As the Omicron wave swept country after country, there was a raging debate everywhere – whether to keep schools open. The pandemic has affected every industry. While some industries like technology and services have benefitted, others like education and hospitals have seen people associated with them on the brink of collapse.
While venture capital firms have minted multiple edtech unicorns since the pandemic started, a McKinsey report shows there are lingering effects of unfinished learning. The report notes how this is the opportunity to not only help students catch up on unfinished learning from the pandemic but also tackle historical inequalities in education.
Ewoud de Kok, CEO of FeedbackFruits, is on a mission to change the learning system. His idea could pave the way for an education system that is engaging and equitable in the post-COVID world. The tools FeedbackFruits develops in co-creation with its partners have recently been awarded Gold and Silver Award at the ‘Oscars’ of education – the Reimagine Education Awards 2021.
Improve learning experience of students
Even before the start of the pandemic, the cracks in the conventional education system were apparent. The conventional system, which encouraged students to learn with the central goal of achieving good grades, no longer made sense in a technology-driven economy. In an age when skills are valued over certification and qualification, the education system needs a revamp unlike any that came in the past.
Ewoud saw this change way back in 2012 and asked this question: “why does the communication in education have to be a one-way only powerpoint-driven system?”
He says that the modern learning system is still similar to the one he experienced as a student. While the infrastructure around education is well organised, students know what to learn, classes are not at all engaging from a students perspective. As a student at the University of Amsterdam and at TUDelft, he realised that the future of higher education doesn’t look bright if educational institutions continued with their antiquated approach to learning. Especially with a growing number of students and a teacher shortage on the other hand.
This passion to improve the learning experience of students, universities and applied sciences worldwide led him to found FeedbackFruits. FeedbackFruits debuted as an app for students in 2012 and was built “in a forgotten room of applied physics at TUDelft”. The premise of this first app was simple: give timely and direct feedback to teachers on courses after each session.
The same year, FeedbackFruits and TUDelft entered into a partnership, which then became a long-term collaboration to turn passive classes into an active learning system. While the industry has adopted this shift in approach from grade-based learning to knowledge-based learning, Ewoud says “knowledge is something that will become free and changes quickly over time”.
He sees skills as one of the dimensions governing how the education system should evolve. Ewoud de Kok is an unconventional tech entrepreneur who resembles a professor more than a CEO of a transformational education startup. With a marker in his right hand, he speaks about educational transformation not only as a vision but also in a way that he is writing the script for it in the air, right in front of you.
Develop the skills that are valuable
When pressed about how he sees a modern education system, Ewoud explains his idea as one that is actually focussed on “developing skills that are valuable in the 21st century”. We have seen Tesla CEO Elon Musk repeatedly talk about skills being central to his hiring philosophy. He elaborates that society needs skill-based education that invokes lifelong learning and transfer of skills..
He quickly points out that the grading system leads to a fixed mindset, which is actually “detrimental to developing the growth mindset.” FeedbackFruits reverses this antiquated learning system with a process that helps students develop and sharpen their potential, via constructive feedback, meaningful interactions and engagement.
This approach, according to Ewoud, helps students to reach their full potential and take advantage of “tremendous opportunities that higher education offers to them”. While FeedbackFruits is about personalised learning, the scaleup is also mindful of the fact that it doesn’t become individual, leading to learning filter bubbles for students.
“It is important that we develop someone to become the best version of themselves,” Ewoud says, explaining his mission that involves highlighting the natural talent, enhancing soft skills and enabling social interaction and collaboration as a growth mindset among students. He cites the example of how the same teaching methodology results in growing distance between the student and the teacher.
With FeedbackFruits, teachers are empowered to organise engaging learning activities at scale in order to give every, of the sometimes 300, students the personal attention they need. They suddenly have the power to change how they teach a subject or a concept at scale. Ewoud says this relatively small didactical change could become a “major motivation [for students] to prepare well”.
EdTech at the beginning of the internet
FeedbackFruits, Ewoud explains, is like a fruit basket full of different fruits. Every fruit is a tool that supports one specific learning activity. This learning activity is designed with the knowledge that it works better than traditional processes. It also allows a teacher to easily organise such an activity without worrying about whether the students made it to the class. In a nutshell, FeedbackFruits puts teachers in control of creative learning while the platform worries about organisational burden.
FeedbackFruits is bootstrapped and has been able to grow organically by providing value for its partners, educational institutions, instead of using big investments for aggressive marketing and sales campaigns. Ewoud says the idea of not raising funds and running the startup with its own revenue was a conscious decision at that time, allowing him freedom to stay focused on continuous innovation and our bigger mission.
