CANOPYLAB UNROOTED: HOW THE IDEA WAS PLANTED AND GREW

CANOPYLAB UNROOTED: HOW THE IDEA WAS PLANTED AND GREW 

Last week, Kim Lindgaard Jørgensen, Head of Business Development at CanopyLAB, sat down with co-founder and CEO, Sahra-Josephine Hjorth for a talk about the idea behind CanopyLAB, what inspired her to start the company together with co-founder Christian Skræm Juul Jensen, and the fundamentals of eLearning.

KLJ: First of all, what is CanopyLAB and what services are you offering?

SJH: CanopyLAB started as a eLearning platform for youth, where we offered exciting courses for free. We wanted to make eLearning more interactive as we strongly feel that the other eLearning platforms out there do not allow for much interaction. So we were trying to create something that catered to learners by having a higher level of interaction with other learners and the learning material. That’s kind of how we started out. But CanopyLAB has expanded and changed a lot since then. While we started viewing ourselves as “just” an eLearning platform, we’ve matured into an EdTech company that also creates software for corporate learning.

Earlier this year, we released a new software, which enables completely personalized and adaptive learning experiences through the use of technologies, such as advanced algorithms, big data, and soon AI.

Our differences are our strengths
KLJ: What is the mission of CanopyLAB and what problems are you solving?

SJH: When I grew up, I went to a school called Rudolf Steiner. It’s a very different kind of school because there’s a large emphasis placed on creativity, social connectivity, and on sports. And then in the middle of high school, I changed into an international private school that had literally no creative subjects at all, where there was an emphasis on sciences and language. I think that the peers I had in the two schools were quite different, and their parents placed them in schools with a particular academic focus because people learn in different ways.

When we learn in a physical classroom, the teacher has some ability to individualize the course materials and how they teach to fit the needs of the students in the classroom, based on tests and ultimately a feeling about what level is suitable for the students. The teacher may even have prepared a multiple choice test of the next session, but the given day, he or she may spontaneously decide to host a debate instead. This debate will cater to the strengths of some students and prove challenging for other students. The following week, the same teacher will take the same students on a field trip to visit a museum and that captures the interest of some students, and others find it boring. I’ve always found it quite frustrating that the online classroom can’t accommodate people’s differences. Until now, CanopyLAB’s mission has been to bring the fact that people are different and that we learn in different ways into a virtual learning environment (VLE). We daily ask ourselves, how do we utilize all the amazing new technologies to create personalized learning experiences that are fun and educational?

KLJ: How did you come up with the idea behind CanopyLAB — the idea of an adaptive learning platform that allows students to learn in more than 40 different ways?

SJH: I think in some ways it was quite random that Chris and I end up creating learning software, but then at the same time, it also seems kind of predestined with the skillset that we have and how we have skills that are complementary to each other. I was working on my PhD, which initially wasn’t about learning. It was about social media and learning become a strong component of that. I increasingly became fascinated with online learning and it began to occupy more and more of my research. This was around 2013 and 2014, where a lot of research began to highlight some of the problems in learning. One of the most cites problems was the 93% dropout rates many learning platforms faced at the time. Researchers, teachers, and mass media began to question if there was an underlying problem with the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) concept.

By that time, Chris and I were obsessed with the unrealized potential of eLearning, but we wanted to drastically alter the concept to account for people’s differences. This was after I had already tried creating my own YouTube channel and tested a bunch of concepts and ideas on how you can make learning more interactive. But I found YouTube very limiting because communication was largely one way, and through written comments or questions to the speakers. So I went to Chris, asked him what are we going to do, can you build something better? and he went sure, lets try! That is how Chris built our first solution in less than a week.

KLJ: What makes CanopyLAB different from MOOCs and other eLearning platforms?

SJH: The biggest difference is that we never saw ourselves as a learning management system (LMS) even though we have built a software that facilitates learning. We can do all the things an LMS can do, but those are just things that any system has to be able to accommodate. It’s our foundation and we knew we need to be able to accommodate more than that. My PhD research and all the data we have gathered in the last 3 years indicated that in order to create successful learning experiences online, there need to be a higher level of connectivity between the people engaging in the learning experience. What we did when we build our new software was that we took the best practices from an LMS and from social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook and merged them together.

Social network + LMS = a perfect marriage
What we’ve seen with social networks is that they can play an important role in formal and informal work relations, in social gatherings, mass organization, and learning. An example is how social networks play an important role in social movements, like “Bring Back Our Girls” and “Black Lives Matters.” But what happens after people managed to mobilize large crowds and get them excited an about and engaged in something? There is often a gap between passion and the skills needed to mobilize a movement that can make a change. Here, social media fall short. So we wanted to bring some of that passion and ability to organize into a learning setting. So we saw the ability to mobilize people in virtual communities and at the same time get them excited about gaining skills as one of our unique offerings. That’s one of many reasons why we chose to combine a social network with an LMS to create the backbone for CanopyLAB.

