Dr. Prasad Ram (Pram) is founder and CEO of Gooru, a non-profit research and technology organization on a mission to honor the human right to education. Gooru Navigator, a GPS for learning, guides learners to their goals along personalized learning pathways.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, co-host Jeff Cobb talks with Pram about Gooru, its app, and the philosophy behind it. They also talk about education as a fundamental human right, the inherent complexity of learning, and the importance of knowing where a learner is in order to effectively help her on her learning journey.
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[00:00] – Intro
Pram’s Path to Gooru
[01:24] – Would you tell us about your background and what you’re trying to accomplish with Gooru?
Pram has a Ph.D. in computer science and has led the development of large systems such as the engineering platform for all of Yahoo Media, Google Maps, and Google translation technologies. He came to education with a fresh pair of eyes and questioned why it hasn’t evolved while so much else has changed.
Whether it’s Uber or the way we order on Amazon, everything has changed. But the way we learn, whether it’s in continuing education, professional development, or K-12, is more or less the same.Prasad Ram
Pram’s quest was to bring the elegance of Google Maps to learning, and he envisioned a system that knows what the learner currently knows. The learner can set a destination, and then the system provides a route and re-routes based on the learner’s performance. That system is what they’ve put together at Gooru.
Social Justice and Education as a Human Right
[03:59] – You’re driven by a social justice perspective on learning and the idea that education is a human right. Why and how did you came to those beliefs about education?
Education hasn’t changed much over the past several centuries. Learning is incredibly complex, and often ideas for better learning fail because of that complexity. So the assumption is that we’re better off with the status quo, which is safe and known, even if it’s not particularly effective.
Game-based learning, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, small-group instruction, etc., all work in some contexts and specific, limited environments with the right level of support—but that support is typically not available in broader environments. This is why we tend to fall back approaches to learning that we are used to.
We are incredibly skilled at building technologies that have changed so many lives (Uber, Amazon, Alexa, Apple watches, etc.), but, if you look at social issues such as poverty, global warming, women’s rights, and education, things haven’t changed much. We’re still fighting the same battles.
Pram wanted to look at how we can use tools and technology to solve challenges like poverty, global warming, and women’s rights. When he examines these challenges, he can distill each down to the need to ensure access to learning. Education and learning will allow us to solve other issues and empower people to tackle those other issues. Pram has convinced himself that learning is at the core of social justice.
However, the challenge with learning, unlike the technologies that we generally use in every other realm where we are solving complicated problems, is that you can’t scale the application. These social challenges involve incredibly complex systems, and solutions often don’t scale through replication. So he’s looking at how to leverage technology and community to together tackle these kinds of problems.
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How Gooru Works
[10:58] – Would you tell us more about Gooru and how it works for different stakeholders?
Learners are diverse. Your understanding of how to solve equations is based on many factors—your motivation, self-confidence, grit, perseverance and not just your understanding of algebra. Designing effective learning needs to deal with all these factors, which is why it’s an extraordinarily complex problem to tackle.
You have to start by understanding who the learner is. A GPS won’t work if it has no signal.
Google Maps will not work if there is no GPS signal because it says, “I can’t locate you.” But, if you think about all the learning, including all the continuing education and adult-related learning and so forth, we barely have an understanding of who the learner is. But we are happy to tell them that we’ll take you to your destination.Prasad Ram
We build courses, curriculums, textbooks, videos without ever knowing where the learner is. And knowing where the learner is isn’t just about their knowledge; it’s also about their abilities, mindsets, community engagement, and sense of worth. Without understanding the learners, you will never be able to successfully get them to their destination. That was the crux of the problem Pram and Gooru are looking to solve.
Once Gooru knows where a learner is, it can empower the learner to set a destination (she wants to become a senior product manager, a curriculum coordinator, or an electrician), and Gooru can give you a route that takes you to that destination and reroutes as needed along the way, based on your performance. With Gooru, Pram hopes to honor the human right to education.
The Mechanics of Using Gooru
[15:27] – How does someone use the Gooru app, and what does that look like?
From a learner’s perspective, Gooru is an app, but learning is complex. It’s not like Google Maps, where if you follow the directions, you’ll arrive at your destination. Learning requires you to be supported by your teachers, instructors, mentors, the leadership of your organization, and others.
