Sunil Gunderia x The Future of Fandom

Age Of Learning CIO Sunil Gunderia on How to Teach the Newest Class of Consumers

by The Future of Fandom

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Teaching the Newest Class of Consumers

Today on The Future of Fandom, we learn about the consumerization of education and its future at the primary level, with Age of Learning and their Chief Innovation Officer Sunil Gunderia. It’s no secret that one of the most disrupted arenas over the last few years has been the classroom. Alongside that, edtech has evolved from forced Zoom rooms to increasingly individualized programs, giving children a new lease on their learning life.

Sunil has seen this evolution firsthand and believes this proliferation of disparate educational content will only continue and broaden for our youngest students going forward. That individualized, disaggregated approach brings up questions of retaining educational communities and the camaraderie that results from early schooling. Open your books and your ears and let’s predict the future with Age of Learning and Sunil Gunderia.

Connect with Sunil Gunderia on LinkedIn:

Read more about Age Of Learning:

Full episode here:


Adam Conner (01:23):

Sunil, thank you much for joining me. Good to be talking to you actually again, but how are you?

Sunil Gunderia (01:28):

Great to be talking to you, Adam. It’s a great spring and we’re all looking forward to whatever this new normal is starting to become. Excited about it.

Adam Conner (01:39):

You want to know the sad truth? I recently moved slightly more north from where I used to live. And today it’s roughly mid-April for the listeners because [inaudible 00:01:50] come out a little bit after that. It was full-on snowing here. Middle of April. Did not expect that.

Sunil Gunderia (01:58):

It was a choice you made, Adam, and-

Adam Conner (02:00):

Yeah. I guess I just hadn’t seen it before for It was like, “Oh God, I guess I’m learning something new every day.” Good segue.

Sunil Gunderia (02:08):

You’ll really appreciate the summer even more then.

Adam Conner (02:10):

I’m sure I will. Yeah. It’s all about perspective. But these are teaching moments, and we’re about to have some more right here because this will be the first time on our show that we have talked about this very broad topic of fandom and what it means and what it is within education, and specifically within educating our future collectively. I want to talk about that in a second, but first, for the listener who may be unaware, could you very briefly explain what Age of Learning is?

Sunil Gunderia (02:39):

Absolutely. Age of Learning is the company best own for ABCmouse. And that’s where we started with. We’re a provider of digital education programs with a mission to ensure that all students or all kids achieve academic success and really develop a lifelong love of learning. Our product, ABCmouse, has been used by over 30 million children and has earned the trust to parents who have made it a leading early educational digital resource in the US. And as a company, we are focused on ensuring that all kids can achieve proficiency in any subject and also develop a truer learning identity, which I think we’ll talk about more as we get into what does it mean in terms of agency in terms of around your learning and developing a fandom around learning.

Adam Conner (03:42):

I will get to the two F words we talk about on the show, future and fandom, in a moment. But I got to ask. I have seen the trends change towards education more appropriate to my age would now be in several years out of school. It’s mostly about secondary learn earning. It’s mostly about continued education, a lot of times offered by businesses. At the higher levels of education, much more availability in it now outside of the classroom. Digital offerings, teachers who are actually experts in their field rather than just career professors. And I’d be interested to know if you all have noticed that. And if anything, is there an application to younger forms of education?

Sunil Gunderia (04:29):

Correct. I think there’s a couple of questions there that maybe I can address separately, starting with the trend. And you’ve very well and correctly identify what I would call the consumerization of learning. And a lot of that is being driven by the rapid change that we’re seeing overall in society where learning isn’t limited to what you do through K12 or through college or… It’s not degree-oriented. One of the trends that we’re seeing out there is that 50% of our workforce over the next few years is going to need to develop new skills to continue to be relevant in their jobs. Their jobs are likely to change quite substantially. And as you think about the need from our educational systems and from when you’re a youngest learner is to instill a love of learning that helps you identify as a learner.

Sunil Gunderia (05:43):

And that is something we’ve done from the get-go with ABCmouse and even our new products that we’re developing is that not only do we want a child to succeed within a core academic subject. We want them to develop their core belief in their ability as a learner and being able to approach any new situation or a new challenge as not something that, “Oh, I can’t do this because I don’t know how to do it,” but rather, “I just don’t know how to do that yet. And through a process of learning, I can really become a master of that topic as well.”

