Sync or Swim Blog Series #5
Spotlighting the Best Marinnovations™ in Education
Interview with Zack Karlsson, CEO & Director, ChangeMyPath, Education Technology
Given that the Digital Education Industry Market Size is approximately worth $51.5 Billion, (according to the Ambient Insight Research) and that “Gamification” processes are effectively being used by the corporate world to train employees at Apple, Oracle, Twitter, Salesforce and other large firms, it seemed worth exploring if any local companies were focused on this nexus.
So, I attended a nearby BASN (Bay Area Startup Network) and US Angel Investors and met David Mandel, a very successful serial entrepreneur and seed investor, who had launched an exciting new education start-up called ChangeMyPath. He introduced to his CEO and fellow Board Member Zack Karlsson, with whom I conducted the below interview.
Michael: What’s your background in the video game business?
Zack: I’ve been in the industry for about 15 years starting out at the bottom as a Game Master for EverQuest and worked my way up to VP at Capcom (market cap $1.2B) and have held senior positions at independent developers like Double Fine and big gaming industry publishers like Namco. By trade, I’m a Business Development guy. I’ve built a career on being a games guy on the business side of things.
Michael: How did Change My Path come about?
Zack: My co-founder, David Mandel, came to me looking for a CEO for a startup he was trying to put together. David is a serial entrepreneur and seed investor but with no experience in games and he wanted to put together a company around a gaming concept that he had developed with his daughter and the person who is now our co-founder and CTO, Stephen Williams. David and I spent a month or so trying to find a way that I was excited about the concept and just couldn’t find it, but through the process, we found a really nice working relationship and thought we could do something cool.
David asked me if I could do anything with my next career, without limitation, what would it be? I had heard a talk, years ago, by Ted Price on the future of games and what the world may look like 10 years from now with games as a focus. Ted was bold — it wasn’t the same old talk about BRIC, digital distribution, free-to-play etc. It was audacious and wonderful and inspired me. I spent the next couple years refining my retirement idea: When I was old and didn’t need money, what would I do with my free time? This was it. I pitched it to David and, somewhat surprisingly, he was convinced. We looped in Stephen as CTO to help us flesh out the tech and parts of the concept, and we were off to the races. It’s an idea that I thought was too big and too crazy for someone else to jump in on, but David saw the dream and then we got Stephen hooked, and we set about making it happen.
Michael: What have the power of smartphones and tablets opened up for you?
Zack: It has given us the ability to deliver digital content to anyone anywhere, but more importantly, it’s given us a broader general market in which to compete. It’s allowed people who never self-identified as gamers and let them participate in entertainment that isn’t strictly one-way. It’s given us a challenge on user interface design — gone are the days when you had a 13 button controller to design around, now you have to think about touch, 3D, motion sensing, Augmented Reality, and a litany of input devices. The most important thing for us is the ubiquity of smartphones. For CMP, we can reach anyone, anywhere, at a time that is convenient for them.
Michael: How are you using gamification with Change My Path?
Zack: Gamification for us is split into two parts. 1) Taking educational content and making it engaging and fun. There is a wealth of experience in this particular endeavor from the old Oregon Trail and Carmen San Diego games I used to play as a kid to the content done by Broderbund, The Learning Company, and many others. The question hasn’t yet been answered if this kind of content can be educationally transformative. In other words, does it leave a lasting impact on peoples’ lives? Could it? We think it can. We think that the content has, with no offense intended to others in the space, been designed primarily by educators rather than entertainers.
Everything we know about learning is that it works best when people are engaged and yet, we think it perfectly natural, as adults, to pay tuition to an institution of higher learning and, once the tuition is paid, it becomes our job to learn rather than their job to teach. The engagement factor goes to 0. What happens when content gets subjected to an open market, where people get to make decisions about learning that engages them first? Where the content isn’t simply a lecture and a quiz?
We live in an age with some incredible interactive entertainment but so little of that content has peripheral learning engaged, or value beyond simply being entertaining. There is virtue in pure entertainment, but there is also virtue in using the skills we have learned as an industry to help bring someone job skills or knowledge that will help them better their lives. And 2) It is about taking the process of the consumption of educational content and adding gamification to it.
This is not particularly innovative, but it has, to my knowledge, not been done well before. There are some parts of this that exist in different platforms that are out there, but most of those platforms fall short on understanding the motivation loop that is the foundation and driver of the gaming industry: action, value, outcome. In our example, taking a class is the action, learning something is the value, but where is the outcome? Most of us don’t learn just to learn — it’s a noble pursuit, learning for learning’s sake, but it’s a conceit primarily reserved for the privileged. Most of us take a class so we can learn something so we can get a job, a promotion, or benefit our career. We may be one of the first to take classic gaming compulsion loops and apply it to progression through content that has secondary value.
