August 20, 2019 | 81° F

Director’s startup moves education to digital age

Salman Khan disrupted the world of education 10 years ago when he began remotely tutoring his cousins in math and science, and recording his lessons to be posted on YouTube.

He later founded the now immensely popular Khan Academy with the simple and ambitious mission of providing a world-class education to everyone for free.

Khan’s concept has resonated with many teachers who see modern education in desperate need of a makeover. Sesh Venugopal, director of Introductory Undergraduate Instruction in Rutgers’ Department of Computer Science, is among the growing chorus of educators innovating in this space.

His startup, Flipd, is currently being tested in various courses and aims to guide teachers and students into the modern age of education.

The Daily Targum sat down with Venugopal and his lead developer, Vaibhav Verma, a graduate student in the Department of Computer Science.


The Daily Targum: When did you come up with the idea, and what inspired you?

Sesh Venugopal: I came up with the idea around the fall of 2012. Over the summer, I was running a workshop for high school computer science teachers who come to Rutgers to learn about how best to prepare their students for college.

I was asked to present something on the flipped classroom, which is an idea that has been around for at least five or six years now. It was started, as far as I know, by a couple of people in Colorado for their chemistry class.

In their traditional lecture, they’d talk about the material in class and tell students to go home and do the problem sets. But students weren’t getting enough help doing the problems at home, so the teachers flipped the classroom — they had the students watch the material at home before they came to class.

In class, the teachers would do a quick review but then mostly work on problems where they could monitor students and guide them on the right path.

I thought that was a great idea, so I did a lot of research. Remember, this is at the same time that MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are getting really big.

A MOOC is like a course in a box, but most instructors still find it more useful to actually help students solve problems. Most students also need that interaction.

So I figured I should start doing something about this. I wanted to build something that would facilitate the flipped classroom structure. I wanted to build the infrastructure and feedback system — everything from making sure students actually watch the videos and understand them, so that I could improve the material.

DT: Where is Flipd being piloted and demoed?

SV: We are now going to be using it in introductory computer science courses. I have also been demoing it to university professors in various areas, like history, economics, physics and Spanish.

There’s a lot of interest in various disciplines. I’ve also had a lot of interest from high schools, which is interesting. I think in a way, high schools are way ahead of the game. They seem to really know what they want, and they’re really active when they go about it.

DT: How does Flipd work?

SV: The instructor can import any video they want from YouTube. They can then segment the video using tools in Flipd. At the end of each segment, teachers can throw in assessment questions, which students then must answer.

Instructors have a dashboard that shows them what percentage of students understood and answered questions for each segment, and instructors can drill down into each student. If the students are having issues with particular topics, they can just re-watch the corresponding segments.

It’s guided learning in that sense, because students interact and get a lot more out of it.

DT: What’s the setup process for teachers?

SV: It’s pretty quick. They just need to create an account, and then they have an easy interface. They can create a course and just drag and drop videos into it.

DT: What are some upcoming features?

SV: We’re going to be tying into various systems so we can import student rosters. We also want teachers to be able to export data into different formats. Most importantly, we’re looking to port the student interface into mobile platforms.

DT: What results in the classroom have you experienced while using Flipd?

SV: It’s early, and we’re trying different things to see what works and what doesn’t work. Right now, it’s a learning process, and any feedback the students give is anecdotal.

For example, what I found in one class was that I put a video up, the students watched it before class, and it turned out they went to watch it again before the exam.

I learned that this was a useful tool for reviewing before an exam. We need more research to truly determine results though.

What I do know is that having students spend more time in lecture solving problems helps me help them. It definitely is going to lead to better performance, because that’s the main thing here. The key is to perfect the videos so more time can be spent problem solving in class.

DT: Why did you join the Flipd venture?

Vaibhav Verma: I heard about Flipd when Sesh happened to pitch it at an event because he was looking for people to make videos for him. I’ve been interested in something like this for a while as I’ve been a teacher’s assistant for introductory courses before.

I like looking at different ways to teach people. I notice that students ask me the same questions over and over again, and sometimes they miss what I’m saying in recitation. It’s good that they have a reference for later when they’re home.

When Sesh presented Flipd, it brought back the ideas I’ve always had in my head. We met up, and I decided that I wanted to be involved in it.

DT: What’s your role at Flipd?

VV: [My role is to] be a lead developer, to build the simplest possible interface for teachers and students to learn in a meaningful way. I want to build something that enables the exchange of information to happen so that both sides are having a good experience.

Right now, I’m working on transforming the code base so that we can iterate quickly. When I started here a month ago, the code wasn’t really clean, and changing things was a bit of a nightmare.

I’m trying to incorporate [the] best practices. One of the big things is that Flipd wasn’t initially coded for mobile layouts, and that’s something that can’t continue. More and more students are on their mobile devices, so we need to make a push to mobile.

DT: What are the next steps for Flipd?

SV: In terms of growth, I would love to expand out and have it build up and be a solid project to be used by anyone in the world. It’s discipline neutral for anywhere people have a classroom to learn stuff.

Right now, because it’s in trial phase, it’s free for everyone. But soon enough, we are going to open it up and at some point, we’ll have a fee-based usage — licensing to colleges, high schools and also to publishers, because they have a big stake in the market.

DT: You mentioned publishers. Don’t you think Flipd replaces the need for textbooks and those players in the market?

SV: Videos are really about preliminary understanding, so students are prepped to do work in class. But it’s not everything to fully understand the concepts.

If you think of the process, as the video is the initial concept, then you practice it in class and you use the textbook to go deeper and apply them to real problems. Textbooks are one step of the process, and Flipd is there to complete that process.

DT: I know a lot of people will wonder if Flipd is going to be open source. Will the code or any components be publicly available for developers to branch the project?

VV: At this point, it’s a closed environment. We’re building a platform, and we do see opportunities to integrate other services into our product.

For example, we want professors to be able to embed segmented videos they’ve added to Flipd onto their own websites. We are an open platform in the sense that you can integrate your products with ours, but the product is not going to be open source.

We want to be a crucial piece to the educational revolution. We don’t want to take two steps back before taking one step forward.

By Nis Frome

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