20VC Ed Cooke, Grandmaster of Memory on What Is Missing In EdTech What Does The Integration Of AI & Education Look Like & The Core Pillars Of Optimising Memory



In this episode of the 20 Minutes VC, host Harry Stebbings interviews Ed Cook, the founder and CEO of Memrise, a language learning app that combines technology with engaging content to provide users with a joyful learning experience. Ed shares his journey from being a grand master of memory and author, to creating an app that empowers millions to learn languages effectively through emotion, vibrant content, and social interaction. He also discusses the future of educational technology, the role of AI, and the importance of team culture in building a successful startup. The conversation touches on personalization in learning, the power of gamification, and the vision for Memrise to reach 100 million active users. Additionally, Ed reflects on the significance of making learning a desirable and joyful experience, rather than an obligation, and his aspiration to expand into a broader range of educational products.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Ed Cook and Memrise

  • Host Harry Stebbings introduces Ed Cook, founder and CEO of Memrise.
  • Ed Cook is described as highly intelligent and a former grand master of memory.
  • Memrise is an app designed to make learning languages joyful.
  • The app has received funding from notable investors, including Lerer Hippeau, Balderton Capital, and Matt Mullenweg.
  • Ed Cook has a diverse background, also being an author and memory coach featured in the book "Moonwalking with Einstein."

"Now, Ed is the founder and CEO at Memrise, the app that makes learning languages joyful. And they have funding from some of the best in the world, including Lira Hippo, Balderton Capital, and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, just to name a few."

This quote provides a brief introduction to Ed Cook's current role and the success of his language learning app, Memrise, highlighting its joyful approach to learning and the backing of prominent investors.

Ed Cook's Fascination with Memory and Learning

  • Ed Cook has been interested in consciousness, memory, metaphor, thinking, and the mind since his teenage years.
  • He experimented with practical techniques to amplify learning and enjoyed the process.
  • Cook trained in classical and ancient memory techniques, competing in the World Memory Championships.
  • His primary interest was understanding why these techniques worked effectively.

"So I guess since I was a teenager, I've always been pretty fascinated by consciousness, memory, metaphor, thinking, the workings of the mind."

This quote explains Ed Cook's long-standing fascination with the human mind and its capabilities, which underpins his work and achievements in the field of memory and learning.

The Memrise Journey

  • Ed Cook's journey with memory techniques led him to compete and succeed in memory championships.
  • He was interested in the mechanisms behind successful learning and memory.
  • Cook transitioned from personal experimentation to coaching others, including Josh Foer, who won the American Memory Championships after a year of training.
  • The experience with Foer led to the book "Moonwalking with Einstein," which recounts the story and explores the history of memory techniques.
  • Cook aimed to create an app that could provide people with "learning superpowers."

"And from there, it wasn't a kind of small step, really, to just say, okay, well, is it possible to create an app which can basically give people learning superpowers?"

This quote captures Ed Cook's ambition to translate his expertise in memory into a tool that could empower others to learn more effectively, leading to the creation of Memrise.

The Essence of Learning According to Ed Cook

  • Ed Cook believes emotion is at the heart of all learning.
  • Interest and fascination are crucial for learning anything effectively.
  • Learning is most effective when it is perceptual, cognitively well-organized, and social.
  • Memrise focuses on creating vibrant content that is perceptually engaging, cognitively structured, and socially relevant.
  • The app uses videos of native speakers to make language learning more interesting and fun.

"So, in one word, the essence of learning is emotion. Interest is at the very, very heart of all learning."

This quote emphasizes the importance of emotional engagement in the learning process, which is a core principle in the design and function of the Memrise app.

Personalization and Structure in Learning

  • Ed Cook acknowledges the importance of personalization in learning.
  • However, he believes that mastering the fundamental techniques of learning is more critical.
  • Memrise focuses on ensuring that the learning experience aligns with the brain's natural processes.
  • The app aims to install information at the optimal rate and with the right amount of variety.

"We said about kind of, yeah, I think that the personalization of learning is very, very interesting, but actually, there's a much more fundamental level, which you've got to get right, which is basically the kind of the fundamental technique of it."

This quote reflects Ed Cook's perspective on the importance of foundational learning techniques over personalization, suggesting that effective learning strategies are universally applicable before individual preferences are considered.

Amplification of Human Capabilities through Learning Technology

  • Learning technology is likened to the invention of the bicycle, which amplified human speed.
  • The combination of repetition and active recall, along with temporal and spatial elements, can accelerate learning significantly.
  • The goal is to create a system that gives everyone "learning superpowers."

"And the design of the bicycle took ages. It's only in the late 19th century that we finally worked out how to amplify the human body in this way and make it go three or four times faster."

The quote highlights the parallel between the long development of the bicycle to enhance physical capabilities and the ongoing development of learning technology to enhance cognitive capabilities.

Evolution of Perspectives on Learning

  • Initially, learning was viewed as a purely cognitive process involving memory techniques.
  • Over time, the social aspects of learning have become more prominent.
  • Motivation and social relevance are key to effective learning.
  • Technology is used to enhance the desire to learn.

