The NEN Interview: Danielius Stasiulis, CEO - BitDegree and Co-founder - EdTech Lithuania.
A regular fixture in Nordic EdTech News over the last 18 months, Lithuania’s BitDegree is one of the most prominent EdTechs from the Baltic states. Their CEO, Danielius Stasiulis, is passionate about their mission to revolutionize education through blockchain-based smart incentives. He’s also taking on the challenge of transforming his national education system by co-launching EdTech Lithuania.
Therefore it was great to talk to him for this latest Nordic EdTech News (NEN) interview. As you’ll see below, it was a fascinating conversation ranging from Blockchain to micro-credentials via digital upskilling and recruitment.
As previously, the transcript of our conversation (edited to bring you all of the very best bits) follows below.
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Best regards, Jonathan
Jonathan Viner (JV): Hi Danielius! Thanks for talking to me today. Let’s start with the basics, can you tell me what BitDegree is and what the business does?
Danielius Stasiulis (DS): BitDegree was launched in 2017. It is an online education platform for digital skills that leverages new technologies like Blockchain. We aim to enable people to reskill and upskill into digital careers in a more practical way, and are also exploring alternative ways of financing this learning experience for them. In general, we see online education as an opportunity to fundamentally rethink how education happens. We believe that the answer to that lies in better aligning the incentives of educators, learners and employers.
JV: How did you fund and launch the business?
DS: In December 2017, we organised a token crowdsale or ICO, which at the time was a novel way of getting a project funded. This gave us an immediate community of 13,000 people from 110 countries who actually wanted something like BitDegree built. But at the same time, this comes with a huge responsibility to achieve those audacious goals. We're now three years into trying to achieve them and it isn't easy.
JV: Why did you use that approach?
DS: Well, to be honest, we really think that Blockchain can be a game-changer in online education. It was also a new and viable way for us to get started because the funding landscape in Lithuania (and across Eastern Europe) at the time was really bad. Although it added a layer of complexity, it certainly gave us the opportunity to build the platform by leveraging the Blockchain technology.
JV: What does Blockchain enable you to do that the other technologies don't?
DS: Theoretically, Blockchain enables us to bring together different parties who do not know each other and do not trust each other, but who need to. They can then collaborate on creating, maintaining and delivering learning content and new models of education. But it's quite difficult to achieve in reality. However it’s our long-term competitive advantage and we do try.
So, in the future, we want to use Blockchain to create a collaborative content creation and maintenance economy. But at the moment, we’re building a platform, a marketplace, learning paths and content to demonstrate the model and to prove that our approach works. We’ve also found initial demand in offering BitDegree as a lightweight online LMS for SMEs, colleges and universities to host their learning.
JV: OK, so can you tell me more about the educational content you’re now building?
DS: Most content in our marketplace currently is not good enough for the learning experience that we want to deliver. So we have recruited our own full-time content and instructional design team to build content that better suits our quality standards.
We’ve started by building content to help students become AWS Certified Cloud Practitioners. This forms part of our BitDegree Academy, where we’re now experimenting with some of the first courses. Next to come is the Front-End academy that will help anyone become a front-end developer.
It’s clear that what really matters in online education is not only how good your content and learning experience is, but how well you sell it based on price and content type. At the moment, we need to figure out which model is best for us.
As part of this, we’re also looking at micro-credentials. These would underpin our content and the learning paths into employment along with our collaborative content creation strategies. I think these are real differentiators for BitDegree as an educator.
JV: You talked earlier about offering different ways for people to finance their learning. What did you mean by that?
DS: Our initial idea was that learners should not pay for their courses. This, of course, changes the current market thinking about education as they currently take on all of the risk, all of the time. Given that there’s such demand for highly skilled employees, companies actually have the need and the resources to upskill everyone who needs to be upskilled. It's just a matter of aligning incentives.
As part of this, we’ve launched a talent acquisition platform, where we work directly with employers to train people in the specific skills that they’re looking for. We’ve started by promoting a customer success course with a Lithuanian employer - we recruited interested candidates and paid them €20 to do a two-hour course and take a knowledge assessment test. Those who passed agreed to share their details with the employer. The campaign launched two Fridays ago and 2 people had already been hired by last Monday! Our plan moving forwards is to expand this by building relevant talent pipelines, where employers bid to recruit our graduates.
Separately, we also launched BitDegree Scholarships, which enable people from all over the world to request funding to help them study a course and, hopefully, get a job. We were amazed to get over 3,000 applications for funding.
Importantly, because many of the applicants came from developing countries, Blockchain and cryptocurrencies helped to overcome problems of access to credit cards and banking infrastructure. The scholarships also contained a financial incentive for students who successfully completed the course. This worked as a motivator to learn and also enabled them to take time off from poorly paid work to focus on reskilling or upskilling themselves.
JV: How will your talent acquisition platform be impacted by companies like Google, who are now increasingly developing their own programmes?
DS: That’s definitely a problem for us and we're pissed off that these giants can do all of the things that we’ve been doing for a while. But at the same time, they won't manage to create all the degrees that they need to create nor will they deliver the same quality of educational experience that we aim to. Also, surprisingly, Google’s Grow with Google programme still costs $30 / month!
JV: Let’s talk about some of the successes you’ve had with BitDegree over the last few years. Which have been the most significant?
DS: To be honest, I don't think that we have had any really big successes yet - I still consider us to be a work in progress.
