Q&A with Andrew Bender, instaGrok CEO

Discovering instaGrok was similar to discovering the TV show Lost. At first, there was a lot of “What the heck is this? I’ve never seen anything like this before. Okay, this is beyond great, this is genius.” That reaction was followed by contacting friends and sharing what I found, and then watching the product evolve from “a cool thing” into a research tool that has a profound impact on research and learning.
While J.J. Abrams wouldn’t return my calls about suggestions I had for Lost, I did get to speak with Andrew Bender, the President and CEO of instaGrok.  He and Kirill Kireyev, founder and CTO, are the innovators behind this ed tech startup.
If you’ve not checked out instaGrok yet, take a quick tour here:

Here’s Part 1 of my conversation with Andrew:
Adam: What brought you to instaGrok?
Andrew: I previously ran another education startup in the higher ed space.  Imagine K12, an education incubator, connected me to Kirill. I texted my wife in the middle of his presentation and said, “Hey, check out this product.” His story rang true to me, that research was too hard for kids. At the time, my mother was going through knee replacement surgery, and I saw how much trouble my parents were having researching this fairly complicated procedure, and that’s when I put two and two together, that students were going through his every day. So the overarching theme for us is that research is too hard, there’s too much of a burden placed on the student, and we at instaGrok can help.
Adam: It probably doesn’t help that students are often taught by a generation that still thinks that finding information is the difficult part of research.
Andrew: The Pew Center released a report last year on how teens do research, and it very specifically addressed this issue. Overall the internet has been a boon to research.  It’s opened up this world of new resources to students that they would have never been exposed to. At the same time, students are overwhelmed by information. Yet they aren’t using enough sources, though, maybe two, maybe three, to form opinions or make decisions on their research. They essentially do not have the ability to judge the credibility of those sources in large part because they are only looking at two or three. If the first two opinions say X, then that must be right. They should, in reality, be opening up the first fifteen or twenty sources and synthesizing the mental model on how all of those ideas connect. That’s how instaGrok is designed to work.  We do that next step of reading all the pages and showing you the opinions, thoughts, and concepts that are out there. If you search for a controversial subject you will get key facts that directly contradict each other. Those conflicting ideas, though, are the thoughts that are out there. That’s the whole idea for instaGrok, to present the wealth of opinions and say what the current state of thought is and to get you to really learn something.

Andrew Bender, instaGrok President and CEO
Andrew Bender, instaGrok President and CEO

The common core reading standards to a large degree are research standards that ask students to make judgements about the reliability of information. This goes back to some core research and digital literacy standards. It’s not that when kids graduate high school that these skill become irrelevant. These are skills they are going to need the rest of their lives. If anything, we believe the need to be able to perform research is only growing. I applaud schools that are instituting digital literacy courses. I think that’s fantastic, but I also think it’s compensating for weakness in the tools that they are using by essential putting more training on kids.
Adam: Can I take a step back. I’m always curious about ed tech companies.  Do you primarily see yourself as a tech company or an education company or something in between?
Andrew: Our focus is on learning and solving those research problems. We hope that as educators and students don’t stop using instaGrok after class. If their goal is to learn something, we want them to continue to use instaGrok. We define ourselves as a product that makes it really easy to research, learn, and share information.
Adam: I saw on your site where you were focusing on lifelong learners and not just K12.
Andrew: I was speaking with a librarian who said that a student asked if it was okay to use instaGrok for things other than classroom topics. The students were concerned that maybe the school would get charged, but, of course, we are free to use, and the librarian’s response was, “Of course! Go use it as much as possible.”
One other thought from a statistics perspective. Google thinks it’s a success if they can get you to your destination as quickly as possible. If they can get you there in half a second vs. a full second, then Google says they’ve done their job better.  For us, we want you to hang around and explore and customize your concept map and have a really deep experience where you’re really clicking around and exploring all the research that’s available. We have a very different user experience from Google.
Adam: Yes, I would think for personal topics, for things that really interest students, almost all of that goes on outside of school. In school, students always seem to do just enough, just enough to get a particular grade or complete an assignment, or whatever. But the important learning for them, most of that goes on outside of school, whether it’s something like guitar, music, gaming, acting, or whatever.
Andrew: Yes, the number of searches for One Direction, if you’re familiar the musical group, were . . . .
Adam: (laughing) Yes, and an “Of Mice and Men” (alternative band) poster just fell off my daughter’s wall, but I get what you’re saying.
Andrew: I guess it makes sense. Users wanted to know as much as they could about One Direction and were willing to spend ten or fifteen minutes researching it.
Adam: If I could go back to your background, you seem to be the educational half of your company with Kirill on the tech side. Can you tell me more about your background with education?
Andrew: Both Kirill and I have a passion for education, but we’ve not been traditionally educators. I also come from the high tech space. I used to run a social network, so that community type aspect appeals to me. Some of the features that you’ll see instaGrok come out with over the next year will definitely be community driven features.  We think there’s a lot of power in having that community.
Kirill Kireyev gives a teacher a tour of instaGrok.
Kirill Kireyev (left) gives a teacher a tour of instaGrok.

My previous startup with an open source textbook startup. It was essentially a community for college professors to get together and work on and promote texts that the big publishers wouldn’t have any interest in doing but that could be very viable in a community supported platform. Kirill has been working on personalized learning applications for seven years at this point so he has a long history in this space, as well.
Adam: And what brought you to Edmodo? That seems like a perfect match.
Andrew: Edmodo’s breadth is great, and it’s a very sticky platform for educators. I was great getting emails from educators saying, “I’ve been reading about the app platform in Edmodo and I see you have an app on it, but when I click on the tab, it’s not there.”  Edmodo was cautiously rolling it out to new parts of the county. I’m sure every message we got, the folks over at Edmodo were getting a thousand of them. Our message was simple: “Be patient. It’s coming. When Edmodo adds new users, they don’t want to bring down the system.”
Adam: That’s always a good plan.
Andrew: The rollout was really quick, though, and drama free, which is what you’re always looking for. We like it. We’re in Edmodo all the time, getting feedback from the users.
Adam: Has it influenced how you do things on your end or how you’re going to do things in the future?
Andrew: Absolutely. The fantastic thing about working with educators is that you guys aren’t shy with your opinions.
Adam (laughing): Well, we have some catching up to do in the tech space. What are some of the things you’ve heard?
Andrew: One of the things I like to ask is how educators found us. Was it from a professional development session, Twitter, reading blogs? Usually it’s not a one-word answer, but it’s usually a story that explains the chain that brought them to this product.  It really paints a great picture for us on what the technology landscape looks like and how people are incorporating technology into their classrooms. We’ve found not just across the U.S. but across the world there’s a lot of variety in the type of tech employed in schools, and it would be easy for an ed tech startup to just cater to the 1:1 classrooms and have the latest and greatest and constantly adopting new technology.
Adam: Yeah, that doesn’t really describe the typical experience out there.
Andrew: It’s been great for us to speak to a lot of the educators out there to get a much more grounded, realistic perspective of what it’s like in the classroom.
In Part 2, we will look at new features that instaGrok will be rolling out this year. Until then, take some time to work on your Grok Fu!

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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