Value your Education – Interview with Kirsten Winkler

This interview is part of our “On the Future of Education” series, interviewing bright, influential, and forward-thinking people working on the subject of education.

Give the readers a short introduction about you and your background in education.
My name is Kirsten Winkler and I found my way into education through studying law with a focus on the EU and legal studies in English and French to be precise. As I always had an interest in foreign languages this was a good combination. During my studies I had been working as a private tutor and when I decided to leave Berlin and moved to France I started my own language teaching business for companies as well as private people.

But soon I got tired of spending half of the day on the road, commuting between my different clients. There needed to be a better way. This was in late 2007, and Skype got to the point of becoming used by a fair amount of people across the globe. So I set up a website and started teaching online.

Throughout 2008 more and more online language learning marketplaces popped up, and I became pretty successful which, of course, attracted interest from both my fellow online teacher colleagues as well as startup founders who wanted to learn more about my secret sauce and why I was far more successful than others. This then led to the decision of starting my own blog as I thought I might as well answer those questions in public and save myself time instead of answering the same questions over and over again.

The rest is history as they say.

What makes a good educator?
That is a very good question. The first thing is the desire to teach. You really need to want it, even if you don’t earn money with it. I think that alone singles out a huge group of people who work in education today and who mainly do it for the pay check or because education is becoming sort of hip to be in. In the end, it all boils down to ones passion that makes us move forward and challenges to become better in what we do. This may sound like a cliche but it is one of the key factors that separate an awesome teacher from a decent one.

Secondly, you need to be curious and open-minded. A good educator loves to learn about new things all the time which includes to learn from your own students. In my career and over the years I have worked with a variety of people from the most diverse walks of life ,and I learned a ton just by letting my students teach me about their interests and lives.

For the society we are living in two skills become increasingly more important: being tech savvy and being able to curate content and information. My belief is that educators need to be good surfers, you need to ride the wave of technological progress. The usual reply I get for saying this is “But how are we supposed to keep up with all that. It’s so much effort!”. I think that is not true as the effort to catch the wave and then keep riding it, e.g. keeping yourself up to date with new trends, is the same as learning about it when it hits the main stream.

Then, curation is the other part of the equation. Of course, not everything is useful for the students at that very moment in time but it is the job of the educator to decide if a technology makes sense in the learning framework, and the educator should always be a step ahead and be able to help the student to handle the technology. The moment the student needs to train the teacher, the educator will use a lot of his credibility in my mind.

How do you get people excited about learning / willing to learn more?
I listen to what they want or to be more precise, I discover with them why they want to learn. The initial reason why someone is willing to make the effort and learn a new language is the best starting point to light a fire. These reasons can be trivial like ordering a meal in a restaurant in Paris in French or critical like learning German to pass a test for a permanent Visa.

Based on this, the lessons need to lead to that point as fast as possible. I specialised in conversational lessons as the desire to explain ideas, emotions, concepts etc in a foreign language as fluent as in your native language is usually the strongest. In my lessons my students needed to talk a lot and if they did not know the exact vocabulary I trained them to describe it.


What motivates learners? Knowing how to order food at a restaurant in Paris.

This also brings us back to the question above when I said that teachers need to be willing to learn. As soon as the students lose their fear to speak, they want to talk about things that matter to them. In my teaching career I worked with artists, patent lawyers, restaurant owners, chemical researchers, managers in the automobile industry and so on. They all wanted to have conversations about their jobs, their interests, their lives which meant that I needed a good memory and to prepare myself for each one of them on an individual basis. Though I have always had a very broad range of interests, part of my humanistic upbringing, I still needed to prepare myself in order to be a good, knowledgeable and generally engaging conversational partner. Even if the topic was not that exciting to me, but it surely was for my student. I was certainly able to use some standard elements for several students at a time but I pride myself to give every single student and individual experience learning with me.

To give you a number on that: the average student learned between two to three years, once or twice a week with me.

Which change has the Internet brought to education that is often overseen / ignored?
The desire and joy of a huge part of the world’s population to learn. In our Western societies the fact that all children have the right and possibility to learn isn’t valued anymore. Education is part of our society flatrate, e.g. we pay for it through taxes. This led to the belief that education is or needs to be free as we don’t have to take the money out of our wallet every end of the month.

People with no or limited access to public education still know what a huge difference knowledge can make in their lives. They are like sponges, soaking up every piece of knowledge they can get. There are enough stories of students in India who passed entry level tests through learning with Wikipedia. My own project “Deutsch Happen” which I started in April 2008 on YouTube delivered 830.000 lessons to people around the world, and from all the emails I got I can tell that those videos are even used in classrooms from Algeria to Nepal.


