“I said to my daughter, how do babies learn?”
It’s a sentence you don’t often hear when someone’s explaining their tech startup. But Bill Bilic is an unusual entrepreneur: older than your average incubated developer, with 25 years of experience behind him. His most obvious commonality with other entrepreneurs I’ve met is the dark under-eye circles of the passionately driven.
With a resume like his, it’s safe to say he’s come by that fatigue honestly. He’s been in the tech scene for 16 years in Canada—12 of those years in Vancouver.
His years with Pearson Education and WebCT formed him into an expert in digital pedagogy. After five years on WebCT, he knew it was time to move on. In 2005, he was asked to help Pearson build their new generation of online teaching supplementation, known as Content Plus (now known as SuccessNetPlus.) The platform grew into a resounding success; eight years later, the platform still makes $600 million a year.
After 13 years, it was time to go independent. And that question to his daughter would prove instrumental for the project he chose to break free with.
“They don’t go to a classroom to learn how to walk, talk, eat. So how does it really happen?" he says. "Learning, as I understood, is a journey. We all arrive at understanding, but how we get there is personal. And it’s founded on reinforcement learning. I said to myself ‘How can I build a technology to support that? What if I could find out what people are doing, and see what value people receive at the end of the journey, and tell them whether it was a good path or not?’"
It’s called Knowillage, and with the support of local schools, it’s poised to launch in a big way.
In Bilic’s own words, it’s a learning engine. Between the teacher and the system, a database of relevant materials is compiled: the texts that the teacher knows about and is teaching, external sources that they’d advocate for, and questions to help their pupils prepare for testing.
Then Knowillage culls intellectual properties from across the Internet—from academic journals to films to encyclopaedia articles to form a supplementary database for students to explore, of questions and answers. The access rate of each text is tracked, helping the teacher know what’s been used most frequently. With a quick comparison of that data with how students are handling the questions provided by the system, the virtues of the course materials will be found out.
A system like that, if implemented correctly, could result in a major hierarchical shift in the way students approach learning. The traditional, millennia-old system wherein the teacher stood in the doorway to knowledge and let it be filtered through them would be altered.
“If you were to take someone from 1850 to the present, the only thing they would recognize is a classroom. Building a chemistry textbook and saying that everyone should learn it like that? It will not work for everyone," Bill explains to Techvibes. "The concept of linear delivery of education is going to be abandoned sooner or later. In a classroom today, you have high school students who sit in front of teachers who deliver the education to kids...who each have a very powerful computing device on their hip that can supplement their education, and they’re not doing it because the teachers don’t want them to."
"If the lecturer can bring their expertise to a higher level of education, to the higher ranks of Bloom’s Taxonomy, Analysis and Creation, then that’s where they’ll succeed in helping students go deeper and use their creative thinking," he continues. "Let technology deliver facts. Let the teachers help them think on a higher level.”
Knowillage has already been adopted by 20 high schools in the Lower Mainland for their Science 10 curriculum; the system works best with subjects where students are meant to learn facts. Knowillage will be instated for a trial run over the summer semester at both UBC and SFU; with success will come their full adoption for the 2013-14 school year. The system will overlap with Blackboard and Canvas, which serves the dual purpose of both proving the merits of the system to schools and demonstrating the value of the system to other digital education providers.
“My vision is to become the Google of education," he says. "It’ll take a while, but I dream big. I have no doubts that this will be a success.”
From big dreams can come big change. Should Knowillage become all it can be, it will have a radical impact on the way education is provided around the world. Bilic is ambitious and committed, and initial responses have been very positive.
Here’s hoping that Knowillage makes the grade.