Built from scratch, this team’s purposeful, engaging design is in high demand.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Dan Avida is the Co-Founder and CEO of Engageli. Before founding the company, Dan worked in technology as an executive and/or board member for more than three decades. Throughout his career, he has scaled several companies from a small founding team to over $100M in revenues and valuations of over $1B. As co-founder of Decru, he led the company from its inception through its acquisition. He also served as Chairman and CEO of EFI, where he oversaw the development of its flagship product from the earliest days and achieved market capitalization of over $3B. Most recently, he acted as General Partner at Opus Capital, where he led early-stage investments in several companies, including SolarEdge, Inc. (NASDAQ: SEDG). Dan has a B.Sc. in Computer Engineering, summa cum laude, from Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. Fresh off a big win of Engageli being named “Best Higher Education Solution” as part of The EdTech Awards 2022, Dan shares here from where he came, where they are now, and where they are headed in this detailed interview that includes some key bits of business (and life) advice.
What prompted you to first get involved with education and technology?
I have been working in Silicon Valley as an engineer, CEO, and early-stage tech investor since the late 1980’s. During this period, I was fortunately closely involved with several companies that scaled from a small founding team to over $100M in revenues and valuations over $1B. My wife, Daphne Koller, was a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University for 18 years.
‘… we are focused on delivering a new comprehensive learning environment purpose-built to meet learner and instructor needs.’
In addition to her research, Daphne worked on innovative approaches to education. She left Stanford to co-found Coursera, one of the world’s largest online education platforms, providing many millions of learners everywhere unprecedented access to education, as well as the flexibility to learn. However, MOOCs do not provide the invaluable connections offered by in-person classes. At Engageli, we are focused on delivering a new comprehensive learning environment purpose-built to meet learner and instructor needs. Our platform is designed to enable access to quality education.
What prompted you to found your company Engageli—what problem were you trying to solve?
I had a front-row seat to the poor experience most learners had two years ago. When we went into lockdown, my daughters found themselves forced to learn by using video conferencing tools intended for business meetings. They, like most other learners, did not enjoy the experience. Much worse, for vulnerable populations, the use of these video conferencing systems led to the loss of critically important years of education.
Given our team’s experience, we knew there had to be a better way to drive active learning and engagement in virtual education while fostering community among learners no matter where they were studying. We quickly put together a company with the mission of improving education for all learners through a purpose-built, engaging, accessible, and dynamic online learning platform.
Our founding team included Serge Plotkin, CTO and VP, Engineering of Engageli, and an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University. Daphne and Serge’s personal experience as professors, combined with advice and feature requests we received from hundreds of engaged instructors and learners throughout the world led to the definition of many of the platform’s functional and technical requirements.
How have you managed your growth, what’s been key?
There is a lot of activity and interest in the edtech space, and the good news is that we have been growing by leaps and bounds since launching in 2020 with partnerships on every continent except Antarctica.
In response to the pandemic and longstanding trends toward more technology in and around the classroom, there has been tremendous demand for purpose-built platforms that not only meet the minimum demands for online and remote learning during emergencies such as the pandemic, but that enhance learning and give learners and instructors access to tools and capabilities not previously available.
‘…there has been tremendous demand for purpose-built platforms that not only meet the minimum demands for online and remote learning during emergencies such as the pandemic, but that enhance learning and give learners and instructors access to tools and capabilities not previously available.’
Engageli helps universities transform their online learning and teaching systems with digital tools to best support their students, and that lets them do so on their own terms. Our platform has been well received by many universities because of the comprehensive feature set purpose-built into the platform, the ease of use and adoption, as well as privacy and security.
Our team works closely with each of our partners to help them implement the platform, onboard users, and best meet their specific needs while incorporating learnings and best practices. Engageli improves and democratizes education in a positive way, without taking anything away.
We’ve stayed focused on our goals, and cultivated relationships with tech advocates, and key stakeholders at institutions of higher ed around the world.
Congrats on your big win from The EdTech Awards! What does an honor like this mean for you and your team?
Thank you, the Engageli team is honored to receive this award. Engageli is working hard to further the success of our partners and their students and has been focused on improving education since day one. We think it is important to shift the narrative around education by demonstrating that virtual and in-person instruction aren’t mutually exclusive and that models incorporating elements of both may be best. We are grateful that our efforts have been recognized as Best Higher Ed Solution ahead of 19 other finalists. We cherish the positive feedback from our partners and we appreciate the validation from our peers in the industry.
What key lessons from your past inform your current success?
One lesson I learned early on was not thinking big enough. We were initially focused solely on the higher-education market. To serve this market we created a scalable platform that fosters small group discussion, engagement, and community in virtual environments. Over time, due to ever-increasing incoming requests from corporations for our platform, we have now expanded the markets we serve.
‘One lesson I learned early on was not thinking big enough.’
It’s been a wild ride these last few years. Broadly speaking, what is the state of education today? What makes you say that?
The pandemic has dramatically accelerated key trends that started years ago. Even as pandemic restrictions are lifted, surveys of employees, instructors, and learners have been consistently showing a strong preference for a flexible future — where people can choose some days to come in person to their work or university, and some days to work and study from home.
Universities are seeking the flexibility to adjust how classes are conducted without worrying about negatively impacting the meaningful social interactions and human connections that increase learning outcomes. They know they need new tools to power a true transformation towards a more flexible and inclusive environment even in the absence of a pandemic, natural disaster, or other disruption.
