Adisack Nhouyvanisvong (Contributed photo)
An interview with Bryan Thao Worra
As a graduate student Dr. Adisack Nhouyvanisvong co-founded the SatJaDham Lao LIterary Project, a grass-roots organization established to promote the Lao literary arts. Now, he has co-founded Naiku, an educational software company focused on bringing educational technology tools to help teachers and students.
Dr. Nhouyvanisvong spent the last twelve years working in education. He has created and ensured the psychometric integrity of large-scale educational assessments for the Minnesota Department of Education and for large testing companies. Education has been a lifelong passion of his, and he has taught at the University of Minnesota and is an adjunct faculty at Metropolitan State University and Saint Mary’s University.
Nhouyvanisvong received his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University and his MBA from the University of Minnesota. We recently caught up with him to discuss his work and the importance of education in the community.
Asian American Press: How did you get involved with Naiku?
Adisack Nhouyvanisvong: All of my life, I’ve been involved in education one way or another. I’ve been a student, for way too many years. After graduate school, I’ve worked in education ever since. Right after getting my doctorate from CMU, I went to work at the Minnesota Department of Education. Since then, I’ve worked for the past ten years for educational testing companies. All the while, I’ve been teaching part-time at local universities. You can say that education is in my blood. In fact, both of my parents were teachers back in Laos. And that’s reflected in the name of the company. Naiku means “teacher” in Lao.
I really got involved with Naiku when I met my business partner Corey Thompson. He and I met when we were finishing up our MBAs at Carlson. We worked on some class projects together and found out that we were both in the education industry. At that time, Corey worked for Plato Learning as a director of software development. We kept in touch after graduate school. One day, I got an e-mail from Corey saying he wanted to start a company and wanted to talk with me. We talked, battered around some ideas, and eventually, we ended up here, with Naiku.
AAP: What made you decide to start your business in Minnesota?
AN: Since our company is an educational software company, focusing on helping teachers know their students better (through the data that they can gather from their classroom tests), it made since to start the company in Minnesota. Minnesota, in fact, is a hotbed for educational testing companies. There’s quite a few here locally. So there’s a lot of educational experts and talent that we can draw from here. And that’s how Corey and I met our partner Kevin Sampers. Kevin has a passion for education, having served on a local school board and having worked as a research director for an educational policy lobbying group.
AAP: What do you see as a key in educational challenge we’ll face in the coming decades ahead?
AN: In education, there’s this phenomenon called the “Achievement Gap”. This is the educational achievement gap that continues to persist between White and minority students. I think as educators, we’ll continue to take on this challenge to close that gap.
But in the coming decades, in fact, in the next several years, I think a key challenge will be how schools leverage the power of technology to improve education for all students. We’ve seen a proliferation of such high computing power in the past few years. Today, students are carrying around such powerful computers in their pockets or backpacks. Compared to the Apple IIs that I used when I was in school, the smartphones and mobile devices that students carry today are far superior in so many ways. However, when students walk into their classrooms, most are told to put those devices away. They can’t use them in class. So I think that’s a big challenge for education in the coming years.
How do we leverage the great computing power that most students have now for great educational effect? That’s the question. That’s the question I’m working on. That’s what Naiku is working on. We know that technology and computing power alone are not the answers. Technology is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself. That’s why at Naiku, we’re building educational technology tools that will help both the teachers and the students.
AAP: What have been some of the unique challenges as an entrepreneur in Minnesota?
AN: Although Minnesota is great place to start an educational testing and software company, it isn’t the Silicon Valley, where most entrepreneurs go do start-ups. Minnesota is really known as a medical technology center. So, that’s where most of the investment money goes. Most MN VCs and angel investors like to put their money in med-tech, because that’s what they know. That’s what they’re used to doing. So, as an educational software start-up, it’s been a little difficult to find local investors who will invest in an education company.
AAP: Modern students and educators are surrounded by so much technology, what happens to how people live and learn in the world? And what kinds of changes in the school are needed to cope with all this?
AN: I alluded to this earlier. I really think this is the next big challenge facing education. Students are bringing in technology with them to school. Right now, they are told to power off those devices. They can’t use them in class. So as educators in the 21st century, I think we must find innovative ways for teachers, and students, to effectively leverage the power of technology for educational benefit.
At Naiku, we believe that we can do this by providing better technological tools for teachers and students. One way we’re doing this by them with a way to do all of their classroom testing on computers and mobile devices. Remember when we were in school? We took all of our tests on paper and pencil. This took days or weeks for our teachers to grade. Sometimes, the teachers had us fill in the ovals on the bubble sheets. This sped up the process a bit, but not by much.
Twenty years later, this is still how much of the testing happens in the classroom. They still haven’t leveraged the power of technology. That’s where Naiku comes in. We believe that we can help both the teachers and students by providing them a platform for taking all of their classroom tests on computers, whether it be through laptops, netbooks, iPhones, iPads, iPods, or Android devices. Taking tests on computers not only make things faster and more efficient (e.g., students can get their results immediately), it can also provide teachers with much more information about the students. Teachers can get much more than a single percent correct score for each student. By getting more information, they can better know their students, which is what must happen if teachers are to help each and every student reach his or her full potential.
AAP: Will the Internet bring down barriers, making education more democratic?
AN: Yes. It’s already done that to some extent in education. It’s already done that in other aspects of society. Just look at what’s going on in the Middle East. That’s the power of the Internet in action.
In education, I think we’re at the tipping point. Look what MIT has done by putting all of their content on-line for free access. Look at what Salman Khan has done with Khan Academy. More and more students will be able to find their education for free on-line. And that’s good and democratic.
AAP: Your family has roots in Laos. How has your journey and culture influenced your approach to business?
AN: Yes, definitely. My parents taught me to work hard and to do my best. And if you work hard, you will do your best. I’ve used that lesson throughout my educational career. I plan to use that same lesson in business.
AAP: Do you have any advice for emerging entrepreneurs?
AN: My advice for emerging entrepreneurs is the same advice I give to my students: find your passion and develop your talents. To be truly successful at something, I think we must have a strong passion for it. Also, you just can’t be successful with passion alone, you must find a way to cultivate your talents. We all have some unique talents. But natural talent alone is not enough. Talent must be developed through hard work and perseverance. So if you work on something long and hard enough, and you have a strong passion for it, then I think you can be successful on whatever journey you’ve chosen for yourself.