In this episode, I will be chatting with Ethan Webb, the cofounder and CEO of Mindsmith, a learning platform that uses generative AI to make it easy to create and share course material and training. Ethan is a current student studying economics and business strategy. He has many family members who are educators and has developed a passion for pedagogy and learning theory. Don't miss this trending episode on Artificial Intelligence and how it can benefit Instructional Designers.
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Enjoy the Episode Transcript below:
Robin Sargent I have here with me today Ethan Webb and he is the co founder and CEO of Mindsmith, which is an AI powered micro learning platform and authoring tool. But Ethan, would you please do a better job of introducing yourself and your business?
Ethan Webb Yeah, I think you've kind of got the basics there. Like you said, I'm a Co-Founder/CEO. We have two other Co-Founders at Mindsmith, Zach Allen, he is our software engineer. And Christy Graves. She's our designer. Like you said, we started MindSmith. It's like you mentioned micro learning AI powered platform. We weren't always an AI powered micro learning platform, we've kind of gone through lots of iterations, even though we've only been a company for a few months. So we started building in September of 2022. So last year, and we've kind of just been building ever since we've been trying to do our best to get a really great grasp on the instructional design and elearning industry, talk to lots of experts, lots of people within the industry. Our Co-Founder, Zach Allen had been an Instructional Designer for a few years. So he's been in the space, and it's just been a blast like growing, I was not in the L & D community prior to starting Mindsmith, I did have a passion for pedagogy and for education. I mean, my mom's an educator, she's a Spanish teacher, her mom was also a Spanish teacher. And my mom has three sisters, who are all teachers. So I've been around teaching and education for a long time. I've read some work by like Paulo Freire, a and just really interested in, in this space. So when Zach approached me with kind of the concept for elearning, for the average person, I was really excited about it. And we've kind of just been building and growing and iterating ever since.
Robin Sargent Okay, and so people were like, What do you mean, it's an AI powered micro learning? So some people are seeing these new AI tools come out, like, Chat GPT, and all the other things that probably run on a similar AI. And so what does it mean to be an AI powered micro learning?
Ethan Webb That's a great question. Yeah. So we're primarily a generative AI micro learning platform. So there are lots of different types of AI. We're built off of GPT-3, which is kind of the same AI that Chat GPT has built off of kind of the more popular AI right now people love talking about it, because a lot of people have been playing around with it. And so we allow our users to currently our functionality allows them to generate a lesson from a lesson title. So the current flow is that you as a user would insert a title of the lesson, something you're interested in, I was an economics major. So I'm interested in the law of supply and demand. For example, I put that as the title, we generate an outline of subtitles. And then under subtitles, we have context or descriptions. And so that context or description is where you as a user can input your sort of key words that you would use sort of like Chat GPT. So you could say, like, explain the factors that would shift the supply curve in the narrative of a young girl building a lemonade stand or something like that. Or you could say, explain to the level of a fifth grader, like all sorts of different obviously opportunities to build within that context. And then we will generate a course based off of that context, we're also building out some really cool functionality with the AI that allows our users to upload their static courses that they've already done. So things like PDFs and PowerPoint presentations, and then we'll, we'll generate lesson titles from there. So break it up into, you know, maybe 10 Different micro lessons. And then from those titles, you can generate your courses using the material that's within your static lessons. And then of course, like the possibilities of AI in general, the AI in the future are very, very exciting. So things like like adaptive lessons that change to the needs of the learner, or, you know, like, solves kind of a fundamental trade off within like the education, educational industry, right between individualized learning and scaling, learning, like you can scale and individualize the lesson at the same time, which, to us is very, very exciting.
Robin Sargent Oh my gosh, I didn't even think about that use case either. So, have you seen any of the adaptive things like, does it recognize that people are answering like assessment questions like they keep the answer the same one wrong and So it rewords it or what does that look? Was that look like?
