots of time thinking and beating myself up about it. Success cannot exist without failure.
- Do something you’re passionate about. You’re going to have more down days than up days. Your passion is what’s going to help keep you going. If you’re doing this for money I suggest you get another job in a totally different industry.
- Surround / hire people better than you. We’re all students and educators at the end of the day. Each of us can and should learn from the other. If you surround yourself with great people, those people can have a significant impact on your company and also bring like-minded people to join you. In my experience, I found that the more talented people I brought onboard, the more our pace and success accelerated. The reverse is, sadly, also true. When I rushed a hire and hired the wrong people I paid for it dearly. When you hire the wrong people you end up spending too much time managing them, they impact morale across the team and you end up losing a lot of valuable time you should have invested hiring the right person.
What are your thoughts on the state of education today?
Patrick: Education is still a very new field for me but I’m hopeful. There are many challenges but also many people working to improve education and solve those challenges. Many people I talk to are passionate about this space and really want to make a difference. I feel that if edtech companies spend more time with students and educators, listen to what they have to say and work together to solve our mutual problems that we’ll continue to make an impact. That said, I don’t think there are any silver bullets or quick fixes. This is going to be a long, hard road and we have to recognize that it’s going to take time.
What are your thoughts on the role of technology in education? what makes you say that?
Patrick: I think technology exists to enhance and improve education, and not replace what happens in the classroom. In Silicon Valley we often fall in love with tech and feel that people should be able to do anything and everything from behind the screen of their laptop or smartphone. At times, we forget about what makes us human, and human beings are social creatures. We have needs and want to spend time with others. The development of cell phones, social apps, messaging and Netflix doesn’t mean we stopped going out with other people, grabbing a coffee or watching movies together. These are simply tools that improve the quality of our relationships.
I don’t think education is any different. We need to focus our technology on solving the 4L’s I mentioned earlier: lack of time, mastery, collaboration and personalization. Educators and classrooms still have a pivotal role to play in that respect. Our students spend much of their time learning from educators and other students and building real relationships with them. When I look at my own kids (I have 5 and 9 year old), what works well for them is a positive, engaging and challenging school environment with experienced, great teachers supported by online learning at home. I don’t think one works well without the other and from the limited research I’ve seen to do date I’m not sure a tech-only solution is the right model for most students either. I want my kids to have a balance. I want to see them learning from other kids around them and solving problems together.
Technology can help that process. For example, having them work together online to solve a problem or enabling them to communicate outside of the classroom when they’re at home. However, I want them to master their subjects so they can have a solid foundation for what they learn next. I don’t want them to simply Google the answer for every question they have and not have to really figure out the answer for themselves.
I think technology also has an important role to play when it comes to efficiency. As a society our goal should be to have our students learn the material deeply and efficiently. That also means we need to break down the learning process (that is the process of reaching the answer to a desired question) and differentiate between what constitutes “learning” v. the process of getting the answer. In business today, we solve most of our key problems by working collaboratively together to find the answer. Tools like Slack, Docs, Box and Facetime help us work together towards our desired goals. How should technology be applied in that respect to education? Our technology should be geared towards maximizing students’ time, increasing their ability to master their material and do so in a manner which is personalized and collaborative. If we’re able to do that, we’ll get students that not only learn more and are more confident but we’ll also get students who already have the right collaborative framework when they enter the knowledge economy.
Thoughts on Pokemon Go and edtech? What do you know about games that most others aren’t quite getting, and you’d like them to get — especially as pertaining to education and learning?
Patrick: Well, as a Nintendo Shareholder I can’t complain about the impact of Pokemon Go so far! I’m not sure if I have the answers with regards to how you combine gaming and learning. What I will say is that what games have mastered (which is worth looking into further) is their ability to:
- Offer constant, tangible rewards that keep gamers coming back for more. Games are great in getting consumers to take a desired action that provides them a quick achievement and then layer on the next level of difficulty. This is what makes many games from Candy Crush to Clash Royale or Pokemon Go so successful. Gamers return to the game to get the satisfaction of achievement and look for the next challenge. I’ve seen educational software do this. For example, OSMO, is a venture funded company that combines educational software for the iPad that is gamified with real world objects that the student has to manipulate to solve problems onscreen. It’s a great example of how you combine real world skills like learning numbers, letters or putting together a Tangram with software. As the student masters certain games, they unlock new ones which gives them new challenges that also need to be mastered. I think this is a step in the right direction and we should think more broadly about how this approach could be applied in the classroom and outside the classroom to encourage more “blended learning.”
- Collaboration / Learning: The additional benefit is also that games encourage consumers to “share” these achievements and collaborate. People have an innate propensity to share things with others. For some it makes them seem like experts and allows them to shine. For others, sharing is also done to help those in need and allows them to develop an image of themselves as “mentors” or “experts”. We see this phenomenon as well in retail (Amazon reviews) and recommendation sites like Yelp (location reviews). So the question is how do we encourage this kind of behavior in education? How do we get students helping other students learn?
- Over the past 10 years or so gaming has completely changed. Not only do people play together online both competitively and collaboratively but there are massive communities that have been built to help teach and mentor gamers online. I’m always amazed by how my son and other kids spend time on YouTube and other forums to learn the latest gaming techniques that help take their game to the next level (no pun intended). I’ve also seen how my son has improved his skills and abilities so much on games he plays simply by asking questions and getting feedback from the community. This Socratic method of learning is actually the same philosophy that drives much of our approach at Course Hero. It’s fascinating because it combines the innate curiosity and desire to learn that students have with technology and the online tools / forums that are available to teach these students 24/7. For example, my son’s friends aren’t necessarily online or available all the time to teach him a new technique for building a better “deck” (stack of playing cards) for Clash Royale but he can view YouTube videos or search online for different playing techniques at his own pace and when he chooses to do so. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t test some of those same principles in education.
Anything else you care to add or emphasize about ed, tech, edtech, the future, Course Hero future, or anything else for that matter?
Patrick: I’m very excited around the potential for VR and AR in the classroom but it’s still early days to talk about where that is all going and how that can impact learning both inside and outside the classroom.
Of your bike rides, what has been a most interesting story that you enjoy telling – what happened? where? when? can anything from that story carry over into a lesson for edtech startups or edtech generally?
Patrick: One of my most interesting stories was a trip I did from Half Moon Bay to Moss Beach. A friend of mine from work and I mapped a bike route using Google maps for our trip. Little did we realize that the shortest route also led us up through the mountains and across some overgrown paths that were only suited for hikers (not edtech geeks riding racing bikes). We ended up having to carry our bikes across those hills and eventually pedaled back using the same route. It was a great ride (when we we’re riding) but I guess the morale of the story is that technology and maps don’t always provide as clear a “road” as we would like. Sometimes you just need plain old common sense mixed with practicality and experience. I think a lot could be said of education as well!
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]