A good idea moves from helping dozens to helping millions of learners and teachers—with some business and technology savvy.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Back in 2010, Tanner Hock was a basic skills English instructor at a small community college in North Carolina. Struggling to find appropriate materials for the levels of his students, he decided to simply make the resources himself. He created a large bank of ready-made resources, and a reputation for sharing. He did this through his personal website, and sent the link around to colleagues. Demand exploded, especially for various levels of reading comprehension texts (in 2011 an adaptive program was created), and by 2019, Ron Kirschenbaum and Josh Capon had taken over management with a focus on improving user experience for teachers and students.
‘…the thought of being able to help students build literacy skills felt like more than a company – it was a real mission that we wanted to get behind.’
A small, dedicated group of passionate writers and engineers continue working to tirelessly craft and refine high quality passages for both lower-grade and upper grade learners. Now ReadTheory is used in thousands of school districts worldwide, with hundreds of thousands of students logging in weekly. The company continues to grow by word of mouth and still offers free resources.
Josh “Shuky” Capon is a managing partner in charge of technology, product, design, and development. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science and has been in his lead role since 2019. He believes in the power of adaptive learning and is committed to providing ReadTheory as a free resource for all students around the world. When he’s not answering late-night messages, he enjoys listening to music and spending time with his two young kids.
Ron is a managing partner in charge of the long-term vision, establishing relationships, marketing, and development of the company. He holds degrees in Law and Accounting and has been in his lead role since 2019. He believes that each student deserves a tailor-made educational experience. He thinks the “one-size-fits-all” approach to education is why so many students feel discouraged in a traditional classroom. After a long day of company planning, Ron likes to unwind by surfing.
How did you get involved with the company; what prompted you to be a part of it?
We partnered up during 2018 and actively started acquiring digital assets. We came across ReadTheory because we were looking for quality content and were really impressed with how much ReadTheory had grown organically.
Ron: In the beginning, the thought of being able to help students build literacy skills felt like more than a company – it was a real mission that we wanted to get behind.
Josh: I’ve been building products for over a decade, but this one was different. The positive impact it could have on students was unmatched, and the feedback we were getting from teachers was overwhelmingly positive. We were building something that would directly impact the trajectory of a kid’s future – and that was an incredible feeling.
What is the power of adaptive learning?
Josh: The power of adaptive learning is on one hand the ability to tailor content by interest to keep learners engaged, while on the other hand making it more approachable by adjusting it to their ‘just right’ knowledge level. It’s this combination that ultimately accelerates learning.
As a society, we’ve grown accustomed to everything being tailored and personalized for us based on interest and usage – but this never trickled down to the education space until the pandemic. The pandemic pushed digital education and remote learning forward significantly. Now you even see ChatGPT disrupting the space. And there’s two ways you can look at it, you can resist it – or you can optimize it.
What is the 10-year plan? will ChatGPT-4 or other fast-advancing AI change that?
Ron: We are a young company, so we are only scratching the surface as to what is possible. In the short term, we are extending the platform to provide a comprehensive suite of learning tools for schools and districts in the United States. We’re laser focused on reading comprehension, as we know this is the area students are struggling with the most.
Our long-term vision is to build a robust learning platform that can ingest any content or subject matter into it and adapt it to any individual. We intend to make ReadTheory a synonym for adaptive learning practice.
General AI and machine learning are already disrupting existing industries and we will see that trend continue to increase. However, regardless of how unimaginably advanced it would be in the next 10 years, I think it is safe to assume that technology will not replace the role of the educator.
What advice do you have for edtech startups?
Relationships are everything. Nothing great ever gets built in a silo. We got tons of unsolicited feedback from our teachers, and it is always constructive. So then you have to balance all the great ideas you’re getting to build not what educators need today, but what they will need tomorrow.
What do you see in the future of learning?
We believe that the future of learning will eventually structure around learning experiences, much shorter than today’s classes.
In this scenario, every student would work on an activity tailored for them; if that child happens to like magic tricks, superheroes, or monkeys – they would have reading activities around those themes incorporated into that experience. They’d practice reading by learning about an individual magic trick they are curious about, for example. Learning will focus on more whole-child growth, building students’ confidence, personality, and strengths. The role of the educators will adapt in order to better leverage the magnificent tools available.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: email@example.com