'Where there is hardship, there is hope'

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James Gray

Kortext founder and CEO James Gray reflects on founding the company, his wider career, and some life-changing moments

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications?

I grew up in Dorset, on the South Coast, where I still live.

I have always had a passion for learning, and for the power of books to help us learn wherever we may be. So, I guess it was always inevitable that I’d end up working in academic books!

However, when I look back, I can see that I was always fascinated by the ways technology can help people, too. 

I think this comes from having a grandfather who was an engineer ahead of his time, and one of the designers of the Spitfire. He worked with Barnes Wallace, and he taught me so much about how technology is only as good as its ability to solve real problems, and how the very best ideas work so seamlessly and naturally, they feel like they must have been here forever.

When I was 18, the plan was to go to university, but I’ve always believed there is a right time for everything, and instead I spent two years travelling the world - mostly sailing boats.

I found that, when I returned to the UK in my early 20s, my desire was to work in the world of universities, rather than study at one. 

It was in the late 1980s, and retail trends were just starting to change, with home deliveries becoming a more regular occurrence. However, when I spoke to people in the university sector, they told me that they could get almost everything delivered to their homes within a couple of days, but academic learning materials would take weeks to arrive. This was slowing down their ability to educate their students.

This seemed like the perfect challenge to blend my twin desires of learning and technology, so I set about solving the problem with the UK’s first effective academic learning materials next-day-delivery service - which evolved into being the first major provider of academic etextbooks.

The business was then acquired by a US firm, who took me over to the States to consult with Amazon, Apple, Google, and others on their entries into the digital book world.

When, how and why did you found Kortext?

By 2012, I had moved back to the UK, and was eager to make use of the remarkable new technology available at the time. 

I spoke to my old friends in university libraries and administration offices around the country, and they told me they felt that the Higher Education sector was being left behind in the digital revolution. So, I founded Kortext, with an aim to be the most engaging and supportive provider of digital learning materials - including etextbooks.

My work with the major US tech firms had shown me how digital innovations could enhance reader experiences significantly, and that the data generated from millions of readers could show incredible levels of insight of predicted reader behaviours.

This helped me realised that we would help change lives if we could create a easy-to-use digital platform, available to students anywhere, anytime, with access to almost every etextbook imaginable, that allowed them to collaborate better with their educator and coursemates.

So, that’s what we did.

Our platform is like a Kindle, but specifically focused on education, where through that account, you can connect to all your colleagues in your class, share your thoughts, share content, collaborate, communicate and have an improved learning experience.

By 2021, we’ve become the nation’s most trusted HE digital learning and engagement platform, helping more than 1.3 million students in over 120 UK universities.

And we pride ourselves on our innovation and commitment to always improving the student experience.

What kind of innovations have you created?

We have three broad areas of innovation we focus on - the Student Experience, the Educator Experience, and the Librarian Experience.

In terms of the Student Experience, we seek to create the most enjoyable, engaging platform - that helps students in the most personalised way possible.

Innovations here include the ability to quickly and easily collaborate with coursemates, save key passages, and cite references professionally with one click of a button. We also feature a video section of related content that helps students expand their knowledge in key areas of curiosity. 

Not only do these innovations help universities drive higher NSS scores for digital experience than institutions that don’t use our platform, but they also increase engagement in their course - with one study showing students that use Kortext read nearly twice as much as when they use traditional paper books.

Meanwhile, our innovations for the Educator Experience include the ability for universities to monitor student engagement in real time. Every course leader has a digital dashboard that allows them to see how digitally engaged their students are with their course, including how many pages they are reading, and for how long. 

This is critical, as a recent study shows that when a student lowers their digital engagement they are less likely to achieve their academic potential, and less likely to complete their course. Concerningly, over 40 per cent of students also report lower digital engagement is a sign of mental health struggles.

This means universities that track how engaged a student is will be able to better support their students’ academic potential and their mental health, as they can recognise the problem, and then offer one-to-one support.

This early warning system is being called for by students themselves, with more than three quarters of students (77 per cent) saying they’d be happy for their university to monitor their engagement and give extra, more tailored support if they noticed that their engagement was dropping.