Ethan Webb I mean, we haven't built built that out yet, like I said, like, right. Yeah. So I can't give specifics on like how it would function. But yeah, somehow it would, it would analyze gaps in knowledge for the learner. And you can adapt the lesson to those needs or using like the like Chat GPT was built as a chat function. So the users can ask questions about certain concepts, and it will give sort of bespoke feedback to their needs. And so there are lots of opportunities to use this sort of generative artificial intelligence,
Robin Sargent f I was to sum it up, I would say so basically, you've built an eLearning wish genie, but like the genie story, you have to be careful about what kind of wishes you make. Prompts and in your scripts, right? So that you get your wish fulfilled in a way that doesn't tricky.
Ethan Webb Yeah, absolutely. And it's also like, it's a genie that will sometimes not give you exactly what you want, or will give you something that is wrong. So like, you do have to be careful, right, like with generative AI, I think that's an important conversation to have. And people have talked about it, just all of it any article you read, it's like, AI is a tool. It's not like the panacea of information and expertise, like you still have to run courses by a subject matter expert, and you as an instructional designer still have to tweak the lessons and edit them. So it is to learning best practices and fits the needs of your learners. But we can automate a lot of the functions for instructional designers so that they can take sort of their role as a macro organizer, rather than, like on the ground like boots on the ground content writer.
Robin Sargent So when you use Mindsmith is it just for scripting and outlining? Or does it also produce something that you can deliver to a learner?
Ethan Webb Yeah, so you could deliver an AI generated lesson to the learner. So it generates cards that teach about the concept and it generates quiz cards, and it generates subdivider cards. And then in the future will you know like add gifs with the AI and add image it will, you can like DALLE and Midjourney and some of these you can, like generate images, which is really exciting. So you could off the shelf, theoretically, but you like, again, you should read it. Don't like we do not advise that anyone just generates a lesson doesn't read it and ships it out because like Chat GPT can get things wrong, and it has gotten things wrong. And we are we do like have our own form of like, we don't just like take content from Chat GPT and put it into Mindsmith we do we have like various stages of generation that change the way that content is presented. So it will be better and it will live less and will allow you to like put in your sources and you can pull information from a website or whatever. But you should still read it before you sent it out.
Robin Sargent Well it gets rid of that blank page that everyone starts with or even like you said, you gave that example of put it in a narrative of a little girl running a lemonade stand. And there are so many times where we know that scenarios, and case studies and narrative and fantasy all add to the engagement of our learners. And so, but we're like, but I'm not. But I'm not a storytelling writer. And so just to have something to crib off of or to go by to get you started is pretty powerful.
Ethan Webb Yeah. And that's why initially, we initially built the AI functionality is like to sort of overcome this writer's block, or this intimidation of a blank canvas. Because we want our platform to be accessible to the average person. We want it to be used by instructional designers. And we're starting in that space instructional designers and learning and development people because they're very, very good at adopting new tools. But we want to be so intuitive and easy to use that like if a manager a regular manager at a company wants to, like let's say an engineering manager wants to produce a lesson on a very, like specific upskilling like a skill that they want their engineers to have, then they don't have to request it from their you know, like learning and development team and then wait, you know, and sometimes they have to wait for other people to request it. You know, within the company. It's low priority. Sometimes it'll take months and months to come back and can also be very expensive so like, if your average person can just build a training, because right now what tools do they use? It's PowerPoint. PowerPoint is so bad for learning, like, so bad for retention. But if you could like have some, like a tool for eLearning for just the average person than it really is very exciting for the future of eLearning and instructional design, I think.
Robin Sargent So walk me through what those look like. So we've kind of talked about how you put in the prompts. But if we're going to give it to managers that are not familiar with instructional best practices, are they guided through MindSmith? Okay, so you've created your the topic that you want, now you have an outline, then you're adding context, are you then prompting them, okay, what's the practice opportunities? What are their applications? How are they going to integrate it as their follow up quizzes after the lesson is over? You know, like, those kinds of things. Do you think that that'll probably built be built into Mindmith at some point, or is it already there? What do you think?
Ethan Webb Yeah, definitely. As we grow, I mean, like I said, where, right now we're reaching out to instructional designers and l&d professionals. And so they kind of have these teaching best practices already built into what they do. But yeah, definitely as we grow, and as we kind of reach out to other parts of organizations, we'll build in features for them that guide them through that process, or we'll just invite them to run it past their instructional designers that they have on staff. And so it just sort of like they are the subject matter expert, and so they can sort of like understand what's right and what's wrong. But they're not experts in learning theory, and learning best practices. And so they do need to yeah, like make sure that they're following those. Yeah, that structure.
