Simon Köhl, the founder of Serlo, offers a free-of-charge learning platform for school pupils, to fight against injustices in the German education system. 

In this interview, Simon tells us what makes them stand out from the usual textbooks and online-courses, what challenges the current education system faces and what Wikipedia has to do with it. 

Tell us about Serlo

Serlo is a free learning platform for school pupils. Imagine you, as a pupil, have everything you need to know for school easily and freely available in one central place, with no school login or anything similar required. 

There are comprehensible explanations, exciting assignments, interesting examples and videos and entire lessons to choose from. Everything is clearly arranged, difficult terms are linked, and the different subjects relate to each other. You can also find interactive animations, direct feedback-loops to each exercise and there’s always a classmate around if you have any questions. That’s what we’re working on with Serlo.

" Our hobby has become a job. Every month we help hundreds of thousands of students."

What change in the learning process do you want to achieve with Serlo?

Serlo can change the culture of learning in a school. We connect individual content blocks to one large, coherent pool of learning. The more we improve and expand this network of explanations and exercises, the more independently pupils can move through the material  - in their own time and however they feel like. If pupils acquire knowledge more independently, teachers have more time to provide individual support.

Serlo is a social enterprise; which social mission do you stand for?

The international TIMSS-study tested the mathematical proficiency of pupils with different social backgrounds. It showed that the students’ math skills were strongly related to their circumstances outside school rather than their individual strengths. Our contribution against this inequality is to offer low-threshold and valuable learning opportunities to all pupils; independent of their parents’ income or where they go to school. That is how Serlo contributes to more educational justice. Our dream is to create digital spaces in which pupils are able to exchange experiences and learn together, beyond the borders of their schools, countries and cultures. Wouldn’t that be awesome? 

Another big problem in schools is the high performance pressure on pupils as well as them feeling they are not being properly prepared for “real life”. What do you think the problem is here?

Behind this performance pressure and the perceived senselessness in cramming, I see a problem that has already been documented by the Bertlesmann Foundation and the German Child Welfare Organization (Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk): pupils in Germany, for example, are rarely allowed to shape the content of what they learn in school. The curricula are filled to the brim with all kinds of stuff, but different interest groups continue to demand more, new content that can prepare the students for societal changes and the requirements of the job market. This seems to be a false direction since we already know that young people are themselves very good seismographs for societal developments and that intrinsic motivation brings the highest learning success.

So what can a website change?

I would like us to find a better balance between on the one hand mandatory general education that we’ve agreed upon as a society, and on the other hand space to develop individual interests and pupils’ potentials. What can we do to achieve that?

Serlo animates students to engage, discuss content and shape their own subjects - beyond the existing curricula. In this way, Serlo promotes personal responsibility and shows that knowledge is constructed and can be continuously re-constructed. To allow our youth to navigate this fast-paced and varied world, personal responsibility and creative power are at least as important as pure knowledge and the fulfillment of competency grids.

Is there a connection between your own schooling experience and your motivation to found Serlo?

I enjoyed going to primary school, but really didn’t enjoy high school. I had to repeat two years, was good in the subjects I enjoyed and bad in those that required discipline. I felt insufficiently challenged and overstretched at the same time. It was under this impression that I visited the Buddhist monastery school “Serlo” while traveling in Nepal. Inspired by this beautiful place of learning, we started programming Serlo as soon as we got back.

In our last year of school, we decided to create for the next generation of pupils an opportunity that we would have liked to have ourselves. Our schools didn’t support the initiative – that says a lot.

Six years on, our hobby has become a job. Every month we help hundreds of thousands of students, now even with the amazing support from our former teachers.

You say your role model is Wikipedia. Why?

What fascinates me about Wikipedia is how many people can create something together that then belongs to and benefits the entire society. We transfer this idea to learning. Like Wikipedia, Serlo is a Wiki - anybody can join. Our very active community develops learning materials, for example articles and exercises, that pupils need in school. It brings together a variety of different people who contribute their ideas and talents. Teachers offer their materials and experience, designers shape, businesses provide practical examples, students give feedback, software developers program interactive exercises and researchers deliver teaching concepts. Everybody that enjoys teaching others can contribute something and through Serlo commit himself or herself to free education.

Serlo started in Germany. Where do you stand now and when will it be available in other languages?

