Meet Amara Humphry, Social Entrepreneur and Co-Founder of Education's Latest Innovation

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This article is featured in the October edition of The Slice, a monthly digest created in partnership with Tablet Magazine that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist. 

Being named a finalist in Forbes’ Under 30 $1 Million Change-the-World Competition—and winning the $100,000 that comes with it—is no small feat. But then, Amara Humphry, a 27-year old engineer who graduated from Stanford with a degree in product design, is no small dreamer. Since childhood, she has been compelled by the conviction that education is a fundamental human right too often denied.

That reality first struck and shocked Humphry when she was a 12-year-old on a visit to Cambodia to see her mother’s family. In Phnom Penh, she visited a museum that had been a prison under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Before it was a prison, though, the building housed a school—a place meant to nurture young minds and develop imagination.

“It looked just like a school anywhere,” she said on the telephone from India. “Hallways, classrooms…but instead of seeing attendance posters on the wall or whiteboards, the museum had skulls on the wall. Prison bars instead of cafeteria seating. It was very haunting.”

The contrast to her own well-equipped and peaceful school in Hawaii was stark. Back home, she felt empowered by education, in charge of her learning. The incongruity between what she experienced and what she now knew existed elsewhere stayed with her. The misfortune she had seen abroad “was a reality for generations past and for generations still suffering,” she said, and the jolt created by what she witnessed in that Cambodian structure catalyzed a “personal sense of urgency” to make change. She was determined to work to the best of her ability to make sure that students everywhere could be in control of their education and future.

Enter Dr. Prasad Ram, a Google engineer whom Humphry met through a friend in 2011. Ram had worked on products like Google Maps and Google Books, and was then working on a “20% project” intended to bring the power of data into the classroom. They realized their shared belief that education is a human right. “We call ourselves engineers for educators. We wanted to build tools that empower students to own their learning,” Humphry said.

“Taking a page out of other industries where big data is used to help key decision-makers help them do what they do, we asked ourselves, ‘How can we take those same principles that are used in other industries and create an experience that students can use?’” she said. “There’s a lot of money and brainpower going toward education, but we’re not leveraging technology to its fullest potential.”

In 2011, they came up with their answer: Gooru, a free, crowd-sourced online “learning navigator” with 20 million resources at the disposal of students and teachers. Those resources include quizzes, lesson plans, course curricula, and 150,000 playlist-like collections on K-12 topics, created and remixed by teachers. Those same teachers offer their best practices online based on their classroom use of Gooru.

Gooru also offers students “actionable data” to pinpoint gaps in their learning. “Students aren’t getting all the information they could about their own learning, whether it’s results from tests or real time feedback. Actionable data means finding out now that there’s a gap in your knowledge and being able to do something about it --not that you failed a unit that ended three weeks ago,” Humphry explained.  “Having this data helps you challenge yourself and get on track now and not tomorrow, or at the end of the year.”

But the Gooru team wants students to take this data beyond its capacity to solve personalization problems, as Netflix does in helping an individual viewer figure out what to watch next or a dating site make a match. In doing so, they hope students use Gooru’s analytics system to discover the way they learn best and inspire a love for learning in students everywhere. And on a higher level, it uses metrics to analyze to what extent Gooru succeeding as a service. “We need to use data to go beyond driving engagement and adoption. Is what we’re developing leading to learning gains?” Humphry said.

Gooru is currently working closely with select school districts and charter schools in California, where their tools are accessible to roughly 125,000 students. Even more broadly, Gooru is free and available to anyone online. They reach one million students and teachers from Texas, Arizona, Illinois, Pennsylvania and around the world. They have begun to accrue overseas partners—for example, students in South African elementary schools are using Gooru to help with their math education.

The hope, Humphry said, is to make sure that the million students who use Gooru are on or above grade level and to further expand Gooru’s reach, to become operationally self-sustaining in the next five years. 

“We want everyone in the world to own their learning,” she said. 

For more information, check out Gooru's website.