Robin Sargent So I bet it's in the hands of people, even though you just started, right? You just started. It's such a baby thing. You already have clients, you already have customers, you already have instructional designers in there. And so what do you see them doing? What have they said? What's like their feedback? Has it like reduced the amount of Time? I want to know all the things.
Ethan Webb Yeah, yeah, there's a lot. We started out in higher ed actually. So we are interested in being kind of a tool for teachers and for higher ed, instructional designers. And so a lot of our current like paid users are at universities. And for them, they're really interested in taking their static courses and turning them into like courses, because teachers have already done all of that work. And they have loads and loads of PDFs, and PowerPoint presentations, that they're excited to turn into eLearning courses. So they're really excited about that. But they are using the AI to like generate new content and generate new lessons. So we have like, the engineer, like an engineering department is kind of some of our biggest clients like we do engineering and physics was our initial like, outreach. And so yeah, they're like developing lessons on like, how to like early. One of the engineering departments that we work with, is kind of the first in the nation to recruit from people outside of sort of the STEM like STEM focus. So they're recruiting people from like different backgrounds that aren't STEM. And so they have to teach their students like basic algebra when they first come into the program. So they're using yeah, they're using our programs, like they're using Mindsmith to like, ship out lessons to, to their, like early students. We also have some clients that are sort of like the deskless worker. So you probably already know this, but one of the biggest appeals of micro learning, at least in the way that we're doing it is that it's mobile first. And so it integrates really well with the workflows of the deskless workers. So like, local, a really big thing we're based in Utah, so really big thing is like cookie franchises. I don't know if you've seen those they've started it's kind of a fad right now they pop up.
Robin Sargent Like a Crumbl Cookie?
Ethan Webb Yeah, it started at Utah. It's it's a really big thing out here. And so like, a lot of their workers are like these sort of frontline like Gen Zers.
Robin Sargent Oh, nice. So that's one way that you are solving it. What about the learners who are taking these micro learning that's generated by AI? What would What have you heard from them?
Ethan Webb Yeah, so they really like of course, that it's mobile first. That's a really big thing, not only for the deskless worker, but even like someone that is at a computer regularly and checks their email regularly, like, being mobile first is super helpful for them. Because even if they're not at work, like they can do a lesson like on the train, and then second of all, they really liked that it's short. So people don't like to take, like I said, 45 minutes to two hours out of the day to do an eLearning course, to be totally honest, like, especially not my generation, like Gen Z is they just hate that, you know, it's boring, it's long, it's not great for cognitive load. And so being micro is really important. And then of course, like daily follow ups, we haven't shipped a feature for like drip campaigns yet. But that's like something that both our learners and our teachers are really excited about.
Robin Sargent Yeah, for sure. Right? Because you're only going to remember so much, even if it's micro learning, you got to do spaced practice. So when they are generating in Mindsmith, you know, they're using the tools to help them generate this micro learning, does it put it in a format that is suitable for microlearning? Are you relying on the instructional designer to do that? Or?
Ethan Webb Yeah, so we are working on fine tuning the actual model, that's sort of our next our like, immediate next step. Right now that will generate it'll generate like teaching cards. And we've taught it to limit the words to be very concise for each of the topics that it teaches. We've also taught it to generate quiz questions, but it will generate kind of a lot of quiz questions right now. So it'll be like a teaching card than a quiz question and then a teaching card than a quiz question. And so our learners can kind of use that as a template to sort of edit and like create a beautiful course that follows teaching best practices, the next. So there are two different ways to sort of train an AI model. One is to just sort of edit the algorithm and change the generative steps. And the other is to give it tons of examples. And so to really get a great course that follows teaching best practices, we would need to feed it tons of examples. And so that's what that's what we're working on right now. Is to really fine tune it so that it's like it is teaching in an effective way.
