Crossing the Chasm in Edtech
Editor’s note: This piece was was originally published back in April 2013 for the Education Innovation Summit blog.
As we approach summer, broad trends in Internet accessibility, mobile computing, cloud-based services, and the lean startup movement have paved the way for the emergence of a new generation of educational entrepreneurs building improved services for educators. These services are providing more choice, data accessibility, cost effectiveness and user friendliness than ever before.
Historically, education technology has been mired by incompatible systems capped by the limits of regional distribution and site-specific customizations. The inefficiency characteristic of selling to districts meant slow revenue growth and consequently, low interest from mainstream investors seeking evidence of rapid traction and high ROIs. The move towards cloud-hosted, web-based application delivery (i.e. Software as a Service) promises to change this dynamic and bring a more rapid pace of content and service innovation in the education sector.
Specifically, we believe four trends are catalyzing this new movement in EdTech:
- Low cost of building a technology company enabled by cloud computing
- Emergence of education startup accelerators and grassroots interest via hackathons
- Renewed investment activity in education companies
- Charter schools with flexibility to experiment with pedagogy acting as attractive early partners for startups
In a July 2012 report by GSV Advisors, the firm calculated that investment activity in education companies surpassed the transaction activity in 1999 during the first dot-com era. While many investors still shy away from business models that sell to bureaucratic environments (e.g. schools), companies such as Edmodo have attracted investment from the likes of Greylock Partners, Benchmark Capital, and Union Square Ventures. In our opinion, this return of capital to the education sector will attract a new class of entrepreneurs to utilize the mentorship networks via accelerator programs and opt to contribute to the education sector.
Through our own customer research, we have identified strong demand for new categories of educational software and new methods of educational content delivery. We agree with Marc Andreesson’s vision that Software Will Eat The World. In this vision, every industry will become increasingly software-based, where processes and methods used in the workplace will be increasingly facilitated by software.
Today’s educators want applications that exist in an interconnected edtech ecosystem, accessible at work and at home, across multiple devices and always up-to-date, but this presents a unique challenge in education where antiquated systems store data in hard to reach places. Data is the lifeblood of a new edtech ecosystem. Without it, new edtech solutions inherit the symptoms of the previous generation with users manually entering, exporting and importing data. Early adopters of edtech have proven that they’re willing to live with this inconvenience, but if we ever want to see rapid mainstream adoption, we must find a way to solve the data problem.
This is the chasm for the new generation of educational technology. There is great momentum in edtech and all signs point to an edtech renaissance, but until we find a way to bridge the data gap, frustrated teachers will continue to abandon new solutions.
LearnSprout Wins First Prize in the MBA Impact Investing Network
Today I am incredibly excited to announce yet another award! LearnSprout has been selected as the winning enterprise in the MBA Impact Investing Network. This is a huge honor for the team as it caps off a rigorous, multi-phased selection process led by some of the most discriminating minds in business: MBA candidates.
Spearheaded by Bridges Ventures U.S. as part of its field-building efforts and distinct from its impact investment fund which targets later stage companies, the MBA Impact Investing Network is an experiential learning opportunity where students at U.S. business schools source and conduct diligence on early stage impact investments, with each campus presenting their recommendations to an Investment Committee (IC) composed of expert impact investors for a potential investment as part of an existing angel round.
LearnSprout was brought to the network by the Wharton Social Venture Fund (WSVF). The WSVF team, led by Thomas Kidd, included students from The Wharton School of Business competing against teams from Harvard Business School, Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the Kellogg School of Management. The team served as a sourcing channel for social impact investors and the top deals were presented to a committee of expert impact investors including Brian Trelstad (Bridges Ventures). Multiple rounds of due diligence were conducted that included more than 100 companies in education, health, nutrition and energy. In the end, LearnSprout was selected as the sole recipient of the $50,000 angel investment made by investor Ron Moelis of L+M Development Partners.
During the selection process, we were impressed with how quickly the WSVF team came up to speed on K-12 education and the edtech industry. The process brought real value beyond the prestige of the award and helped fine-tune our strategy and messaging through a series of thought-provoking conversations which inspired us to examine our assumptions and models more critically.
