Putting the Power of VR in the Teacher’s Hand, with Grove Learning’s Sean Strong

As today’s guest, Grove Learning CEO Sean Strong, says: just because something’s cutting-edge, doesn’t mean it has to be a pain to use. That’s the philosophy behind his company, which aims to make introducing VR into a classroom easy and efficient. 

Julie: Hello, my name is Julie Smithson, and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. Today on our podcast is Sean Strong. Sean is the CEO and co-founder of Grove Learning. Grove Learning is working to make VR more accessible and effective for educators worldwide. Sean studied artificial intelligence at Stanford University, worked at Apple and EdTech, and has taught over 100 students how to code. Welcome, Sean. How are you?

Sean: Hi, Julie. Thank you so much for having me. I’m doing well.

Julie: Great. Why don’t you highlight a little bit about yourself and Grove Learning, and the mission that Grove Learning is bringing to education and learning?

Sean: Yep. As you mentioned, we are Grove Learning. We’re a management platform for Oculus Quest and Go, specifically engineered for the classroom. We originally built VR experiences. We created a math game called Space Gerbil and we kind of realized in that process that actually bringing that to schools was very challenging, and that for your average teacher — who might not be savvy with technology — VR can actually be very hard to use. And so for us, we kind of started Grove Learning with this mission to really make VR simple for educators.

Julie: That’s awesome. I know that you started off — as you mentioned — creating the content for a library to be used, I guess. And then you kind of had to take that step back — as you said — to ensure that the teachers had a system that they could use, that was easy to deploy in the classroom setting. And maybe you can talk a little bit about the features of your platform, and why it’s so easy for teachers to pick up and use for themselves.

Sean: Yeah. The core features that we provided Grove Learning are just the things that teachers kind of wish they had without Grove Learning. And so what does that look like? That looks like you can start any experience remotely kind of from a dashboard, right? So if I have 20 students in my class, I can send them all to Julie’s app, and they’ll all start at the same time, synchronized. That being said, sometimes students really enjoy VR and they get a bit carried away, and it can be hard to get your students attention back. So sometimes you just want to pause, right? And with Grove Learning, you can just pause all the experiences and kind of regain control of your classroom. We allow you to group different students and so you can have five different students doing experience A and five other students doing Experience B. We kind of give you that granular control. So on one hand, we kind of allow the teacher to be in charge of the experiences on the headset. On the other hand, we tell them what exactly is going on, right? And so we can tell them what application a student is currently in. We can actually provide full video streams of all the headsets in a classroom. And so you– can we call it card view. You can think of it as a kind of CCTV view, where you can see all the different devices and what students are actually looking at in real time, which can help teachers kind of know what’s going on. Because otherwise the status quo is, teachers generally just kind of lean down and listen to headsets. And for us, we just found that listening wasn’t an effective enough management tool to really make VR practical in classrooms.

Julie: So when– if I’m a teacher and obviously I need to have a little bit of curation and knowledge based on what experiences to use in my classroom, there obviously needs to be a little bit of analysis on, you know, which student would do better in experiencing something than another student. And there’s a lot of conversation now about teachers and their ability to evaluate the students and provide an individualized learning experience. Maybe you can talk a little bit about how do the teachers decide, or how does Grove Learning help teachers decide which content to distribute to which students?

Sean: Yeah. And so I think from our perspective, we really want to empower teachers. And so the way that we view our platform is kind of an extension of the teacher. And so we actually don’t take any real stance on how a teacher should run their class and how they should curate. Generally speaking, the teachers who we’ve worked with in the past have a pretty good idea in terms of what content they want to feature. The problem is that when they try to actually run that content, they just end up wasting a lot of time. And they don’t– they’re not actually successful with it. And so I think individualized learning and– I mean, I studied artificial intelligence, so there are a lot of interesting things there. But I think for us fundamentally, teachers have done the same thing for laptops, they did the same thing for iPads. And for us, it’s– we believe that at this point, teachers are by far the best arbiters of what actually is effective teaching. And we just really want to give them that granular control over the devices, so they can do what they think is best.

Julie: Maybe you can speak to a little bit more about the setup. From what I experienced on your website — which is grovelearning.com — it seems simple. It’s very– it’s laid out very easy to read. But how simple is it?

