Yesterday Math, Tomorrow the World: IXL Learning Evolves to Offer More Subjects, for More Ages
IXL is an 18-year-old K–12 edtech company that offers adaptive learning activities, or as they like to say “Practice that feels like play.” Once known for their math activities, IXL now offers an array of core subjects, including social studies, science, and language arts. Leveraging teacher feedback and data (lots of data) IXL has spent most of the past two decades refining their methods to provide effective, engaging instruction one subject at a time.
So what subject will they come up with next? Find out in our one-on-one interview with COO Jennifer Gu:
EdTech Times: Hello, this is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and today I am meeting with IXL, and they have some exciting new products that we’re going to talk about. But first off, hi, Jennifer, how’s it going?
Jennifer Gu: Hi. Great, great.
EdTech Times: If you could just introduce yourself briefly…
Jennifer Gu: Sure, yeah. I’m Jennifer Gu. I’m the chief operating officer at IXL.
EdTech Times: Tell me a little bit about IXL and what you do.
Jennifer Gu: Okay. So IXL is a company, we would like to think, that we deliver an immersive learning experience for students, mainly in the K-12 space. So the IXL core product, it’s a platform of learning skills that student can use to engage and learn various concepts. So when IXL first started, we were just a math product alone, so a student could use IXL to engage and learn math. And then later on, we introduced language arts. And then talking about now, with science and social studies. So the whole goal of our product is to deliver that elusive learning experience through just skill-based practice.
EdTech Times: That can be a good way to develop a product, one subject at a time, so that you really get the software figured out, and then you can move on to new subjects.
Jennifer Gu: Right, right. It is kind of how we…[laughs]
EdTech Times: But what was the real reason for that?
Jennifer Gu: Real reason? I mean, I think for us, I think in developing software you always want to make sure you kind of really understand your audience, right? So understand our teachers, understand our students. And when we developed math, I mean, it was definitely a learning experience. Like, what is it…how do teachers really integrate our product into their curriculum? What is it that matters to them the most? And what about our experience is special, magical? And then it’s really important for us to really kind of capture that and figure that out before we just kind of replicate it. I think one thing we figured out is content does matter for our teachers.
EdTech Times: Yes! Hooray! You’re telling that to the writer. I’m so happy to hear that.
Jennifer Gu: And, you know, they do notice if we actually spent time putting together the content. And so, when they reinforce that concept, we’re like, okay! If content really matters, we’ll take us a little longer for us to develop curriculum out, but if that matters to teachers at the end of the day, that’s something we’re going to focus. You know, focus on content. We called them craftsmanship. It’s kind of like, you know…it’s not quite making a car, but, you know, it’s the same idea. You actually really put the thought, consulting with teachers, consulting with curriculum experts. What is it, you know, what is it really, you know, makes that, I don’t know, like learning fractions…what pieces really pull that together? When you are talking about our new science and social studies product, there’s actually a lot more reading passages there’s lot more…the actual meat, I wanna say, of the content. And it takes a lot more time to develop those and make sure that they’re well articulated.
EdTech Times: It can be an incredibly difficult job. I’ve had that job; it’s difficult.
Jennifer Gu: Yeah! And make sure that it flows, it makes sense. Jessica talked about how, like, it’s an adaptive experience. It’s actually really hard to make that experience feel like you’re adapting at the right level, so you’re, like, just making that question just one level harder. But not so hard where you’re like, “Oh well, this is too hard. Forget it.” How do you do that for science? Is it just, you know, adding in one more choice? But those are the things our curriculum designers really spend their time, think about, and really want to make sure that student experience. And I think that’s also that’s what makes learning a little bit more fun, right, when you are appropriately challenged, and you’re like, “Okay, I can do it, I can figure this out.” Versus like, going through the flow.
EdTech Times: So what’s your background? What did you learn in school, what did you work on before IXL? Is there, like, before IXL?
Jennifer Gu: My background is actually computer science. I’ve spent a lot of years doing that. My first job before IXL was actually at a large software company, but, you know, you learn a lot of good skills on, like, product development, how to write good software. But I think what was missing for me was a connection to the product that we’re making. I really wanted to feel like the product we were making actually—
EdTech Times: Yeah, you’re not just on the assembly line. You’re actually involved in the product development.
Jennifer Gu: Yeah, yeah. You feel like what you’re making actually made a difference and someone is using it, and you can feel it.
EdTech Times: And now you’re COO, so you have your hands in all the product development, all the operations in the company.
Jennifer Gu: Yes, yes. It’s really cool. It’s definitely a different experience. It’s a good experience.
EdTech Times: Yeah! How have you seen — I mean, other than the different subject offerings — how else have you seen the product evolve over the years that you’ve been with IXL?
Jennifer Gu: A big thing we pushed out this year—I guess it was earlier this year— is IXL Analytics. So that’s data—
EdTech Times: We love analytics!