I asked Thomas Kidd, Associate and Sector Lead for WSVF what it was about LearnSprout that put us over the top, and here’s what he had to say:
"We were really impressed with the scale of LearnSprout’s vision. LearnSprout is attacking a major problem and has the potential to fundamentally change the way our education system functions. It is incredibly exciting to work with them."
Ashley Beckner, the WSVF co-president and managing director added:
"WSVF provides capital to entrepreneurs creating positive social change through profitable businesses. LearnSprout’s sustainable and scalable model accelerates developers’ ability to bring impactful education products to classrooms – exactly what we look for.”
I can’t express how validating statements like these are for the team. When Anthony, Joe and I quit our jobs to found LearnSprout we did so because we wanted to do more than make a comfortable living… we wanted to make our own small dent in the universe… One that would have a lasting, positive impact on society. We may not be there yet, but it’s good to know we’re headed in the right direction.
So, today our office is brimming with pride and gratitude. We owe the team at WSVF a huge THANK YOU!! for all their hard work and look forward to watching these talented future captains of industry succeed in the exciting world of business.
To learn more about the Wharton Social Venture Fund, visit whartonsocialventurefund.org
LearnSprout Wins Top Honor in the 2013 Edtech Digest Cool Tool Awards for Best Emerging Technology Solution
We’re thrilled to announce that LearnSprout has been named Best Emerging Technology Solution in the 2013 EdTech Digest Awards!
The program honors tools, trendsetters and leaders in the education and technology sector. A panel of industry influencers and veterans evaluated more than 200 finalists from over 40 categories. LearnSprout was honored in the “Cool Tool” award category which recognizes new, emerging and established technology solutions for education.
Thanks to all our school and developer partners, friends and supporters for your help and making LearnSprout the best emerging technology solution of 2013!
Our Picks for ‘Must See’ Sessions at SXSWedu
Too much good stuff. It’s hard to choose and lord knows, we’ll be scrambling to just keep up with our own crammed schedule, but here is our list of must-see sessions this week. Ecosystems, and big data seem to be a major theme for this year’s conference… a topic which hits close to home. This is our first SXSWedu ever, so if you see us, please stop us and introduce yourself. We’re SXSWedu noobs and need friends :)
Edtech enthusiasts love new ideas and are happy to suffer through the fits and starting characteristics of many emerging startups, but the same cannot be said for the mainstream educator. With increasing class sizes and less time to discover, learn, and use these new solutions, edtech startups are facing an attention drought that threatens to kill the nascent edtech ecosystem. As the market becomes flooded with new tools, how can startups convince educators to spend their limited time and resources to give their products a chance?
Schools and districts have typically been fortresses against innovation, even when they exist within communities where innovation thrives. Funding in schools is often scarce, yet hundreds of companies and hundreds of millions of dollars are hard at work trying to solve (what they think are) schools’ problems. Entrepreneurs and their investors are often frustrated by a culture they disdain without understanding and educators while educators and elected leaders are wary of spending scarce dollars and political capital on for-profit solutions that don’t address what they see as core problems.
This panel will explore the history and reasons for the apparent disconnect between schools and innovation and show how a few districts are working break it down by creating Innovation Ecosystems in which educators, entrepreneurs, donors, and VCs work nimbly together to enhance the triple-bottom-line.
We believe greater teacher engagement in educational product design will yield more valuable tools (we’ve witnessed as much), but implementation and scale–without which K12 innovation can’t occur–rely on a broader array of stakeholders. We will discuss the stakeholder roles resident in each of these communities, integration with schools as development partners, and the feasibility and implications of a “big tent” approach to ed entrepreneurship.
Finally, we’ll examine why the founders of these models made the decisions they did as architects of their planned communities, what has proven most challenging in their models, and what’s been most successful to date.
We all remember the Dunkin’ Donuts commercial where a sleepy employee rolls out of bed and murmurs, “It’s time to make the donuts.” Every day. Without fail.
Our public education system suffers the same rinse-repeat drudgery. Educators teach to the mean in industrial-age classrooms. Top students are bored; others get left behind. Everyone suffers through standardized tests that are over-valued as measures of success & progress.
Personalized, data-driven education can break the cycle. The data is already there: educators collect troves of it every day. But then it gets stored and siloed. To finally address our national education crisis, we need to put that data to work in classrooms.