Adam Conner (06:32):

I talk about consumeration of education, and that’s a really fantastic way to put it. As a result of that, I… and again, I’m looking at this from the lens of somebody who’s mostly been through the schooling system, and most of it now is just elective… can pick and choose to find that education where I want, pick and choose who I learn from, what I learn. Everything is on me. I’m able to choose it all. How do you foresee that applying to that specific agency of the learner themselves, applying to somebody who is going through education for the first time, like a kid? I mean, I think about they just go into the school system. It’s largely dictated to them. Do you have any thoughts about that? I’m curious.

Sunil Gunderia (07:18):

Definitely do. And it’s something that we’ve been working on for the last seven years, and it really looks at recasting the role of how education is delivered.

“if you think about it, Adam, when you or I went through our education, certainly our early education, we went somewhere that was based on time and seat where it was a one-size-fits-all model, and teaching is based on expectations of what an average student is expected to learn during a year. And the results are clear that this model is broken, as even within our youngest learner, 60% of them are not achieving proficiency in math or reading by the time they’re in fourth grade.” 

— Sunil Gunderia (07:32)

And if they come from a low-income household, it’s 75%-plus. There is this problem with this one-size-fits-all model that doesn’t allow for agency. It doesn’t recognize what all parents and teachers know, which is that every child is unique and that we need… There are certain things we all need to learn as humans. And certainly, this early learning where we’re learning math skills and reading skills are really important.

Sunil Gunderia (08:38):

But what is clear from the research is that best systems adapt instruction to each student where our role as educators is not to measure growth or progress by time spent, but rather ensure that students master the materials they need to learn. And this is exactly what we’ve been building over the last seven years. It’s a personalized mastery learning system that tailors instructions for a student’s individual needs. And we patent this technology that adapts in real-time to what a child’s learning needs are independent of their age or their grade level, but it’s rather based on what they know and what they need to learn. And our first product, My Math Academy is out on the market now. And My Reading Academy is coming to market by this fall as well.

Adam Conner (09:28):

Yeah. The My Math Academy is something I’m going to ask about in a minute because I know that obviously you have the service they’re offering out there, but it’s backed by some pretty incredible findings and data. I do want to talk about that in a moment. The first thing I want to ask about is, okay. Every student is different. That much is clear. You can very easily personalize and experience an education and build a community of disaggregated experience via that manipulable tech. Does that in your eyes shift the stigma of homeschooling or other alternatives to traditional school? Obviously people have had to work and learn in a remote context by force since 2020. In-school learning thus has changed from that perspective. But in the meantime, have these different enablements and empowerments of learners removed some of the hesitation around doing it from home as a standard?

Sunil Gunderia (10:28):

I’ll answer that question with the understanding… and I think we all have it… that learning happens everywhere. It happens in the world around this. It happens at home and it can happen at school. And yes, I think one of the key takeaways from the pandemic has been that we can deliver what has been standard education which is expected to occur within the walls of a school anywhere. And what technology enables us to do is to follow that learning journey especially with the products that we have, whether it happens in school, whether it happens at home, whether it happens if a child is on vacation with their family, that we’re able to track that learning happening and inform both teachers and parents where the child is in their learning trajectory independent of the location where they’re at.

Adam Conner (11:25):

That’s fascinating. Regardless of where they’re at, they can get access to high-quality stuff. Because you can get it anywhere, how then do you help to create a community of learners who may learning on their own? How do you bring together these people? I mean, we’ll trickle into fandom a little bit there, but how do you provide that connection in a world where people maybe are becoming increasingly disconnected thanks to the tech?

‘ As a student experiences, let’s say My Math Academy, one, they develop a love for learning math in a very contextual way versus a notational or abstracted way through the system. There’s cute characters called the Shapeys and they’re helping solve problems with. They feel like they’re a part of… They see the opportunity to apply math to problem-solving with the way we’ve written the narrative and the story.”

— Sunil Gunderia (11:20)

Sunil Gunderia (12:49):

And as I was talking about, as that data gets generated in terms of where each individual child is in their learning trajectory, we then share that data with a teacher. Let’s look at what may happen in a classroom. And not only do we share it with a teacher. We offer the teacher suggestions in terms of what a teacher may do with that child to take that learning that’s happened within the context of our program into the real world and apply real-world examples and help transfer that. Our system also organizes other children or other students for the teacher that may be in a similar level so that they can engage in group activities and create a shared learning experience around a specific objective where each of those students is at the right place to learn based on what they already know. Rather than try to assume there’s a mean within this context of a classroom, we actually do know that there is a opportunity to build community within that specific learning objective and experience pure learning in that way.

