A year ago, I decided to take the road less traveled and leave Google to make a difference in equitable access to education. Today, I’m thrilled to announce the founding of Kyron Learning, a public benefit company focused on giving all students equitable access to high quality one-on-one teaching. We are bringing together a team of experienced educators and technologists to use conversational AI to scale the best teachers. We got our start being incubated at Cambiar Education, and we’ve raised a seed round of funding led by Owl Ventures and GSV Ventures, two of the best and most experienced investors in education. We’re just getting started on an amazing journey ahead.
Learning about Learning
I’ll admit to you that leaving Google was uncomfortable, and the lack of a clear road ahead was a little unsettling after 17 years on a pretty clear path. But, the opportunity over the past year to be driven purely by purpose and mission has been the best experience of my career. I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn about education. Although I’ve done a lot of work in education in the past, I wanted to get a better sense of what teachers are going through, what students struggle with, and what’s causing the enormous opportunity gap. They say that talent is evenly distributed but opportunity is not, so why is that still the case?
So, I took the time to learn from educators, technologists, researchers, parents, students, and many others that taught me a lot about education. I played many different roles, including being an entrepreneur-in-residence and helping create an education venture studio at Cambiar Education, advising the learning engineering team for Schmidt Futures, joining the board of Rocketship Public Schools, and just spending time at many different schools to see how great teachers handle a classroom. Through it all, I got a chance to see the challenges that educators face, schools that are doing innovative work to make education better, and technologists that are using the latest advancements to help students in new ways.
My favorite experiences were when I got the chance to be at a school and observe how teachers practice their art. I visited Rocketship Schools earlier this year, and I was struck by their morning ritual called “Launch”. Each morning, all students gather together on the blacktop for a choreographed dance party to get them pumped up for the day. They hear from their principal and from other students about some of their recent work, and it gets them excited to get to class. It’s a key to getting students engaged and ready for the day.
Later in the year, I visited Invictus Academy of Richmond, and I was in awe by how the teachers ran every math class. They taught by asking questions to their students, encouraging students to make mistakes and learn from them, and encouraging students to work with each other and help each other. A lot is said about the advances in technology in the classroom, but it’s the human spirit side by side with the technology that makes the real difference. It all boils down to the teachers and the people in the end.
I also saw just how tough a job it is to educate students, especially now. Through these experiences, I had five key observations:
- COVID had a giant negative impact on education, particularly for under-resourced populations – The amount of learning loss because of COVID is incredible. Coming out of COVID, the average student was several months behind where they needed to be, and that gap has increased as students aren’t able to keep up with the grade that they are in. The gap is much larger for students in under-resourced communities, and, as a result, an already bad opportunity gap is getting worse.
- Great teachers are the only solution, but their job is harder – I wrote last year about the impact of great teachers, and great teachers are in greater need now given what’s happened since COVID. But, a teacher’s job is extraordinarily hard in today’s schools. There are fewer teachers, and we are in the midst of the biggest teacher shortage in a generation. The teachers that are there now have larger class sizes and a huge variance in skill level in each class. A 9th grade algebra teacher has students that are missing 4th grade skills.
- One on one teaching has an outsized impact – Study after study has shown that, if a teacher can work individually with a student, their achievement goes way up. However, it’s nearly impossible for classroom teachers to give their students individual attention in any given class period. Schools have brought in tutors to help here, but finding qualified tutors is hard and expensive, and the government funding for these programs runs out in 2024.
- Algebra is a key turning point for students – A million students fail algebra each year, and 80% of them don’t graduate from high school. Algebra is the gateway to higher level STEM, and passing algebra leads to a world of possibilities and careers for a student. If we can get more students over this hurdle, we can significantly change their lives.
- Technology is only a facilitator – Technology can help in big ways, but it’s only a facilitator and not the end all be all solution. Tech needs to be brought together with teachers and classrooms in a seamless way in order to have the right effect.
The Incredible Potential of Conversational AI in Education
In addition to learning about education, I’ve continued to learn about AI and have helped advise a number of companies in different industries on their AI products and strategy. My biggest observation here is that applied AI is still really nascent. There are a ton of breakthroughs that are taking place, but very few are being used at scale in practical ways. But, this is changing rapidly. It’s starting with bigger technology companies and newer AI-first companies, but it’s spreading to more and more companies. The potential is untapped right now, but, within 10 years, just about every company will be using AI in meaningful ways.
The area that I’m most excited about is conversational AI. Products like Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa have shown that it’s viable to talk to your computer. At Google, we were making huge advances in how customer service is done through conversation. But, the best is yet to come, and advances like large language models have dramatically shifted what’s possible. These advances will take a few years to settle into widespread practical usage, but it’s the most interesting area of AI in my view.
When it comes to education, as we talked about, one-on-one teaching has an outsized impact on students, but it’s tremendously expensive for every student to have a personal tutor. The potential with conversational AI in education is that you can extend that one-on-one teaching experience to anyone. However, many have tried to do this and have not yet succeeded at scale. The technology has advanced an enormous amount over the last few years, so more is now possible. But, a bad experience by a student with new technology can set us back years. So, we need to deliberately and responsibly use this AI innovation as it’s ready to make a difference for students.
To do this right, we need to live at the intersection of what makes teaching great and what makes technology great. This is what we are focusing on with Kyron Learning. In talking to many teachers and schools, we’ve found that we need to do three key things to make sure technology can work well for students in the classroom:
- Connect, engage, encourage – Teaching is partly about the material, but it’s also about lifting students up to learn from their mistakes and believe that they can learn anything. One expert in education told me that, in their tests, friendliness was as important as curriculum in terms of making a difference with students. This is not easy to do with technology, and it’s impossible to replicate what a teacher can do in person, but we need to get as close as possible.
