Brainly offers something the traditional system just doesn’t have room for. The platform allows everyone to participate in the learning process equally. Along with similar technological solutions for out-of-school online learning, it opens up new opportunities and gives everyone a chance to improve their life. This is what the future of education should be.
Brainly is also one of the players that wants to solve the problem of the stiffness and rigidity of educational processes. The 11-year old company built an online platform where students can share knowledge and resources, encourage each other, and build a community for learning.
In April 2020, their platform broke another record, drawing 200m users in one month.
We sat down for a chat with Brainly’s Michał Gwiazdowski, General Manager for Poland, Russia, Romania, to discuss:
How can technology fill the elements missing in traditional education,
Why the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to change education for the better,
What needs to be done to improve education systems.
How would you explain to your “grandma” what you do for work?
Brainly is an international community of learners joining their forces through technology. It’s an extension of the classroom: a place where knowledge can be shared. The way it works is as follows: students post specific questions about any material they need help with and other students answer these questions. Together, they can reach these moments of epiphany, of true understanding. And it’s important to note that we only support content directly related to a given country’s school curriculum.
We believe that education is an equalizing factor, that it evens out people’s chances at opening the right doors, finding good careers, and leading better lives. Access to high quality education is key in this. We need the system to support everyone, not just the privileged, affluent learners.
So Brainly is on a mission to equalize access to education worldwide. Does this also mean that the platform puts the emphasis - and some of the responsibility - on the students?
It’s the students who should decide how they learn. They don’t have this opportunity within the traditional education system, which feels more like a fossil than the living, useful thing it should be. And it’s especially jarring in today’s digitalized world, where access to knowledge is generally free. There’s nothing stopping me from finding out right now how tall the Niagara Falls are, or who the first person to reach the peak of Mount Everest was.
With all this knowledge within hand’s reach, each of us should have a degree of choice in what we learn. The student bears most of the responsibility for their education, so they should get the chance to create their own path forward.
We also believe that it’s cool to be smart. In the traditional classroom, it’s actually the other way around sometimes: you have the geeks and teacher’s pets, who get ostracised for working hard at school.
We want to build a space for them to share their knowledge with others freely and receive positive feedback from the community. We want them to be appreciated, to see that they can help the people around them. It’s our hope that this will negate the negative experiences they might be facing at school.
But you’re not trying to compete with or replace traditional schools?
No, we want to help students build their personalised educational paths, based on what happens at school. School is important for a long list of reasons, both to society and human civilization.
The COVID-19 pandemic clearly shows us why we can’t replace the physical classroom. Our questionnaires (which we use regularly) reveal that socialization is an extremely important element of the school experience, and we can’t build the same thing online.
At the same time, Brainly offers a little bit of that in a situation when physical contact with the teacher or other students is impossible. We have 200 million users worldwide, and 11 million in Poland. The average Polish student visits Brainly at least once a month, and many of them do so several times a day. These statistics improve year by year, which means we offer a much-needed solution to a gap in the education system. I think what’s missing is this space for learning together and for being appreciated for being helpful.
Active users of Brainly are praised by the community, receive points for their answers and land on a “Brainliest users” list that lists the most helpful students.
Do you address opinions saying that Brainly is simply helping students cheat during exams or discourages them from doing their homework?
Yes, we're addressing these comments because they are not true. I'll start from the end actually, because we're just after the "season" of exams in many countries. At this time, Brainly is in so-called "exam mode".
This means that it is not possible to ask questions from an ongoing exam either on the website or in the application. Of course, theoretically, there are no security features that cannot be bypassed, but in addition to this filter, we have the right algorithms and our community to capture the potential threat. So that as a platform we do a lot to avoid such unwanted behavior and minimize the risk.
Looking from a wider perspective. A student who faces an educational problem has to go the hard way from frustration to understanding and often looks for ready-to-use answers in order to verify if any of them solves the problem well.
After all, such pupils always turn to other students, parents and teachers if they are unable to do the homework on their own. And in 2020 they simply do it on the internet.
What do you think about the public system’s educational offer? How does it support students in overcoming the challenges they face during a global pandemic?
It’s difficult to give a general answer to this question because we work with so many education systems. One thing I can say for sure is that there’s a lot of positive energy among teachers who really want their students to gain important knowledge. But we see how the system isn’t fully prepared for new technologies. It’s become very apparent during the coronavirus pandemic.
