Jeff Goumas & CrowdED Learning

We caught up with Jeff Goumas, Founder of CrowdED Learning,  to chat about his organization, what drives him, and how he feels about education. Goumas is committed to helping adult educators and learners find and utilize the right educational resources. Below, he shares some of his personal thoughts about his experience starting up CrowdED Learning.

Goumas founded CrowdED Learning after seeing how hard it can be for adult learners to access and utilize educational content.

CrowdED Learning is focused on increasing the use of free and open educational resources (OER) within Adult Education. We believe there is incredible potential in all of the great freely available content out there; however, the process of finding, curating, and integrating these resources is cumbersome and inefficient, leaving the promise of OER something far from reality.

To remedy this, we are experimenting with different ways to improve the delivery of resources so they are more readily available to learners and instructors, the result of which we hope will be increased awareness and use. Our first big project—SkilBlox—is in process and launches this fall. It’s a tool we are building that will allow adult education instructors to generate personalized learning plans for their learners taking into account 1) the skills each learner needs to work on and, 2) the publisher resources instructors have available as well as the free resources they are interested in using. It’s our first step toward developing what ultimately will be a learner-driven platform organized by competencies and powered entirely by free and open educational resources, something we hope will allow for adult learners to retain access to and interest in learning even when they aren’t enrolled in formal education.

“We” are small at the moment—as in one person….me—so, I do a little bit of everything right now. My primary focus in the first year has been to spread awareness of our mission to educators and organizations who work within adult education, the goal of this being to establish strategic partnerships, something critical to our growth.

CrowdED Learning’s mission is to provide freely accessible learning tools that reduce barriers for adult learners’ education and employment while promoting persistence and lifelong learning in the digital age.

I believe the way to do this is to inspire collective participation in supporting adult education through crowdsourcing initiatives…hence our name. There are so many amazing but often uncoordinated things happening—engaging learning resources being developed and offered for free, great initiatives in how to upskill adult learners in meaningful and efficient ways; we want to support all of these things by connecting dots that currently aren’t being connected, developing tools to support and scale them, and creating opportunities for people to contribute in helping us make this happen.

Goumas’ work in education publishing has had a tremendous impact on CrowdED Learning.

I worked in educational publishing from 2002 until May of 2017, and during that time I had a front-row seat to witness the world of educational publishing grapple with the shift to digital. For years, there has been this notion of a “tipping point” when everything would shift to digital—meaning more digital sales than print. But, guess what? It still hasn’t happened. What instead has happened is a bunch of different players jumping into the education market—creating both disruption (good!) and confusion (bad). This led to lower sales and shrinking budgets while publishers shifted their focus to trying to find or build the next, new shiny thing in education. The ultimate cost of all this (in my opinion) was less and less focus on teacher and learner realities and virtually no focus on “low-margin” learning markets such as adult basic education.

If you look at other industries and how they have successfully shifted to accommodate digital, the commonality is that the delivery has become more important than the source. (Think, a la carte TV from multiple network providers delivered via Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, or streaming music from multiple record labels delivered via Spotify.) Unfortunately, I don’t know that publishers are necessarily ready to relinquish control in this manner. I was tired of working in an industry in which everyone was pretending they could offer some one-size-fits-all solution for education.

At the same time all this was happening, we saw movements that have led the creation of thousands of fantastic, free resources and learning platforms floating out there; but lack of awareness of what exists coupled with limited coordination and organization have made it unrealistic to expect already time-strapped educators to sift through all that. Again, lack of solid delivery options have presented a barrier. So, I finally decided it was time to launch an organization focused on trying to solve this problem, with a focus on adult education because of the limited attention focused on this learner population, the limited funding formal providers have to spend on materials, and the fact that people typically are more receptive to “experimentation” in underserved markets.

Goumas has always worked in education and enjoyed helping others learn, which helped inspire him to found CrowdED Learning.