Sean: For us, one of the key value adds for us is that setup time. And so if you look at, again, the classroom with 20 to 30 VR headsets: to get everyone up and running for the first time can often take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. It can take a long time, actually, when students aren’t familiar with VR, they’re not sure what’s going on. And we can bring that generally down to about five minutes. And for experienced classrooms, it’s even less. And so for the repeat user the setup is very simple, you can just turn on the headset and it’ll instantly launch the experience that you want. And it’ll also lock you into that experience. And so if the student tried to exit and let’s say they wanted to watch last week’s soccer game, they wouldn’t be able to, because with our software, we can kind of walk a student into a particular experience. And we can make sure that that’s done on boot, so right when you turn on the device or wake it from sleep. And all of these kind of small things add up to just saving teachers time in the long run. The initial actual setup on the device — so loading the software — can take take a bit of time, but we generally do that over a phone call and we’re there to help through that. For us, we really find our value add in that repeat usage, when you’re using it every week or every day and you get to save those 10 minutes every single time you’re on a class.

Julie: I think that one part– the part where you say 20 minutes down to five minutes launch time, I think that’s a real clear ROI for teachers to understand how impactful this technology can be, and breaking down that barrier that many teachers probably have a fear of. “How am I going to launch 20 headsets all at the same time and and be able to do that?” Maybe you can speak to any technical assist that you provide, or your suggestions to the teachers or schools to make sure that they have the tech help that they need to launch this. And then I’d like to go into the conversation of hardware and not management.

Sean: And so the way that we kind of view our software is really we can just empower teachers directly. And so, we have technology integrators that we’re working with. We have teachers who just reach out, explaining their tough management problem. In terms of technical support, we’re pretty responsive there and we try to help people out. But I think our philosophy with it is that interface should be so intuitive, that a teacher doesn’t really need training. You can kind of just figure it out, where if you click on a device, you click “launch” and it kind of just happens. And so for us, our design threshold is we want a user who’s actually never used to VR before to be able to run a classroom with VR. And just because the technology is cutting edge — the Oculus Quest is amazing — that doesn’t mean that managing it has to be so technically complex, as well. That actually can be quite simple if given the right interface, then kind of layers of abstraction.

Julie: That’s awesome. I think that [chuckles] even just having this conversation relieves that stress of being overwhelmed as a teacher, and having to deploy something that may not even take as long as it takes to set up. And it needs to have that usability and functionality in the application to be able to deploy so easy.

Sean: Exactly. Just because something’s cutting edge, doesn’t mean it needs to be painful.

Julie: Right. Maybe you can talk a little bit more about the hardware. I know that your application works right now with the Oculus Go and with the Oculus Quest, which both fantastic pieces of hardware that bring anything to life. But maybe you can talk a little bit about the approach to how you advise hardware purchase and management within the classroom as well.

Sean: Yeah. So, I mean, generally speaking, schools can go about different ways of obtaining the hardware. Some schools have grants, other schools have kind of tech budgets that they can spend. We also work with universities and other kinds of players. And so actually obtaining the headsets, we don’t really take a strong stance there. Generally speaking, I think people end up getting the headsets off of Amazon. But it’s up to the individual. For us, we kind of step into the equation once they’ve made that decision they want VR, and actually they’ve already purchased some headsets, and now they’ve run their first class and they’ve realized that they’re spending a lot of time on this kind of management question. I think that that’s kind of where we step into the equation. Before that, Julie, I don’t know if we have a strong opinion either way. Just honestly, whatever makes the most sense for the school is generally what we recommend.

Julie: The fact that it seems so easy — again — it’s just– it’s something that I’m not even used to in our conversations, because we have so many situations around the world that are not adopting this technology as quick as we wish they were. And things are changing, obviously. I would love to jump back into Math Gerbil — one of your content games — and maybe you can tell us a little bit about that game and the gamification behind it. My personal view is that gamification is obviously part of the analytics that go into educating a student, and then recording back what they’ve done or achieved is analyzed into that personalized learning situation. So maybe you can talk a little bit about your team and how you approach some of this content and the gamification behind it.

