Michał Borkowski of Brainly: “There is a growing willingness to embrace tech inside and outside of the classroom to supplement traditional teaching methods”

Finally, there is a growing willingness to embrace tech inside and outside of the classroom to supplement traditional teaching methods. Brainly’s success is a great example of this — many of the users on our platform are actually teachers themselves, who can see the value of providing additional study resources such as Brainly to supplement their in-classroom […]

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Finally, there is a growing willingness to embrace tech inside and outside of the classroom to supplement traditional teaching methods. Brainly’s success is a great example of this — many of the users on our platform are actually teachers themselves, who can see the value of providing additional study resources such as Brainly to supplement their in-classroom teaching.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michał Borkowski.

Michał is the CEO and co-founder of Brainly and is responsible for product strategy, company strategy and culture.

Michał grew up in a small town in Poland before heading to Warsaw to study corporate finance at the acclaimed Warsaw School of Economics. He and his co-founders established Brainly in 2009 in Kraków, driven by the conviction that collaborative online communities can empower students from around the world with knowledge and information. In a little more than a decade, Brainly has become the world’s largest online learning community for students, parents and teachers. After moving to New York City and living there for 4 years to open and build Brainly’s US office, Michał now lives in Poland with his wife, Kasia and their newborn child.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to a career at the intersection of tech and education.

My co-founders and I created Brainly to provide students with a safe and trusted study-centric online community to help them go from questioning to understanding. When I was a student myself, so much of my support came from study sessions with friends where we could ask and answer questions together — Brainly originated from that same idea and we’ve made 24–7 study support available to students around the world, digitally.

What was one of the first important lessons you learned early on in your career, how have you kept that with you through the journey.

Some people fall into the trap of working towards too many goals at once and spreading themselves too thin. By not directing their energy in a focused way, it can be easy to overlook important opportunities. We’ve always had such a strong mission at Brainly which has helped us reach our biggest goals successfully. As a founder and CEO, directing my energy and passion effectively makes a huge difference across the entire company and helps all our teams stay empowered and efficient.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are! We just launched a new product in the U.S. — Brainly Tutor — in April, which is dedicated to connecting students with live expert help whenever and wherever they need it. Think of it as digital, on-demand teacher assistance available in an affordable subscription plan. This subscription supplements the free platform and provides students with real-time access to live chat support. In seconds, Brainly users are connected with an authorized tutor from the platform’s extensive global pool of expert staffers.

We launched Brainly Tutor for math and physics specifically, which are by far the most challenging subjects according to Brainly users. From here we will be expanding to include additional subjects and regions in the future.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

Brainly is the largest online learning platform in the world with over 350 million users globally. A recent survey of our community revealed the positive impact the platform has on their learning with 85% of Brainly subscribers in the US saying that Brainly helps them understand what they’re learning at school better. Additionally, 89% of users said that Brainly helps them to get better grades, which is great!

Beyond students, the Brainly community is made up of parents and teachers too — who’re just as committed to helping kids reach the understanding they need to be confident in the subjects that challenge them the most.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you grade the results of the U.S. education system at present?

We built Brainly to complement the traditional education system so we’re not focused on replacing it. I’m a huge believer in the value of social interactions in education, that only offline school and teachers can ignite. That said, it’s been a challenging year for students, parents, and teachers with the pandemic revealing some of the weak points that were there all along. What became most apparent is that when kids get stuck, they need immediate, easy access to help to get them moving forward again.

During remote learning, that kind of personalized support was in short supply which was why Brainly became such an important tool for so many, especially parents who were thrust into teaching roles. They’ve been such an instrumental part of the platform and played a really impressive role at helping to pick up slack and ensuring their children weren’t being left behind.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

  1. Several aspects of the U.S. education system remain especially strong. U.S. is home to the global leaders in higher education and there is a real emphasis on students progressing through their studies to further study.
  2. Although there is much work to be done, the U.S. continues to strive towards expanded diversity in education and has come a long way. There is no disputing that diversity leads to greater student engagement, curiosity and ideas exchange which benefits everyone. As a CEO of a global company, which unites students, parents, teachers, but also employs partners from all corners of the world and with multiple cultural backgrounds, I see the importance and value of diversity every day. There is no doubt that inclusion makes any community stronger.
  3. Student support groups of all types, especially those built around identity have been central to the U.S. high school experience for decades. Providing forums for kids to learn about themselves and each other beyond academics is part of what makes this period of their lives so enriching.
  4. Additionally, the U.S. is also a global leader in providing a breadth of educational opportunities and subjects for academic exploration across middle and high school levels. In almost all instances, students are given access to a wide range of subjects to choose from which gives them a head start when approaching specialist courses at a tertiary level.
  5. Finally, there is a growing willingness to embrace tech inside and outside of the classroom to supplement traditional teaching methods. Brainly’s success is a great example of this — many of the users on our platform are actually teachers themselves, who can see the value of providing additional study resources such as Brainly to supplement their in-classroom teaching.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

The U.S. has a legacy of STEM education with many global leaders in these fields passing through U.S. education institutions ahead of careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. When I was a student, I remember how crucial expert educators were at unlocking the more challenging STEM subjects, such as physics which was a personal challenge for me. As always, ensuring that expert teachers are available to all and not just the lucky few will increase STEM engagement.