Gooru tackles the complexity by engaging all the stakeholders who can coordinate their support of you as the and combining that with the technology and artificial intelligence (AI).
You download the app and set a destination. You don’t even have to take an initial diagnostic. Once you give the app some information, it gives you an approximation of who you are based on data already in the system. Then, as you move ahead on your learning journey, it continuously introduces diagnostic questions, and, as you answer them, it refines its understanding of who you are and tailors the learning pathways accordingly.
Google Maps without the atlas is not very useful. The same is true with Gooru Navigator. Gooru has created an environment where any organization can come in, provide its content, and make a Google Maps-like experience work for its cohorts.
Learning is extremely dynamic. What we want to learn about a particular topic changes on a daily basis. Maps are rather static because roads don’t change too much too often, but learning is extremely vast and dynamic.
Gooru had to figure out how to bring in experts who have good content and a good understanding of how to learn so that every learner can engage in a journey. Initially, Gooru has focused on U.S. K-12 market.
Gooru now has over 30 partners in skills training and professional development who have brought in courses for many different topics and broad areas of learning. Gooru’s technology is applicable in all realms of learning
[20:45] – Does Gooru, like Google Maps, use artificial intelligence and/or machine learning to get better at guiding learners based on what it’s seen others do?
Gooru is even more sophisticated than Google Maps because it’s able to dynamically understand who you are as a learner—not just your knowledge and proficiency but also about your preferences. It leverages that to personalize the pathway for you.
Gooru’s Interfacing Possibilities
[22:38] – How does Gooru interface with traditional learning management systems or learning content management systems? What possibilities does it being an open-source platform open up?
Having application programming interfaces (APIs) is more important than being open source. Its extensive APIs make Gooru Navigator totally interoperable and completely extensible so organizations can add new things.
Gooru interfaces with a variety of assessment systems, learning management systems, and e-learning systems.
The core of Gooru Navigator, but not all of it, is open source. That allows researchers to work with it and test out different algorithms and principles of learning and look at how it can be leveraged to generate personalized pathways.
The Outcome from Full Adoption of Gooru
[25:03] – In a world where everybody uses Gooru (learners, organizations, facilitators and instructors), what does lifelong learning look like? What’s the outcome if we get this kind of dynamic, personalized learning right?
The inequalities would be reduced significantly. As the world moves increasingly to technology-enabled existence, certain people are advantaged, and others are disadvantaged. The inequality gap keeps widening. But, if the people who are traditionally underserved are able to learn continuously and adapt to the changing environment, then income inequality will drop because learning inequality drops, and we move closer to social justice.
Learning has been partitioned into early childhood, K-12, higher education, skills training, and professional learning, but these are artificial divisions made for convenience. The division has little basis in reality. Gooru recognizes that nobody is slottable; everybody is individualistic.
Google Maps doesn’t pass judgment based on where you are. We need the same approach with learning so we simply take learners wherever they want to go.
We see lifelong learning is always about the learner. And the learner is where they are on a variety of dimensions. They’re all over the place. You don’t want to slot them and say they’re fifth grade or seventh grade or whatever. This is where the learner is, this is what they want to learn, and let’s find a navigation path for them.Prasad Ram
We’ve slotted learners to particular grades and levels because it was more convenient for managing large volumes of students. But, moving forward, technology will eliminate the need to lump students together.
Technology’s Role in Supporting Lifelong Learning
[28:55] – What role does technology play in supporting your own lifelong learning?
Pram believes all adults are lifelong learners, and we learn based on what we know already. Technology is changing quickly, and we need to learn in order to keep up.
The moments that surround us instigate our lifelong learning.
When you’re doing formal or continuing education, you’re a little more constrained. You’re learning without the support of the environment around you, but he believes the affordances that technology provides will give us the opportunity to learn about anything we want.
We are constantly in lifelong learning. It’s not about just professional learning. It’s not just about career advancement. It’s also about career advancement, but it’s continuously learning. You’re always learning, and that’s what I believe distinguishes humans from every other animal species. We are endowed with a big enough brain that continuously seeks to learn, and we can support that.Prasad Ram
[33:30] – Wrap-up
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