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A transformative, and rewarding journey: Ewoud discusses higher education and FeedbackFruits in 2020

Nhi Nguyen
January 11, 2021

Just a few days before the end of 2020, we had the opportunity to sit down with Ewoud de Kok, CEO of FeedbackFruits, for a chat about the ups and downs of the past year. He joined us from his remote office, a living community situated in an old monastery.

Ewoud’s journey and the idea behind FeedbackFruits began at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, after he decided to take action against the passive coursework he had encountered during his MSc. Sustainable Energy Technology.

As a passionate lifelong learner, Ewoud’s vision was to change the way education is designed, by increasing interactivity and collaboration in course design. FeedbackFruits, under Ewoud’s leadership, scaled up to now providing 9 online learning solutions that drive student engagement while increasing teacher productivity in higher education institutions.

FeedbackFruits has achieved fast international growth, currently handling and enhancing more than 3 million learning activities, which are spread over a variety of courses worldwide. From winning the award for Creative Commons Licensing Integration for EdX, to the more recent partnership with Microsoft, the company’s mission to make every course in the world engaging by driving pedagogical innovation definitely looks promising.

The one-hour interview has been full of inspiring stories from Ewoud: how the changes COVID-19 has brought to the world of higher education and also to FeedbackFruits, what challenges emerged and what achievements were accomplished, as well as the future directions to fulfill the company's educational mission.

Education is the key to societal transformation, to harness the collective wisdom

Could you tell us how you planted the seed of FeedbackFruits? Education wasn’t my focus in the beginning, as I chose to study sustainability at university. However, I soon realized that sustainable energy is not the ultimate solution to the root of all the problems. Green energy can undoubtedly tackle climate change, but not societal challenges. It is education that would be the well-rounded answer to all problems.

Why so? Technological changes have exposed us to endless information input, which entails the ability to analyse, evaluate and make wise decisions. Such ability is absolutely critical in a democratic society, in which decisions are driven by wisdom of the crowd. This is where education comes in, as the driver behind an individual's critical thinking and decision making. Improving educational quality, that’s what constitutes FeedbackFruits and the journey we have been taking since the beginning.

This had just remained a wish, an idea for me, until that short break by the coffee machine some years ago at TU Delft. As we got ourselves prepared for the next lesson, my classmates and I shared ideas on improving the lectures. What struck me at that moment was how uninteractive our education has been: teacher enters the classroom, teaches then exits, all the verbal exchanges are restricted to formal greetings and academic content.

That marks the starting point for my mission, for our company’s mission: we want to generate feedback for teachers, and use these feedback to help them improve the course design process.

This vision is clearly reflected in the name of our company - FeedbackFruits: the fruit we can attain from the feedback process.

In order to improve feedback and eventually educational quality, human interaction is the key. Learning technologies play a crucial role in fostering better, deeper learning interactions. In my opinion:

Technology should make more room for better, and deeper human interaction.

COVID-19 brought us challenges, yet opened up plenty of opportunities

When the pandemic happened, what were the major changes FeedbackFruits experienced? And how did FeedbackFruits cope with such changes? The pandemic has indeed sent us all into a whirlwind of challenges and transformation. Amid this period, I would like to remark on two major changes.

A more demanding industry: All of a sudden, we are all 5 years forward in the future. No-one ever expected the educational transformation to go this quickly, which produced both benefits and downsides. On the one had, people became more familiar, flexible in experimenting with new types of learning. On the other hand, in an effort to compromise academic integrity, institutions tried to shape remote learning according to the traditional, face-to-face mode. This is painful for both teachers and students. What is missing is the appropriate course design that tailors to the needs of online learning.

Different work design: The pandemic forces us to work remotely. It is interesting to see how similar it is between course design and work design, as both experienced major changes and reshaping. As a group of innovators, we very much enjoy that experience. More opportunities for innovation, creativity and transformation. Having to reach balance among different work modes, we would eventually find ourselves in a more flexible teaching and working style. Flexibility is of course the key here, being able to scale up and scale down when necessary.