- Teach through dialog – Teaching is not a one-way street, and the best teachers teach through a back and forth interaction with their students. They both ask and answer questions, and use just the right teaching move at the right time to prompt the student to understand a concept on their own. This is why one-on-one teaching is so powerful, and it’s also why it’s so hard to scale.
- Work in concert with teachers and tutors – Technology alone can’t make a difference, and I strongly believe and have seen that technology needs to be used in concert with teachers and tutors to make an impact. No technology can replace the individualized coaching, inspiration, and art that makes teachers great. Our goal is to supplement that teacher and provide them with a view of where they should target their instruction for each of their students. In doing so, we hope to help scale the teacher or tutor to help a student where they need help.
With Kyron Learning, we are focusing on making conversational AI work well for students to scale one-on-one teaching. We don’t have a product yet, but we are adhering to the principles above as we design the product and experience for students. We also fully recognize the ambition of this mission, and we are taking this leap to make a breakthrough in education.
A key to this is to give great teachers the ability to express and scale their teaching through conversational AI. A general principle I’ve seen in applied AI is that, the closer you get to the subject matter expert, the better the AI system is. In this case, the subject matter expert is the teacher, and their art is the expertise. Their ability to connect with the student and use the right teaching move at the right time is key to the learning process. Imagine if a great teacher could scale that ability to millions of students.
Of course, there is no way that technology can replicate or mimic everything that a great teacher can do. But, we are hoping that we can help them scale a fraction of that expertise to many more students using the technology that exists today. This is going to take a lot of creativity on our part in designing the experience, but that’s what we strive to do.
Also, another key to this is to empower the teachers and tutors in the classroom and work with them. If we do this well and adhere to the principle of working in concert with them, we can make it such that teachers and tutors can give individual attention to more students. This becomes a tool for teachers and tutors to scale, and the combination of people and technology can create a powerful solution.
Finally, we don’t want to do this alone. There are companies and organizations creating great curriculum and content, organizations that are sending great tutors into schools, and schools and teachers that are creatively adapting their processes to use technology. As we build out and perfect the experience, we want to be a platform that empowers all of these organizations to use the power of conversational AI in their products and practices.
Organizing for purpose and education impact
The purpose of doing all of this is that mission to provide equitable access to high quality one-on-one teaching. As such, we heavily debated about how to form this organization so that we can adhere to that mission and innovate. We considered whether this should be a non-profit, a for-profit company, or even a part of another organization. In the end, we decided to create Kyron Learning as a public benefit company, a relatively new construct where a for-profit entity can be guided by a mission that is in its corporate charter. By being a for-profit entity, we have the funding to be able to scale and attract great talent. But, by being a public benefit company, we ensure that investors and employees go into this eyes wide open that we are focused on a mission of equitable access. We will make decisions as a company to ensure that we follow that mission.
I’m very grateful to be working with an amazing and talented team. We’re pulling together people that have had more than a decade of experience in the classroom with people that have had more than a decade of experience in technology and conversational AI. More importantly, these are all people who are passionate about this mission and creating this change for the education system. I’m grateful to Enis Konuk, Pavel Sirotin, Emily Joye, Ted Kim, Sachit Mishra, Laura Bhatnagar, Bjorn Birkelund, and Daniel Halper for joining this mission.
I’m also grateful to the amazing investors and advisors who are guiding us on the journey. Our lead investors are Owl Ventures and GSV Ventures, and, between them, they have backed a majority of the really impactful technologies in education today. We’re grateful to have the experience of Tory Patterson, Deborah Quazzo, and their teams on our side. We were incubated at Cambiar Education, and we benefited from the guidance of Christina Heitz, Ben Kornell, Alison Lee, and Alex Sarlin to get us to the starting line.
We also have a great set of advisors and angel investors with years of executive and education experience, including James Halper, Caesar Sengupta, Chet Kapoor, Dan Carroll, Punit Singh Soni, Peeyush Ranjan, and Frankie Warren. We’re already benefiting from their advice as we form the company.
Last but not least, we’ve formed and are adding to an educator council. We want to make sure that we are building this in concert with teachers, and we are getting the advice of teachers throughout the product development process. If you know a great educator that would like to get involved, please send them our way through our website.
From the Road Less Traveled to the Road Ahead
As I think about the difficulty of the road ahead, I think back to something Eric Schmidt said to us many years ago at Google. In 2005, we had just formed the Google Apps for Enterprise team, and we took on the task of changing how companies communicate and collaborate. Eric took the time to speak at our team all- hands, and one of our experienced sales engineers got up to ask him a question. He told Eric about the challenges we were having competing against Microsoft, a company that had decades of experience building these kinds of products for the enterprise, and asked Eric for his perspective on that enormous challenge. Eric said, “I know how hard of a challenge this is, but isn’t that why we are doing this?”
Similarly, the road ahead for us is challenging and difficult, but that’s exactly why we are doing this. I thought carefully about what impact I wanted to create on society during my lifetime. I asked myself the question that, if I looked back on my career 20 years from now, would I feel like I’ve helped people that didn’t have the right opportunities handed to them? While Kyron Learning is an ambitious undertaking, I’m confident that, if we find a way to do this right, it will help people unlock their potential. The impact of that could last generations.