"The meaning of learning is actually more important than how you do it."

This quote emphasizes the idea that the significance and context of learning are more crucial than the method or technology used to facilitate it.

Prospects for Educational Technology

  • Educational technology (edtech) is still in its early stages and has much room for improvement.
  • The future of edtech lies in creating engaging and cognitively powerful learning experiences.
  • Technology should motivate and entertain learners, making learning a seamless part of their lives.

"I do agree that we are very, very early in the journey of edtech."

The quote agrees with the sentiment that educational technology has not yet reached its full potential and is still developing.

Gaming Industry's Influence on Learning

  • The gaming industry has successfully motivated people to engage in activities through technology.
  • The success of the gaming industry can inform how educational technology might evolve.
  • Quizlet Live is praised for turning classrooms into focused learning environments.

"I admire what the gaming industry has done for the ability to get people motivated and sustain them in activities."

The quote acknowledges the gaming industry's success in engaging and motivating users, which can be a model for educational technology.

Catalysts for Edtech Evolution

  • Narratives around social learning, technology, AI, and content are key to the evolution of edtech.
  • The integration of AI in learning should be sensitive and charismatic.
  • High-quality content is crucial for engaging learning experiences.

"The difficult bit is like actually lighting up inside people the desire to learn and showing them why it's socially relevant to them."

This quote points out that the challenge in education technology is not just about the tools but also about fostering a genuine desire to learn and making learning socially relevant.

AI's Role in Education

  • AI is often misunderstood, with concerns about it becoming superhuman and taking over.
  • The real challenge is creating diverse forms of intelligence with unique qualities.
  • AI is seen as a continuation of text, capturing and collaborating with human intelligence.
  • The potential of AI in education lies in its ability to design beautiful artificial intelligences and collaborate with learners.

"I actually think of AI as continuous with text."

The quote suggests that AI should be viewed as an extension of text, capturing and expressing intelligence in a dynamic way.

Gamification in Learning

  • The term "gamification" can be seen as embarrassing within the tech industry.
  • Gamification should be thought of as metaphorical, aiding in the understanding of abstract concepts.
  • The use of metaphors is crucial in all learning and abstract thought.

"Gamification is kind of an embarrassing word, isn't it? You sort of say, oh, I'm gamifying my app."

The quote reflects the speaker's view on the term "gamification" and its perception in the tech industry, suggesting a need to rethink how we describe the integration of game-like elements in educational technology.

Gamification and Learning

  • Gamification is used to make abstract concepts, like knowledge, more tangible and relatable.
  • It involves creating a metaphor around the subject matter to make it visible and understandable.
  • The narrative used in gamification can connect learners with the real value of learning, such as navigating the world and making new friends.
  • A specific example is the concept of faking being a foreigner to successfully complete tasks in a new language.
  • Other language apps focus on academic discipline, whereas gamification aims to make learning joyful and fun.

"And so the narrative and the gamification we are pursuing is around this notion of successfully faking being a foreigner in a country. So we have little missions. We're like, okay, go to a cafe, successfully order a coffee, but you're an imposter. Right?"

This quote summarizes the approach of using a narrative in gamification to create a relatable and enjoyable learning experience that simulates real-world applications of language skills.

Narrative and Memorability

  • Narrative is a fundamental principle of memory, making information more memorable.
  • Tying a narrative to the learning process can increase retention.
  • Personal narratives, such as the desire to win a memory championship, can motivate intense study and practice.

"Narrative is like one of the fundamental principles of memory, turns something into a story. It's five times more memorable."

This quote emphasizes the importance of narrative in enhancing memory retention, suggesting that learning tied to a story is significantly more memorable.

Impact of Gamification on Retention

  • Gamification has been observed to increase retention in educational technology.
  • It works best when combined with quality content and learning technology.
  • Upcoming developments in gamification are expected to significantly change the educational landscape.

"Yes, it does. Narrative is like one of the fundamental principles of memory, turns something into a story. It's five times more memorable."

The quote reinforces the role of narrative in memory and suggests that gamification, which often uses narrative elements, can improve retention in learning.

Building a Startup Team

  • Constructing a startup team is essential for expressing an idea and pursuing a truth.
  • The team should reflect the values the product aims to espouse.
  • A diverse team with a shared love for learning is crucial for creating the ultimate learning product.
  • The team should be recruited not just for talent but for cultural fit.
  • Curated autonomy is a philosophy adopted to maintain a vibrant impact as the team grows.

"So for me, the essence of building a startup is constructing the team. And what are you constructing a team for? You're constructing a team to express an idea and pursue a truth."

This quote highlights the importance of team building in a startup, where the team is seen as the vehicle to express ideas and pursue the startup's core mission.

Monetization and User Experience

  • Monetization is linked to making the learning experience more joyful.
  • The goal is not to have everyone pay but to offer a powerful financial model that enables further innovation.
  • The app is designed to create scarcities of joy that users can purchase, enhancing their learning experience.

"What we think of is learning should be joyful and you should pay to make it even more joyful, because what has value? It's like, it's kind of philosophical question and fundamentally we crave happiness and you have to design the social experience across the heart of the app."

