Sotiris Makrygiannis and Eliademy – a Finnish solution to e-learning

I had the opportunity to interview the CEO of Eliademy, Sotiris Makrygiannis, a while back. For those of you, who are not familiar with it yet, Eliademy is a Finnish e-learning platform, which has made it easier for teachers to create online classrooms and to teach online since 2014 and is now pretty much everywhere. I am sharing this interview because Eliademy is a really good idea. It is free to use for teachers and most of its courses are free to study. There is a premium-option for those teachers and businesses that need more functionalities and there are also courses with a fee, but if you haven’t yet tried this out, I do recommend it. For more information about it, please check out eliademy.com.

You have a background from Nokia. Why did you enter the educational field?

The fact is that in the 1997 I launched one of the very first electronic schools on the planet called www.odyssey.com.cy. I was not the founder, but I was the business development manager responsible for the sales, strategy, and deployment of the solution into the Cyprus market. If you do a quick Google search, you will see that the service is still up but in 1999, after two years after the launch, we faced an uphill struggle with the following problem that the internet penetration was low and at the same time, when you sell a digital subscription service, you are required to have an internet connection and a computer so we had to bundle three products together in order to sell a small subscription fee per month. It was a very difficult situation and therefore we sold the company to an ISP (Internet Service Provider), who subsequently bundled the service to the ones buying Internet subscription. So we broke even in that sense and, you know, -97 was the year where the multi-billion dollar company called Blackboard was created in the United States and few years later Moodle was created. I will say that I take pride even in a small scale, that I have been pioneering the creation of the new e-learning environments that we actually currently see. It was a failure, but you know I gather my lessons. Then I moved to Finland and ended up in Nokia doing various jobs and my last job was the site manager for Ruoholahti engineering and director of Meego open source operations. I delivered the N9 product to the market, the potential iPhone killer that got killed by Elop, but I had to go because I did not want to work with Microsoft.

How did you come up with Eliademy?

I wanted to do something in e-learning and my wife is a teacher so we brainstormed here at home and we saw that there is an opportunity, that the Finnish educational system was on the news in 2011 and 2012 quite a bit. We thought: “what if we use technology to export Finnish education abroad and at the same time create a startup”. So I gathered my ex-Nokia team together and we brainstormed about the architecture, the use-cases, the design and we realized that simplification is needed, that you have the same paradigm as the Panasonic phones or the Ericsson phones in the -90s where the e-learning systems had so many programmable buttons, options and configurations but in essence no one was using those things. So we said that we would apply the original Nokia idea to simplify everything down to a few buttons and keep it lean and simple so basically the users find it attractive, put it in colors so you create an emotional bonding. Not just the gray colors. Put colors, create a story around it. Refresh it, rebirth it. Make e-learning cool again. And it worked. Eliademy is Moodle recreated. So we started in a dark bunker, in a basement of Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu (A finnish university for Applied Sciences). There were no windows but we are grateful that Haaga-Helia has supported us from the very beginning. We started in a bunker and we launched February 11th 2013. Back then, I remember, I put the monitor, you know, there was one user coming over to see what it was. Nowadays we have 18 000 users in a single day.

How many users do you have?

What is our size? There is a lot of hype here. Reporting these numbers is the same way as with the accounting practices in the US compared to Europe. The Americans inflate the data Enron-style. The Europeans keep a more modest approach. The Finns are absolutely factual about it. You understand what I am saying?

If you want me to report in the American style, we have over a half-a-million users. If you want me to report in the Finnish way, it is 250 000 users. Of those we have 29 000 individual teachers, 3 500 organizations and we have crowd-sourced 48 000 courses. Currently we have 10 000 courses in our catalogue, 900 of them with a prize tag and 9100 free or invitation only.

How many countries are you in?

190 countries.

You are everywhere.

We are everywhere. It is a global brand. Eliademy is a global brand. If you go into Wikipedia and search top learning management systems, if you do a little bit of search and you dismiss the paid advertisements, then you will see that Eliademy as a brand stands very firmly.

I read from Wikipedia that you are democratizing education with technology. How do you see this happening?

Right now starts the philosophical part. There is a change going on. There is a phenomenon, that if you stand a little bit outside you can clearly see it. It is the introduction of the World Wide Web that breaks down borders, breaks down traditional systems, and creates a more globalized view and consciousness in humanity. In this globalized environment, 10-15 years down the road, we are heading towards one global community, one global government with the integration of the regions, confederations or Unions like European union. In that globalized environment some of the internet services will replace traditional administration processes that are per country, like LinkedIn is trying to become the TE-keskus (Employment and Economic Development Centre in Finland) in essence meaning that if you are searching for a job you go into LinkedIn and try to find a job from there. That means that e-learning services will in essence compliment or even in some cases will replace the traditional services provided by the local governments. We can see this a trend already. In Europe we have the British FutureLearn initiative backed by the UK government and the BBC with 28 universities. They are going a little bit into the model of Coursera and EdX they have in the United States. In Germany we have Iversity and in Finland we have Eliademy that basically is the individual drive of a crazy Greek guy who still believes in his own ideas. So in essence we don’t know yet what will come out of China, but something will come out of China. In Latin America, Africa, in Asia, they are following rather than leading in this particular field. So we are going into a globalized world where Internet services especially in the field of education will have more influencing power than the actual Ministries of Education. And that will happen in 10-15 years from now. Don’t go far, just read Milton Friedman “Capitalism and Freedom” the chapter on Education and Certification and you will see that, what is happening now, was predicted in the 60s.

