Recently, I asked Reshan Richards if he would be open to doing an interview with June Labs for this blog. He happily agreed. Not only was he interested in an interview, he also invited the Explain Everything team into the conversation, eventually sending over 6 pages of insights to us. Get ready to learn from someone who has spent the last 13 years walking the frontier where education and technology meet. Here we go:
1) Reshan, Bartosz, and Piotr – first, tell us a little bit about you and your experiences with the world of education and edtech.
Reshan: My first job right out of college was 5th Grade Math Teacher and “Technology Assistant.” That latter title is a bit vague (both when I was hired and still today!) but basically I was in charge of unjamming printers, changing copier toner, connecting network cables, plugging thing in, and turning them off and on again. It was actually a great experience because I had no qualifications to do that kind of work (same with the teaching) but I learned so much by just jumping in and trying to figure things out. It was a nice organization with terrific mentors. Eventually, I went back to school and completed my Ed.M in Teaching and Learning at Harvard and started to focus on the intersection of technology and teaching — less IT and more ed tech. When I went back to working at a school, my job was centered around technology integration and leading ed tech-focused professional development.
Bartosz: I was lucky to be the son of a teacher so I was connected to educational experiences from the very beginning. These experiences resulted in a lifelong interest in understanding and achieving self-motivation and self-development. When I was seventeen, I blended my interest in technology with teaching and started translating books about computers from English to Polish (my main language) and then when I was nineteen, I started to publish my own books. Since then I have always found it fascinating to convey complex ideas or issues and make them understandable.
Piotr: My mother was an English teacher and I have experienced a blend of Polish, American and British education. I was a foreign exchange student in the US (Longview, WA for 12th grade) and my first computer was a BBC Model B — an educational 8-bit micro produced in the UK. I have been a business software consultant for more than 15 years, but this seems boring when compared to working in education. Thanks to Explain Everything, I feel like a meta-teacher, providing tools that are used by teachers around the world.
2) Explain Everything, the interactive whiteboard and screencasting app that you created for the iPad recently celebrated its 3 year anniversary. Can you tell us about your journey from idea to app to today? What obstacles did you encounter? We love details.
Piotr: For a number of years, Bart and I had a hobby of making funny (sometimes absurd) MP3 podcasts and we thought about filming them as well. The budget to make real movies with our ideas (space, aliens, large explosions, monsters destroying whole city quarters, destruction of Jupiter and other planets) would have been totally prohibitive so the only plausible way to capture our ideas was simple cartoons, similar to Terry Gilliam’s cut scenes between Monty Python sketches.
The concept of the app appeared in my head in June, 2008 when a colleague from my corporate job showed me a cartoon that he had made. The cartoon was 2 minutes long — it was a funny political satire. He told me that it took him 4 days to make the video. This was the spark that inspired me to finally try filming our podcasts as cartoons! I downloaded a number of animation apps for the Mac and PC. But they were very difficult to use and everything took a long time to do.
So I decided to build my own animation app, one that could record movement as a “puppet show.” I did this on the Mac because I liked the Mac development studio Xcode very much. It was elegant and usable. After a week I had a working proof of concept. It was a simple app that displayed a funny face that you could move around a checkered window and record its movement. It was quite cool, but a lot of work was needed to make a real working app out of this. Several months later, the project was barely progressing. Having a full time job. I did not have much time to work on it.
In September, 2009, Bart and I were driving to a concert and we talked about my animation app project. Bart said, “If you don’t have the time to do it yourself, hire a Computer Science student and let him finish the project for you.” This was a good idea! I hired a programmer and together worked long nights, establishing what needs to be done and how to do it. We were meeting every week in person and working every day, communicating on Skype. They were fantastic long hours and we regularly stayed up until 2 am.
Bart was always saying that our ideas — and we had many — lacked a business component. At that time, we formed a small company, a virtual assistant startup, together with his high school friend. I joined partially, so we were only meeting every now now and then and I was showing Bart the progress of the app.
At the end of 2009, there were rumors about Apple reinventing the tablet. It seemed like an ideal device for an animation app so we took the risk and ported the Mac app to iOS. We developed it further, testing it out only on an iPod Touch and waited for the iPad to appear.
The iPad appeared in April of 2010 and it was then that Bart increased his involvement with the app. The virtual assistant idea has not been progressing well but he saw another opportunity with the animation app. Bart designed the front screen and had a lot of creative ideas about the frame editor and the graphic design of the app. It took us another 5 months to polish up the app and prepare it for the submission to the App Store.
I remember my trembling hands when at the end of September 2010, I was uploading the first PhotoPuppet to the App Store. I could barely sleep the night it finally got accepted. I knew that it was impossible, but still dreamed about waking up a millionaire – or at least having thousands of downloads the first day.