Jennifer Gu: We love data! IXL’s always had data. We had data, but it’s, you know, it was just a lot of numbers. And with IXL Analytics, we decided is teachers, we all know, are really, really busy. And it’s not like they hate data, but you can’t just throw numbers or throw reports at someone. And then what do they do with this large stack of information? It’s like information overload. So IXL Analytics, what we try to figure out is how do we take that data to the next level. Even for me, I’m a very busy professional. If someone sends me lots and lots of data, I’m just probably gonna be like, “I’ll look at it later.”
EdTech Times: [laughs] Check out “never remember it ever.” Never look at it.
Jennifer Gu: Yeah, yeah. But if someone sends me something that says, “Oh, we looked at your data, and here’s some insights,” we’d be like, “Oh. interesting.” Right? Whatever piece of data it is. So that’s what we’re trying to do with IXL Analytics too, is what kind of interesting information can we tell teachers they would be delighted to receive. They’d be like, “Yeah, this is information we want, and I would actually want to dig further.” So some examples of IXL Analytics, we have a trouble spots report and actually showcase top trouble spots that their class is currently struggling with. So if you only have, like, five minutes in your day and you want to tackle one thing, take the top trouble spot IXL is showing you, and then maybe, you know, reteach that concept. Hopefully it is a time savings. Another cool report is what we call a skill diagnostic report. The teacher is assigning a skill, an IXL skill to their class. It would actually break the class up into groups. And it’d be like “this group of students are currently working at this level, this group of students are currently working at this level.” So it’s a nice way of, like, breaking your class down, and a lot of people are doing small-group teaching.
EdTech Times: Yeah, that’s so much more manageable.
Jennifer Gu: Right. So things like that. And then the third report that teachers love with IXL Analytics is the real-time report. So we all know teachers probably use technology in labs and in the classroom, and so with the real-time report, like, students pop up like tiles. And they will actually change color, so you actually don’t want your tile to change color. So if it changes to red, you’re struggling, so you’re probably missing a lot of questions.
EdTech Times: So do they then go and help that student directly?
Jennifer Gu: Yeah, right, right. If your tile turns gray, then that student is probably not working on IXL at the moment. They’ve probably checked out and are doing something else. We don’t know what. So you know, teachers love it because just a great class management tool and also it’s a way for them to make sure students are on task. And then, you know, you’re walking around and you can go and help students where they need to be helped. That’s been received really well, so that’s kinda like a big change I’ve seen. Well, even as an industry, right? Like how data is really changing classrooms, how data is really influencing how teachers, like, better managing the time.
EdTech Times: I know that there are so many subjects you could be covering, but what do you think are the next steps for the development of IXL? What do you think you’ll be pulling out in the next year or so?
Jennifer Gu: We’re actually working on the new subject right now.
EdTech Times: Is it a mystery? Can you tell us?
Jennifer Gu: [laughs] Yeah, we’re actually working on Spanish, hoping to debut that next year some time. It’s actually really, really fun because learning a language is very different from learning, like, some of these core subjects.
EdTech Times: Yeah, you have to incorporate—what, audio tools?
Jennifer Gu: Yeah, and also just people learn…I mean, learning a new language is just different. So there are a lot more interactive tools we can use, so we’re imagining a lot more fun activities and how do we integrate that learning-language experience. So it’s been exciting. And it’s actually exciting for us as a software developer, right, because we’re going to do something different.
EdTech Times: That is fun. Cool! Well, I can’t wait to see that when it comes out. Now is there anything else that you would really like to share with our audience that you’re working on or that you…are you trying to get people to test your product?
Jennifer Gu: Other things we’re working on are, right now, our science and social studies are just elementary. And so our big thing for next year is taking science and social studies to middle school, grades six through eight, which is actually pretty difficult.
EdTech Times: Very different group.
Jennifer Gu: Yeah, different group, and science is a lot harder in those grade levels. You know, taking subjects from the soft, fluffy, to actual concrete.
EdTech Times: It’s much more complex and hands-on. They’re actually doing experiments.
Jennifer Gu: Yes, yes! So we’re hoping to take our experiences this year, we might be reaching out to some of our current science and social studies teachers and see if any of them want to give us feedback, test out some of our higher grade-level material. But yeah, that’s our, aside from Spanish, the science and social studies is definitely our big push for next year.
EdTech Times: Middle school.
Jennifer Gu: Yes!
EdTech Times: Wow, it’s sounds like you have got a lot in the pipeline. But it’s good that you’ve kind of paced yourself. I feel that’s a decent amount of time to develop that stuff, but I’m sure that it’ll be really cool when you’re finished.
Jennifer Gu: Yeah, yeah, we’re very, very excited, and I do think that our teachers are excited too. So that’s the top thing for us.
EdTech Times: Great, well, it was very nice speaking with you, Jennifer. I hope to see you around here at ISTE [International Society for Technology in Education conference].
Jennifer Gu: Yes, it was very nice talking to you too.
Previously an academic adviser at her alma mater, Texas A&M University, Adelia has contributed her editorial skills to The Eckleburg Project, Redivider, and Texas A&M University Press. She recently moved from Texas to Boston to pursue a master's degree in publishing & writing at Emerson College. She devotes her free time to reading fantasy novels and spoiling cats.