Having said that, we have nearly a million users and between two and three million visitors a month coming to our platform. We’ve attracted over 350 educators who have published 1,300+ courses in our marketplace. It’s also been great to attract external recognition for what we’re trying to build - winning the World Summit Awards was also a really big thing for us as was coming second in the EIC Horizon Prize for Blockchains for Social Good. Although, of course, we really wanted to win as the prize would have allowed us to develop our Scholarships solution to its full potential, by integrating it with other education institutions and other learning platforms.
JV: It’s also presumably really pleasing when people complete your courses and get jobs. Do you have any idea how many people have done so and how many have gone onto new jobs as a result?
DS: I don't remember the exact numbers in terms of completions, but certainly well over 100,000 people have completed courses on the site. And we don’t know exactly how many have gone on to get jobs, but we’ve loads of anecdotal feedback. I love stories like this: a girl from Pakistan could not afford a graphic design course, so she applied for and got a scholarship. She completed the course and then got a job as a logo designer in a local advertising agency. I'm really happy that someone learnt something on our platform and got somewhere because of it. That's really pleasing.
JV: BitDegree has also worked closely with the universities of Tartu and Vilnius recently. What’s behind those projects and what insights have they unlocked?
DS: In my opinion, no-one has really figured out the best way to teach and learn online. So we’re working with these partners to be really scientific about our different experiments to better understand what works and what doesn't.
We’ve therefore engaged with Vilnius University to test a lot of general features that might improve the overall online learning experience. This includes testing gamified profiles, statistics, quizzes, forums etc to see if they do actually increase learning outcomes. Some do and some don’t and the results will shortly be published after peer review.
As for the University of Tartu, we’ve been looking at how to motivate people to learn in general. We’ve really gone into educational science theory and are building some cutting edge models with them, studying how to design the learning experience at the course element level so that it maximises learning outcomes. I should say that I’m really grateful for N8’s help, particularly Peter Fagerström and Märt Aro, for making this relationship happen!
JV: While we’re on ecosystem development, tell me about EdTech Lithuania and its aims and ambitions.
DS: First of all, our mission as EdTech Lithuania is to make Lithuania a great place for EdTech businesses to be built and to thrive. Secondly, we also want to support those EdTechs to have a positive impact on improving Lithuania's national education system, because we’ve got lots of things that need to be urgently fixed! Finally, we want to promote Edtech Lithuania globally and help its members grow internationally.
Lithuanian education is in a dire situation and EdTech businesses are the only viable way to fix things quickly. It’s also such a small country that we also need and want to be open to collaborating with international EdTech partners.
JV: How did the formation of EdTech Lithuania actually come about?
DS: The project really started when local EdTech businesses came together during the first wave of the pandemic. We wanted to do something patriotic to support our country and its citizens because all the education systems had failed. As BitDegree, we launched Skaitmenizuokis.lt to help reskill people who had lost their jobs and we joined forces with 30 other EdTechs to offer our services to educators for free. We did all of this without any help or support from the national government.
Then summer came and things started to go back to normal. But even when the second wave hit, we kept trying to engage the government but without any success - they just didn’t take any notice. But that all changed when we just decided to start EdTech Lithuania - we were suddenly taken seriously and invited to have a seat at the table. We became an expert body for government officials to turn to when they needed some advice or help to figure out a solution.
We are now actively collaborating with the new Lithuanian government, which was elected last autumn. We now see a genuine desire to make EdTech a top priority in Lithuania. In fact, transforming education through technology is now listed as one of the Prime Minister's top five jobs to do.
Of course, change is the greatest challenge for any government - not identifying what to change or even how to change, but making the change itself.
JV: Congratulations - that’s amazing to hear! What is it that makes Lithuanian EdTech distinctive? What is it that stands your members apart?
DS: I don't think we have a clear answer yet, maybe nothing really, but I do see two common traits in our members. I think that we all have a desire to connect globally and we all have a global vision and ambition from launch.
Secondly, Lithuania has lots of IT specialists and we’re seeing many new EdTech businesses being launched by tech founders rather than education specialists. Of course, it’s tough in EdTech and not all of them will succeed, but it’s great to hear about new businesses launching here every other week.
JV: To give us an idea of scale, how many EdTech businesses are there in Lithuania?
DS: That depends slightly on your definition of EdTech, but certainly at least 30 and possibly over 50 if you include some of the innovative alternative school businesses we have here.
JV: It’s great to see the news this week that Turing College has joined Y Combinator. What difference do you think this will make to the local EdTech scene?
DS: Yes - it’s great news for them and for EdTech Lithuania as well. I’m really keen to see how we can use their experience to inspire others and to share knowledge. We need to import EdTech knowledge as we have so little of it. That’s really important for us as we lack other companies and founders to talk to about the challenges we all face.
My colleague Ginvile (Ginvile Ramanauskaitė - Head of Product and B2B at BitDegree and a huge driving force behind EdTech Lithuania) has done a great job setting up online community events. But we’re still looking to develop better, more immersive mechanisms for this and the lack of opportunities for face-to-face meetings obviously hasn’t helped. However Lithuania is notoriously good at looking at our neighbours and learning what works and what doesn’t. We definitely see opportunities for collaboration with our neighbours and look forward to hearing our members’ suggestions for future improvements.
JV: And finally for those readers who don’t know Lithuanian EdTech very well, which are the companies that they should be looking out for?
DS: I’d highlight the following: Turing College; Teachers Lead Tech; Tamo Group, who basically run the entire K-12 system in Lithuania; Edukraftas; Digiklase; Emotika; Code Academy Kids and Bloommo. And BitDegree obviously!
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