Randy Wilhelm surveys the digital learning landscape.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Here’s a company that offers a suite of robust, student-focused and effective solutions that deliver results at the individual student level. Their entire team of professionals — from academics, to business leaders, to technology experts – bring a mission-driven approach to their work. At the helm is Randy Wilhelm, Knovation CEO and co-founder. “I passionately believe that students must be the ultimate and natural focus of education and learning,” says Randy. Back in 2012, what was netTrekker relaunched as Knovation – focused on making learning personal with solutions that create a fundamental shift from a one-way, one-size-fits-all type of education to a learner-centered approach that reduces barriers and customizes to the unique needs of every learner. “Our business is called education technology,” says Randy, “and we are passionate about the solutions and products we offer, working closely with the academic and business communities to listen, learn, and deliver unsurpassed solutions.” What motivates him in his drive to push these solutions out there? “Kids have a natural curiosity to know. Over time the system puts boundaries around that curiosity. The hope we have is that the curiosity to know is still embedded in every student and Knovation can empower teachers and schools to unlock that unlimited curiosity and passion to learn.” The edtech veteran shares his take on the digital learning landscape, adapting to keep up, the next few years of growth, and some advice for edtech startups.
How has the industry’s digital learning landscape changed over the past two decades?
Randy: Everyone now knows that digital learning is the way to go, yet two decades ago, there were only a handful of forward thinking school leaders that were willing to take the leap. Over the decades, we have seen several fads come and go. We have witnessed districts wrongly think that they have to lead the transformation with device purchase, and we have seen the advent of the #GoOpen movement. The best part of never-ending landscape change is that there is always a tomorrow, where we hope for a better learning environment for students everywhere.
Simplifying platforms for educators helps us better serve the K-12 market and students.
How has your company adapted to keep up with new innovations in education technology?
Randy: While we pioneered the process to professionally curate, contextualize, align, tag and maintain free digital content and OER (Open Education Resource) in 1999, even then we had to innovate to find ways to fund our development of this incredibly value service because we knew it would be “years” before the market saw value in well curated free content. Now everyone is clamoring to help teachers with the curation effort, and our 17 years experience makes us the most logical service partner for districts, regions and states. There is great pain amongst teachers to find, maintain and teach using digital content. Over the years, we have been able to adapt and change our offerings to meet the market where it is as it learns to better use these digital assets. Truly, our web applications, netTrekker and icurio, created a genuine teacher-led love affair with what we put into the market. Now, as we stream our curations directly into the platform of the district’s choice (often LMS), we help surface valued free content where and when they need it the most. We are proud of our ability to adapt and continue to be on the forefront of innovation in the industry.
Where do you see potential for growth in the education market over the next few years?
Randy: Since districts, regions and states are at various points on the continuum of transformation, the window for us to serve more and more districts and their teachers remains wide open. There is massive growth opportunity for those that buy their service, adding extraordinary value to an already free learning resource. And since we do this arguably better than anyone else, we foresee much growth in the next few years. We are dedicated to, focused on and passionate about making free digital content and OER more usable, and by doing so, giving teachers back the time to do what they do best: teach.
How will Knovation’s B2B model better serve the needs of K-12 education?
Randy: Everyone knows that teachers across the country are experiencing unprecedented platform fatigue. There are too many unintegrated platforms vying for teacher attention. At Knovation, we feel that this is unnecessary friction and can easily be avoided. So we designed an offering that has straightforward integration into other platforms, where the curated content can smartly surface where the teachers and students are exactly when they need it. For this reason, we have integrations completed with organizations like Canvas, Schoology, Google Classroom and others. Simplifying platforms for educators helps us better serve the K-12 market and students.
How do you incorporate feedback from districts and B2B subscribers using your products/services to improve upon your product and business practices?
Randy: It is very hard to be still and listen. However, since we are an entrepreneurial, smaller organization, it is much easier for us than most. Add on top of that our natural curiosity and we find ourselves asking an overabundance of questions. There never seem to be enough times we can ask “why?”. Feedback and input are the hallmarks of our success, and will continue to help us better meet clients’ needs going forward.
I believe all of us are smarter than any one of us, so ask of others, “how can we work together to move the needle for kids?”
Do you have any advice for aspiring edtech entrepreneurs?
Randy: Oh my. Yes. Keep it simple. Ask questions. Partner and integrate often. Avoid creating software that only you can use. I believe all of us are smarter than any one of us, so ask of others, “how can we work together to move the needle for kids?” And, our best hope to do that is together, not separately, and when we do, good things happen for our users and those that supply them solutions.
What is the state of education today?
Randy: There are so many competing ideas, many of which have merit. However, it seems the more we yell at one another, the better we feel. All ideas should be measured against what it means to the student. If we stay focused on that, then we add value to the equation. Anything short of that is debiting value from the ecosystem, and that is not helpful. I believe in the future. I believe in the curiosity built inside every child. If we can tickle that curiosity and get them asking vexing questions, then we can scale education transformation faster than any systemic approach. I remain hopeful and encourage others to do so as well.
What is technology’s role in improving or transforming education?
Randy: Educators—when technology helps teaches do what they are born to do best, then it is valuable and helpful. Anything short of that is not useful. Students—when they exit from their K-12 experience, technology in higher ed or in work is not only essential, it is expected. So to me, technology is a critical ingredient to a successful recipe of post K-12 student success.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]