Prasad Ram: The Google Engineer Changing Education

Though Prasad Ram was once a big-time software engineer he—coming from a small village in India—is soft-spoken, passionate about equality, and prefers to be called ‘Pram.’ He ran Google India, Google Books, Google News, created Google finance, and worked on Google Maps. He would himself say that, by modern American standards, he grew up quite poor. It was his education that gave him a unique opportunity for success.


He believes deeply that education is the best tool we have to, “move the needle on social justice.”

Gooru organizes learning activities so that it’s presented to the user in way that is personally tailored to their need. In education there is no shortage of resources. The problem is that the massive volume of material is unorganized. Gooru allows users to access the right materials at the right time in the right way. It looks to capture the real way that teachers organize materials for their students.

In short: Gooru is the Google Maps of learning. It’s a learning navigator in the way that Google Maps helps users simplify the complexity of travel. Google Maps holds all the information you could ever need but only gives you the little bit information you need at any given moment. If you want to walk to a coffee shop it doesn’t tell you about traffic but if you hop into a car and get on the highway it can tell you exactly how long you’ll expect delays.

This means that, with Gooru, education is completely personalized. Personalization meets the user where they are. Spotify and Pandora will personalize your listening experience by using the information of what you actually listen to recommend new songs. Personalization is a process of continual approximation. It guesses based on the information you give it to recommend what you might be interested in next. The more information given to the system, the more time spent on Gooru, the more it will understand how you learn and what kinds of subjects capture your interests. The more Gooru is used, the better it gets.

I sat down with Pram to discuss his views on education.

What is Gooru?

Gooru organizes all of the learning information and learning activities in ways that can be presented to a user in a highly personalized manner. The challenge with education is there’s no shortage of material but it has not yet been organized so that I can present to you something at the right time in the right way. That may be an assessment or a learning video or a project. Our role is to organize all that learning information so we can personalize the experience for every learner by presenting them with the right information at the right time. We have looked at the at the role teachers play to capture the role of human judgment in learning.

How does Gooru work?

Let me use the analogy of Google Maps: if you’re sitting in Silicon Valley you don’t need to know the subway that will take you from Downtown Manhattan to Uptown Manhattan. You only need the right information at the right time in the right way. You don’t need to know about traffic, or toll booths, or accidents—that is, until you do—so we need to organize all of this information and listen to the user to find out exactly when they need it. All in a way that is appropriate for them personally.

Before Google Maps you would call your friend and get the address and some sense of direction. Then you would pull up a physical map and roughly map out which way you were going to go. Then you would listen to the radio to understand the traffic and occasionally stop by a gas station and seek for informational help if you got lost. The experience of navigating in the physical world and our learning experience is not so different. It involves so many people supporting so many things, many of which can be streamlined by organizing the information in a way that computers can do much better than humans. Teachers can only know of so many projects, so many resources.

What is personalization?

Personalization is to meet people where they are. It is supporting people where they are so, in general, it has to understand what their interests are, where they are, and what they want. Think about personalized music; it supports your interests your taste at this very point in time. This is what companies like Spotify are doing.

Amazon will personalize your experience by saying: ‘here’s the products you may like to buy.’ Netflix will personalize your viewing experience by saying: ‘maybe these are the movies that you would like to watch.’ now in all of these cases we are not measuring outcome. We’re only measuring consumption. We’re only whether or not you watch the movie not whether or not you were entertained but it.

In learning we have to further raise the bar. What we are measuring is whether or not you actually learn. How deep was your learning? So personalization is important in learning because, like other forms of personalization, it meets the user where they are. But it can and needs to go up a full notch beyond the traditional idea of personalization because what we measure in education not whether or not you watch the video, it’s whether or not you actually understand the content of the video.

How does Gooru understand what a student might like or how they might explore the resources offered to them?

At first, it’s a project of approximation. If you came to Guru and told me you were a 6th grade student interested in science, I can approximate who you are by looking at other students like you. I can say: “I think you’re at this level” initially but when you start interacting with Guru and start taking quizzes and assessments, they system recalibrates, we have a better understanding of what the user knows. The more you interact with Gooru the better it understands who you are and how you learn best.

What kind of data is Gooru collecting?

We call it ‘actively streamed data’. It’s all kinds of activities you are engaging in. It could be that you were watching a movie, or took an assessment, or shared something with a friend. It could be that you left a comment or a review. I could be that you skipped over a chapter. It measures how much time you spend on any given assignment. It measures engagement. It measures efficacy. It measures your clicks. That’s why it’s called actively stream data. It’s any and all the activity that you do. We use that data to personalize your experience.

What other kinds of data are important in looking at a student?

Whether English is your first language or what kind of school you go to or what language your parents speak. We can use all this to get a better first approximation but what really matters is how you interact with the system after that point.


What, to your mind are some of the biggest problems in education. Why is the institution so unequal?