Initiate the positive change in higher education

When the pandemic happened, what were the major changes FeedbackFruits experienced? How did FeedbackFruits cope with such changes? The pandemic influence hasn’t left out anyone within higher education: institution leaders, teachers or students. I had this conversation with a school administrator, which in my opinion was remarkable and eye-opening. COVID-19 made institutions rethink their priorities and objectives: gaining a reputation, or providing quality education? Fear and uncertainty were the dominant feelings.

For teachers, we encountered mainly the early adopters and innovators. Despite the challenge of switching online, these educators never cease to amaze me, with their determination to do everything to bring the best education to their students. I still remember one thing that a teacher said to me about online education during COVID-19: “What I have witnessed, due to online learning, the wallflowers in my class (students who normally attend the lessons but don’t proactively participate) become more active. This made me realize the value of asynchronous learning. Even though you can’t be in traditional classrooms, you can still design a remote learning environment that benefits your students.”

Teachers tended to think that learning must take place within in-person classrooms. However, this mindset changed as a result of the sudden transition to online learning.

And for students, the role of interaction and engagement has become even more crucial as they are now scattered across different locations and time zones. Students need more interaction, and motivation to continue their study.

How did FeedbackFruits cater to the emerging needs of educators and highered institutions when the pandemic hit? As teaching and learning had to go entirely online, there was a need to maintain academic integrity. Accordingly, many universities turned to proctoring as a solution to online assessment and the feedback from students has been terrible. We see that this is our opportunity to offer an alternative assessment strategy, by increasing work in Automated Feedback. This tool helps teachers reduce the grading workload, while allowing for students’ learning assessment to be conducted.

Most importantly, we realized that 2020 is not a year for revenue, but the time to support and help everyone in higher education. That’s why FeedbackFruits made all our tools free for the entire academic year.

A transformative journey that granted us rewards

What do you consider the biggest achievements of FeedbackFruits in 2020? Thinking back on our journey, there are two main achievements I would like mention:

User satisfaction: We received positive feedback and reflections from both teachers and students, higher than we expected. Despite the fact that using FeedbackFruits has been compulsory for students, they still find the experience beneficial for their study. Being mentioned as one the highlights during pandemic learning by our users is undoubtedly rewarding for us individually, and for FeedbackFruits.

Team effort: I have to say I truly value each individual within our team. It has been remarkable and extraordinary how we managed this difficult time together. The remote work condition is not optimal for everyone both mentally and physically, yet we are always motivated and determined. Looking at the survey results from our partners, I just feel so proud that we were so smoothly able to handle all the struggles.

Passive learning has to stop, active and inclusive education is the new normal

It is without doubt that the education system will be different after this pandemic. What lasting changes do you think will emerge from post-pandemic higher education? Students will become more critical of their learning experience, and institutions start realising that they should live up to their students’ expectations of a fruitful education. At the same time, educators will be more determined to invest and experiment new pedagogical practices.

What direction will FeedbackFruits go in 2021? We will continue the path that we have been taking, supporting educators to drive educational transformation with learning technologies.

We wish to bring our solutions to a wider range of stakeholders: institutions, teachers, and students, at the same time expanding our impact upon higher education.

What are your goals for the upcoming academic year? What are the educational challenges that FeedbackFruits wishes to address? 2020 has made us all realize the importance of continuous improvement. Educators already took the first step towards the digital transformation in learning, yet there are still second, third, and further stages to embark upon in the future. In this journey, support is indispensable and we want to be teachers’ sidekick. We need to be faster in shaping pedagogical changes, in experimenting with learning designs that we thought we would only see within 5 years. Furthermore, we wish to cultivate a community of practice in higher education, harnessing the wisdom of the crowd. That’s why we are working so close with the universities, to share the success stories of engaging, interactive course design.

In short, scaling up the current efforts and igniting innovation are our ultimate goals for the next academic year and beyond. The impact we have made, is still a tiny droplet in the ocean of change. It’s challenging, but certainly worth the while.  

If you can only summarize FeedbackFruits' journey in 2020 in one phrase, what might that be? A transformative journey that gave us the lessons to improve the way we make our impact and we work in the coming decades.

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