This was really naïve. We flopped. We flopped miserably. We got about 50 downloads throughout the entire month of October. The app was too expensive ($7.99), too difficult to use, and looked too odd. We did not target it at any particular audience.
Bart was working three separate jobs to keep up with the company’s expenses and I was moonlighting for months, trying to promote Photopuppet while spending my savings. I was looking all over the Internet — Google, Yahoo, Bing, Twitter — for anyone who was interested in the app or was using it.
On one particular day, I found a single Tweet leading to a post by Reshan who had just downloaded PhotoPuppet and was musing about its many features. I immediately emailed Bart and noted, “This guy will kick ass, let’s give it some time.” This time I was right.
At that time, we started working on an improved version of PhotoPuppet. We wanted to get it right this time! We assembled a better team and hired a graphic designer to make cool graphics for us. We created a unique “paperlike” interface. We added new features (e.g., you could cut out a part of your mouth on a photo and make it move in a Southpark-like fashion).
We released PhotoPuppet HD in March 2011 and it was selling better as the original one, but nowhere near our expectations. At that time we’ve had spent most of our own money and we were really close to zero on our bank accounts. We tried to sell a third of MorrisCooke to our friends for $10K, but no-one was willing to buy. Everyone looked at us like we were crazy.
While all of this was going on, we were having conversations with Reshan. We talked over email and Skype. Reshan wanted to make a screencasting app whose animation and action-logic was just like PhotoPuppet, but redesigned for education with a different user interface, added tools like drawings and shapes, and a slide structure.
The three of us were working on similar concepts simultaneously but from different points of view. Initially, we considered creating a special version of PhotoPuppet for Reshan as subcontractors, but our innovative animation engine behind it had been very expensive to make, and Reshan could not afford to license it so Bart had a different idea. He proposed to form a partnership, as he figured out that in order to succeed, we have to set a shared goal. Reshan would be able to make the app he envisioned and we could further work on our unique animation engine, sharing expenses and revenues with him.
It was quite straightforward to partner with Reshan as we immediately understood each other.
He would also complete our team’s skillset by adding his abilities and background. Looking back, this turned out to be the perfect blend of hobbyist enthusiasm, technology and education.
We made a chart of features showing how many functions for the screencasting app we’d had already and how many still needed to be developed. Not a lot, it seemed. We thought that preparing a modified version of PhotoPuppet would take 3 months. And it did take about 3 months.
On August 19th, 2011, Explain Everything got approved by Apple. Reshan started sharing it out and got several influential educators and bloggers to tweet and write about it.
The app had a very good reception. We passed 10K downloads in 4 months. The we passed 100K downloads in a year. We have seen an increasing download pace ever since and currently the download rate is about 100K per month. At the time of writing, Explain Everything has been downloaded by almost 1.5 million people around the world.
We have been constantly updating and improving the app since the very beginning (and occasionally bringing back features from PhotoPuppet, such as the timeline), so this is also one of the reasons that iPad users have been choosing Explain Everything and using it daily.
3) What advice do you have for educators who have a great idea for an app or other tech tool for teaching and learning?
Bart: Always remember that the killer idea you have is not necessarily unique. It almost never is. Consider the invention of the light bulb or quasar research — there is always one or two individuals or teams who had similar concepts and are currently working on it. So, if you have a good idea the key is in the execution. Focus on bringing the right team together. In today’s complicated world, inventions and discoveries are never done by a single person. And also think economically — what value will the app or tool bring versus the costs to create a complete product out of your idea. If it is worth it, loosen your brakes and go for it!
Reshan: Do some research on what is already out there first. It might be possible to find something that is close to or almost like your idea but just needs some adjustments or pivots. The person or people who made that app or tool usually deeply care about it, if for no reason but the time and effort it took to make it available. Reach out to them and if there is a spark of interest, create some sort of mutual Non-Disclosure agreement so that both sides can have a more open dialogue.
I have had informal conversations with people who are very nervous about sharing their ideas out of fear of someone stealing the concept. Even if it is a good idea, it still takes a lot of work and time to do it well. And then even if it is done well it takes a lot of work and time (and luck) for it to catch on.
Piotr: You have to be patient and find someone that you feel a natural connection with. Don’t settle for a generic developer that would treat your app as “just another app”. This can prove difficult!
Do not treat the concept of “apps” as generic objects – all of them are original ideas, although it has been changing and somewhat degrading through the last 6-8 years. There is a belief that an app is something small and easy to make when in reality this could not be farther from the truth.