Additionally, one of the most effective ways we can keep young people engaged in these subjects is by ensuring that employment opportunities in these fields continue to exist within the domestic market, and are prioritized as part of the U.S.’s big-picture economic strategy. Finally, ensuring that innovation always has a home in the U.S. and that we’re continuing to innovate at a global level will make sure STEM students continue to see the bright future ahead of them in these fields.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

This is a no brainer — at 51% of the population, without women we’d be missing out on 51% of the talent.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

This is absolutely somewhere where there is room to improve and education will make the difference. When women don’t see themselves in their educators or curriculum, it’s a problem — and one which is pervasive throughout STEM subjects. First, the curriculum needs to be revisited to challenge gender bias and foster greater diversity. Within STEM subjects especially, co-educational practices are especially valuable and have been shown to foster curiosity, collaboration, critical thinking and experimentation. Diversity is key and is a win for all students.

There is also foundational work that can be done in giving teachers greater training and support in how to effectively mentor and guide young women in STEM subjects. Until schools have gender equality in these subjects, they’re not succeeding.

Lastly, but perhaps most obviously, as a society we need to be doing a better job at celebrating women’s contributions, their history, and legacy in STEM subjects, research, and innovation. Greater visibility will lead to greater interest.

As a leader in education, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

One of the most exciting parts about middle and high school education is being introduced to so many different ideas, subjects and possibilities for future study. Whether this is STEAM or arts focused, giving students the ability to discover their passions is what it’s all about.

This is also one of our major priorities at Brainly — we now offer expert homework help in 21 subjects and fields, from health to engineering. Like students, there is no subject that’s more important than another, and giving the Brainly community the tools they need to explore the subjects that challenge and excite them the most has been great.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what four things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

We’re in a period of upheaval which is always the best time to make any changes, big or small. Obviously the pandemic has underscored the fragility of certain aspects of the education system, especially when it comes to technology and equal access to the resources students need to thrive digitally. While it’s true we’d be better prepared for another epidemic if there was one tomorrow, there is still much work to be done when it comes to leveling the digital playing field for students. Below are some changes big and small I’d like to make.

I would like to see technology truly embraced in school, with laptops and devices considered as essential as textbooks. There is obviously an investment aspect that needs to be considered here but it’s not impossible to overcome if a concerted effort was made to better equip the millions of students across the country.

Beyond hardware and material resources, I’d love to see the curriculum expand to embrace more “soft skills,” such as public speaking or personal financial planning, which are just as crucial to success in the 21st century as anything else.

Additionally, I’d like to see all schools become green and carbon neutral. This is the greatest way we can illustrate how important climate change is alongside demonstrating how achievable the solution is for the next generation.

Finally, there is an urgent need to address the brick-and-mortar infrastructure of the educational system itself, including the need to upgrade many aging school buildings across the U.S. For example, a heat wave a couple of weeks back in Baltimore caused area schools to switch to remote learning due to buildings not having adequate air conditioning. This just shows that the pandemic is not the only factor causing ongoing format disruptions in schools, and given how much we’ve overcome in the past year, adequate heating and cooling in buildings should be a no brainer. Students deserve the best possible environments to learn in.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There is a short story by the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski (author of ‘The Witcher’ saga) titled “Something Ends, Something Begins.” This title is a great mantra for many different areas in life, but has been especially valuable when it comes to my work as Brainly’s CEO and my approach to building the business. I’m a big believer in persistence and working iteratively towards a goal.

In business, but especially in the world of tech startups, there really is no “finish line” or sense of completion and it’s crucial to always be ready to change directions, pivot in strategy, or simply walk away from problems that cannot be resolved. This is why it’s always helpful to remember that when something ends, something begins, and oftentimes the new beginning is an opportunity to create something even greater.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

If I could stretch it a little and have a lunch with anyone who’s ever lived, it would be with the physicist and chemist Marie Skłodowska-Curie whose lifelong dedication to science, innovation and discovery changed the world. The degree of effort she put into her studies and career, at a time when the odds were stacked against her and things were exponentially harder for women, is an inspiration.

Her commitment to education and research took her across Europe from Warsaw, Poland to Paris, France where she continued her studies and met her husband, physicist Pierre Curie. That relationship, which could have seen her take a backseat, was actually one of her greatest achievements and she was able to successfully carve out her own voice and brilliant career.

It was her dedication to research that is the most impressive to me. The worlds of science and medicine became so much greater due to her contributions and she ultimately ended up giving her life to the discoveries she made. Marie was truly fearless and lived a life that so many of us continue to be inspired by today.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Brainly social accounts

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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