5 Questions with Jennifer Gu – COO of IXL

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If you’re not keeping up with our industry-leading interview series of Five Questions with top education, edtech and policy leaders, don’t worry. You can catch up here.

This time we’re honored to get some quality time with Jennifer Gu, the COO of IXL. She joined IXL from Oracle, where she was a senior development manager. And if you’re not familiar with IXL, it’s an educational technology company that delivers an immersive learning experience—for all students, in all grades, across all subjects, including math, language arts, science and social studies. IXL is used by 1 in 9 U.S. students and with 30 billion questions asked and answered around the world.

Your company’s learning tools are used by one in nine American students, so, clearly, something is working. And while I’m sure it’s not just one thing, what would you say is the key to the success?

I believe the key to IXL’s success is our focus on engagement and the student learning experience. It’s not just about helping students master grade-level objectives; it’s also about how they get there. We work hard to craft content that sparks curiosity, builds confidence and intrinsically motivates students to learn. We use a huge variety of question types, creative and humorous visuals, and fun facts to make learning exciting without being distracting. We also think about the best way to present every question and explanation, and how to offer multiple skills about the same topics to support students of varying learning styles. We think the fun in learning comes from gaining new knowledge, so we challenge students while providing support when they need it, so they can experience that satisfying “I get it now!” feeling when they finish a skill.

Adaptive learning is a definitely a buzz word in edtech and adaptability, customization is a major part of what IXL does. What’s your view of how the industry is using the term “adaptive learning” versus how adaptive those technologies really are?

“Adaptive” is definitely an overused word in our industry. To IXL, adaptive means flexibility and versatility. It means that the skill you are working on adapts to you and guides you along–the key word being “guide.” There are many programs that lock students into a personalized learning path, which might be appealing to some educators, but that approach takes out the human element and the ability to make your learning your own. We believe teachers know their students best, and should be able to choose how to help and motivate their students, pick content that they know their class will find interesting and use the product in any way that suits their teaching style. We also think that truly adaptive technology empowers students to make choices about their learning. For example, one of our newer features, IXL Recommendations, uses a student’s practice and performance history to generate suggestions for skills to practice next.

You joined IXL and edtech from the tech community as opposed to the education side. What’s that transition been like? What are some interesting or important, ed specific, tech issues or concerns that you’ve observed?  

It’s been extremely rewarding. I learn so much everyday from the teachers and educators that we work with–I’m inspired by their dedication and their drive to make an impact on their students and in their community. Seeing the students who use IXL build confidence in the classroom and being able to help out our amazing teachers is what makes this job fulfilling.

Parents and educators have responded very well to IXL products and services which implies that they are seeing results. Can you share any learning outcome or efficacy results with us?

We love hearing from teachers about how IXL has impacted their teaching. One of my favorite stories is from an algebra teacher in rural Mississippi who began using IXL a few years ago to understand how the new state standards mapped to the curriculum her school was using, and what problems she could assign her students to help meet those objectives. Once she started using IXL in her class, she noticed a new energy level among her students, who became more engaged with what they were learning. She told us that as a result, a whopping 82 percent of her students passed the math section of the PARCC test in 2015 – the highest passing rate in the state. In addition to these types of anecdotes, we’ve started conducting efficacy studies on a few states like California, which have generated statistically significant correlations between IXL usage and improved performance on standardized assessments.

What’s next for IXL? What things can we expect to see you working on or perfecting in the next three years?

We’re excited to be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the IXL product this year, and we have more exciting developments to come! For one, we are continuously adding to our existing curriculum. For example, we’ve just introduced more reading skills to IXL Language Arts, including phonics skills for pre-K to first grade. For science and social studies, we’re planning on introducing high school content as well as more topics for our existing grade levels. And, foreign languages such as Spanish are on the horizon! In addition to more content, we are also taking a deeper look at making IXL smarter. This means finding even more ways to give guidance to students and providing more insights to teachers through data analytics, personalized recommendations and more.