My entire career has been in education, with a focus on trying to scale best practices. As a teacher, I loved developing curriculum and conducted a lot of professional development in my district. Through this work, I found that instructors really responded well to the curriculum resources I developed. Because creating all of my curriculum from scratch while teaching full time wasn’t something I could sustain forever, I made the difficult decision to leave the classroom and go into publishing so I could develop learning resources that had broad impact. I lucked out for much of my publishing stint in having the chance to work on some pretty cutting-edge projects; but, over the course of the last 5 years, I was seeing my ability to innovate dwindle as budgets became tighter in response to diminishing sales in the publishing world because of the aforementioned issues.

Along the way, I made the jump into adult education 9 years ago—not by choice, but because it was the only publishing job available to me during the economic downturn in 2008—and that was the most serendipitous thing that could possibly have happened to me. They say nobody chooses adult education, adult education chooses them; this was 100% the case for me. So, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to fall completely in love with adult education at the same time our budgets were getting squeezed tighter and tighter. Adult education is so critically important to the well-being of our society, but it’s completely underserved. That’s really hard to witness when your head is full of ideas you feel could be effective but are unable try because of the constraints of corporate mentality. I hit the point where I couldn’t sit on the sideline anymore, making the decision to finally leave publishing very easy.

I honestly believe had I not accidentally found adult education, I likely would still be working perfectly comfortably in K-12 publishing, sitting in some conference room somewhere debating with a team of editors and designers what color font some heading should be or brainstorming some silly feature to try to one-up a rival publisher who has some cool new feature teachers really like. Yuck!

Goumas remains flexible in his vision for CrowdED.

All I have is an idea, and lots of interest…but because what we are creating is something that really doesn’t exist at the moment, I don’t want to make any assumptions about where this all will lead. I definitely have clear milestones as to what technology and platforms we wish to build over the next couple of years, but how we get there is a journey I’m comfortable with playing out in whatever way makes the most sense based on how educators and learners want to use them. Along the way, it literally has been a process of willing the things we are embarking upon into existence; and, so far so good…things actually are happening as I had hoped.

Jeff’s favorite part of his experience as CrowdED’s founder is the level of openness with which he’s been able to operate.

 I think a big part of this is that I’m coming in as “Jeff the founder of this nonprofit” as opposed to “Jeff the guy who works for this big, bad publisher.” In the corporate world, you tend to operate in a manner where everything is under lock and key—like, silly project code names and such. In my work since starting CrowdED, I’ve had complete freedom to be fully open about what we are doing and what we are trying to accomplish, and that has opened so many doors for me far more quickly than I ever would have imagined. There is no secret sauce here; my belief is that if someone were to take an idea we’ve thrown out and make it happen before we do, that’s awesome because something that wasn’t there before but was needed has come into existence and is now helping learners and educators. And, let’s face it, that’s what’s most important in this work.

Goumas thinks there are some things we could change when it comes to the way we think about adult education.

I think we need to do a better job at really listening to the needs of adult learners; both in terms of personal challenges to making the courageous step to enter back into education, as well as what the barriers are both to entry and persistence. Particularly with technology, I think a lot of the “innovation” occurring misses the mark because so much of what is being done is based on assumptions rather than learner realities. There is an interesting three-part study currently being released—the Critiquing Adult Participation in Education (CAPE) study—in which the first report examined deterrents and solutions solely from the perspective on adult currently not participating in formal adult education. There needs to be more of this type of work, and better dissemination of the findings with key stakeholders.

Reading and learning has always been a strong aspect of Goumas’ life.

As for a favorite children’s book growing up, I don’t even know the name of it…..it was some book my parents got me for Christmas from a mall kiosk where they could give a bunch of information—names of me, my friends, even my street—and then there was this “personalized” scratch-and-sniff detective story where I was the detective solving some caper on Revere Street (the street I grew up on). Perhaps that inspired my love of personalized learning? One thing I know it caused was my odd affinity for the smell of skunk! (There was a scratch-and-sniff skunk in there at some point; you know, the classic skunk-as-antagonist tale.)

Learn more and follow CrowdED’s journey!