The current model – land and expand – allows FeedbackFruits to adapt, evolve and iterate itself at scale worldwide. FeedbackFruits claims to have 87 per cent of the Dutch students in higher education in the Netherlands have access to its platform and it is also internationally available with leading universities in the US and the UK using the tools. While selling directly to universities normally takes quite some time, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to hyper-growth internationally.
Ewoud is a quintessential Dutch founder who roots everything he says in humility. He likens the current phase of FeedbackFruits to that of the beginning of the internet. He says the current state of edtech is like the first websites that went live on the internet. While edtech continues to evolve, he is quick to point out the coming attraction in the form of an evolved learning experience based on gamification.
When asked to quickly summarise the current learning environment, he says that 95 per cent of the institutions are doing learning management well. However, they are now waking up to the reality that it is the learning experience that truly matters to students. As a result, FeedbackFruits works as a platform that fixes this learning experience allowing institutions to significantly increase the amount of highly satisfied students.
Techleap Rise gives perspective even to successful startups
Ewoud and FeedbackFruits are part of batch #6 of Techleap’s Rise programme, where scaleup founders share and discuss their growth challenges. Every quarter, Techleap selects 10 companies to join the free programme and Ewoud says that the programme is “more valuable for bootstrapped companies than most founders realise”.
He explains that bootstrapped companies often start believing in their own success so much that they are not necessarily challenged enough. This constant reminder that “you are doing well” hampers the company to reach its true potential. He says the Rise programme made him realise that there is so much more that FeedbackFruits can do for students. Ewoud says he himself realised how much he can learn personally by being part of Techleap Rise’s batch #6.
FeedbackFruits wants to completely transform the way learning experiences are delivered to students around the world. In order to facilitate that transition faster, Ewoud says that the startup needs to grow faster than it is already doing. In order to do that, he believes there is a need for a different mindset and more ambition
“So, being able to learn through Rise and being challenged on the side of things is exactly what we need,” he says about his experience with Techleap Rise.
Another thing that Ewoud shares with most founders that have been part of the previous Rise programmes is the shared learning. The Rise programme allows founders to meet others who are either solving similar problems or have solved a problem that they are facing right now. This allows them to brainstorm ideas and reach a point where they can walk out of the programme with a solution.
Ewoud shares having a similar experience learning from other scaleups that were part of batch #6 of Rise programme. However, he also is in awe of the industry experts who constantly challenge the status quo. “It’s easy to challenge the status quo for skill icons, because they are successful but they already did that when they were still small like us. And that gives so much inspiration to me,” Ewoud comments. .
To conclude, Ewoud emphasises he learned from Rise how every entrepreneur goes through similar challenges while building their startup and scaleup. However, he sees himself going after the skill mindset as an entrepreneur and not after the bootstrap mindset. This could pave the way for remarkable success for FeedbackFruits, which still doesn’t want to publicly discuss its plans for funding in the immediate future.
“It’s really important for us to become active as a market leader but not at the cost of our mission. As a benefit to our mission,” Ewoud quips when prodded about funding plans.
Content is not the future
Ewoud says he draws inspiration from companies like Patagonia and he explains that FeedbackFruits will continue to be an idyllic startup with an agile endeavour. However, it won’t be limited in its ambition and remain small. He says this very nature of his startup will become an inspiration for many others to follow. If current edtech is like Web 1.0, Ewoud wants him and FeedbackFruits to be the inspiration for edtech companies that follow with platforms similar to Web 2.0.
He says edtech will be extremely big in the coming years and finds it funny that some people mocked edtech for having the lowest growth multiple just a few years back. “The future of edtech won’t be content,” he says because the content and information will be free. The future of edtech, according to Ewoud, will be about the core of education, which can be described as the core of learning, also known as Pedagogy.
This is a revelation considering the edtech industry is going through a consolidation where the bigger fish is consuming the smaller fish. Ewoud is mindful of what’s happening in the edtech sector, however, when we ask him what would be the immediate focus for institutions, he doesn’t think twice to say that they will continue to focus on closing the gap between learning management and learning experience.
As he said earlier, the education institutions mostly excel at learning management but lack the expertise to make the learning experience engaging for students. FeedbackFruits already helps institutions fix this gap and it is because of this unconventional approach and a foresight capable of contradicting the industry, Ewoud could be the next trailblazer in Europe’s educational transformation.