People often make it about access. Both from my personal experience and from the information made available to me, access is never the issue. Learning is fundamentally complex. You can go give 100 IPads with broadband to a school in Uganda, or India, or Oakland and you will see that access does not change learning. What constitutes learning is self-confidence, grit, perseverance. It’s about your family circumstances, the kind of environment you have in school, the competence of your teacher. So given that learning is so complex the biggest issue I see is people only talking about access.

Secondly there’s a problem in trying to intervene with one thing. Trying to intervene in a complex system with one thing is not going to work.

You’re saying that the problem is that there are too many problems?

Exactly. There’s a complicated blend of so many things. Trying to change only one thing is not going to solve the problem for who we are trying to solve it for. What the web has offered us is infinite resource choices. For people who know where to seek and what to seek it’s a beautiful thing.

And what about those who don’t know what to look for?

This is why we haven’t moved the needle. It doesn’t work for those who are not ready. It works for those who already have a lot of stuff.

What keeps you up at night?

What keeps me up at night is that when 9/11 happened the kids who were involved the Paris attack were in their diapers. If were had address the education challenge and invested in that we would have created a whole new generation since 9/11 who would have been fully educated.

To address that challenge we would have had to not go for the quick fixes: one new program, one new initiative, one new intervention, one new algorithm that going to fix it. If we acknowledge learning is complex then that means we have to work within the system, trying to improve the system, rather than starting over and trying all these new things.

What keeps me up at night is that we will be continually distracted by the new flavor of the month. We’ve failed to say: ‘hey, we have a system. The system works for some of us. Let’s make it works for all of us.’

You’re afraid of people claiming ‘cure-all’ solutions?

Yes. That and that people are trying to fix other problems as if those problems didn’t have a common source: lack of education.

Like the incarnation rate?

Right. So many things. Poverty, the crime rate, terrorism, whatever problem. Even global warming denial. I would say that these people are not properly educated. If you can’t see the real evidence and make sense of what the data actually says then you’re going to have so many problems. We have to invest in education as a solution for every other problem we have. But that investment should not be a one-time thing, a one-off fix.

It also should not come with the mindset of fixing something that is broken. We have a system and we should work within that system. The system has evolved over the centuries because there is value in what the teacher brings, there is value in the trips to the museum, and in the projects that you do. So we can’t just say ‘hey we’re going to replace this all by watching some videos.’

So you’re saying that education isn’t really broken, that it works really well for some people but we have to find a way of bringing it down to the level of those who it’s not working for?

I’m saying that it worked for you. It worked for me.  We can’t blame a system that is already works for us just because it doesn’t work for all. Now, we have to understand how we are to extend this system so that we can make it work for all.

What do you see as the future for EdTech?

I think that education technology will get more sophisticated but I don’t see that moving the needle. For example: there used to be just text, then there were pictures, then there were videos, then there were animations, and now there’s interactives. They’re all kinds of improvements that happen but none of that has shifted the needle for the majority. For the small group that has leveraged all of these, they have gotten better and better.

So you fear more stratification?

What is happening is that the advantage kids are able to take advantage of all these opportunities that we create through technology and those kids who are underserved continue to fall behind. So, to me, that gap is widening. That’s how I define social injustice: the widening of the gap. If your life expectancy goes up from 65 years to 75 years and my life expectancy went from 65 years to 95 years, I consider that social injustice. It’s the widening of the gap that changes our expectations for what a good life is.

So it’s not about what we have it’s a how we relate to each other. Justice is about a relationship. So I tend to think that justice is about variance and not about the absolute value.

How do you say technology changing not just how we educate but we educate? Will some skills become less valuable and more valuable?

Other people have pointed out that anything that involves information recall is not important anymore because we can pull things up from the internet immediately. I’m not a teacher but, from my own perspective, I understand that you need a whole host of background knowledge to do complex thought processes.  You need information to do critical thinking, so that you can do better analysis, so that you can be creative. If you are devoid of basic information and basic knowledge then you cannot aspire for these higher levels of thought process. So, in that sense, even if everything is available at your fingertips, you should only use it as something to supplement what you know and not replace it. Just because you have a calculator in your pocket doesn’t mean that you don’t need to know how to do mental math.

What kinds of things are we not teaching that we should be?

I think that what we don’t do enough of is relate learning to real life. What I mean is not relating it to our [people in education’s] real life. Not somebody else’s real life. But down to the prospective and the life of the learner themselves.

If I’m doing on lesson on parabolas and I’m going to take you to the Golden Gate Bridge that would make a really good lesson. You can see the math come to life. But if you’ve never seen the Golden Gate Bridge then learning parabolas will feel abstract and not relatable. And worse yet is when you do go to the bridge and not point out what an example of a parabola is.

When you go to a gas station you should understand what an octane rating is. What is the significance of those numbers when you stand in line at McDonald’s? What does it mean when you see a hundred and forty calories? How do they compute calories? How do we come up with these numbers? We should know exactly what they mean by all these things we interact with in our daily life; this kind of information we see when we interact with the world should be integrated into education so that we can make it relevant to the user.


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