Michael: Who’s your target audience for this app?
Zack: Anyone who wants to learn a new skill. Our first foray as we build this platform will be focused on nursing. We chose it mainly because we felt that we needed to prove efficacy right away. Nursing has a certification board exam that is required before you become a nurse and we wanted to have a hard metric that we could use to prove that we were helping people build the right knowledge and skills.
After that initial test, we’ll roll it out to other job skills. We are focusing on people that might be looking for a career path that doesn’t require them to run up $60K in debt in order to obtain a degree that doesn’t actually deliver them job skills that help them start a career. Maybe it’s a single mom who wants to get out of food service but can’t leave her day job in order to attend school and doesn’t have the time for night school while she raises her children. Maybe it’s a man stuck in a dead end job that has the motivation but not the means to attend a technical college. Maybe it’s a young man or woman who doesn’t know what they want to do quite yet, but they know that they want to get a job that pays reasonably well and don’t want to rack up 20 years worth of debt in the process.
This is about making education affordable again and attempting to divorce the legitimacy of education from an antiquated brick and mortar building where your money is going into manicured lawns and marble buildings instead of curriculum development and skills training. Further, we can use mobile analytics and data modeling to refine our content on a much more immediate basis instead of whenever the “new” textbook that your Sociology professor wrote gets reprinted at $150 a pop.
Michael: What type of reception have you had from VCs thus far?
Zack: Generally positive. This idea is big and scary and that’s intimidating for some. Some wanted to see more proof that we can do what we say we can do. But we’ve had others that saw the vision and wanted to participate in re-engineering the American Dream and making it accessible again for the middle class. We didn’t need everyone to believe, we just needed the first one. Once that happened, we started the business of making education accessible.
Michael: What are your short-term goals for this app?
Zack: We think that BarBri has a great model. They teach want-to-be lawyers how to pass the bar. We’d like to teach want-to-be nurses to pass the NCLEX. By aiding in the acquisition and retention of crucial information, we’ll improve the quality of health care and the quality of nurses coming into the system.
Michael: Where do you see your company five years from now?
Zack: Ideally, I’d love to see us expand to all sorts of job and skills training, anything from mechanics and plumbers, to hair stylists and paralegals and corporate job training. In particular, I get excited when I think about where technology and this concept enables us to go. Specifically, I love the possibilities of virtual reality and augmented reality.
Since Lawnmower Man and the Star Trek holodeck, I have always thought about where education could really find a home in these kinds of devices and experiences. We also have an opportunity to explore some long tail curricula — nowadays, the interest level has to be sufficient to support a full class at every institution who takes on a particular subject matter, but digitally, we can find critical mass in a distributed fashion so things that couldn’t be taught before, because it wasn’t efficient enough, could be taught now.
The fringes of the applications of this platform are really interesting to me — what if, as a way to directly reduce recidivism in ex-cons returning to society, we gave them a skill, a trade, as a condition of parole. Study after study has shown that a major driving cause of recidivism is the inability to find work upon re-entry. What does it do to poor communities where crime is prevalent to reduce recidivism by 10 or 20%? What does it do to those same communities when you can help educate young women who have, historically speaking, always been the driver behind breaking the cycle of poverty?
Where do I see us? The internet is ubiquitous now, even in developing countries. In my dreams, I see us changing the nature of poor communities across the US and elsewhere in the world, bringing education and job skills to people that need it. Realistically speaking, if we just do it for 1 person at a time, that is progress. I don’t know how many it will take until critical mass helps those communities shift out of direct poverty, but I’ll bet it’s fewer people than have played Candy Crush. I don’t think that’s too crazy of a goal.
Michael: What opportunities do you see new micro-consoles and other technology that’s connecting mobile devices to the big screen TV opening up for apps like this?
Zack: This really isn’t our focus. I think micro-consoles are interesting, but it’s just shifting where the computing power sits. Whether it be in your home or in the cloud, the key to the home and to peoples’ attention is the quality of the content. Most people don’t care deeply about the platform they’re using to access that content, unless it specifically requires an interface or input that isn’t available somewhere else. In our industry, I think we get too caught up in platform rhetoric and lose sight of the fact that content is king.
In the education world, this lesson has been particularly slow to take root. Hopefully, that is not for much longer.