How many languages does Eliademy work in now?

33 languages. Do you understand the concept of collaborative economy? Yes. So Eliademy is based on collaborative economy principles that say “crowd-source everything – just provide the basic tools for the others to use but then contribute back to the tool itself”. So the localization is crowd-sourced. The courses that we are offering to the masses are crowd-sourced. The support is crowd-sourced. The quality verification is crowd-sourced. So we just have to focus on keeping the servers up, because it grows on its own.

What is the promise of Eliademy for learning?

The mission statement of democratizing education with technology in this space means making education accessible. In later phases it will mean making education affordable. So in essence right now the biggest problem you have in education is the accessibility to education and, therefore, the interpretation of democratization of education with technology in this time frame means accessibility. Once the accessibility problem is overcome and we can say that basically that is not a problem anymore, somewhere around 2020, then we will be talking about the affordability of education and because you have large system, or multiple large systems that compete with each other then you end up in prize wars, which subsequently will benefit the consumer because it will lower the prize of individual courses. So in that particular phase between 2020-2025 it will be more about affordability and I think that beyond that phase it will be more about high level of consciousness, because we are entering a very phase in humanity that we need to understand what we are leaving behind and how powerful we have become. I think that somewhere around that time we really need to come together to make sure we don’t destroy the planet we are living in by mistake.

What are Eliademy’s main strengths as a learning system?

Simplicity of interface, the simplicity of interface is number one. That it is given for free to the ones that need it. That we have a corporate social responsibility program. We are a part of the United Nations Global Compact. If you look into learning platforms, I would like you to pay attention to that minor detail, because learning platforms might make statements related to good intentions, but they haven’t signed or haven’t read the declaration of human rights or the millennium goals, so basically they are, in most cases, empty marketing messages. This is not the case with us. We have read the millennium targets related to education and we are a part of the United Nations Global Compact and we are reporting every year on our progress and therefore the simplicity, the corporate social responsibility that we are giving the platform for free to anyone in need and I will say that we have one of the best support functions. 80% of our customers refer the platform to others. That is why we are experiencing growth without advertisement. Our growth per quarter is 32-33% and has been for 16 consecutive quarters. So that means that by the end of 2017 we will be reaching 1 million users and we invest in marketing less than 20 dollars.

That is huge

Yeah, I will write a book about it one day. But we are not highly profitable, Satu, we don’t get support from anybody, so we make some revenue every month and we expect to reach a tipping point when we reach 1 million users, persistence is a very important element in start-ups.

Because you are everywhere, if a teacher want’s to offer their content in other languages than they can speak, do you have any tools to help with that?

No, we don’t offer any automatic translation of content. I believe that Google translate is getting better and better, but we don’t offer any automatic translation of content, no.

Do you have any crowd-sourcing system that could work there?

You could, in theory, apply to crowd-sourcing to translate the content into multiple languages, but we don’t have that. What we do have is that we allow your course to be copyrighted with creative commons and therefore subsequently to become OER, open educational resource, which others can take and reuse by modification, so that means that we have totally copyrighted courses, where you retain the right to all the work, and we have courses that can be used by others. And that latter catalogue is increasing because teachers make their textbooks with Eliademy and, therefore, they make textbooks and other teachers take these textbooks, modify them and use them for their own purposes and that catalogue part is increasing stedily.

Have you incorporated any gamification into Eliademy at this time?

I don’t believe in gamification. I believe it is over-hyped. I don’t believe that this rewards-based thinking is actually good for learning. The algorithms you employ are always limited and therefore that algorithm reflects into the learning of the individual. That means that basically he learns based on the algorithm you have created, and because I come from software engineering, I can tell you that most algorithms are faulty with bugs. It was in the news yesterday about Google that Google makes your minds stupid because of the algorithm they are using. So I don’t believe in gamification. I believe in the teacher. Therefore we are deploying live learning into our platform that allows the teacher to discuss with conferencing, voice, and sharing the desktop in web-conferencing with your students. I still believe the teacher is the key ingredient in this process and it cannot be replaced with silly algorithms.

I really like the feature of web-seminars. I don’t think I have seen it anywhere else.