Robin Sargent Oh, my gosh, it's so cool to have started, like in September, and it's just I mean, AI just seems to be just blowing up as far as like its reach as far as the just the person talking about it. And here you are sort of at the beginning of that. I don't know, what would you call it like a craze?
Ethan Webb Hopefully not a fad? But yeah, like a, like I would say fundamental shifts in technology and technological innovation. And so being sort of a first mover in that step. I mean, we've already released four different versions of our AIs, and we've iterated and changed it. And we launched our AI at the beginning of January, like it has been such a wild ride this last month. And we're all full time students, as well. So it's been it's been very fun and exciting.
Robin Sargent That's incredible. You're still a student?
Ethan Webb I actually graduate at the end of this semester.
Robin Sargent Oh, my gosh, oh, you're all gonna say you're too busy to be a student. So are you graduating with like a master's degree?
Ethan Webb No, actually, undergrad.
Robin Sargent You're just now graduating undergrad?
Ethan Webb Yeah I took a few gap years. But yeah. And then our other people are graduating soon.
Robin Sargent Oh my gosh, that's so awesome. That's inspiring. I love that. All right. And so what about some of these other things that people are using? I see that yours is kind of a special robot in the sense that it's been trained specifically for instructional design and eLearning and micro learning. So what are some of the things that you would tell to people who want to use some of these other outside tools? I've just, I might as well treat you like the expert in AI.
Ethan Webb Yeah, so we, like I said, we use sort of these outside tools. So like, we're built on top of the same AI as Chat GPT. And so you can sort of use Chat GPT, it'll just be kind of clunk and you'll have to do a lot of copy and paste and it won't give you really, it won't be concise unless you tell it to and it can just longer to generate. I don't know. We really just want to make it more efficient and easier for our instructional designers.
Robin Sargent And so you said that you're going to add some more AI in the future where you can do mid journey where you can create images from a prompt is can you actually just take a regular image and put it in Mindsmith.
Ethan Webb Yeah. So we integrate with Unsplash and Giffy. And then you can also upload images directly from your computer. Yeah. So super easy. But in the future, yeah. Like, that's a definitely a feature that will build on the road is like, just generate, corporatized, you know, conversation of two people chatting using DALLE or Midjourney or whatever. Yeah. And so or, or probably before that, we'll just because we integrate with splashy, giffy just upload giffy gifs, you know, and just have the AI pick a Giffy gif that matches the description. You know, like, that's pretty easy. So, yeah, down the road. Yeah, there are lots of other like AI features. And like the future of AI in education, that's very exciting.
Robin Sargent Okay, so I think we've talked about it and around it, but I might, I might as well just go ahead and ask the question that you kind of see. And that is, will this replace instructional designers?
Ethan Webb No, obviously not. I know, people that are scared like that, it's going to replace their job. It's like, you're not really an instructional designer, then to be honest, like, if you are an instructional designer, and your whole thing is just like knowing how to use tools or like writing content, then, like, you're probably not situated well as like professional instructional designer. And so I think it will kind of change the instructional design landscape and change the functions of an instructional designers job, I think they will become much more high level thinkers and like designers, rather than like content creators, one example that I like, like to use is like there's a difference between a photographer that's like good at framing a photo, and or like placing people in the right place. And photographer that just knows how to use Adobe. Right? We are changing the instructional design landscape so that instructional designers will be much more like the photographer that has to know about photography, rather than someone that happens to learn a tool.
Robin Sargent That's a good analogy.
Ethan Webb Yeah, so I don't know, maybe, maybe that's offensive to some people. But like, I really think that it will elevate the role of an instructional designer, if anything else.
Robin Sargent Well, and just what to your point about the amount of time that could be saved. I mean, yes, a lot of time is spent in analysis. But then after that, it's design and development. And it is all of the, for me, it's tedious. I know other people like love writing, but tedious writing all the instruction and an organizing it and coming up with application. And if you could just have it's basically like getting a virtual assistant, right to help you do the research, which I my role in business now. I kind of have that. Right. And so it's like giving people in an individual contributor role as an instructional designer, their own assistant.