Inventing an interaction model for learning
One of the more complicated differences between our software and an LMS is that our software is based on an interaction model. With most typical learning software, learners have very limited options for interaction as I’ve already mentioned. You can watch a video, maybe it’s live, maybe it’s on demand. If you are lucky, you can submit a written assignment and get feedback on it. We felt it was essential to create a bigger palette of interactions in extension of the the argument I made earlier that people are different and they learn in many different ways. For example, if I were to take a class about the Dakota Access Pipeline, a topic that I’m interested in, it’s not only important for me to get to know more about topic, it might also be important for my personal learning curve to give peer feedback or to receive feedback. In that class, I have a classmate, named Peter, he is also interested in the Dakota Access Pipeline, but in order for him to develop new competences, it may be more important for him to learn more about public speaking. Our software enables learners to choose what competencies they want to practice, allowing each student to practice different skill sets in the same classroom simultaneously. That’s critical to learning success and to the success of our software. And at CanopyLAB, we’ve managed to convert YouTube tests and theories about learning into a technology that leverages big data, advanced algorithms, and soon AI to make eLearning interactive and customizable.

Learn more about CanopyLAB, and meet them at CBS Entrepreneurial Day 2017!

CANOPYLAB: FROM STARTUP TO SUCCESSFUL COMPANY

CANOPYLAB: FROM STARTUP TO SUCCESSFUL COMPANY

 

In the second half of 2015, we participated in the Go Grow Programme at CSE. And by we, I mean the two co-founders and three interns, which was what made up CanopyLAB. At the time, we had only just began our journey and were still a bit puzzled with everything. Looking back, it seems a long time ago that we were learning about the different business models, learned how to write a business plan, and practiced how to pitch our idea to potential clients and investors. CanopyLAB was an eLearning platform for youth then. Now, in the beginning of 2017, CanopyLAB has evolved into an EdTech company, solving some of the biggest business challenges for leading corporations in Denmark through our innovative learning software. However, we still run the open learning platform www.canopylab.com, which was where it all began. And to understand just how much has happened since we started out, let’s start there — at the beginning.

CanopyLAB was founded in August 2015 by Sahra-Josephine Hjorth, CEO and PhD Fellow at Aalborg University and Christian Skræm Juul Jensen, CTO and designer. The idea to create an online learning platform for youth around the world emerged in Australia, where Sahra-Josephine was teaching online herself as part of a research stay. She became interested in how social media can be used to create engaging learning experiences and empower youth through a strong online community. Realizing that no such thing existed, she decided to create an online platform herself. A burgeoning talent within her field of academia, it was not in the cards that her career would lie outside the walls of university. However, she wanted to make a visible impact and empower a generation through a new kind of learning. She asked Christian if he was able to translate what she envisioned into a learning platform and a social network. Within a week, Christian has designed and built what was the first version of CanopyLAB. The following year, the two of them tested and improved the platform, which grew rapidly. Users from all over the world were taking courses, learning about humanities and social sciences, gaining new skills and competencies, and building friendships.

During this period, they learned more about what works and what doesn’t in an online learning space. Something that is vastly different from the physical learning environment that most of us are formed by. You can say that they came up with the recipe for what an online course should look like. The most important thing, however, is the underlying understanding that we’re all different and as a result, we all learn in different ways. This is why learning in an online space must be personalized and adaptive to enhance the learning for all.

In the meantime, CanopyLAB had not only grown bigger as a team, in terms users, and markets, they had also attracted attention from some of the leading corporations in Denmark and the Nordics. Corporations, which were facing new challenges for their business, such as onboarding the most talented new employees, retaining the brightest and most hard-working, and creating an environment that motivates to continuous growth and development.

Sahra-Josephine recalls how she multiple times were asked by leaders representing larger corporations why CanopyLAB’s learning experiences exclusively were available for youth. And she realized that it shouldn’t be — that the need for personalized and adaptive learning experiences among larger corporations is huge.

Many of these corporations are facing challenges hiring and recruiting new employees and successfully securing that they are integrated into the company and deliver at their best. At the same time, employees have a need for constant learning to keep up with the rapid developments on the labor market. They need to acquire new skills and competencies and qualifications as a result of market-related technological developments, and require opportunities for personal growth and fast professional development that matches their ambition level.

As a result, CanopyLAB has developed a new learning software, which is launched in the coming week, that helps corporations solve these challenges through an innovative use of new technologies, such as algorithms, big data, and gamification coupled with a social network. The software allows corporations to create engaging learning experiences that suits the individual employee, while learning about the needs of their employees, both through data and direct feedback loops. And employees, they get the opportunity gain new competencies and skills, while being part of a community of like-minded and creating a network, which is both motivating in the learning situation and helpful for their career path.

At the time CanopyLAB participated in the Go Grow Programme, it’s fair to say they were a startup learning the game. Today, at the launch of their new software, which is already being used by some of the leading corporations, CanopyLAB has turned into a successful company with 11 employees, backed by a group of committed investors, still led by the same two founders, who are chasing the dream of making quality learning available for all.

Let me end by making an aside. I was one of the three interns. Afterwards, I got a permanent job, continuing to be part of this amazing journey.

If you want to learn more about the company and its services, visit CanopyLAB’s website, and meet the team at CBS Entrepreneurial Day!