Helsinki-based company knows business, but does it know the business of education?
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Before entering the edtech arena, Vesa Perälä was a senior exec at Nokia, Jabra, and Coloplast for nearly 15 years. He became an entrepreneur in 2008. As CEO of Web of Trust, he grew the company to over 100 million users, and closed deals with Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yandex, and Mail.ru. He has founded companies in five countries, has three exits under his belt, and has raised over 25 million euros in venture capital for his startups thus far. An experienced international business developer, he is passionate about business models, scaling up, monetization mechanisms, and strategic partnerships—all of which have helped him with his current efforts, CLANED, an open, personal, and intelligent social learning platform leveraging AI to show a user’s study performance and personalize their learning for maximum results. Vesa recently raised half a million euros in a successful crowdfunding campaign, and just before that, signed with a Western Australian school system to provide the platform to nearly 100,000 users there. The Helsinki-based company clearly knows business, will it now succeed in the business of education?
I think we need to seriously shake up the education systems globally. We should not retrofit technology to out-dated educational systems, but write a new rulebook instead.
Vesa provides some candid thoughts about edtech, learning, the praise heaped on Finland for their education system, and what’s in store not just for CLANED, but for the future of education.
You’ve grown companies to over 100 million euros; what prompted you to pivot to education?
Vesa: The original idea of CLANED emerged already in 2004, but technology nor the market was ready back then. In 2013, we finally decided to start developing CLANED and today the global education market starts to look ready to be disrupted by digitalization. From my own perspective, ed-tech is the perfect combination: disruption by digitalization offers fantastic business opportunities but it also feels splendid to do good by improving the learning of individuals around the globe.
Your experience with business models, scaling up, and monetization mechanisms – does that strategy apply very well in education?
Vesa: I think it does. Digitalization will impact education such like any other industry and most proven business models, etc., work there as well.
The goals of business and the goals of education are different. How would you characterize them, and where can they be compatible?
Vesa: Any digital business is about personal relevancy these days. In education, most organizations still apply the one-size-fits-all approach although is widely acknowledged that individual learners learn differently. CLANED is bringing personal relevancy to all learners thus changing the old paradigm. From our perspective, the goals of education go hand in hand with the goals of business.
Let’s talk about metrics and change. What is effective change? What is there to learn about effective learning?
Vesa: Effective change can be many things on different levels. From an individual student’s perspective, it can be more personalized learning materials or study buddy recommendations leading to optimized motivation and better learning results. It can be prevention of dropping out, or providing more challenging tasks for the most advanced students. From an organizations perspective, effectiveness can be about understanding how the current course materials work for the students or employees, or how they should be further improved. Most of all, effectiveness is about personalized learning and being able to provide it in real time.
You’re a Finland-based company, a country consistently ranking on top for its education systems, where being a teacher is more competitive than getting into law or medicine, and everyone seems to be in love with your country’s approach and results—perhaps to the same degree that they don’t admire what’s in their own. Is it really that great? Has technology played much of a role in any of that? Finland is smaller, more homogenous, has a lot more teachers per capita, how many lessons from Finland are really portable to the U.S. and abroad?
Vesa: I truly think we have the best education system in the world. What’s even better is that, since August 2016, we are completely renewing it. The new nationwide curriculum emphasizes building core competences such as creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, etc., instead of memorizing things. Technology plays a major role in the new curriculum as it, when used right, can contribute a lot. CLANED plays a major role in the renewal process as we are providing the professional teacher training to Finnish teachers on CLANED in close to 30 cities/municipalities right now and estimate to reach 80 percent of all Finnish teachers in the near-term future.
What role does collaboration play in learning?
Vesa: We see learning as an active process instead of a one-directional feeding of information from a teacher to a learner. Learning should build on the engagement of the learners. We must give our learners an active role so that they can use the things they already know and to build on their previous knowledge base. These kinds of solutions are commonly built on collaboration. And frankly, I see no other option.
Sure, the digital natives know how to use chats and social media—but it’s another thing to use them effectively as tools for learning.
Work-life is essentially collaborative. Our students need to learn how to use digital tools effectively to collaborate and create innovative solutions to real-life problems. Sure, the digital natives know how to use chats and social media—but it’s another thing to use them effectively as tools for learning.
How is technology shifting the education landscape toward a better future? Where are the pitfalls, where is the progress?
Vesa: Technology should be linked with pedagogy. As such, it does not shift the landscape nor impact the learning truly. Purchasing iPads or similar for kids is mostly a waste of money if there is no plan how to utilize the devices with relevant digital content, a personal learning environment, etc. Teachers need to be properly trained as well. Overall, technology should be seen as one important ingredient in the soup. It can impact learning very positively but not as a stand-alone element.
What does open, personal, and intelligent mean to you?
Vesa: Ours is an open platform for multiple reasons: First of all, we are building an ecosystem powered by our unique insight into how learning takes place on individual and organizational level. We provide this insight to our partners to help them do better. Secondly, openness is about users and content providers deciding themselves in which content format they create their content. Our platform is not dictating this (i.e., there is no traditional authoring tool in it). Thirdly, a concept called CLANED Global Classroom enables students and teachers to build communities on any level even outside of organizational or country boundaries. Personal and personal relevancy is key to optimized study motivation and better learning results. CLANED ensures these by knowing how the individual learns different subjects in different learning setting and reacts accordingly by making relevant recommendations. On our platform, intelligence is hidden in the back-end and algorithms: we surface it as pieces of magic surprising users positively by relevant and timely recommendations. Intelligence is also about simplicity. Complex and bad user experiences are sooo yesterday.
Big data, student data, and privacy issues are all interlinked. How do you describe their relationships?
Vesa: Big data, student data and privacy are naturally interlinked as you say. Privacy is of uttermost importance especially in learning and one can’t have any big data solutions without focusing on very robust privacy and security.
Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning education, technology, or anything else?
Vesa: I think we need to seriously shake up the education systems globally. We should not retrofit technology to out-dated educational systems, but write a new rulebook instead. EdTech start-ups, such as CLANED, can play a major role in this. Lastly, I think in the future education will be two things: mobile and personalized.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest and oversees the EdTech Awards. Featuring edtech’s best and brightest, the annual recognition program shines a spotlight on cool tools, inspiring leaders, and innovative trendsetters. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org