Ulrik Christensen was a medical student in Denmark in the late 1990s with a dream of doing scientific research that would change the world. But he also had an interest in pedagogy–he had been a prominent coach of table tennis, and his own parents had been teachers. This eventually led him to an interdisciplinary group that was investigating complex problems in medicine. The group wanted to know, specifically, why extremely talented doctors still sometimes made mistakes that resulted in a dead patient on the table.
The hypothesis was that it was a behavioral problem–arrogant doctors weren’t being good enough team players with the nurses. Though this was a factor, it wasn’t nearly enough to explain what was going on. “It was also a learning issue,” recalls Christensen. The doctors simply forgot things they had learned.
Christensen wound up building a company that became a leader in medical simulations. He sold it the month before he graduated from medical school, having grown it to some 50 employees. The entrepreneurial bug had bitten: “I gave up any hope of wearing a white coat for a living,” he says.
As students go back to school today, more of them than ever will be touched by products that Christensen, who now works for McGraw-Hill Education, has influenced. Generalizing some of his pedagogical findings to education writ large, Christensen founded another startup, Area9, which McGraw-Hill Education acquired last February (according to one rumor, for some $170 million). Christensen became MHE’s “senior fellow of digital learning” as part of the deal.
In particular, Christensen has pioneered a technology called the SmartBook, which has 650,000 users this year; there are 300 SmartBook course areas in higher education. Though it debuted in 2013, the technology is still evolving, with a major iteration expected in December. Today, McGraw-Hill Education announces a back-to-school program wherein the company will donate a textbook for the purchase of every SmartBook in the higher education market between now and January.
What is a “SmartBook,” anyway? Haven’t good old-fashioned books done the job steadily for hundreds of years? “The problem with books are they’re one-size-fits-all,” says Christensen. But an “adaptive e-book,” which is the other phrase Christensen uses to describe his work, is something else. It learns with you, in a sense: It learns about how you’re learning, as you’re learning.
For example: say you’re a freshman studying Psych 101. Your professor can assign some reading in a Psychology SmartBook, directly through your college’s IT infrastructure.
Open up your SmartBook (on your laptop, iPad, or other major platform), and already you’re presented with something unusual: Instead of a plain book chapter, you’ll see a chapter with key terms highlighted, and the rest of the text faded. SmartBook calls this “preview” mode, and the idea is that before you do a deep dive into the nuances of a chapter, you’d do best to get a broad overview of the material that will be covered. The very structure of how you read and review is already visually altered.
Why the faded background text? Why not simply produce a CliffsNotes version of the chapter first? “We tried that in a lab setting,” says Christensen. But ultimately, it was useful for students to see (if dimly) what they weren’t reading–yet. It helped them to have a visual sense, in the back of their mind, of how much text they would need to revisit once they had mastered the basics. It’s good to have a sense of the overall topography of a subject, it turns out, before you explore every cave.
Once you’ve read through the highlighted text, you can take a quiz to see what you understand well, and what you’re still struggling with. Once you’re up to speed, you can move along into full reading mode, with the rest of the text presented to you.
In fact, SmartBooks offer a range of ways to test yourself as you read: You can choose to be quizzed regularly as you go, or you can choose to be quizzed at wider intervals. “Depending on who you are, you use the system that suits you best,” says Christensen, in what could be said to be his overall philosophy.
The key, says Christensen, is to avoid cramming, which is the bane of higher education. If you cram for an exam, you might just pass it. But you won’t remember much of the material later. “Cramming really is the evil here,” says Christensen. “What adaptive systems do is carefully monitor your learning. And they say, ‘If you give me five minutes of your time, I promise you you’ll be spending that time efficiently.’”
So far, SmartBook–as well as related “adaptive e-learning” technologies MHE is investing in–has been a success. MHE claims that students using a related technology, LearnSmart, have their grades improve by one letter (from B- to A-, say). And students like it: “We get 90% of students to say this is worthwhile doing, which is unheard of in education,” says Christensen.
All in all, it’s been a productive career pivot for Christensen, who doesn’t think he’ll ever work professionally as a doctor–even though, legally, he could (at least back home in Denmark). “I think it’s incredible I’m allowed to practice,” says Christensen, who feels that many regulations haven’t caught up to findings about learning and how knowledge atrophies over time if not maintained. “I say my ‘MD’ stands for mega-dangerous.”