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Founder Friday: A conversation with the man behind Grok Academy

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As an academic, I always felt like I understood exactly what I needed to do to succeed, whereas, as a CEO, I constantly feel like I don’t know enough about a zillion things to run Grok effectively, so I’m always reading and asking for advice.

Dr. James Curran

This week on Founder Friday, we chat with Dr. James Curran, the founder and CEO of Grok Academy.

Grok Academy is a leading provider of digital skills learning platforms used by an impressive network of Australian schools. They reach a staggering 209,000 students and 6,000 educators across 3,400 institutions.

James founded Grok Academy in 2013 (originally Grok Learning) which later merged with the ACA in 2021. But his influence goes beyond Grok. He played a key role in shaping the Australian Curriculum’s Digital Technologies and Digital Literacy components, even earning recognition as ICT Leader of the Year in 2014. No wonder his expertise is sought after by curriculum authorities and educational departments nationwide!

The early days

James reflects on Grok Academy’s origins, tracing their journey from academia at the University of Sydney to establishing the National Computer Science School (NCSS) elite summer camps. Recognising a lack of diversity, they launched the NCSS Challenge in 2005 “There were several computer science competitions that were simply tests – by competing you could prove you were a member of the club.

“But there wasn’t anything out there to help you join the club. We developed the model of learning while you compete that continues to be compelling for students and teachers today. We developed an online platform that provided learning materials and intelligent automated marking so students could progress at their own pace.

“By 2012, we had 4,500 students and teachers participating each year. Teachers kept asking us to run the Challenge more times a year and create other courses. We tried to do this inside the University, but were blocked in a number of ways, so our industry partners, namely Richard White at WiseTech Global, Matt Barrie at Freelancer, and Scott Farqahar at Atlassian, encouraged us to start a for-profit company – Grok Learning.”

James’s strategies for success

James outlined several key strategies that contributed to Grok’s growth and success. He said that one of the most significant choices driving the business growth was the decision to ground himslef in genuine expertise and profound insight within the problem domain. “We had been delivering computing education for school age students for 15 years before starting Grok. In 2012, the year before we founded Grok, I had the (amazing!) opportunity to be one of three authors of the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies, Australia’s first national curriculum for computer science. This has allowed Grok to lead from a position of practical and formal expertise.”

“The second strategy is understanding the user’s (teachers and students in Australia) pain points, was critical. Teachers are under-resourced, over-worked, and often not qualified to teach Digital Technologies. Teachers never learned DT at school, or at university in their teaching degree, and they have very little time for professional learning – yet they’re expected to deliver the compulsory Digital Technologies curriculum. We focused on producing resources where teachers could learn alongside their students.

“The third strategy was focusing on doing at least two things well:

creating simple, engaging online and unplugged resources that teachers could easily use in the classroom and

providing teachers with ongoing professional learning to fill their technical and pedagogical skills and knowledge gaps.

“The fourth strategy was working closely with industry partners to ensure that all of our activities were authentic, using real-world examples to teach Digital Technologies. One of the highest compliments for us is that our industry experts say “I wish this existed when I was at school. Finally, respecting our community: teachers are amazing folk doing a very challenging job; tech folk in industry love to share their passion and knowledge for tech; and we have so many amazing Aussie kids who just want to learn and create, and our teachers and tech folk want to support them.”

James highlighted Grok Academy’s unique approach in the education technology landscape. He discussed several distinctive aspects of Grok Academy’s approach to innovation in the industry. According to James, Grok Academy stands out from other businesses by transitioning from a for-profit organization, Grok Learning, and a part of the University of Sydney, the Australian Computing Academy, to the non-profit entity it is today.” We believe that being a NFP is aligned philosophically with educators and schools – all profits go to increasing Grok’s impact by making better technology and content.

We are able to stay ahead and bring innovation to the market through our in-house expertise, as well as the deep relationships with industry partners

“Grok uniquely combines the talents of Digital Technologies curriculum authors, educators and academics from around Australia, and technologists. We use our expertise and passion for DT to create free classroom-ready resources that enable teachers to confidently engage every student in the DT curriculum. We develop innovative technology to support innovative approaches to DT education to create interactive, immersive learning experiences. A good example of this are our Schools Cyber Security Challenges.

“Telling a teenager “don’t do this” rarely works, so we decided that to teach cyber security effectively, kids needed to see, from an attacker’s perspective, how information shared on social media can be exploited. We built a fake mobile phone in the browser, fake Instagram and Facebook apps, and hired 20 child actors to pretend to be friends with each other, populating the apps with a fake social media world. This project has been wildly successful, with over 300,000 Australian students participating in our Cyber challenges – largely because of how compelling this first learning experience was.

“We are able to stay ahead and bring innovation to the market through our in-house expertise, as well as the deep relationships with industry partners, who co-create content with us. This ensures our resources are in sync with new technologies and new trends and helps students to gain a better understanding of the wide breadth of lucrative career opportunities in IT and adjacent industries.”

Overcoming challenges

When discussing the challenges faced along the journey and the lessons learned from these experiences, James reflected on Grok Academy’s rapid expansion and the complexities it entails. Adapting from a small team to over 100 people presented significant hurdles. “Grok Academy is currently expanding at a rapid rate, which is an amazing opportunity, but still a big challenge. What works when you’re a team of four around your dining table is so different to 20 people in an office, and now to over 100 people working remotely around Australia. This requires flexibility and resilience, and being prepared to say “things aren’t working and we need to try something different”, which more than anything, is about curiosity and continual learning.

He also emphasised the significance of surrounding oneself with diverse, talented individuals. “As an academic, I always felt like I understood exactly what I needed to do to succeed, whereas, as a CEO, I constantly feel like I don’t know enough about a zillion things to run Grok effectively, so I’m always reading and asking for advice. It helps enormously to have amazing, diverse people around you, which I do inside and outside Grok, but there is always so much more to learn. We have over 380,000 teachers and 4 million students in school education in Australia. That is a massive ecosystem to shift, and that shift is slow at best, but technology moves very rapidly (hello, Generative AI!). To be effective, Grok needs to collaborate closely with all parts of the ecosystem: educators, schools, school leaders, parents, other NFPs, government, and industry. Our best work has come from bringing together the perspectives, skills, and resources of all of these groups to deliver for our kids.”

Entrepreneurial Insights

Reflecting on his entrepreneurial journey, James shared invaluable advice for aspiring business owners. “You spend a lot of your life working, so if you can do a job you love (which is a privilege), take it! And if that job doesn’t exist, make it!

“Do work you believe in – a vocation is way better than a job. Deeply understand and address the challenges of your audience with true expertise and compassion. The word “grok” is a verb that means to understand something deeply and with empathy. We try to apply that to everything we do in Grok (as well as being our goal for education itself).Create an authentic, purpose-led work culture that inspires your team by being open and vulnerable with everyone.”

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