Britannica Group’s chief exec makes a case for cognitive thinking—and better sources.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Karthik Krishnan is global chief executive officer of the Britannica Group. Karthik believes in the transformative power of education and is passionate about enabling lifelong learning. For the Britannica Group of companies (Britannica, Merriam-Webster, Britannica Knowledge Systems, and Melingo), he is focused on creating value and unlocking true potential through their brands.
Karthik is also an Adjunct Professor at New York University Stern School of Business, where he teaches students about the media industry and how disruptive forces (e.g., digitization, consumer-generated content) are reshaping the industry (e.g., new business models, M&A).
‘We continue to focus on utility as we did in 1768, though today we do it through a much more diverse array of channels: search, social, video, voice, and the Internet of Things (IoT).’
Since 2009, he has served on the board of Urban Upbound, a nonprofit focused on transforming the lives of people in public housing in New York City through job training, financial fitness, and college access. He has been invited to World Economic Forum Expert Network, is recognized as an expert on Future of Information and Entertainment, Education and Skills, and is an EdTech Digest Top 100 influencer in edtech.
Karthik has an MBA from New York University Stern School of Business, has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Coimbatore Institute of Technology, and he also earned a certificate in Design Thinking from Stanford University.
For 250 years, Britannica has curated and provided trusted information to the world and one might say, helped knowledge evolution. Your thoughts on this?
Our founding fathers had a vision well beyond their times propelled by unbridled curiosity and drive. The preface in the 1st edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1768 reads:
“UTILITY ought to be the principal intention of every publication. Wherever this intention does not plainly appear, neither the books nor their authors have the smallest claim to the approbation of mankind.”
Today the world might be well aware of terms like use cases, value proposition, and boot strapping. Two-hundred and fifty years ago, no one had electricity at home, the French Revolution hadn’t happened, and the United States was not yet formed. It was remarkable then for our three founders to sit in their little local shops in Edinburgh, Scotland — and come up with a lofty goal: to curate and disseminate trusted information to the masses. And to realize that goal with just a team of three and a crowdfunded-type campaign for financing.
Even in the throes of the digital wave that is sweeping the world, the very mission laid down 250 years ago is more relevant today than ever. With proactive misinformation on the Internet and the current inability of search and social engines to tell the difference between credible and merely plausible information, there is a strong need for trusted and verified information that can be easily discovered through various digital channels.
We continue to focus on utility as we did in 1768, though today we do it through a much more diverse array of channels: search, social, video, voice, and the Internet of Things (IoT). The mediums through which we serve our audiences might change but our mission to drive utility and value for our users remains steadfast.
I would say people generally always have been—and are still—craving true and reliable sources of information. Today, with an ever increasing number of sources creating a sort of ‘knowledge dilution’ on the internet, I understand that Britannica is looking at all of this. Could you walk me through any relevant issues, from your perspective, and what this might mean for learners?
There are a number of issues:
1. Current search engine algorithms are not yet advanced enough to differentiate between credible and plausible information.
2. Searchers click beyond the first page less than five percent of the time to look for more credible information that may be buried in back pages.
3. On user-generated content sites an answer could be right today and wrong tomorrow because of warring factions trying to slant information to benefit their own agendas.
Some relevant figures and statistics:
Science Mag: (Some of this is quoted from the abstract of the article.) “There is worldwide concern over false news and the possibility that it can influence political, economic, and social well-being. To understand how false news spreads, Vosoughi et al used a data set of rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. About 126,000 rumors were spread by approximately three million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top one percent of false news cascades diffused to between 1,000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1,000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.”
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (again, some of what follows is quoted from the report) found that:
“False claims were 70 percent more likely than the truth to be shared on Twitter. True stories were rarely retweeted by more than 1,000 people, but the top one percent of false stories were routinely shared by 1,000 to 100,000 people. And it took true stories about six times as long as false ones to reach 1,500 people.”
Students say finding the truth is a long, boring “20-minute process,” but their attitude changes if given the right tools—2018 Knight Foundation Study
With people today sticking to the first few results on the search results page or limiting themselves to their social media feeds and walking away with “an” answer, which may not be true, this puts the future of knowledge evolution at risk.
‘With people today sticking to the first few results on the search results page or limiting themselves to their social media feeds and walking away with ‘an’ answer, which may not be true, this puts the future of knowledge evolution at risk.’
