In conversation with a CTO who helps hundreds of millions of people learn.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
He’s the Chief Technology Officer and Senior VP of Operations at Brainly, a leading learning platform worldwide with one of the most extensive knowledge bases for all school subjects and grades. In his role, soft-spoken yet powerful Bill Salak impacts more than 300 million students, parents and educators who rely on Brainly as a platform to accelerate their understanding and learning. His Kraków, Poland-based employer also maintains offices in New York City and Barcelona. Their apps and websites are visited by users from over 35 countries. Bill has held previous positions as SVP Technology at Age of Learning, Inc. / ABCmouse.com and Chief Technology Officer at Extract Value.
You were working at another great edtech company, but saw in Brainly a great fit in fulfilling some lifelong career type goals. Can you walk us through those goals and elaborate on the connection you saw with what Brainly was looking for and what you were wanting to do?
For most of my career, working on personalization in edtech meant using technology to scaffold a pre-defined and known set of content and lessons. Innovation centered around building better assessment mechanisms that would adapt the learner’s path through the content and lessons to keep the learner in the Goldilocks Zone of learning.
This valid and effective approach provides a straightforward path to measuring proof of knowledge and determining if a learner has achieved mastery before moving to the next step in their learning path. But there are also some serious limiting factors inherent in this type of system; designing and unlocking these limits became my passion in my work.
I had a vision for doing things differently but didn’t have all the pieces figured out. I needed access to data – lots of data – to understand those missing bits in my emerging high-level ideas.
After speaking with the leadership team at Brainly and understanding the use case for the product, it was apparent that this was the environment where I could find those answers and ultimately build a solution. It was the right place and with the right people at the right time. I joined with the certainty that we would create something innovative and effective to improve learners’ educational outcomes worldwide.
‘I joined with the certainty that we would create something innovative and effective to improve learners’ educational outcomes worldwide.’
You’ve said, “Most edtech is scaffolded, you measure, prove it, but Brainly is different. Learners are reaching out for help with this content at this point.” Could you elaborate and clarify this?
Most edtech products simulate a classroom-like interaction by defining the curriculum, content, lessons, etc., then using the technology to navigate the learner through these lessons. Many also provide some assessment tools and incorporate gamification and game theory to keep the learner in the Goldilocks Zone of learning.
Brainly’s use case is quite different. We don’t define curriculum, learning paths, lessons, or content. We started as an online study group where learners could ask questions and get answers from each other. Our CEO, Michał Borkowski, has often said, “Nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something.” This concept is part of Brainly’s foundational core.
Learners use our product to get help with their existing formal learning environment, so we know that every question asked on Brainly is motivated by a need. Another way of framing this is to say – every question asked on Brainly provides an assessment outcome equivalent to an “I don’t know this,” or an, “I’m not sure about this” data point.
All of these factors that make us different from other edtech products (lack of curriculum, lesson independence, content independence) and our inherently built-in data points about the learner’s needs provide a rich and unique environment for supporting and improving educational outcomes for learners on Brainly.
How is your company working at scale with personalized learning—factoring in history usage, learner behavior patterns, cohort building, predictive intervention?
Our product takes a fundamentally different approach to personalized learning; it adapts to and supports the curriculum, content, and lessons our learners are being taught — instead of requiring the learner to adopt the curriculum, content, and lessons to our system.
In real-world outcomes, this means that the personalized learning systems we build must support the content and lessons the student is learning in their existing school environment instead of replacing it and attempting to “teach it better.” It also means the Brainly personalized learning system could be brought into any classroom and used with any existing curriculum without replacing the learning resources, materials, and teaching methods established and utilized effectively by the teacher.
‘…the personalized learning systems we build must support the content and lessons the student is learning in their existing school environment instead of replacing it and attempting to “teach it better.”’
Data is a big part of this solution. At our scale, we can derive patterns and groupings within our content and learner interactions with Brainly. This opens the door to cohorting and segmentation of content and learners in ways that we’re all familiar with in other online products we consume – think about this in terms of Netflix, YouTube, or Amazon recommendations. So, for example, “Users who did this thing you did also tend to do this other thing. We think you would like to do this other thing.”
In a Brainly application, it looks like, “Learners looking at similar content as you and who have struggled with this topic also tend to struggle with these other topics. Can we help you with these other topics?”
What is the holy grail of learning? Of edtech?
When we can predict a learner’s struggle with a topic or concept before they experience a negative feedback loop and can mitigate that outcome, we’ve accomplished “predictive intervention” and obtained the holy grail. The next step will be to get this support to every learner across the globe.
We’re working on these problems right now at Brainly.
‘Education is the foundation of a society, so let’s not waste this moment.’
Any other thoughts on working in edtech, at your company, or on the future of learning?
We’re at an inflection point right now in edtech. We have many recent reminders of the fragility of our existing educational systems. At the same time, we’ve just experienced a step-change in the capabilities of generative AI and an overwhelming interest in bringing this technology into the education solution space.
Education is the foundation of a society, so let’s not waste this moment.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org