Ethan Webb And so I think so too. I do want to add a little bit as well. I think that also sort of like what we call at least on our team democratizing instructional design, so making it more available to sort of the average person, like an average manager or whatever. I think that also changes the landscape of instructional design because it brings more people to the table. I think that right now, l&d departments can be kind of siloed, just because like, the tools that they use are very complex, and are very specialized. And they sort of are kind of doing their own thing. And no one really like wants to mess with them. But I think that if everyone is like, collectively working on a project, because we're also collaborative, like, you can very easily add collaborators to a project and sort of work on the project in real time. And so like it like if the tool is intuitive that everyone can kind of sort of add to and edit and change and help out then, like, it brings those two groups of people together in like a really meaningful way I think and in that way, also elevates like learning and development and instructional design.
Robin Sargent That's a great point to Ethan just like you said, how it's collaborative and I like how it's kind of bridges between a subject matter expert and an instructional designer because without tools like these, what it usually looks like is we're chasing subject matter experts, we're begging for their content, We got to figure it out and then we got to chase them down to get feedback and and we feel like they are not just the person that we chase but they are they also own the project in being a direct contributor. I think that could even help that relationship and that project.
Ethan Webb Precisely. Yeah. So you work with them rather than for them? Right? It's like, kind of the idea. Yeah, absolutely.
Robin Sargent Oh, man. So I'm gonna have to, I mean, we could talk about it later, but maybe not on podcast, but like, you've got to come show the IDOL courses Academy members like the power of Mindsmith and using AI stuff. But what are some of the other things that you've seen in the AI space that you want to kind of pique people's interest into other tools that are out there? Or other interesting ways to use this technology? I'm sure you've nerded out on it.
Ethan Webb I mean, there are a lot of tools popping up right now. Yeah, like a million and a half tools that you can look for. One of the first things I'll say is, is actually still on Mindsmith. Okay. And that is that, I think it'll be exciting for our users to learn which prompts, give them what they want. And so you'll sort of develop your own strategy for inputting prompts that make your lessons like beautiful, and interesting and use the API to help you the most, because if you generate like a generic lesson, just using a title, and don't change any of that context, it'll give you like, a very generic thing. But you can get very specific and pull content from various specific places, which is kind of exciting. As far as like other tools. I'm excited about AI in sort of, like the video generation space, I think that that's really cool. Like, we don't do much like video generation at all, or we don't do image generation yet. But like a big portion of instructional design is, is doing videos, and sort of helping your learners learn in that way. And so I think that could really save a lot of time as well. And I know some people have talked about, like, various tools out there to do video creation using artificial intelligence. I think it hasn't hit its like day in the sun yet. There have been some like initial attempts, and there's some cool things happening. But you can't like generate an entire teaching course on using video. I mean, there are like, you could have like a person talking like a single person talking. Just a single person teaching or whatever. But to have interaction. Yeah. And they're kind of roboty AI. Yeah, weird voices, but to have like people interacting and doing like simulations and things like that, I think is really exciting. We also talked a little bit adaptive learning is a really exciting application of AI going forward in the learning space, for sure.
Robin Sargent Yeah, those, those two things are very exciting. And so the other thing that I was just thinking about Ethan is that sometimes people don't go and play with these tools, because they're not, they might feel a little bit intimidated. And I just wonder if you could just kind of describe how easy it is to write a prompt. I went and did it and I just ordered randomly put words in there. And that was enough to generate something very close to what I was looking for. So just kind of, you know, lower that bar for them showing that it's not intimidating. How does it work?