Digitalization in schools is a slow-going process because it requires changes on many different levels within the system. To put it nicely, there are many cooks in the school governance kitchen, too many I suppose. Let me list just a few of them: governments, dedicated ministries, education decision-makers on both the state and the local level, private and public methodology experts, principals, teachers, parents. And many of them are not the best cooks to be honest, struggling to implement any changes in this legacy institution.
Because of that, students are struggling too, especially with the workload and the number of hours they now have to spend in front of a computer. Schools should be closely monitoring how much work gets assigned to the individual student every day, but that in itself is a challenging task and there are no suitable digital solutions available to coordinate this process.
What’s important in a time like this is more coordination. Teachers need platforms that would allow them to schedule lessons, homework, and tests, managing the expectations they have for particular students at particular times. And they need tools for monitoring their students’ progress, as well as support from their school’s administrators.
Over the last weeks, teachers have seen that they can educate without exerting the sort of control over their students they would have in the classroom. And that the environment isn’t so important, as long as the learning process happens as it should.
In my opinion, the coronavirus has shown us challenges and opportunities which were already there in the system, we were just too busy to address them. It’s given us the opportunity to change things for the better.
What do schools need to do to adjust to the “new normal”?
At the moment, there aren’t standards or guidelines for online tools that can be used by teachers. This isn’t a responsibility that should rest on teachers, it should come from higher up in the system.
Additionally, we might need better regulations regarding data security. We talk about how some kids are too young to see advertisements, yet their data floats around the internet because they join classroom conferences. We also need to work on standard channels of communication between teachers and parents.
All of this needs to be unified enough that a student won’t experience too much of a shock when changing schools. Imagine changing a school if your math classes are conducted via Teams, your history course via Zoom, while physics tests are done via Google Hangouts and you need to enter a totally new environment and do it all in one day.
Data should be transferred safely and efficiently, and the toolset, from the student’s perspective, shouldn’t be too different. Data sharing between schools would be necessary, too. It would be interesting to see a platform containing all of the information on what students need to learn, including standards for the teaching process.
Tools like this or similar already exist in some education systems around the world - usually, they are commercial solutions, created by private companies, such as Duolingo, Blackboard, or Moodle.
But often, there are no guidelines for schools on which tools to choose and there are no official options built for the Ministries of Education or any other government institutions responsible for coordinating education processes. There aren’t any certificates or requirements for the commercial tools that exist. This can cause a lot of confusion.
Let’s talk about the elearning market and its recent explosive growth. Do you see any niches in online education that still haven’t been filled?
I think we need systems that would link various platforms together, allowing for smoother transitions and more universal access. Now teachers are unable to control students’ workload and assess how much homework they should be assigned not to be overwhelmed with the amount of work expected from them.
Another example could be the fact that, even while operating within the same curriculum, schools use totally different online tools, which hampers smooth information flow and endangers the security of students’ data.
The growth of e-learning has been due to the fact that we need to keep learning throughout our lives. This is true for both specialist knowledge and soft skills. Our success and financial security depend on this. Especially languages have become more important on the job market.
And it would be good to have a common hub for all this knowledge, as well as country-specific certification for educational platforms. But building new platforms from the ground up would make little sense - private companies already provide excellent services.
What are the biggest opportunities and challenges faced by organisations in the education industry? What will the future bring for education?
The financial aspect isn’t trivial, especially in a situation such as the coronavirus outbreak, which makes everything so uncertain and investors less likely to take risks. But I see a lot of potential for further growth in this sector. The truth is that we started online education a few years ago, and we accomplished a lot, but I wait to see the social aspect of it get deeper.
I’m hoping for social change towards both more individualism (an approach tailored to each student, with more emphasis on their choices) and more cooperation in learning. It would also be a reflection of the vision behind Brainly. We can already see people pay for very individualized courses and choose to learn from specific sources. Choice in education has become a trend.
I also see a shift towards approaching learning from the biological perspective - looking for the best ways for our brains to learn, selecting the information that needs to be stored, and so on. Schools have the opportunity to adapt to these trends, to reinvent teaching to match future expectations. It won’t be easy - we’ll have to maximize the benefits and eliminate the drawbacks.
Some countries already invest in giving students individual space to learn from home. The costs might be high, but it’s worth it, especially if we consider that we could really even out people’s chances at a good life.
In some areas, local education just isn’t of a high enough quality, or the school isn’t a good environment for a particular student. Online spaces give parents and students more agency and better opportunities. Maybe one day teaching will happen mostly remotely.