Our panel will address 3 topics:
- The current education data landscape
- How well-deigned tools & standardized data can help teachers & kids
- The ways in which standardization opens up the frontier for innovation
Pundits paint a bleak picture of education: low college grad rates, high student debt, and weak market-ready skills. But, imagine if students could plan their education-to-career path with higher chances of success?
Big Data plays a central role in driving this impact. Edtech companies, the government, and NGOs invest significant money to develop comprehensive datasets relevant to learning outcomes like student test scores and teacher quality. Concrete initiatives are emerging that could be early indicators of data’s disruptive impact.
This panel explores how Big Data could change education to improve student achievement. Beginning with a broad vision for Big Data, panelists will dive into concrete models being tested. These include the use of data to recommend a lifetime of “best fit” educational opportunities, dynamic technology tools that can forecast a learner’s education and professional trajectory, and non-profit-driven efforts to unlock public-private synergy.
Data collection is not new. Technology has long allowed us to collect massive amounts of information to spot patterns in learning and help validate effective teaching approaches. Today, however, we are able to collect and analyze data that gives us an incredibly deep view of exactly what students are thinking to the tune of nearly 50,000 data points per hour per student. It allows us to see and better understand students’ natural, independent, and original thinking in real-time. In turn, learning can be personalized to each individual student based on how they think, capturing and refining concepts that build the foundation for long-term academic success. This new class of intelligent adaptive learning technology is the true game changer in education. It learns the learner as the learner learns. Think about it for a few moments. That’s big.
Ed-Tech thought leader Audrey Watters joins us to ‘Hack Education’ across the pond with the former Minister of Education for England, Lord Knight of Weymouth, and the USDOE’s Office of Ed-Tech Deputy Director, Richard Culatta. This powerhouse panel will forecast the international emerging technology developments and how edupreneurs can contribute their ideas to the global marketplace.
This panel will focus on the launch of a cross-sector project to engage leaders in academia, industry, government and philanthropy - devoted to “Building the Field of Learning Analytics for Personalized Learning”. The project is intended to accelerate emergence of an organized community of data scientists devoted to education data and learning analytics. This is a national effort which in its first phase will address 4 foundational questions: (1) define critical questions and provide a conceptual framework for building the field of learning analytics and a new generation of Education Data scientists, (2) articulate and prioritize new tools, approaches, policies, markets, and programs of study associated with the field of learning analytics, (3) determine resources needed to address priorities, and (4) map how to implement the field building strategy and how to evaluate progress.
Successfully navigating the pathway to possibility that is education is becoming a must for individuals, communities, and our country. The data are clear: completing credentials that count—especially at the postsecondary level—opens up opportunities in education, economics, social mobility, and personal efficacy. Given the great need and the flood of education data streaming from next-gen technologies, the question now is can we put analytics to work as we have in the health care, consumer, and social networking worlds to help more striving students succeed? This interactive dialogue with key education analytics thought leaders will explore this question and make the case that more of these efforts need to be focused on getting the power that fuels Mayo Clinic Analytics, Amazon, and eHarmony to students, faculty, and advisors.
Personalizing learning is about maximizing every student’s potential, but how can teachers leverage student data to personalize learning for every student, including those with special challenges in need of an intervention? Come see technology providers demonstrate how inBloom-connected services can support the work teachers do to get the right resources to students and to understand the impact of those resources. See how data helps inform a picture of the whole student and a teacher’s ability to craft a student’s personal learning journey.
Getting Ready for SXSWedu
In less than a week the team will be in Austin, Texas attending what has become one of the most important events for LearnSprout in our short history. We’ve got some exciting news we can’t wait to share, and we’ve been invited to more events than we can handle. In fact, half the team will be flying out to help to cover all our commitments. Included on our schedule:
- Panel Discussion
- Startup Showcase
- Live ‘Day in the Life’ Demo with inBloom
- Compass Learning’s Blogger Lounge
- Lunch with Bill Gates!
Lots of meetings, and of course… parties. At least two each night, starting on Sunday. Vitamins and energy drinks will be in full effect!
With less than a week to go final preparations are being made. Our engineering team has been in crunch mode, heads-down coding through the wee hours of the night while the business team has been in meetings, planning for SXSWedu all the live-long day.
It’s a busy time, but we’re psyched. If you’re in Austin next week we’d love to see you. - Tweet us at @learnsprout and let’s grab a beer!