It is in the premium feature and works very nicely. We will have in 2017 an introduction into neural networks and there are two parts in this artificial, so called machine learning. There are two parts. There is the part of measuring and there is the part of, because of the measuring and behavior, you trigger actions. We will be focusing on the first, because we have terabytes of user data, on the data and visually representing the data to the end user, so they can become aware but we will not take any actions based on that data, because we want to be absolutely certain that the actions taken will not program the individuals in the wrong direction. I will give you an example on how you can easily become neurotic by repeating the same behavior all the time. I can see it in my daughters with the Angry Birds, you know, Angry Birds Space or whatever, where you learn physics. You just make the kids neurotic. So we don’t want to do that. We want to be sure that, basically, something unique will come out of that and I haven’t seen any unique idea yet. There is an interesting book in this topic. The guy who won the Nobel Prize in economics wrote a book on the prospects theory, where he talks about rewards and how those kinds of rewards are manipulating our brains. So I don’t believe the science has reached a good enough level that we can say for sure that basically we can develop algorithms that make people smarter. I don’t believe that. Not yet at least.

What do you believe technology can do in learning at this time – how can it improve learning?

The number one is capturing the airtime of the individuals. On average we were spending 2-3 hours per day in front of our televisions. Now we spend 2-3 hours per day on social media consuming fake news where we don’t even have the judgement to evaluate which ones are real. And it is a total waste of time. We see in Eliademy that the users spend 10 minutes per day per session and we would like to increase that time that they spend in the platform. For that, by the way, we just introduced access to 15 000 free audiobooks through Eliademy with LibriVox. For example, in a course on history the teacher can now put a free audiobook about history so the student will go into the platform and read about the history of Helsinki for about 5-10 minutes and then will listen to the audiobook through the platform, how the life was in the time of Sibelius. And subsequently, if the audiobook is a half an hour or 45 minutes, then what we have actually managed to go from 10 minutes to 50 minutes keeping the user learning something.

Which is a huge increase

Which is a huge increase. I hope the data will support that and the teachers will understand what we are trying to do and they will use this functionality because it will be a huge increase and that is exactly what we want to do. We are trying to turn people into learning, reading, and listening. This is what we need to try to do.

I applaud your effort and I sincerely hope you succeed. How do you believe e-learning will change in the future?

In the near future we have to see two parameters. We have to see what kinds of products enter the market and then we have to see the processing power of our computers, which doubles every 18 months, that means that basically technology becomes ubiquitous meaning that technology will be everywhere. That means that basically learning will, actually, have to be everywhere. And I mean from your Playstation, from your glasses and helmets, and I have seen some very nice examples of medical courses being made with the help of virtual reality and augmented reality. So in the near future technology will go slowly, slowly, away from the massive online courses on the web and on the tablet, and more into the additional gadgets we carry with us. To continue with the thought of the audiobook, imagine that you will be driving your car and you want to continue your learning, why not deliver Eliademy courses in a text-to-speech format and continue your learning while you are driving. On that a Finnish startup called Kieku has an interesting proposition and we might partner with them to do exactly that. That is the intermediate phase. That learning will start spreading to the other consumer devices we have around us.

And where do you see it going?

The ultimate goal is to have your personal Plato and your personal Socrates as your virtual coach, which understands your weakness and understands your strengths and becomes your virtual buddy that guides you all the time to learn something. So that is the ultimate goal. It will not substitute the human interaction with the teacher, humans are social animals and we need to get the attention of another human being, but it will supplement it very nicely. I think that basically the point of singularity is 2029, according to all the predictions, but between 2029-2035 the point of singularity will be reached. Singularity means that artificial intelligence is equal to the human brain, so in that particular point of time we will see digital Platos and maybe also a digital Mannerheim, if the subject is related to the military strategy. So you can pick your own classic coach to guide you through the topic you want to master.

What is next for Eliademy?

Eliademy is growing in terms of users and in terms of courses. And slowly in terms of revenue, however right now we are profitable, so we believe that we will go into a really good profitability once we reach one million users. So there is one more critical year in front of us and everything so it is very much stable. And we grow organically, because the mathematics tell us that at one point in time we will turn into a very good profitability. So for us 2017 is a year when we will introduce, in August, the “powered by Eliademy”, a new product which will mean that if an organization, for example Nokia, wants to have Eliademy but without the Eliademy logo but the Nokia logo, we will give that. So we are going towards a direction of a software-as-a-service into a platform-as-a-service. Then we will introduce a feature that each of those 29 000 teachers can add a price tag for private tutoring, so instead of having 10 000 products in our catalogue, we will go subsequently, to 20 000-30 000 products in our catalogue, but instead of individual courses, it will be the price of the expert, the tutor and then we will introduce the machine learning and a really shiny dashboard. I am going for a reward on that. It is going to be great. We are going to take Donald Trump marketing and make a smash out of it.

Is it possible to create a competency-based courses in Eliademy?
Yes and No. That is a very good idea, but we don’t want to build everything. We want to be collaborators. The certificates we offer are a third-party-service that we have an agreement with an outside entrepreneur, who has an agreement of delivery to our customers. If there was a Finnish company related to this idea or any other service we are missing, through our API, we could very nicely and easily integrate them and expand and work together with that company. We cannot build everything. Otherwise you go into a feature-trap where you keep adding features and it never ends. But if the driver was a third party, who wanted to build the best possible product and bring it to learning platforms, I would work with that guy immediately.

 

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