My Journey Through EdTech

Meet Ajay Sharda, co-founder of Pragya Systems and a veteran of the EdTech industry. In this interview, Ajay shares his EdTech journey over the years and how it led him to Pragya today.

How did you get into the education industry?
I started my career developing software for the department of defense in India, and moved to the U.S. in 1992. I worked in a couple of different companies, and met Chris Vento back in 1996. Chris and I were part of a startup back in the internet boom that was developing all types of software – retail, enterprise, etc. Around the same time, Murray Goldberg out of University of British Columbia was working on new e-learning technology that got spun out into a company called WebCT. When the internet bubble burst, WebCT was looking for a team to take the initial version of the platform and build into an enterprise-class product that can be scaled to meet the growing demand. WebCT acquired our startup, then Chris and I joined Carol Vallone (CEO of WebCT) to start building the first Enterprise Learning Management System – WebCT Vista.

Starting in 2001, it took us a few months to understand the space and customer requirements, and then another year to develop the first-of-its-class enterprise LMS. It was a great ride, a great team, we were at the forefront of several innovations, including LTI standard, and by 2006 had close to 40% market share. In 2006, WebCT was acquired by Blackboard, in essence becoming the dominant company selling e-learning systems to education.

What next?
The WebCT and Blackboard experience gave me a thorough understanding of not just Learning Management Systems, but also about all the other campus systems such as SIS.

One part of the campus infrastructure that was under-developed was career services. In 2007, left Bb and joined Experience.com to help tackle that problem. We enhanced Experience’s system to provide students with relevant jobs and learning material, such as ‘How to engage alumni’. We also worked on recommendations based on personal profiles. Lastly, we built the concept of widgets so students could access this info across the campus platforms.

You also spent some time with content in Education. Tell us more about that.
It was clear that without addressing the problems at the content side of things as well, we cannot really change the learning experience of students. Education publishing was still mostly brick-and-mortar, and those of us who were there early on at WebCT brainstormed several ideas. Those discussions led to MindTap at Cengage Learning. I was part of the team that envisioned MindTap, which tried to change the notion of monolithic digital books. We worked on building the concept of dynamic Learning Paths, so we can easily integrate digital content and learning tools from various resources. As the technology evangelist for MindTap, I drove the development of MindApps, which facilitated an ecosystem around digital content to create richer learning experiences. My MindApp experience at Cengage gave me a deep view into many different learning tools, such as assessment engines, homework solutions, collaborations tools etc. While we paved the way for a new kind of content experience for learners, the technology we developed at Cengage was centered around the Cengage content.

How did those experiences lead to Pragya?
I was involved in a small non-profit that focused on making science learning fun for kids. While coaching the kids, I realized that gamifying the teaching process really helped with engagement and interest. I introduced Moodle to their infrastructure to implement gamified learning. Additionally, I was tutoring Math and Physics to a few high school seniors, and realized that digital content is much more sophisticated. It’s everywhere, and it’s pretty good. Content available on open web sources (Khan Academy, Purple Math, etc) is extremely useful as a teaching tool and also for students to understand basic fundamentals and concepts (example: basic algebra functions).

I started thinking….how do students discover all of this? How do they bookmark it and add it to their learning? Massive amounts of content exists, and a lot of it is very valuable…imagine how much it will help if students could Discover, Curate,and Share it all!

Around the same time, a common friend introduced me to Ramji. It turned out Ramji was exploring the same problem from a different angle. He had started a company focused on web and mobile content delivery, and was doing research on the Higher Ed space and talking to several universities about their proprietary content. We exchanged our thoughts and discovered that we had similar views about problems that needed to be solved!

For the first time in many years, you decided to team up with somebody outside of EdTech. What are your thoughts on that?
We did some groundbreaking things at WebCT, Experience, Wimba, and Cengage. But spending time working with my daughter and other young children taught me one thing – there were so many cool things being developed in the web and enterprise world that hadn’t found their way into EdTech. For me to really change this, I needed to get together with someone who brings a different world view to the table. I have been involved in almost every major infrastructure deployed in campuses today, and seen the intersection of content with new tools with MindApps. We knew how to talk to the existing infrastructure and the problems involved with it. Getting together with a team that brings experience from the mobile, search and enterprise content management/delivery world meant that we could do something truly innovative. That’s what led to Pragya.

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