‘…surveys of employees, instructors, and learners have been consistently showing a strong preference for a flexible future…’
What’s tech’s role in education? How about your company’s efforts with this?
The right technology in the hands of educators can enable seamless collaboration and communication across borders, a greater community between students, and insights from data that can help instructors identify how well they are teaching as well as learners falling behind who could benefit from personalized follow-up.
The accessibility afforded by tech also allows a growing number of non-traditional learners to more fully participate in classroom learning. Engageli is driving each of these trends, and equipping instructors for the classrooms of the future.
Starting with a classroom setting, Engageli has its learners seated in smaller groups at virtual tables to promote peer-to-peer learning and community. The instructor can observe tables individually, like walking around a physical classroom, or join a table to interact with or coach learners, but also address the class as one large group, similar to a face-to-face classroom setting.
Learners can send chat messages (1-to-1, to their tablemates, the entire class, or their instructors), talk amongst their tablemates without disrupting the teacher or class, virtually raise their hands while a presenter is speaking, join breakout sessions without leaving the class, and more. Most importantly, learners are always in the same space as their instructors, and never disconnected from the safe space of the classroom.
Learners can send chat messages, talk amongst their tablemates without disrupting the teacher or class, virtually raise their hands while a presenter is speaking, join breakout sessions without leaving the class, and more.
With Engageli, instructors get real-time and anonymous feedback during the class and can monitor the activity levels of learners at each table, seeing whether a learner is active and engaged in conversation. Engageli also has integrated interactive polls and quizzes instructors can use to keep learners engaged. The ability to share feedback anonymously makes engagement easier even for the shyest learners.
Until Engageli, these engagement metrics were not available to instructors, though they have now become a key tool that helps them routinely optimize learners’ experience and increase both comprehension and participation.
Engageli’s ability to measure student behavior provides instructors insight into student habits and understanding at a level that is almost impossible to collect in the classroom. Instructors have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage that data to make short- and long-term changes to teaching practices and curriculum content.
Learners can access Engageli from PCs, Macs, Chromebooks, iPhones, iPads, and Android devices. We made sure that the Engageli platform is designed for accessibility and protects student privacy with state-of-the-art encryption.
Both Dan Avida and his wife and co-founder Daphne Koller have extensive experience in edtech, business, and education. Any advice to edtech startup leaders? To other leaders in education and technology?
“My grandfather taught me that only fools learn from their own experience,” says Dan, “so I have always appreciated the opportunity to learn from others,” he shares.
According to Dan, some of the more useful lessons over the years are:
___ Never argue with people’s feelings. “I learned that from my supervisor when I was a newly minted manager. I have found this advice to be very useful. There is no point in trying to convince people to change how they feel about something by argument. Many studies have shown that to be the case,” he says.
‘Never argue with people’s feelings. I learned that from my supervisor when I was a newly minted manager. …There is no point in trying to convince people to change how they feel about something by argument.’
___ It’s not the last million; it’s the next dollar. “Another executive early in my career explained to me that it’s not what you did with the last million, it’s what you are going to do with the next dollar you invest. Another way to frame the concept is ‘don’t throw good money after bad’. It’s good advice but it is harder to do than it seems.”
___ Focus on long-term goals. “One of the things I learned from a conversation with Steve Jobs is to be focused on long-term goals, sometimes at the expense of short-term gratification. It means there’s no need to act impatiently. ROI can be calculated over years, versus weeks and months.”
___ On treatment of others: “Treat all employees equally, no matter where they are in the organization,” says Dan.
___ Challenges and Opportunities. “Provide people with challenges and opportunities so they have the opportunity to shine.”
___ On negotiations: “Don’t go into negotiations with a backup position in mind. If you’ve got one prepared, you are more likely to fall back on it.”
SOURCE: Dan Avida, Co-Founder, Engageli
What’s ahead for education—trends to watch? Any you are setting?
The pandemic showed the need for platforms that enable quality teaching and learning flexibly – in-person, remote, or hybrid. The same is happening in the workforce – the majority of knowledge workers now prefer a flexible work environment – some days in the office and some (or all) days remote. This trend will lead to greater access to quality learning, and inclusivity for non-traditional learners.
Engageli demonstrates the value of purpose-built platforms by seamlessly integrating features previously served by standalone services, namely: video conferencing/virtual meetings, exams/grading, collaborative learning, asynchronous learning, recording/content management, polls/class response systems, and active and social learning.
There are many use cases for our platform that go far beyond where we started – we held our first user conference earlier this year using the Engageli platform and it dawned on us that we inadvertently built the world’s best virtual event platform!
Over the next five years, Engageli will not only foster greater learning, teaching, and engagement at institutions of higher learning but will support effective learning in a growing number of spaces, namely, corporate learning and development and workshops. It’s also likely that entities seeing the value in classroom settings will also begin using the platform more and more for engaging conferences and meetings.
‘The disruption in the edtech industry — and higher education, particularly — means both learners and instructors will continue to have an improved experience, specifically curated and optimized for them.’
We’ll continue to push forward the envelope of what is possible with our product; we are only at the beginning of the Engageli journey. The disruption in the edtech industry — and higher education, particularly — means both learners and instructors will continue to have an improved experience, specifically curated and optimized for them.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org