Deutsch Happen: 830.000 German lessons delivered via YouTube.

Which idea/concept/company in education has inspired you the most and why?
Applications in combination with the iPad. I would say that probably 70% or 80% of all startups in education that got me really excited in the past twelve months are mobile applications.

Besides, I am still a big believer of the use of videos and self-paced learning in education 2.0. If this comes together in an iPad application I get really interested.

In which idea/concept/company (besides your own) would you invest if you had one million dollars?
To paraphrase Dave McClure here: I would invest in 100 startups for 10k each. The cost of building a small, viable product is so low these days that betting on the next Google, Apple or Microsoft is totally unnecessary in my opinion. Also, I would be able to help 100 passionate edupreneurs as I call them instead of only one.

Where do you get your inspiration for good new education ideas from?
Talking with as many young startup founders as possible. You can say that my video interview series on EDUKWEST is totally selfish. I learn a lot by talking to those guys and gals and they are a huge inspiration.

On the other hand, I always try to mix that revolutionary spirit with the insights of established players in the market. Those companies are where they are today for a reason and though we need to shake things up in education there is a huge treasure trove of experience that we must not ignore.

How would you make education available to an eight-year old child in a remote village in Africa?
Not through technology. If you take a look at non profits and NGOs that work in that space the single most needed supply for good education are enough pens and paper. How can a child properly learn if they cannot take notes during class, take them home, revise them and do homework? Also, we have to keep in mind that in many families only one of the children (usually a boy) can go to school. If those children were able to teach their brothers and sisters and, of course, their parents this would be a huge step into the right direction.

Another important factor is light. Most homes in those regions don’t have enough light even during the day. As there is no electricity, solar lamps and water bottle lights are important as well.

And finally shoes. Schools are often miles away and the children need to walk there barefoot. This includes the risk of injuries and infections that might have a negative impact on the child’s progress.

Although I am a big fan of programs like One Laptop per Child and such I don’t think that this approach should be the basis.

How will traditional education establishments (universities, companies, teachers) need to change in order to “survive” the next 20 years?
After each hype comes a period of renaissance. Strong brands don’t lose value over time and a diploma from one of the big ivy league universities will always have something to say in our society, especially when all of us have access to free education and are somewhat on the same level of common knowledge. How can we get the cutting edge over our competitors for a job?

Most of those established institutions also have a well-filled war chest. They can effort to stay behind to a certain point and then catch up by simply heavily investing into new technologies. At the moment the whole education 2.0 space is still in the phase of creation. There are going to be a lot of dead ends that will cost investors lots of money. As soon as the dust settles the old guard will put some money on the table and catch up, I am pretty sure.

How will education change / look like in 30 years?
One word: The Matrix.

Honestly, no one knows as the butterfly effect can change everything. Do you remember the world without the iPhone? I recently saw an interesting interview by Jason Calacanis with Ev Williams of Twitter in early 2007, e.g. before the launch of the iPhone. Back then Twitter was still SMS based and at one point in the interview Jason asks “Wouldn’t it be great to have a Twitter device?” Now, we not only have a Twitter but also GPS, photo & video, email and web … device.

Same with the iPad. Bill Gates tried for years to get the world into using a tablet device but it needed the iPad to change that behavior. Almost 11% of the traffic I get on my various blogs today come through mobile devices. Of those mobile users 54% used an iPad and 30% an iPhone.

This shift happened in less than 5 years. If you time this by six it is really hard to say where we will be in 2040, and we also need to take trends outside of consumer technology and education into account.
For example in 10 years from now we will probably have implants and prostheses that are nearly as good as “real” parts of the human body. Another decade later those implants will be better than a human eye or arm and the first rich people will start buying them to upgrade themselves. I don’t want to get into Sci-Fi literature here but I think this prediction is not far off.

Along with that we learn more and more about how the human mind works so it is pretty safe to assume that we will have artificial enhancements to learn. If this will look like in the Matrix movies where the information on how to fight Kung Fu or fly a helicopter is loaded directly into our brains, who knows. Maybe it will look more like in the Fifth Element, we learn the information the classic way, e.g. reading or watching a video, just 100 times faster.

Kirsten Winkler: Teacher, blogger, edupreneur. Kirsten started her career as a teacher and quickly included online technology in her teaching. She then decided to share her experiences on her blog and has gradually started covering and consulting the online education space.

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