Spotlight On: Ben Sze, Edrolo
Blackbird’s monthly chat with talented leaders and rising stars in our community, this month with Ben Sze, co-founder of Edrolo.
Education has the power to transform us, but how do you help human minds to get to this transformation point? It's a question Ben Sze and his co-founders at Edrolo have been obsessed with for the past decade - and they're just getting started.
Today, more than 1000 secondary schools use Edrolo as a core resource for everyday teaching and learning. By tackling all the essential ingredients needed for transformation, such as literacy sufficiency, maths sufficiency, critical and creative thinking, Edrolo's products have become a key component of the teaching and learning process.
Read on for Ben's perspective on setting a simple and clear mission, Edrolo's evolution from 'vitamin' to 'painkiller', and the importance of tracking your time and energy.
B: Tell us about the journey to founding Edrolo - you met your co-founders through work, correct?
BS: Yep...I met Duncan and Jeremy in 2007 when we were working together as a team of junior private wealth advisors at Goldman Sachs JBWere. We hit it off immediately. I recall many fun and meaningful conversations and nights out together. We were connected in our curiosity about economics and finance, but over time we realised we each had a drive to try and build a business that would do something wonderful for the world.
Initially, Jeremy and I tinkered with an idea to create a two-sided, online tuition marketplace (with every tuition session recorded for quality assurance and the added benefit for students to be able to re-watch a session). At the time, I don’t think Google Hangouts existed, and most of Australia was on an ADSL-speed internet connection, at best… so, this idea was shelved for close to a year.
Later in 2010, I was on a work trip up and I caught up with Duncan, who had since relocated to Sydney to work as an analyst at a hedge fund. Naturally, I mourned with him about the business idea Jeremy and I had investigated, and, serendipitously, he had just returned from an investment conference across South East Asia, and learned about a South Korean company called MegaStudy. The business centred around rockstar educators delivering high quality, pre-recorded, curriculum-aligned video content to students via a B2C business model. We came back together, this time as a team of three, and quickly realised this product and business model could be a more scalable way for us to democratise access to inspiring and effective educators, no matter a student’s location or socioeconomic status. And, as they say, the rest is history.
B: You previously described Edrolo's mission to 'improve education' as intentionally broad. How has that shaped the journey so far, and where Edrolo is headed?
BS: Having a simple and clear mission has made it possible to get people to quickly pay attention to why Edrolo exists, which has had positive flow-on effects, such as helping us truly connect with our first customers, and to attract talented people to join us on the ride. That said, a clear strategy is needed to underpin our mission at all times, and it needs to bring focus, clarity and substance to such a broad mission statement.
The other thing I’d say is that having an intentionally broad mission statement has also made it possible for us to not pigeon-hole ourselves into thinking that we only ‘make curriculum-aligned videos’, and has allowed us to broaden our search for the right solutions that will move the dial on students’ learning outcomes. For example, that has allowed us to see the immense value and potential of a 600 year old piece of technology called a printing press - we now create market leading textbooks across Years 7-12 :).
B: How does Edrolo help students and teachers spend the right amount of time on the right things?
BS: This is a great question.
We’re constantly asking ourselves this question, and our answer is therefore evolving.
As a micro example, our Year 11-12 ‘textbooks’ are created only after we have broken down everything that needs to be learned into its smallest parts. We assess the size of each of these parts, and their connections with each other (and beyond), and only then do we figure out what our product needs to cover, at what depth and within what timeframe. So, these products are relatively prescriptive on what the ‘right amount of time on the right things’ should be. Duncan enthusiastically coined this part of our process the ‘education genome project’.
However, our thoughts are evolving and we now believe the answer lies within each individual, enabling them to understand how to get to this answer on their own.
We’ve landed on an interesting way to articulate how we plan on achieving this, starting with our Year 7-10 catalogue: we are trying to help students reach their personal transformation point. Getting someone to their point of transformation is where one's mind becomes limitless, i.e. when someone is able to grow their mind without help from others. The transformation point is where you become the limit.
So, we’re carefully trying to figure out ‘all the essential ingredients’ needed for transformation, such as literacy sufficiency (Speaking sufficiency + Reading sufficiency + Writing sufficiency), maths sufficiency (Pure Maths sufficiency + Worded Maths sufficiency), and critical & creative thinking. The list goes on, but I’ll stop here.
B: It's been a wild couple of years for high school students in Australia. Any observations from this time, and lasting ramifications we might see for how high school education is delivered?
BS: Tell me about it!?
Firstly, hats off and a massive thank you to all the teachers out there reading this. I think it’s pretty obvious that we’ve been reminded that your role is not only to teach, but to also nurture and monitor the wellbeing of your students. The amount of energy required for this cannot be understated, and a lot of parents, guardians and loved ones of students have seen this firsthand with remote learning.
I'd also like to tip my hat to the students out there reading this. Your world has been turned upside down, and I am in so much awe of how you've been able to handle the struggle and isolation that has been introduced into your lives. Personally, when I process significant events in my life, acknowledging what I can control and what I cannot control goes a long way, and also I find looking for a silver lining can help, and I hope that these two strategies bring some comfort to you, too.
In terms of the lasting ramifications on how high school education is delivered, in my opinion, after having it forced upon us, we’ve seen a big shift in the willingness of school communities to embrace digital learning tools and resources, including Edrolo’s products, as key components of the teaching and learning process. It feels like our products have moved from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’, from a ‘vitamin’ to a ‘painkiller’.
B: Many Blackbirds use a personal version of the Edrolo system to harness their own data for time tracking and setting priorities - how has this system evolved at Edrolo and how does it shape how you operate today?
BS: Nick did a great job summarizing our system.
One key thing we’ve learned at Edrolo is that the reason ‘why’ you’re doing this is paramount to its usefulness and uptake across an organisation. We truly believe that knowing where our time is being spent is insightful and helpful for forward planning and understanding what time we actually have available for that new role, or new project. Utilising this information is ingrained in our everyday.
One recent and major breakthrough I’ve had with this system is that I now believe time is not the only important finite resource… I now strongly believe our energy is, too. So, I actively think about my energy levels, and I track and plan my energy allocations each week -it’s early days but I’m finding this super helpful :)
B: What most excites you about the future of Edrolo?
BS: We're only just getting started.
Ben's Spotlight On:
A book you couldn't put down: Billion Dollar Whale by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope - it’s a great reminder of the potentially devastating impact of unchecked power and greed.
A podcast you never miss: Lots, but recently I’ve been getting into Ben Crowe’s ‘Mojospresso’ on his IG Stories page.
The last great article you read: It was actually a feature about mRNA in the hard copy version of Cosmos' science journal.
Edrolo is hiring 20+ roles right now! Learn more and apply here
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