This quote explains the monetization strategy of making the learning experience joyful, suggesting that users are willing to pay for enhanced happiness and a better learning experience.

Retention and Payment

  • Paying for the app does not create an obligation to learn but is linked to a better retention rate.
  • The higher retention among paying users is likely due to self-selection rather than causation.
  • The aim is to avoid a gym membership model where users pay but do not engage.

"We do, but I don't think that's causal. I think that's more of a kind of self-selection thing. The most keen."

The quote suggests that while paying users have better retention, it's likely because they are more motivated to learn rather than the payment causing increased retention.

Rewarding Aspects of the Journey

  • The most rewarding experience is receiving feedback from users who have gained confidence in their learning abilities.
  • Innovative outreach methods, like a double-decker bus tour, create community engagement and pride within the team.

"There's something amazing about being repeatedly told 100 times a day from people who say, I never felt that I could be good at learning. I feel amazing at learning."

This quote captures the rewarding aspect of witnessing the positive impact the learning platform has on users' self-perception and abilities.

Team Culture and Joyful Work Environment

  • The importance of integrating team culture into every aspect of work.
  • The significance of living joyfully to create a joyful team environment.
  • The impact of team culture on content creation and mission fulfillment.

"And if you're going to be joyful, You've got to live joyfully."

This quote emphasizes the idea that to foster a joyful work culture, one must embody joyfulness in their own life, which in turn reflects in the workplace environment and team culture.

Personal Sentiment and Influence

  • The emotional impact one person can have on another after interaction.
  • The ability to discern much about a person based on how they make others feel.

"It's always feel very happy when I leave you."

Ed Cook expresses the positive emotional effect that interactions with Josh Foer have on him, suggesting that personal sentiments can be strong indicators of influence and character.

Favorite Book and Its Impact

  • "From Dawn till Decadence" by Jacques Barzun as a favorite book.
  • The book's presentation of Western culture and its effect on the reader's perspective.
  • The notion that progress has not been relentless but requires positive invention.

"Because it is the most imperious history of western culture."

Josh Foer explains why "From Dawn till Decadence" is his favorite book, highlighting its comprehensive and transformative take on Western cultural history.

Mentors and Their Influence

  • Bill Warner as a mentor who influenced the startup approach from intention.
  • Peter Reed as a mentor who provides personal growth experiences, such as taking Josh to Burning Man.

"He'd invented the first video editing software and he was someone who had this very profound belief that you should build a startup from intention."

This quote describes the influential advice Josh Foer received from his mentor, Bill Warner, emphasizing the importance of intention in startup development rather than just iterative testing.

Alternative Career Paths

  • Working on reinventing institutional structures for innovation.
  • The potential of a philosophical commune as a less ambitious but fulfilling pursuit.

"If I was being ambitious and I wanted to sort of continue to try and change the world, I think I would work on reinventing institutional structures."

Josh Foer discusses his ambitious alternative career path focused on institutional innovation, which he believes could address societal ills more effectively than technology alone.

Favorite Blog or Newsletter

  • Continuations.com recommended for its deep engagement with technology and ideas.
  • The contrast between superficial philosophies in Silicon Valley and the quality of thought in Continuations.com.

"He's a deep thinker. He's got a kind of profound, very well balanced understanding of technology."

Josh Foer praises Albert Wenger of Continuations.com for his thoughtful and balanced approach to technology, setting a standard for intellectual engagement.

Ideal Company to Lead

  • Automatic, Matt Mullenweg's company, as an ideal CEO role.
  • The admiration for the company's distributed structure and work-life balance.

"He runs this billion dollar company entirely distributed."

Josh Foer expresses his admiration for Automatic's CEO, Matt Mullenweg, and the company's innovative distributed work model, which he finds inspiring.

Future Plans for Memrise

  • Growth of Memrise to reach 100 million active users.
  • Building a creative team across learning tech, game design, and content production.
  • Long-term goal to develop a family of edtech products.

"The target is 100 million multi active users."

Josh Foer outlines the ambitious goal for Memrise to expand its user base significantly, which is part of a broader vision to innovate in the educational technology space.

Gratitude and Future Engagement

  • Harry Stebbings expresses gratitude to Ed Cook for his time on the show.
  • An invitation to follow Harry on Snapchat and sign up for the newsletter for updates.

"What a fantastic episode that was with Ed and so immensely grateful to him for giving up his time to come on the show today."

Harry Stebbings closes the episode by thanking Ed Cook for his participation and shares ways for listeners to stay connected with the podcast.

Promotions and Recommendations

  • Headspace app for meditation and mindfulness.
  • Luma's surround Wi-Fi system for home network improvement.

"Headspace is meditation made simple."

Harry Stebbings promotes the Headspace app as a tool for improving mental well-being, indicating the podcast's support for products that enhance quality of life.

"Luma is the world's first ever surround wifi system that brings speed, security and control to your home network."

Harry Stebbings recommends Luma for its ability to provide a superior home Wi-Fi experience, highlighting the importance of technology in everyday life.

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