Serlo is already well established in Germany. In 2014 1.8 million people accessed Serlo, including 375,000 pupils, who regularly and intensively learn or revise with Serlo. We have 6000 different explanations, exercises, sample solutions, learning videos and teaching units that are conceptualized as classes and implemented online. All that has been possible thanks to an individual, self-developed platform. Since the summer of 2015, a new team has been working on the internationalization of Serlo and is establishing independent city- and country-communities based on the example of Wikipedia. We support dedicated people worldwide who want to join Serlo to contribute to more educational equality in their country.

What makes Serlo stand out from existing learning platforms like Coursera or Khan Academy?

A lot of people have begun realizing great visions and ideas for digital learning. Even as we speak new teams are popping up.

Serlo is aimed at school pupils; we plan to cover all subjects, in as many languages as possible and forever free and without advertising. With that we are forerunners in Germany, and even internationally we only really have Khan Academy as competitors.

One difference is particularly important to us though and makes us unique: Serlo is a Wiki and a democratic organization. As a community member, every person that contributes to Serlo can also participate in determining key organizational questions. In that way, we don’t stand above the teachers or pupils but rather let them and the other members of our community determine what good and effective education really means. This grassroots approach not only represents our values but is also the key motor to fulfilling such an encompassing vision and developing the platform in the long run.

Worldwide Open Educational Resources (OER) are making huge advances. What do you expect from this development?

Open Educational Resources really just means that learning materials, which are financed by taxpayer’s money, should also be openly accessible and everybody should be allowed to reuse them. The thought is as evident and sensible as the right to drinking water. Nonetheless, open access licenses represent a huge cultural change, which will of course take time. As a leading German OER-initiative, the increasing popularity of the topic is providing us with a rising respect and a willingness of the public hand to cooperate.

Internationally I see Germany mid-field. Countries like Norway or the state of California are a lot further. But there are also a lot of regions worldwide in which OER have barely arrived. Whilst the political acceptance is slowly growing, we’ve already made a start in actually implementing the idea.

Resources on Serlo are freely licensed. That means they are publicly accessible goods that can be changed, copied and distributed as desired. That is particularly valuable for teachers, who can use Serlo for their material collection without having to worry about property rights. However, our free licensing also means our material is open to other organizations, businesses and state-institutions that can build their offers based on our work.

Who is behind Serlo and how do you motivate your team?

We are a thirty people strong; a wildly mixed team of editors, software developers and organizers on fulltime and voluntary bases, with an office in the middle of Munich’s university life. In the last couple of years, we have invested more than 60,000 hours of voluntary work into the project.

Research on the organizational culture of Serlo showed that the motivation for contributing to Serlo differs from person to person. I try to set an example by showing sincerity and enthusiasm for Serlo’s goals to the outside world. Internally our team workshops, planning weekends and parties are particularly important to us. We take care of each other, work efficiently and are full of energy – it’s a lot of fun!

So you’ve found your dream job?

Definitely! I am happy to be able to change something whilst working together with lovely and interesting people. I see my work as a form of political art, it’s a means to an end and an end in itself, thus achieving the desired social impact in the future and striving for beauty and creating a community day by day. Of course it’s not a constant high. As in all parts of life, there are setbacks and annoying tasks, then it’s a case of clenching your fist and persevering.

How can an education-enthusiastic Changer reader join Serlo?

There’s a large demand for high-quality learning material and above all a need for education that is independently and democratically created. We are looking for people that would like to provide Serlo in their mother tongue. Particularly for the English version of Serlo we are currently looking for voluntary authors with a passion for a particular school subject. If you’re interested just write an email to: info-en@serlo.org.

What are your three top learnings for other founders, particularly in the field of education?

1.) Founding a new company takes years of structural development. In the field of education there are already a lot of good ideas and solutions out there. Maybe you can use your energy to become an entrepreneur in a social enterprise, using existing structures.

2.) When founding a company, start with impact-orientated planning and communication as soon as possible, the Social Reporting Standard can help there. You should be well versed in the problem you want to solve and know exactly if and how your work can help to solve that problem.

3.) Associations and cooperatives can work as flexibly and professionally as limited liability companies. If the founders steer with persuasion rather than the authority of an owner, highly effective teams can form. Ownership helps to get people enthusiastic because they own what they are working on and really have a say in it too.

This article was originally published in November 2015.