instaGrok Update with Andrew Bender

A search engine and interactive learning tool

Last week I got the chance to speak with Andrew Bender, President and CEO of instaGrok.  We discussed their basic operations and guiding principles.  Today, Andrew gives us an update on new features that are rolling out in the second part of our discussion about the unique research tool, instaGrok.
Adam: What does your team look like?
Andrew: We really are a startup. There are just two of us, so there are some really long nights responding to emails. We thank everyone for their patience if it’s a busy day.

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

Adam: Can you talk a little bit about what the latest changes are and what we can expect in the future from instaGrok?
Andrew: We always envisioned this product to be a social product and for people to use it as a community knowledge base. People will spend fifteen minutes working on their concept maps, and it’s obvious that they are doing something very cool, and it would be really great if they had the ability to share it.
Adam: And for us visual learners, it’s a thing of heaven to be able to visually represent knowledge that way, so yeah, sharing those detailed concept maps would be great.
Andrew: Some of our friends at McREL, the professional development organization, agree that the non-linguistic representation of information is essential. We had a great conversation with them early on. Who else is doing is visual representations of research results?
instaGrok is also a curation tool, too. People pin the things they think are important and delete the things they don’t think are important. If I’m writing a report on George Washington, I can look at it multiple ways. I can talk about his relationship with the Continental Congress and delete all the stuff about the battles. Or I can go another route and talk about his presidency. I can customize what I’m pinning. Do I like this video? Does it not work?  What do I pin, what do I delete?  It tells someone who is looking at that Grok a lot about what I find important and valuable about this topic. That’s why we’ve rolled out a lot of customization and sharing tools.
We’re also creating onsite communities, so if I’m researching George Washington, I can see what other people are researching on George Washington. Maybe I can vote on the best one.
Adam: I was going to ask if there’s a voting or ranking mechanism where I can +1 a Grok or something like that.
Andrew: Just rolled it out. You may not have seen it yet, but you were anticipating exactly what we’ve done.
Adam: That’s certainly the world that kids . . . high school or younger . . . that’s the world they know. They expect to be able to do that.
Andrew: It’s a fairly friendly form of competition, and I think it’s great. I know when I leave a review for a restaurant on Yelp, I like it when I get votes. It’s part of the reason why I write those reviews. I like making that contribution that helps other people. That’s what we anticipate here. If you make a great Grok on a topic like “diffusion of light through various opaque materials,” then the next person who searches might think “I can do it myself but I see that this person has already created a fantastic Grok on that topic. Let me click the ‘helpful’ button and give that person a vote.”
Adam: Very cool. Yes, students would like that, and teachers would, as well. If there’s a way for teachers to share lessons that they’ve put together on Grok, they would find that valuable.
Andrew: You’re anticipating the next steps that we are rolling out. Right now, you can view other Grok’s by topic, but we anticipate in the future, I will be able to follow you, Adam.  If you grant me permission, I’ll be able to see the kind of Groks you are creating. If you’re a music teacher, and we’re both talking about Brahms right now, and the next week I see you are researching chamber music, I might think this isn’t the direction at all that I was going with my students. It gives me insight into how you are thinking about a topic.
We are just rolling out many of the features and would greatly appreciate feedback from students and educators . . . don’t do that, do this, and so on. For us, it’s a process of try something, see what people think, and we try to be extremely responsive to their suggestions and feedback.

(See some of the latest instaGrok features below)

Check out some of instaGrok's latest features.

Adam: I think in the future workplace that this will be a basic, expected skill to be able to research and curate information in this information age. People who have that still set will have an advantage in the job market and in the workforce.
Andrew: One of the things we think is cool is the way that teachers have embraced Pinterest. It’s a great curation tool, but Pinterest was obviously designed for a photo curation tool, not necessarily for research skills and concept maps. Visual representations, though, are really a superior way to learn, especially for children.
Adam: Your feature that really impressed me the most is your sliding difficulty bar. The differentiation you can get with that is great, especially with all the levels of learners in a single classroom.
Andrew: Yes, that features rings true for me, too.  When I think back to when I was a child, that bar would be far to the left on history topics, but when it came to stuff on dinosaurs, I would challenge anybody. That bar would not stay in the same place for every topic. It’s not a grade-level slider, and people are all over the place in their expertise on topics.  On some topics they are experts and on others they are just getting started.
Adam: Teachers are certainly heavily put upon to show how the are providing for different levels of learning in their classrooms. Tools like this make it a bit easier. It’s a genius feature.
Andrew: We are rolling out these new social and sharing features now, and we want to make those communities stronger. As we roll out these features, educators need to give us feedback and not be shy ([email protected]). I would like to hear your feedback, too.
Adam: You’ve already added or have in your queue all the additional features that I thought would be great. Ranking Groks. Featuring Groks that are already created. It makes sense to feature them by topic first. Master educators, though, after they create fifteen or twenty Groks to share will want that vanity page.
Andrew (laughing): “Vanity” might be too strong of a word. Kirill and I were having the same conversation, and we’re very big proponents of it. People like building their reputation, and if I’ve created twenty custom Groks on a topic, I wouldn’t mind some recognition for that.
Adam: Oh, very cool then. And in terms of ranking Groks, students could probably use some PD to teach them how to rank things usefully. They might be too quick to rank initial items with a +1 or however you do the rankings.
Andrew: The “however” part is what we’re working on right now. This is one of the neat things in our position. We get a chance to look at other products in education and other products that are more consumer focused. The rankings in Prezi, for instance, have just one button, and that’s “useful,” whereas Yelp has three buttons to rate reviews (Useful, Funny, Cool). So there are lots of different options to provide feedback. For our audience we are thinking about how many different things should you be able to vote on. Should you be able to give both positive and negative feedback or just positive?
Adam: All very intriguing options. I’ll be interested to see which way you go on that. I certainly see the merits both ways. Well, actually, I guess once you make your choice, you’ll have educators telling you both how good and how bad the choice was.
Andrew: Exactly.
Adam: That’s good.
Andrew: That’s great. It’s great to get the feedback. It’s both strong and quick. We’re doing stuff that’s not been done before, and that type of feedback makes it much easier.
Adam: Is there a way to be an instaGrok school? A way for schools or districts to batch in all their students at once?
Andrew: Just in the past week we’ve had three requests for that. So we are starting to see interest for that on the ground, and we will prioritize that with our future ideas.
Adam: What are some of your success stories?
Andrew: Kirill and I are both data people, so seeing the overall data is good to look at. When we look at the data and see increased growth and usage day after day, and see people customizing their Groks day after day, that’s very rewarding. Back in September, we used to see a big drop off over the weekends, but not so much any more. Now I have a much better idea of when kids do homework.
Adam: Andrew, thank you for your time. Please keep us updated on instaGrok and good luck there.
Andrew: It was a pleasure!
Be sure to follow Andrew and Kirill on instaGrok’s on Twitter here.

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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Andrew Bender

Adam, thanks again for speaking with me and sharing your thoughts! Kirill and I really appreciate it.

Andrew Bender

Hi Getting Smart readers. I wanted to share a discount code for $5 off instaGrok Classroom at FOFF63009.
The core instaGrok research functionality is--and always will be--100% free. The instaGrok Classroom edition adds a teacher dashboard to track student progress, removes all advertising, enables premium tech support, etc. Check it out: we give all teachers a free trial.

Adam Renfro

Thanks, Andrew!!

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