Ethan Webb Absolutely. Yeah, I will just start by saying that, like, when we started building Mindsmith, it was for teachers and educators who are notoriously bad at adopting new technologies. I love all my teachers out there and all of my professors, but they just don't have time to learn new technologies. And so we had to design a tool that was so intuitive and easy to use that anyone could pick it up and start using it, and understand how to use it and under five minutes. And so the UX and we have one of our co founders is user experience designer. And so like, we're really focused on design that is intuitive and easy to use, and start picking up as far as like prompts and generation. Like you said, it's really super easy. For our generation, you literally write the title of the lesson. So whatever lesson you can think of you want to generate, then we generate an outline for you, we also generate some context for you. And then you can just edit that as you want, like, add whatever you want, play around with it, like, have fun. And like some examples of things you can do is just like, ask it to give a real world example or ask it to or add like a teaching level. And probably within the next few weeks, we will guide our users a little bit more throughout that process. So we'll say like, have some optional fields of like, what level of learning like are the people at and add some of the context overall for the lesson and things like that, to make it even easier for our users, when they start out, we're just we the description and context editor is we released it, like I said yesterday. And so it's kind of still on. It's like, minimum viable products, stages but it's kind of an MVP, like kind of bare bones UX style, but over the next few weeks, we're workshopping that, and we'll be sort of releasing just a more intuitive approach to that as well, just to make it super easy.
Ethan Webb So really, I mean, really, one of the things that you could even just tell them, as far as these tools go, is, you can be as descriptive as you want in your prompt. And it's probably better for it. And so whenever you generate the context around the outline, there's a way where they can just put in, okay, provide a real world example related to XYZ learning level or reading level this and because you learner profiles in there.
Ethan Webb In the future. That's not right now, but in the future, that's what we're working on. Just from the UX perspective, and also like a big thing. So like I said, like, the core of our like, company is being intuitive and easy to use, and having low barriers of entry. So like, like I said, the next, the next big AI feature that we released is to allow our users to upload their PDFs that they've already done. And so if you have done any work on training anyone, you just throw it in there, and we'll pull from it, or, like currently with the contextualize you can pull, you can say, pull information from this website. So you could say, like, teach about the history of Egypt using like, the Wikipedia of history of Egypt article, you can add as much context as you want. And, yeah, it's cool.
Robin Sargent That's very cool. So even a lot of the people that listen to become an idol are definitely going to be interested in Mindsmith. So where can they find you? It's mind smith.ai. But are there any other places that you want them to connect with you? Or follow along? Can they go and play with it for free?
Ethan Webb So right now you can build as many lessons as you want for free, you can generate as many as you want for free. We do limit sharing to two lessons on the free tier. So we do have a paid tier, currently, it's $15 a month, probably by the time that I don't know when you plan on releasing this, but within the next few weeks, we are upping it a little bit, we'll be at $29 a month. And then we also have an enterprise too. So if you work for an enterprise and you're interested in like getting your instructional designers or even some of your managers involved. We integrate with LTI, xAPI, SCORM and all those fun integrations. I don't know if you're interested but we could also do like an affiliate link. And just for your listeners get a discount.
Robin Sargent Oh my gosh, I think they'd love that.
Ethan Webb Cool. Yeah. So we'll just do I don't know, five bucks off for all of your listeners, five bucks a month, just make it easy? *Update* USE CODE IDOL1 for 10% off @Mindsmith
Robin Sargent Oh, my gosh, that would be awesome. So definitely send me that code later. And in closing, Ethan, I know that you you come from a different background. But now you've started your own business, and you are interfacing so much with instructional designers and your co founders one. And so since our audience is those who want to become instructional designers, I want to know, what is your best and final advice for those who are looking to enter this field?
Ethan Webb Yeah, it's a great question. Like I said, I am related to a lot of teachers and I know a lot of teachers personally, and many of them are in a similar space where they're interested in entering the instructional design field. And it seems like, right now, the best thing to do is to just learn the tools. Like, learn what's out there and the best practices and just go for it. I mean, I don't know why not like I was not an expert at instructional design. But over the last six months, I have read a lot and I've learned a lot and I don't know I'm still not an instructional designer, but like I have really learned about the instructional design fields and it's exciting. So let's say go for it. I don't know.
Robin Sargent No, I think that's good. I think that's great advice because you showed an example of exactly what it's like you didn't formally study to become an instructional designer and here you are involved in something that is going to be so important and so many ideas live so our guests their work life, right. And so thank you so much either I'm so excited about the work that you guys are doing I am I just really am thrilled that I got to meet you and talk to you about this and I look forward to watching the multiple iterations that keep going coming out as you guys grow. And so, thank you for coming and being on Become an Idol.
Ethan Webb Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me, Robin.
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