Adam Conner (14:03):

Let’s get to a specific example because I found this fascinating and I think speaks well to the future of what this education could look like. It’s about My Math Academy. You mentioned that earlier, one of the offerings that you have now available, and you did a study in Texas, which basically proved out how quickly somebody can learn even more so than their expected trajectory. I don’t want to tease too much out. Could you just explain that and the power of what this can mean for the future of primary ed?

Sunil Gunderia (14:34):

Yeah. Absolutely. And it builds upon our research basis. We’ve written and presented over 40 papers on what we’ve been doing. We have something called ESSA, a Tier 1 level from the Department of Education. Effectively, we’ve proven in the past that our program works. And do during the pandemic, we ran a pilot study in a Texas district called Harlingen. It’s in the Rio Grande Valley. The district itself is quite diverse. The majority of the kids are from low-income families there, what is referred to in education as majority Title 1, that is the majority of the kids in that school district get pre- or reduced-price lunches where the community is located. We do have a lot of English language learners in that community as well. And a lot of the parents don’t have a lot of means.

Sunil Gunderia (15:36):

This was during the pandemic. We launched this pilot in fall of 2020. And what we found there is that despite it being a low-income district, and despite what you’re hearing nationally about how kids are falling behind, 98% of the students that used the program regularly achieved grade level readiness. And even more interesting… and it talks about the potential of technology in the classroom… 20% of the students demonstrated they were of mastering skills at an entire grade level above their current grade.

Sunil Gunderia (16:17):

These were four-year-olds. There are pre-K kids who were doing math at a first grade level or above. And the amazing thing was that the teachers had not taught them the skills. They had learned these skills through the program, through My Math Academy. And what was a great understanding for the teachers is that there’s this incredible amount of potential that we can unlock by moving away from a one-size-fits-all education system and really developing in and helping not only all kids get to proficiency, but well beyond proficiency, and have the agency to continue to grow and develop based on what their abilities are.

Adam Conner (17:03):

It’s fascinating to think about how that study proved so much about its nationwide and indeed global potential. Speaks a lot to the future. But before I ask about that and where you foresee this world going, let’s talk about that fandom because on this show so far, we’ve spoken with sports leaders. We’ve spoken with leaders in FinTech. We’ve dived into e-commerce. We haven’t really done so in education. And maybe it’s my perception of that forced nature of like, “Well, you go to school where you’re zoned to do so,” that makes me reluctant to say, “Well, can you really be a fan of a school in the experience?” As a matter of fact, I’d be willing to say that most students going through it, you have that stereotype of like, “Oh, I don’t like going to school.” And maybe you only develop that fandom once you look at it with rose-colored glasses in hindsight. I’m curious how you think about that word and how you define it in the lens of what you do.

Sunil Gunderia (18:00):

Yeah. I referred to it before.

“It’s this idea of metacognition. And what I mean by that is that this development of this learner identity, that I can be an expert in math and I can love a subject area because I have this idea within me that I can learn something new. And what I like to characterize that with is we’re driven in a world where so many more want to be purpose-driven and want meaningful existence and meaningful work in terms of what they do during the day..”

 — Sunil Gunderia (18:00)


Sunil Gunderia (18:40):

And if we can establish at a really young age that this confidence in my own skills and my own abilities to tackle new challenges and problems, and then have a child as they grow up see that there are challenges in the world that exist and problems that need to be solved, and that they have this capability of taking on these challenges because they’ve instilled in themselves that they are learners, and anything that is ahead of them that they don’t know yet is something that they can learn about, become an expert about, use the great social media networks that are available to reach to others that have the same passions and really come together, learn together, ignite around these passions and solve problems that really benefit society in general.

Adam Conner (19:29):

That’s just an interesting way to think about it. Fans often consume, but really, this is a slightly different lens. It’s fascinating to think about. Now, to the other word. You have seen with the offerings that you’ve given in the study’s length therein how powerful it can be despite the consumerization of education, despite the fact that content has become disaggregated and that’s trickling down, and despite the fact that might even lead to options which are outside of a classroom altogether, the importance to build that camaraderie amongst learners, that community, and to personalize, to better everyone’s individual trek is not going away. In fact, that’ll probably become more important over time as disciplines further specialize. What do you foresee for the future of the educational experience? And I know that’s huge and we can riff here for a little while, but I got to ask.