More to come!!
A Very Good Year
As we move into the new year, I thought it might be worthwhile to reflect on the major milestones from the past year and to highlight some important news and events for what’s upcoming. To quote Shakespeare, “What’s past is prologue.” 2012 came and went faster than any of us could have imagined and set the stage for what is to be a defining year for LearnSprout. To review:
- Launched in January
- First hire in March
- Launched from the Imagine K12 incubator program
- Entered a partnership with Rocketship Education, our first customer!
- Funded by Andreessen Horowitz, Formation 8, Frank Bonsal III, Jeff Fagnan, and other great investors.
- Relocated into a roomy, three-story office in the heart of the SOMA startup scene
- Launched from the Code for America accelerator program
- Three new hires, including a 12-year veteran from Pearson
- Invited to the White House to participate in the first Datapalooza event
- Invited to participate in the Reboot America competition in Washington DC
- Invited to participate in the SIIA Innovation Incubator contest
- Issued our first press release announcing two new products
- Co-hosted the Data Deathmatch hackathon
- Coverage in TechCrunch, Gigaom, BetaKit, Huffington Post, Hack Education and EdSurge
- Inked partnerships with some of the leading K-12 edtech companies
Looking at this list now, it’s hard to believe it’s only been a year since Joe, Anthony and I launched the company. It’s an extraordinary list of successes and far more than I could have imagined or hoped for when we first set out, but our success is owed in large part to an absolutely incredible group of supporters who have helped guide our young company through that critical first year. There are more names than we could possibly list here, but special thanks goes to the folks at Imagine K12, Code for America, Andreesen Horowitz, Formation 8 and all our angels who helped inspire and guide us through those first few uncertain months.
As amazing as 2012 was, we’re even more excited for what the new year holds. The way the stars are aligning right now, I believe 2013 will end up being the year LearnSprout moves its way into mainstream adoption. We’ve got a lot going for us:
First off, we are thrilled to announce that LearnSprout has been selected to participate in the LAUNCHedu competition being held at this year’s SXSWedu conference in Austin. This is a huge honor for the team that places LearnSprout in the company of some of the hottest new edtech startups. Twelve companies were selected to participate in the K-12 category including three other former Imagine K12 companies: NoRedInk, DigitWhiz and InstaGrok.
Beyond the startup competition, we will also be hosting a panel discussion with guest speakers Tony Wan from Edsurge, Charlie Bufalino from Rocketship Education and Tim Brady from Imagine K12. There’s a couple other ideas still in the works for SXSW, but no matter how you slice it, LearnSprout is going to have a big presence.
In April we’re headed down to Arizona State University to participate in the 2013 GSV Advisors Education Innovation Summit. Nicknamed “Davos in the Desert”, the event attracts industry leaders, entrepreneurs, activists, investors, and will feature more than 150 of the hottest, new education companies.
We have two awesome new hires who recently joined the LearnSprout team:
Anna Hon - A seasoned strategy and finance manager from Microsoft, Anna has gained broad business experience in growth strategy, mergers & acquisitions, monetization, and financial planning & analysis for both consumer and enterprise products across the Windows and Office divisions. Anna studied Finance, International Business, and Chinese at the University of Washington, and has worked abroad in Taiwan, India, and China. She loves yummy food, great wines, bikram yoga, and fashion blogs.
Alex Odle - Alex is a software engineer hailing from Microsoft, where he worked as a developer on client apps for Windows and Windows Live. Prior to Microsoft, Alex studied Computer Engineering at the University of Washington. Alex loves to play soccer, snowboard fresh pow, and travel.
Now eight strong, team LearnSprout is hitting the new year in full stride.
Perhaps the most exciting news I have to share is the reaction we’ve seen to LearnSprout Dashboard since we announced it back in November at the SIIA Edtech Business Forum. In less than two months, nearly 1000 schools have registered to use LearnSprout Dashboard. Considering that we made the announcement in the middle of the holiday season, we believe this is just a hint of what’s to come. Feedback from educators has been overwhelmingly positive. We knew that getting at data inside the SIS was a problem for schools and as it turns out, integration is not the only manifestation of that problem. Educators would like to see that data and make sense of it, but as it stands today, most have to make do with manual exports of raw data living inside exotic spreadsheets. So, it’s clear we’ve hit the nail on the head with Dashboard and we’re excited to get it out and into the hands of more schools.