In an ideal world the internet could be a rich content source for learners. In reality, finding credible information can become complicated. Your thoughts on how teachers are currently using the internet in the classroom and how they’ve been dealing with unreliable or even outright false sources of information?
Previously, the teacher significantly influenced the source and flow of information. Today, students are constantly bombarded with information and have unrestricted access. While there is value to the information-at-your-fingertips world, there are critical issues because “relevant doesn’t mean it’s right”—and it is very hard today to distinguish between truly good information, and information that seems plausible but may not be right. The level of proactive misinformation, including deep fakes, that is circling our digital lives today makes it harder even for the discerning information consumer.
There’s a growing awareness that not everything on the Internet is true. Most search and social engines are designed to make you primarily click, not to educate you, and this creates echo chambers, where people are seeing similar information from the multiple sources, often getting only information they already believe and further strengthening that belief.
We collaborate with teachers to help them use technology, and teach their students to use technology, as an enabler rather than a crutch. This is a fundamental mindset shift because, too often today, technology is a crutch that limits us. We expect technology to deliver the right answers. A certain amount of comfortable intellectual laziness has set in. We don’t take the time to seek out sources of good information, even though that information could be one or two clicks away, or ask simple questions such as who is the author? And, what is his/her premise for writing this article?
So how do you get people to leverage technology for its efficiency while still applying their ‘cognitive thinking filter’?
One way we do it is with Britannica Insights, which provides a filter on top of people’s search results to make sure they’re walking away with the right information. The goal of these types of solutions from Britannica is to “Save time. Learn more. Be sure.”
Teachers are doing their part to teach digital-literacy skills, many of them using resources such as those on information literacy and lifelong learning that we make available to them.
To help students strengthen their cognitive and critical thinking, Britannica offers several free resources, including “The five ‘W’s of website evaluation”.
For teachers and parents, our whitepaper series, provides a guide for them to help students evaluate online sources. They understand the need to give students the knowledge to evaluate sources and identify legitimate, credible learning content.
Teachers know they have a duty to care for students, to insure e-safety when students explore online, to either allow access or sometimes block access. Many are teaching them to recognize the difference between facts and fake information (see Britannica’s learning activities online, mentioned above).
You must admit, these days, it’s pretty easy to lean on Google for answers. But there are certainly examples of where Google searches can go very wrong, don’t you think?
Search engines work based on the premise that there is good information on the internet and they can index and rank that information based on sophisticated algorithms. Google’s citation-based model was born out of the research publishing world, where articles are peer reviewed, vetted and validated before publishing.
Unfortunately, there are no such quality filters/hurdles for publishing on the internet, where today everyone is a publisher. Search engines have done a great job of driving relevance. But a relevant answer doesn’t mean it is right. Unfortunately, people with agendas know how to take advantage of search- and social-engine limitations and get their “slanted” information to the top of search results. Google and other search engines have done a great job with the currently available technology to improve their ability to surface better quality answers. However, we are still not at a point where we can take our own cognitive filters off.
The following articles from Vice, WIRED, and other outlets highlight a number of cases where search engines have either been spoofed by people with agendas or search engines have not been able to provide quality answers at the top, even though those articles exists.
This is a challenging problem, and we need everyone contributing to a solution in light of the new realities of false information being spread deliberately on a large scale.
Today, thanks to the epidemic of false information, we need to be aware that not everything Google provides is right.
Of course Google, the other search engines, and platforms like YouTube provide great value, and they’re working to improve their algorithms and filtering their content.
But nobody can fix this by themselves.
We’re doing our part with initiatives like Britannica Insights and our partnership with YouTube.
Tell me a little more about Insights—what does this offer schools, how does it work?
Britannica Insights enhances the search experience and one’s knowledge with Britannica content in the top-right corner of your search results page. It changes how you discover by bringing verified information to the top of your search results and offering deeper context and perspectives around topics to explore connections.
We also now have Britannica School Insights, a corresponding product for K-12 schools that brings up trustworthy information from our BritannicaSchool platform, where the student can move as needed between content at three different reading levels, making it ideal for personalized learning in the classroom.
Both versions of Insights allow the user to:
- Cut through Internet noise and save time
- Trust the information they discover
- Explore the deeper context around search topics
- Uncover intuitive roadmaps for deeper exploration
Britannica Insights provides an initial set of results, and you can then expand that and take a “deeper dive” in which our semantic search provides a learning framework that enables you to understand that topic in its entirety.