Just a few years ago, what we call an “app” today was called a “program” and cost $40 or more. Today, apps are sold for $0.99 but the amount of time and money needed to make them have not magically shrunk by a factor of 40. And there is another problem: there are a large number of “spam” (or just really low quality) apps on the market that make it difficult to discover the really valuable or well-designed ones in the app stores. This perpetuates the status degradation of the “app.”
An app that can thrive in this landscape must be innovative, and in education it must have features that students and educators need while being easy to use. It has to be so easy that it could be used everyday, just like a toothbrush!
4) Reshan, in your years as an educator and researcher, what changes have you seen in educational technology? What are you hopeful or excited about in the field? What are you skeptical about?
Reshan: One promising shift I am starting to see is the way that some school leaders are making the distinction between educational technology (tech in the day-to-day classrooms), information technology (technology infrastructure and support), and computer science (its own academic discipline). For a long time “technologists” in schools have been a kind of catch-all. They help other teachers use tech in their classrooms, they do technology support for hardware and systems, and they might teach a programming or robotics class. Today these strands still have a lot of synergy and interdependence, but there is now also a role for someone who has talents and interests in just one of the strand, even if he or she might have done the other two things in a past life.
I’m always skeptical about measuring the success of a learning intervention by only counting one variable: the technology. I think it is a broad statement to say that any technology by itself helps students learn better. Learn what? Learn how?
Sure, it is possible to say that without the technology being present the learning intervention would have been less successful, but that does not make it the only factor. I think its much more important to think about the contexts — people, relationships, institutional culture, resources, etc. — but it’s just hard to visualize and measure those things.
5) It seems that many apps and websites are merely digital versions of analog teaching tools. A game in which students destroy meteors to complete addition problems isn’t much different than flipping through math facts written on index cards. Sure there is the engagement component but pedagogically, it’s really just rote memorization. What are your thoughts on this? In your role as Director of Educational Technology, how do you evaluate educational technology to ensure that it is a valuable for classrooms? What criteria do you consider?
Bart: Technology for technology’s sake doesn’t cut it. The evaluation of educational technology should examine the pros and cons in the process of learning. What is enriched with technology? What is taken away by it? There are many factors to be considered if you think of learning or understanding by using the notion of a hermeneutic circle. One’s understanding of a concept as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts, and one’s understanding of each individual part is established by reference to the whole.
I would want to see classroom technology help people improve their understanding of individual parts of what is to be learned and stimulating cross-referencing. This is drastically different from the foundational idea of computers — they were meant to reduce workload! This is not something you necessarily want to do in education. Interactive Whiteboards are a good example — it’s like digital paper. But paper itself does not allow you to capture process so you can spot the moment of error in one’s thinking. You cannot add a video to a paper — no glue or paper clip does it. With an interactive whiteboard you can. You can use it to “write an essay” explaining physical motion but using a time lapse video instead of just words.
Reshan: I think every learning activity (including math facts index cards and meteors) have to be examined in the context of the learning goal. If the memorization of the facts is the learning goal, then I am concerned. But maybe the memorization is part of a bigger goal to build short term recall in order to access a different and more meaningful cognitive channel that will turn those short term facts into long-term, transferable understanding. Please don’t confuse this for a pro-memorization argument; it’s just an example of how I try to understand what I observe.
In my role at my school we try to make all of our decisions that guide our leadership with the teachers and students with a similar mentality to what I describe above. Trace the choices back to the school’s mission or to the learning goals. Consider the value added. Weight the value added against the cost — and not just initial monetary costs. There are human costs, time costs, replacement and maintenance costs. Basically you have to balance the theoretical with the practical, all while factoring the contexts that I talked about before.
6) Reshan, on your website you describe one of your goals as: “uncovering how emerging technologies can be used to capture and mediate discourse that data-driven approaches are not capable of measuring.” Have you seen any shifts in the educational landscape that indicate a movement away from a strong emphasis on standardized testing and, a focus on numerical data for assessment? What can educators do to counteract this trend and still evaluate students in meaningful ways?
Reshan: I tend to see evidence of this shift at the ground level in the work and projects made with apps like Explain Everything that are shared online. Working at an independent school I am shielded from the direct pressure of these external factors, but I sometimes worry that students and teachers are doing amazing things in spite of the top-down decision making that they are beholden to and not because of good leadership.
I think that the more people share what they are doing and how they are assessing learning in less quantitative ways — whether it’s online or at conferences or in publications or even at faculty meetings — the more likely there can a large-scale definition (or understanding) of assessment and evaluation. Sometimes it is difficult to explain things in (just) words, which is why I think Explain Everything has had such a positive reception since its launch.