More to Come!
We’re only a couple weeks into the new year and we’ve already got a bunch of exciting updates in the works that we’re just itching to share, so stay tuned!
Announcing LearnSprout Dashboard and LearnSprout Messages
One of the common challenges my teammates and I face is finding good ways to explain the power and potential of LearnSprout to folks who are unfamiliar with APIs and what they’re capable of. Frank came up with a great characterization of this problem a while back when he said, “It’s like we’ve discovered the dilithium crystal, but no one’s figured out warp drive yet.”
The challenge is compounded by the fact LearnSprout is an unseen service with no front end. (This makes for some awkward demos.) We’ve tried describing LearnSprout as invisible pipes, or a sort of irrigation system that moves data like water “cultivating the edtech ecosystem” and we’ve made a great video, but all too often the reaction we get is somewhere between “neat” and “handy”. It’s like folks want to use the dilithium crystal to make a better watch.
So, a couple months ago, we decided to take matters into our own hands and started work on some ideas that could show off the potential of LearnSprout and today, we’re excited to announce two new products: LearnSprout Dashboard and LearnSprout Messages.
Messages began as fun side project to see what might happen if we combined our API with Twilio, the telephony API, but as we began to share it with school administrators it soon became clear that we were onto something. The benefit of a direct database integration with LearnSprout would ensure that the most up-to-the-minute attendance records and contact info would be used. Twilio made it possible to send a very high volume of calls or texts in a matter of seconds. Together they make up a robust school-to-home messaging system that takes just a few minutes to setup, requires no training and costs substantially less than most outbound phone messaging systems.
Cool, right? But here’s the coolest part and I really want to stress this point… Messages took us less than two weeks to build. Of course, I recognize that by saying this that I run the risk of cheapening it in the eyes of some, but it’s important to point out that this was a side project, not a pivot. We are not turning into a telephony company. Our focus is on the development of our API, expanding its reach into new SISs and deeper into additional datasets. But we wanted to show off LearnSprout and hopefully inspire other developers to build something crazy cool. In fact, we think it would be awesome if someone else built their own messaging system off of LearnSprout with even more bells and whistles. This is our mission and is what we mean by “Cultivating the edtech ecosystem.”
The inspiration for Dashboard was the result of simply listening to our customers. Time and again we’ve been urged to “build a dashboard” that would visualize all the data we were exposing from the SIS. What we’ve come to learn is that while SISs are really good at taking in a lot of data, they’re not so great at analyzing that data in useful ways beyond a limited number of basic and compulsory reports. By the sixth or seventh time we heard “build a dashboard” we decided to go for it.
But here’s the most exciting thing about Dashboard. Over time, as we connect to more and more schools, we’re going to be able to help administrators gauge the performance of their schools in the context of broader state and national trends. They’ll be able to view their school’s longitudinal attendance trends against state and national averages, or compare grade point averages by graduating class, or perhaps measure the correlation between attendance and immunizations and compare that to a national trend.
Here’s one quick example. We extrapolated anonymous attendance data that included more than 600,000 marked absences dating back to 2003. We then mapped those events to the lunch status of the corresponding students and found that students who were on free lunch were absent nearly 40% more than full-pay students. Now, the fact that free lunch students are absent more often might not come as a surprise, but the percentage shocked us. As Juan Enriquez points out in a recent article, this kind of data analysis helps move us from “I think I’m sure” to “I know and can prove it.”
Dashboard is in development and will launch in early 2013 with a basic attendance report, but we are cooking up a number of other ideas and will continue to add new reports throughout the year. Like Messages, Dashboard takes just a few minutes to set up and requires no training to use, but unlike Messages which has a per-student annual fee, Dashboard will be completely free. The reason for this is is long-winded and has to do with our business model, but the gist of it centers on the idea that if we can attract a large number of schools with a robust set of free dashboard reports, we can then attract more edtech developers to use our API and further grow the edtech ecosystem.
So stay tuned folks. There’s a lot of moving parts over here at LearnSprout HQ and we’re looking forward to sharing more in the coming weeks and months.