Sunil Gunderia (20:31):

Absolutely. And I think we’re still so in the early days, and I think the pandemic even proved it. And even with a lot of the new platforms, we’re still in this phase and and ahead of what the future of education’s going to be. And what I mean by that, let me give you… What happened during the pandemic? During the pandemic, in many cases, the natural reference point was what happened in the classroom. And what I mean by that is that we replicated through Zoom… We used technology. Kids weren’t in a classroom. But they were at home. They were distributed. But we tried to largely in a lot of classrooms just use that same model where there is the teacher on the stage who is now trying to instruct a group of kids at home, outside of the confines of the classroom, and which is really difficult for young kids and for older kids as well.

Sunil Gunderia (21:33):

That is just recasting a small bit of what can happen. As we think about the future and what we are doing with our personalized mastery and learning system is that it’s really reenvisioning completely the kernel of how learning happens. And in our system, it’s a game-based system. And we use games to set up the context, which I talked about earlier, for the learning to happen, so that the primary learning for every child is happening through the context of what they’re seeing in front of them. It’s individualized to them. And their progress is based and their trajectory’s based on how they’re performing. There’s instruction that’s delivered through the game.

Sunil Gunderia (22:19):

There is just-in-time feedback to the child. And what I mean by that, we’re assessing as they go, and when they come across an assessment, and if they don’t understand something, we are providing real-time feedback, or the system is providing real-time feedback to that child in terms of not just the answer or saying they’re wrong or right, but actually strategies on how they would potentially approach that problem.

Sunil Gunderia (22:44):

What do they already know? And we know this through the system. They’ve learned that they could apply to what they’re seeing there that really gives them the opportunity to progress and be instructed. From a system perspective, it’s like what a tutor would do in one-to-one.

“A lot of what is very difficult to scale from a human perspective, which is one-to-one instruction, we are able to replicate through a program like My Math Academy. And then it gives the adults, teachers, parents a different role because we can help them take that data like I was talking about and transfer it to new problem sets.

— Sunil Gunderia (23:00)

Sunil Gunderia (23:28):

For a parent at home, it can be as simple as, “I see through the system, Jenny, that you’ve learned to count to 100. Do you want to do that with me?” And just to reward and intrinsically motivate a child because now, they’re getting some immediate feedback that, “My learning is important. My parents care about it. And it’s something that I want to do because it makes me feel good.” It’s really re-envisioning the role of both what software can do and what the adults or the humans in the room can do in terms of their roles and really enhancing them, enhancing the roles so that more and more can be done through the software and more value-added work can be done by the humans. And I think that’s where the future of education is going to go.

Adam Conner (24:22):

Let me ask another question which I asked on another one of episodes recently, and I just thought was an interesting reverse way to look at it. Could you fill in a blank if I said the future of education will definitely not include blank? What would that blank be?

“I think the future of education will not be time-limited. Time- and place-limited. Let’s say that. We’re going to recognize and allow for the opportunity for education to happen anywhere and be dictated by systems. I can definitely say the future of education will not be textbook-driven.”

— Sunil Gunderia (24:45)

Adam Conner (25:09):

That’s interesting too. The replacement obviously being digital. God, the end of textbooks. Tell you what, as a college student, I would’ve loved that.

Sunil Gunderia (25:19):

Would’ve saved you many, many thousands of dollars.

Adam Conner (25:21):

Yeah. We can instill that early, all the better. Hey, thanks for giving me this education here for now. It’s always to learn about the future of something, but in this world, which I’ve been separated from for a little while, it’s great to get the voice of an expert here. Those stories that you’ve told me right here about the various ways in which you’re accelerating and individualizing education is incredibly important and I hope the future starts with you all. Thanks very much Sunil for joining us and taking us all to school.

Sunil Gunderia (25:49):

Thanks, Adam. It’s always great talking to you.

Adam Conner (25:54):

Thanks again to Sunil Gunderia from Age of Learning for joining us. As more students of the future find their roots in this digitized, disaggregated type of learning. I predict a bit of an identity problem for the legacy universities of today down the road. Bit of food for thought there. And thanks to you, of course, the listener for exploring the future of fandom with us. I’d encourage you to stay connected. Here’s what you do., where you’ll find all of our episodes and transcripts of those episodes. You can read along. You can also subscribe The Future of Fandom wherever you listen. And socially, we’re on LinkedIn at LiveLike, and Twitter @LiveLikeInc. I look forward to predicting the future again with you real soon. And until then, I’m Adam Conner saying long and thanks for being a fan.

Written By
Megan Glover
Content Manager
Written By
Megan Glover
Content Manager

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