From the Magazine

A social platform to flip over

The moment a teacher finally reaches a student, a student hesitant to speak, but who finally reveals that they are engaged, and even learning, is a feeling like none other. It’s why you do what you do.

It’s like magic.

When NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars, students from across the world were watching the event live, posting questions and hearing directly from the team that made it happen. On International Polar Bear Day, kids attended a virtual field trip led by Polar Bear International, and both asked and answered questions about the endangered animals.

This is the kind of magic that happens when students have easy-to-use technology that enables them to participate in their own way, and on their own terms.

And when a pandemic happened and forced even the most technologically averse into a new world, millions discovered that the best kind of learning doesn’t even need a physical classroom.

This is the magic of Flipgrid.

Flipgrid is Microsoft’s simple video discussion platform, adopted by more than 100 million users in 190 countries. A teacher initiates a discussion topic and students record a response. No hand-raising in front of a group. No being put on the spot; just time to think and create and respond in whatever way they like best.

Its brand identity is “empower every voice,” and truly it does. In fact, it was discovered when a simple tool meant to keep in touch with students resulted in astounding levels of engagement that weren’t happening in the classroom.

Flipgrid’s journey itself is awe-inspiring. It’s a great tool for teachers, but it’s also an entrepreneurial success story. It all started with one professor, his journey across the world, and a desire to keep talking to his students.

One Man’s Idea

In 2012, Charles Miller, PhD., then an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, was traveling the world to study how populations in remote areas approached education with limited technology.

Still teaching his doctoral-level course, he wanted to stay in touch with students, but all the current means of digital discussions just weren’t offering the level of connection he had in mind. The solution? He simply coded the ability to post a topic and asked his students to upload short video responses.

Miller was blown away by the results. He discovered that the level of conversation exceeded what was typical even when they met in person. Every voice in his small community of learners had joined the discussion.

It was kind of a magic moment ― a phrase which seems to enter a conversation about Flipgrid at some point, no matter who you are talking to.

Those graduate students, many of whom were teaching courses of their own, wanted to know if they could use this tool with their own students. Miller explained that it wasn’t something he could share. He had been writing the code as he went.

But they kept asking, so Miller approached his dean and was granted some resources and a team to build the idea into something that could be used by the faculty. As the tool spread and the campus community began talking about magic moments of their own, the grapevine was chattering away and now the K-12 community wanted in.

A Start-Up is Born

Soon Flipgrid’s community was growing fast enough to spin it out of the University of Minnesota and into a start-up of its own.

Backed by two business partners who secured capital for the project, Flipgrid was born in 2015 and began polishing its product, adding features, and generally existing to serve its community of educators.

Joey Taralson, Flipgrid’s principal head of community, came on board. He described Flipgrid’s magic moment this way:

“Once a teacher starts using Flipgrid, inevitably, in the first or second time they use it, they are going to hear something from a member of their community that they never would have heard through in-person discussion, or through a live video discussion, because there is that space for the individual community member to think about what they want to say. And Flipgrid provides that avenue for them to kind of unleash their creativity and feel empowered to share their voice.”

Taralson quickly realized the best way to grow Flipgrid’s community was to concentrate on serving the existing users, and they would take care of the rest.

“This small but vocal community was sharing Flipgrid,” Taralson says, “They were sharing it on social media. They were sharing it at conferences. They were sharing it at professional development events. They were sharing our value from a place of authenticity because they truly had experienced the value and it had opened their eyes to what they could do with technology in their classroom.”

A Brilliant Tool Sells Itself

Flipgrid’s original fan base continued its self-appointed advocacy.

As an instructional technology specialist for the Alabama State Department of Education, Jornea Armant just happened to have an audience of tens of thousands of teachers across 12 school districts.

When a fifth grade teacher talked to her about a robotics challenge, for instance, Armant stopped her in her tracks.

“I know the perfect tool for your students,” she told her. She created the topic and shared it with the students who were able to go out and record their robotics projects on Flipgrid.

Here’s the magic she witnessed.

“Especially when you are recording, meta-cognition kicks in,” Armant says. “You start to think about your thinking a little bit more than you probably naturally do, and so students started catching themselves. If they would say something that might not have made sense or that they needed to be a bit more concise and clear, they would correct themselves. So it was almost like a personal learning and growth tool.”

Armant joined Flipgrid’s team in 2017. She now serves as its head of educator innovation.

“The story of Flipgrid is so beautiful. It’s these unexpected moments of, I would just say, bliss,” Armant says. “When Charlie created Flipgrid, he created it out of a need for his students. … When educators have that mindset of how else can I best meet the needs of my learners, you can’t lose. You are always winning when you have that type of mindset.”

Microsoft Honors Mission

Taralson’s goal of listening to Flipgrid’s users eventually led to a conversation about the financial ability of their teachers or their institutions to pay for Flipgrid. At that time, a subscription cost $65 a year.

The team launched a free version of Flipgrid that provided pretty much everything many users needed. As a start-up, Flipgrid still needed to charge for a premium version, and plenty of institutions were happy to buy a site license, so it continued to grow.

However, technically that meant that every voice was still not represented equally.

Now, it was time for another player to enter the field, and help Flipgrid fully realize its mission of empowering every voice.

In 2018, Microsoft acquired Flipgrid and immediately made every feature free for every educator, always.

Built for a Pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic so rudely invaded teaching and learning in March 2020, Flipgrid knew it was built for this stuff and braced for growth.

“Flipgrid immediately shifted from a ‘nice-to-have,’ to a ‘need to have,’ and our community expanded rapidly,” Taralson says.

Educators quickly learned that Flipgrid and its asynchronous style was the answer to keeping students engaged. Instead of demanding participation in real time in a video discussion room, teachers can push a prompt to their class and students can participate on their own schedule and on their own terms.

“Teachers have learners that might be at home where they are sharing a device with four siblings,” Taralson says. “Maybe it’s mom’s phone. Now they can participate in class where it was really challenging for them to participate before.”

Here is where Flipgrid’s grassroots beginnings come full circle. The company ramped up its professional development and worked on putting out materials to make it easy to learn, but that robust community of teachers was there for them.

“I think when the pandemic hit, we were a team of about 40 supporting a community of about 20 million educators, learners and families around the world,” Taralson says. “We had a huge network of teachers that knew Flipgrid inside and out that were there to support all the educators who were just beginning to explore Flipgrid.”

What’s Next

Now that the pandemic has overtaxed everyone’s tolerance for cameras, Flipgrid is finding itself in need of some adaptations. The Flipgrid community is starting to talk about how their students are just exhausted by having to be on camera all the time.

What is a video-based platform to do about this? The answer: “mic only.”

Still a video, the response doesn’t have to mean a camera on the user. They can use stickers, draw on the screen, record their screen, and add their voice but not their face.

Another thing the pandemic revealed was a desire to use the platform for uniting people in spaces outside of education, like anniversaries, birthdays, and more. Its simplicity is perfect for recording messages and sharing them in a fun new way. Though an education platform first and foremost, Flipgrid is aware of how individuals and organizations are creating new uses and wants to support that.

“Teaching and learning will always be at our core and everything that we build in Flipgrid is going to support our educator community that is using FG primarily in the classroom,” Taralson says. “We are going to build functionality that supports them first and foremost, but also expands and makes Flipgrid more valuable and more useful for them in all of the communities.”

Erika Rose is a well-established writer out of Chicago. She’s worked with a number of high-profile publications.