A LOT of News! (seriously)
Lately it’s been tough to keep up with all the amazing news that has been coming our way. Over the course of the last few weeks, we’ve been invited to participate in some of the most important and exciting events surrounding educational technology:
- Invited to the White House to participate in the first-ever Education Datapalooza
- Invited as one of 8 companies to compete in the Reboot America National Challenges competition
- One of 12 companies to be selected to compete in the SiiA Ed Tech Innovation Incubator contest
- Invited to present at the GSV Advisors Education Innovation Summit
- Selected to lead a panel discussion at SXSWedu
In addition, we’ve also had the amazing opportunity to participate in a series of events hosted by Code for America, including:
- Code for America Summit
- Guest blog on the CfA website: "Why I Code for America"
- Code for America Demo Day
- Data Deathmatch - A Hackaton
The hackaton proved to be particularly awesome and validating. A room full of strangers who were generally unfamiliar with education, managed to create some very cool products over the course of 11 short hours. We were blown away and energized to see what could be done with the LearnSprout API.
Needless to say, the team has been extremely busy keeping up with the high demand, but this hasn’t slowed development in the least. When not responding to invitations, demoing and hosting hackathons, the LearnSprout development team managed to do something awesome: The LearnSprout Connect API now pulls live grades!
This opens the door to a world of new possibilities and we’re eager to see how our partner companies might take advantage of this new capability. Some of the ideas we imagined were inspired with questions like the following:
- What exactly, is the correlation between attendance and grades?
- What are the grading patterns by teacher, school, course, grade, etc?
- What would grades look like if grades were geolocated by home residence?
- What data can be combined with live grades to produce an “At Risk” indicator?
- What is the grading and attendance history of each teacher in the district?
The ideas could go on… we’re only limited by our imagination and the wheels are definitely turning.
And so… Yes. It’s been extremely busy. There is an incredible amount of excitement surrounding LearnSprout and the company is being pushed and pulled in a number of promising directions. However, we remain focused on building on our core strength: Improving the biggest, broadest and most robust API for K-12 SISs in existence.
Much more to come gang. Stay tuned!
Announcing Live Attendance!
At LearnSprout, we’re committed to cultivating a vibrant ecosystem of education applications. Opening up new datasets that were previously locked away deep inside student information systems (SISs) is core to our mission. That’s why we’re excited to announce that we’re making current and historical attendance data available to our developers!
Historically, most of the information passed between SISs and other applications was limited to current roster data. The utility in that data is limited as doesn’t go beyond account provisioning and basic demographic analysis. The vast majority of the most valuable student data is still locked away inside the SISs. We believe the rich data stored inside an SIS could be better leveraged in new and useful ways. What if a school wants to transfer richer data sets to power other applications? Sadly it simply doesn’t happen because the deployment friction is too high. In an age where we can plug our social data from sources like Facebook to power third-party applications, it’s a shame the same can’t be done with education data!
“Your son has been absent nine times…”
Even when a school works up the courage to bridge the gap, they are forced to resort to either manual data re-entries or transferring CSVs across e-mail or FTP. This leads to transcription errors, security vulnerabilities, and stale data. It’s a very time consuming and labor intensive process.
Now, developers have the ability to pull live attendance data directly from the source! Data by itself is useless, but if we had a way to analyze and compare it against other related data, we could begin to tackle some long-standing questions that have previously been very difficult to answer:
- Can at-risk students be identified by using live attendance data?
- Does the distance from a school affect attendance rates?
- Does socioeconomic status affect attendance rates?
- What days are students most likely to skip school?
- Which students have missed the most school days?
- Do attendance rates vary significantly by teacher or by school?
- Does attendance affect grades?
The possibilities for analytics get even more interesting when coupled with other applications:
- Do badges and achievements awarded in a behavior management system affect attendance?
- Can classroom attendance rates be correlated to teacher evaluations that are tracked in performance management platforms and other professional development (PD) tools?
- Does software that manages individual learning plans (ILPs) have any effect on attendance?
- Can attendance and grades from 3rd party grade books that are not part of an SIS be analyzed to see if they’re correlated?
The possibilities are endless. You can check out the documentation and try out the new methods on our interactive console. If you have some cool ideas on how to integrate LearnSprout with your software, or if you’ve got a killer idea for the next big thing in edtech that can harness the power of live data, let us know!
So, what exactly is LearnSprout you ask? Check out our new video to find out!