Chief Innovation Officer for one of the world’s largest edtechs shares a path forward.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Sunil Gunderia serves as the Chief Innovation Officer and Head of Mastery & Adaptive Products at Age of Learning. As a product and strategy leader, Sunil works to develop and commercialize innovative products across multiple distribution channels. Mastery products leverage learning and behavioral science research as well as artificial intelligence to personalize learning to improve educational outcomes for all children.
‘The key message for everyone in education is that evidence of your programs’ efficacy is not a ‘nice to have’—it’s table stakes.’
Before joining Age of Learning, Sunil ran his own advisory firm where he worked with entrepreneurs and executives in all aspects of strategy, product management, branding, and business development. Prior to his own firm, Sunil spent 11 years at The Walt Disney Company overseeing the development and global distribution of digital products, content, and applications across emerging platforms.
Sunil serves as the co-Chair of the Finance Committee on the board of Children’s Institute, a non-profit that provides services to transform the lives of over 26,000 children and families exposed to adversity and poverty in Los Angeles.
Sunil earned B.A. in Business Administration and an M.A. in Accounting from the University of Georgia, and an M.B.A. from the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.
You recently took part in a webinar co-hosted by BIRD-E titled “Show Me The Evidence: Reimagining EdTech Product Efficacy.” From this: any ideas and key messages you want to share with other edtech leaders?
It is always an honor to be included among a group of fantastic education innovators like my colleagues from LearnPlatform, EdTech Evidence Exchange, The Tech Interactive, and InnovateEdu.
The key message for everyone in education is that evidence of your programs’ efficacy is not a ‘nice to have’—it’s table stakes. And here are three reasons why:
1. The work we do as edtech providers, and the investments we make leveraging science, data, and evidence to bring better educational technology to students, is vital to our national interest. Investments in future learning systems not only inform the future success of students as individuals, it also supports our collective success as a society, ensuring that our populace is sufficiently educated for the future. This is of paramount importance to society as a whole.
2. Because of the importance of our work, it is critical that we embrace research and evidence-based approaches that ensure our solutions deliver on the promise of improved student achievement, especially for those students that are underserved.
3. The Bird-E framework will improve discovery and transparency of what has been proven to be effective, which will result in increased accountability for outcomes. Better accountability has the potential to change educational technology market dynamics and how purchasing decisions are made. An evidence-based approach will create competitive advantages for companies and organizations that invest in ensuring their products work and deliver outcomes.
As Chief Innovation Officer at Age of Learning, you have made key investments in longitudinal research. What are the lessons have you learned in this process that you can share with other edtech companies, particularly startups?
Our mission is to ensure that all children have the foundational skills they need to achieve both academic and life-long success, which is why investing in research is core to who we are as a company. Several years ago, we wanted to build on the success and insights gained from the millions of children who use ABCmouse to address the challenges and opportunities in our educational system. From there, our School Solutions Program – My Math Academy and My Reading Academy – were born.
Along the way, I’ve learned that to achieve maximum impact, you need to begin the research and development process with a Theory of Change. This involves working through the problem you are trying to solve by creating an action plan that includes measuring for efficacy.
For example, with My Math Academy, we tracked NAEP and state assessment data to determine that the majority of the nation’s students are not achieving proficiency in math by 4th grade. We set out to create a mastery-based math learning solution to help.
From research, we learned that there was a need for a system that accounted for the broad range of math abilities, such as learner variability, that teachers needed to address in a classroom. We knew from years of studying ABCmouse that engagement in learning is an important component of student success. Using learning science research from Vygotsky, Bloom and many other notable contributors to the field, we concluded that we needed to build a personalized mastery learning system that used technology to mimic what a great tutor would provide in 1-to-1 instruction, allowing us to address learner variability and improve proficiency in a scalable way.
‘…we needed to build a personalized mastery learning system that used technology to mimic what a great tutor would provide in 1-to-1 instruction…’
From there, we recruited a learning engineering team that included master teachers, learning and data scientists, designers, artists, and developers to build our personalized mastery learning system. Since then, we’ve earned three patents; written over forty papers and presentations, several of which have been included in prestigious peer reviewed journals; have replicated evidence that our programs are effective, as defined by ESSA, across twelve studies conducted by SRI, WestEd, and LearnPlatform; and were awarded Research-Based Designed and Learner Variability certificates from Digital Promise for both My Math Academy and My Reading Academy.
As a product and strategy leader, you work to develop and commercialize innovative products across multiple distribution channels, and you’ve been doing so at a high level worldwide for over 10 years. So, you’re beyond paying lip service to “incorporating AI” – so, in a nutshell, what is the true promise of AI in learning from your perspective?
AI is an amazing tool when combined with the very best pedagogy, learning science principles, and learner-centric design. AI already provides invaluable insights on how humans learn. We have used it to analyze student learning pathways and it is amazing to be able to visualize what variability in a classroom and a school looks like. The true promise of AI is to help our education systems address learner variability so we can better address the urgent need for equitable learning outcomes.
What is the current state of education? What’s edtech’s role?
There is an undeniable need to improve education for all learners; from early education to K-12, higher education, and beyond. As a nation, we are not doing enough to prepare our children for future academic success and help them embrace lifelong learning.
Educational technology has an incredibly important role to play as it offers the promise to make high quality learning resources both more accessible and less expensive. We believe it can level the playing field and create a more equitable future for all learners.
Anything else you’d like to add about the future of learning?
We have a tremendous opportunity to shape the future of education and positively impact millions of learners around the world. Tackling inequities through education unlocks value for individual students, the communities they live in, and our collective future.
‘We have a tremendous opportunity to shape the future of education and positively impact millions of learners around the world.’
Learning is an individual experience. We’ve seen what personalized learning can lead to, and we’re excited to continue building a future of education where personalized, mastery-based learning is the norm and where real-time data is used to empower teachers and parents to work in lockstep to unleash the potential of every child.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org