Sean: I guess. To explain the full premise of Space Gerbil is a pretty complex endeavor, so I’ll try to simplify it, but– which is part of the reason why we realized it wouldn’t work in schools. But what we found was, it was kind of a multiplayer VR game, where some students were outside of VR and some students were in VR, and the entire premise was around getting this space gerbil home to the rocket ship, and you’d use math functions to get them there. I think what we realized in that development process was we actually weren’t sort of factoring in analytics, we were very basic about it when we were building it. So we just didn’t really factor in teacher perspectives enough. We didn’t really think about what does this look like on the ground of an actual classroom with an actual teacher leading this with actual students. I think for us, we were kind of in our– because again, our background is all very technical. And so we were thinking about “Wow, we can do all this on the headset, and the connection between the phones and the headset.” And we just didn’t really take a ton of time to look at, “Okay, what does this actually look like in the classroom?” And when you actually look at how it gets implemented in the classroom, you realize that there are these just other problems — like management — that need to be solved first if you’re going to have widespread adoption.

Julie: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So let’s go back and talk about multiplayer games then. I think that’s where really the future of entertainment, obviously a lot of people agree the same thing. Future of entertainment, but also being in the classroom and having that multiplayer experience. Does your Grove Learning application host multiplayer experiences? Is that an example — the Math Gerbil — that you can do that?

Sean: Yeah. So, in terms of multiplayer experiences; bluntly, right now, Julie, we– there are actually a lot of really compelling single player games on the Oculus — or in other areas — that individuals use pretty successfully in classroom contexts. I think I would agree with you that in the long run, these multiplayer games make the most sense. I can tell you from a development perspective, it’s quite challenging to build a multiplayer game. And then especially for education, because now you’re dealing with student accounts. And again, just think about the management question. If you have 20 students in a class, does everyone then spend a couple of minutes logging in in VR? And then once they’ve logged in in VR, you hope that they entered in the right username and password and then they join. And then a lot of schools have bandwidth problems, so what happens if one of the students disconnects? And so for us — again — it’s an incredibly exciting space. And we just found — in terms of our existing usage – that most of it is actually surrounding with single player applications, which is different than what we thought initially. Our initial thought building Space Gerbil was “Oh no, multiplayer is a feature.” I think it is, but it just needs to be done in an intelligent way, that — again — is sort of class-centric.

Julie: It’s so interesting to hear your perspective of somebody who is developing something for the classroom, but with all of these different approach tactics, which makes things– broken things down a little bit further, obviously, and from your perspective, to tackle these barriers and challenges of dealing with classrooms and teachers, and that sort of thing. So that’s– it’s great that your team has pulled this together. And I’m really excited for Grove Learning. Is there anything else that you’d like to share about Grove Learning, or how to first approach Grove Learning, or introduce Grove Learning into their own education systems as a possibility of using as their management tool?

Sean: Yeah, I mean, if you’re at all excited about Grove Learning, I’d recommend you go to grovelearning.com. Just read through our site. If it seems exciting, it’s pretty easy to create an account, it’s pretty easy to put a call with us. And then over the call, if you have a device, we can just set it up and get you managed in 15 to 30 minutes. And once you see what it does, then you can see if it makes sense for your specific use case. And again, we don’t want to force anyone to use our tool. It’s really just trying to find those use cases where we can save teachers that precious time. Because for us, if you save 10 minutes of class time, it’s not only 10 minutes of teacher time, but if you have 30 students in that class, you just saved 300 minutes of student time. That’s five hours. And so for us, that’s kind of where we drive our purpose, is how do we make this amazing technology with VR accessible for schools? But how do you also make it efficient and how do you also allow teachers to — again — do what they do best? And I mean, a lot of teachers here in the United States — at least the master’s degrees — there’s a lot of training that goes into that role, in order to do it well. And for us, it’s just allowing teachers to really rock back, and do what they do best, and not have to worry about these kind of simple problems that can be solved with software.

Julie: Well, with that, I think that’s a great way to end our podcast. Thank you so much, Sean, for joining me on the XR for Learning podcast today.

Sean: Thank you so much, Julie. I hope we have another one.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of learning? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRLearningPod and connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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