Britannica Insights Examples [requires Google Chrome]
Is it just free for schools—or, can anyone download it?
Yes, anyone can download Britannica Insights.
How does it work in schools, does it require the technology director—
—students can download it on their own, but it would be good for school administrators to install it across the school network.
Completely free—or some catch schools will find?
No catch. Britannica has played a key role for 250 years in curating and disseminating the world’s knowledge. With all the proactive misinformation spreading rampantly across the Internet, initiatives like Britannica Insights, and Demystified are our contributions to stemming this epidemic, to ensure human progress and knowledge evolution. And we’re happy to work with partners such as YouTube and others.
Okay, zooming out, now: what do you believe technology’s role in education is or should be?
Today technology has the ability to enhance access, quality of education and learning outcomes.
For example, people in remote locations can be taught using technology, content can be updated continuously, it can combine text and multimedia, and it can be repurposed in many different ways to make it more useful.
At the same time, however, the use of technology is too often simply digital substitution. For example, if you go from a blackboard with chalk to a smart board, does the quality of education automatically improve? Technology is leading our thinking instead of us understanding what it is we need to do for students and teachers. We need to figure out how to leverage technology to achieve the right outcomes.
We have to ask how we can use technology to better achieve, for example, a mass personalization of learning. If you’re a visual learner can we use technology to help you learn the way that’s natural to you? If you’re advanced in math and ahead of your class, can you move immediately to the next level the way video games allow you to move on at your own pace?
Technology has an immense role to play, and it has great potential, but we’ve thrown a lot of money at it, and so far it really hasn’t improved learning outcomes. What we need is an outcome-focused approach in which we use technology to achieve clear educational goals—instead of technology itself driving the decisions about how we use it.
‘Technology has an immense role to play, and it has great potential, but we’ve thrown a lot of money at it, and so far it really hasn’t improved learning outcomes. What we need is an outcome-focused approach in which we use technology to achieve clear educational goals—instead of technology itself driving the decisions about how we use it.’
Broadly speaking, what is the state of education these days?
I think the state of education today is both exciting and excruciating. Exciting because the number of new, emerging, and available technologies that can enhance student learning in engaging ways is exploding. Excruciating because schools are grappling with how to take advantage of these new digital tools in a resource-challenged environment and trying to integrate them with traditional teaching models that can’t be easily tossed away.
Working through all the issues this raises, such as properly sequencing the changes that need to happen, is a challenge. Without active change-management efforts, the potential to make a positive difference in the lives of every student across the globe will go unrealized despite the plethora of ground-breaking learning technologies and solutions.
To name just a couple of the challenges that hold back progress:
Teacher training and development: The fast-paced growth in learning tools and models will widen the gaps in knowledge (what to do) and skills (how to do). Schools need to plan and spend a significant amount of time and resources to help teachers learn and take advantage of new technologies in order to enhance student learning.
Interoperability of solutions: The limited number of robust and ubiquitous standards such as Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) is likely to make the integration of various technologies more complex and difficult to extract value.
Rich-poor school divide: A number of schools are grappling with declining budgets and increasing costs. Against this backdrop, it will be hard to drive consistent learning experiences. Richer schools are more likely to experiment and bring in the right consultants to bring these new technologies to life and enhance learning. Out–of-the-box solutions such as public-private partnerships will be needed to ensure universal access to enhanced learning options.
Anything else that you’d care to add or emphasize regarding education and technology—or regarding anything else at all?
I think the role of curiosity in learning and in human well-being generally isn’t well enough appreciated, and we need to bring it front and center. Curiosity drives learning. If we don’t stimulate curiosity and the joy of learning in our students nothing else we do with technology, educational policy, funding, or anything else will matter much. And it’s not just for kids; maintaining and sustaining curiosity is vital for lifelong learning. At Britannica, we’re trying to do our part with a campaign to create a grassroots movement, if you will, to spread curiosity.
I think things are improving, though. Harvard Business Review published an article recently about how important curiosity is for business leaders, so people are coming around.
Similarly, though a bit more broadly, I think we need some adjustments in the education world, of attitudes and other things.
Let us work together to break the shackles that are holding students and teachers back from unleashing student potential—whether it’s mind-sets, curriculum, or environment. In doing so, help students develop critical skills—curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication—that will instill lifelong learning agility and prepare future generations for the challenges and opportunities the fast-paced and disruptive world has to throw at them.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]