That’s why we’re so proud of Kortext’s engagement monitoring, which means educators can track an individual student’s engagement in real time, and offer extra support when there may be a potential problem.

Finally, the Librarian Experience is crucial for us, as we take our responsibility to the learning centre of the HE experience seriously.

We maintain very close relationships with libraries all around the UK, and we want to create the simplest and most supportive environment, whether it is more than halving the time it takes to order books, or offering analytical tools to analyse which texts are inspiring the most engagement from students.

This means we are committed to providing cost-effective access to more books and more publishers than any other platform, and developing user-friendly technology that allows a librarian to save hours of admin time every month - freeing them up to spend more time supporting students and colleagues.

We understand that libraries have a deep pride in their work, and every platform development we make is designed to support librarians to drive their institution’s learning.

What is the biggest issue facing the scholarly communications industry at the moment, and how will it have changed in 10 years' time?

We’ve seen the terrible impact of the pandemic on universities around the world, and around the UK. And, ultimately we’ve seen how difficult the university experience has been for students.

But, like everything in life, where there is hardship, there is hope.

The switch to near universal digital-only learning, and then subsequently a more blended learning approach, has actually helped vast numbers of students who would otherwise not have been able to learn.

We commissioned a recent study into the pandemic impact, and found that 26 per cent of 21/22 students actually find blended studying easier, as they have family commitments to attend to. Likewise, 19 per cent of 21/22 students have mobility issues, and not having to go into campus every day makes it more possible to study.

And, this is just scratching the surface of what a truly democratic educational future looks like - where no-one is excluded from learning through factors outside their control.

For example, our recent study revealed that 21 per cent of current students are worried they won’t be able to continue their education because they feel they are a burden to their family post-pandemic. When an estimated 14.5 million people live in poverty in the UK, and family financial pressures impact their decision on whether to go to university or not, how many young minds are we losing?

But, with the trend of universities moving to paying for learning materials as part of tuition fees, and blended learning options allowing universities to consider different funding options, a more personalised and cost-effective future is emerging.

Likewise, the UK’s reputation as the global centre for university learning has long seen students travel thousands of miles to get their degree on these shores, but for most students around the world that’s just not an option for financial and logistical reasons. 

However, the technological revolution changes this, and allows us to work together towards a more connected world of education. 

We’ve seen this first-hand, as over the past year our platform has been used in over 200 countries and territories around the world, by students studying at UK institutions. 

This illustrates the true potential for online, borderless education. 

After all, as our Academic Advisor Sir Tim O’Shea says: 'What’s to stop a student in Syria from earning a degree from Oxford without leaving their country? Why should universities limit their vision, when they can run digital learning exchanges with other institutions around the world, and bring new ideas and experiences to their own students?'

Finally, do you have any fascinating facts, hobbies or pastimes that you'd like to admit to?

I have always been lucky enough to live near the water, and these days I am a stone’s throw from the Dorset coastline.

As such, the ocean has always played a big part in mine and my family’s life, and if there is a watersport we’ll have tried it.

You would have thought I’d have learned my lesson from my two years travelling in my late teens - when I very nearly got lost at sea! 

I was the junior member of a four person crew, sailing the Atlantic Ocean - nearly two thousand miles from shore. I was the only one on deck and went overboard in choppy waters, with the boat speeding onwards on autopilot. And, as the weather drowned out my calls to my sleeping crewmates, my boat disappeared over the horizon incredibly quickly. 

I was in the water for more than two hours, without a hope. However, I was extremely lucky the young French captain - who himself can’t have been more than 25 - realised I wasn't on the deck, and did something that inspires me with decision making to this day. 

He didn’t panic, but instead halted the boat, took out his paper charts and pencil to calculate the position, the wind, and the tides. He then turned the boat around to compensate for all that, and came back to rescue me - demonstrating an astonishing showcase of calmness under pressure.

These days I am more likely to be out on the Solent, rather than far-flung oceans, but in addition to that you’ll usually find me walking the dogs along the beach with the family, or at Bournemouth FC.

Interview by Tim Gillett