Coffee Number 23
Catching up with the CEO of a leading mobile social study platform.
There’s beauty and power in a user-created solution. In this eclectic conversation with Becky Splitt, CEO of StudyBlue — yoga poses, Bloody Mary’s and homo habilis are all part of the territory, and there’s plenty more to learn when you sit down with this edtech entrepreneur. We interviewed her in 2011 when her company was just two years old. Here, we re-visit with Becky to comb for more clues as to how StudyBlue, now with 4.5 million users and over 190 million pieces of content, has become such a powerful tool. Becky brings over 15 years of experience growing early stage businesses, half with an early stage start-up through IPO in the voice processing industry called Brite Voice Systems, and half with industry leader Microsoft running MSN’s International business. Here she reveals why she joined StudyBlue, what makes this company different, where she sees the market headed, what kind of people are using StudyBlue these days, more about those “in between moments” – and the secret sauce that keeps her company going.
Victor: When and why did you join StudyBlue?
Becky: I spent several years working in tech and after a while my husband and I decided to move back to Wisconsin to raise our family. I was interested in getting involved in the local tech scene, so I set out to have “50 cups of coffee” with people around Madison. Around coffee number 23, a couple of different people had told me I needed to meet Chris, StudyBlue’s co-founder. So, I met Chris, met his co-founder, and within weeks we became convinced there was a huge opportunity here to help students study more effectively. In 2009, I officially joined as CEO and StudyBlue was incorporated.
Victor: How is StudyBlue different than the other learning tools out there?
Becky: The majority of edtech companies today are geared toward institutions, teachers and accreditation. StudyBlue is created for the learners and by the learners. It puts the power of making and sharing useful online study materials directly in the hands of the people who need to learn it. We believe that the best way for students to effectively learn their material is by connecting with other people like them who are trying to learn the same thing. That’s really the beauty and power of StudyBlue — the breadth of materials and the variety of users ensures that no matter what you’re studying, there’s an explanation from someone out there that will make sense to you.
Victor: How has StudyBlue seen students’ learning habits change with the increase of mobile devices?
Becky: The education world has known for a while that the best way to learn something is to study it in small portions at different places and different times (called “distributed practice”) — but it’s never been practical since students had to carry around all of their books and notes. Now, with mobile apps and devices everywhere, we’ve seen an increase of studying happening throughout the day. The majority of our users study in sessions of 10-15 minutes on their mobile device — as they’re brushing their teeth, riding the bus to school, walking between classes. It’s easy to take out their phones and flip through a few note cards. Mobile users actually study about 40 minutes more per week.
Victor: What other trends do you think we’ll see this year in the edtech market?
Becky: There are a couple of trends I think we’ll hear a lot more about this year. One is the flipped classroom. Students use time in the classroom to work on homework and problems with the teachers, and then review material on their own time outside of class. I expect we’ll see more assessments and studies on the flipped classroom model as it continues to be adopted.
Another trend is mobile moving from the edge of the classroom to the center. My son is going into high school next year and he’s going to experience very different rules than his peers did two years ago. Teachers used to say, “Keep your phone off and in your locker until school is over,” — but now they’re asking students to bring them into the classroom. We’ll be seeing technology etiquette and mobile education apps evolve as the use of personal devices in school becomes the norm. Another point to make here is that tablets, not mobile phones, may become the device of choice for educators. At StudyBlue, we’ve seen that our users both create and review material on tablets, while mobile phones are predominantly used for reviewing.
Victor: Is StudyBlue just for students in school?
Becky: Right now, our user base is middle school to med school, 14-24 year-olds, but we have users of all ages and walks of life. In the beginning, we were definitely student-focused — a couple of years ago our users were 100 percent college students. As they’ve graduated and moved on to the next stage of their life, they’ve taken StudyBlue with them. For instance, one of the most popular jobs for new graduates is bartending and we’ve seen a whole crop of notecards with Bloody Mary recipes in our library. We have material on everything from biology to the GRE to yoga poses. Our goal is to be the learning resource for anyone, anywhere, and we’re getting closer to that vision as we continue to grow.
Victor: Can you share a few interesting examples of StudyBlue users and how they’re using the app to learn?
Becky: I’ve heard several stories from our users, but probably one of my favorites is from my daughter. Last fall, she was studying evolution in her biology class and was having trouble remembering the term “homo habilis.” She was flipping through cards on StudyBlue and found an explanation created by a fellow user that described “homo habilis” along with the popular phrase “YOLO.” The term stuck. You just never know what will resonate.
The typical use-case of a StudyBlue user is a freshman in college, say University of Wisconsin-Madison, who just got to campus and joined a huge American History 101 class. He made a set of note cards to study, but missed a couple points during the lecture. With StudyBlue, he can search through material created by his classmates and find the missing pieces for his upcoming quiz.
With 4.5 million users at nearly every school across the country and over 190 million pieces of content, there’s a great chance you can find the material you’re looking for. This all goes back to our belief that the best way to learn something is to explain it or have it explained by someone else going through the same learning process. StudyBlue provides you with content created by people similar to you that you can access anywhere. And you can start studying on one device, then pick up where you left off on another.
Victor: What are your thoughts on education in general these days?
Becky: Technology is becoming increasingly important in the classroom, but we also need to consider how technology can be used outside of the classroom. It’s difficult to make change happen quickly in a school or institution due to budget and administration processes, which is why I think it’s becoming popular for schools to encourage students to bring their own phones and tablets to class. But encouraging students to use their own devices itself won’t solve any education issues — we need to make sure that we’re providing quality education tools on these devices young people use every day.
Victor: Any advice, words of wisdom to students from middle school to med school on how to study?
Becky: There’s never a time when you can’t be learning something. We all have “in-between” moments throughout the day, when our hands go straight to our phone to check email, browse the web, send a message. Now, with the same amount of effort, you can take advantage of a learning opportunity. Around 40 percent of U.S. teens have smartphones and 50 percent of those teens access the Internet primarily through their phone. StudyBlue is an example of a productive tool you can use during the “in-between” times — when you first wake up in the morning, on commutes, during a commercial break. You’ll learn more effectively if you study throughout the day, in different places and situations, instead of waiting for long cram sessions and all-nighters. With your phone and your material in your pocket at all times, you don’t have to worry about trying to set aside an hour every day to concentrate on studying.
Victor: Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning edtech, digitally enhanced study or anything else?
Becky: In our digital world, bringing students together should be the key focus. It’s been proven that students learn most effectively when they collaborate with like-minded people going through the same learning process. However, teachers often don’t have the time to organize study groups and students don’t typically engage with their classmates because of logistical and social factors. That’s our real secret sauce at StudyBlue — we connect the dots between students and their shared material. We want to help students share knowledge effectively and that’s why our content is free and accessible for anyone, on any device.