Personalized Learning, Products ‘Going Viral’ Are Hot Topics at Ed-Tech Summit

Associate Editor

San Diego

About 3,700 ed-tech entrepreneurs, educators, and venture capitalists are meeting here to talk about their companies or their classrooms, their employees or their students, and how to maximize the investments being made in them. The topics range from digital learning in K-12 to ed-tech trends in higher education to the use of technology for workforce development.

I visited three K-12 sessions to learn more about technology-driven personalized learning, how K-12 products go viral, and the evolution of the Baltimore County, Md., school district’s multi-year technology upgrade.

Personalized Learning Priorities

Mark Zuckerberg’s investment in personalized learning can only help” fuel the approach, said Eric Schneider, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Minnetonka, Minn., school district during a panel discussion on that topic. “It should bring more products to the market, faster. It’s an investment that’s going to trigger great thinking.”

“But from my perspective, at the district level, it’s a little less sexy,” Schneider said. His priorities are advancing the district’s goals within the instructional framework, and making the most of the “few minutes” available for teacher training. “We’ve really got to grow our teachers’ ability to design lessons that represent this thinking,” he said.

Other panelists had additional concerns.

For instance, lack of research about personalized learning is a void that needs to be filled, said Brad Bernatek, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation helps support some coverage in Education Week.)

“We’re thinking a lot around quality,” said Bernatek, who was involved with a RAND Corp. study titled “Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning.” That research offered promising evidence, but he said it is by no means definitive. “When it came to what characteristics matter the most…there was not much we could say about that,” he said.

The first priority should be to “make personalization easy, not harder,” said Stuart Udell, CEO of K12 Inc., an online education provider that sells a personalized learning platform. “When we think about it in the virtual environment, personalization could mean more work” for parents, teachers, administrators, and technologists, he said. Relevance to students is what’s “really, really important,” he added. “It’s the way we’ve seen kids get ignited and invested in their own learning.”

Aylon Samouha, co-CEO of Transcend, a nonprofit focused on the core design of school, expressed a concern that education will not really change with the advent of personalized learning. “My fear is that we’re going to end up painting the dinosaur a new color, instead of doing something different. What does it look like to bring real R&D capacity to school design?”

Lessons From Viral Adoptions

A “viral adoption” is the lightning-fast acceptance of a product.

As a high school English teacher in Chicago, Jeff Schuer felt overwhelmed by all the grammar problems that arose in students’ writing. Grading 15,000 English papers inspired him to think of a better way to get students to remember the fundamentals of grammar, so he developed an app that they can use to create sentences based on celebrities, sports, or interests that they choose. The app then evaluates students’ grammar.

Schuer named the product NoRedInk, offered it free, and introduced it to 50 teachers at a conference. Within 10 weeks, it had spread to 15,000 users. Beyond what students learn, teachers can use a “heat map” to understand how individual students in a class are performing. “We’re very, very teacher-centric, and also student-centric,” said Schuer. “We try to do things that tap into the pain points teachers experience when they’re overwhelmed with helping students become better writers.”

BrightBytes, a company that offers a platform to translate data for districts, has also experienced fast adoption. Brandon Avrulin, a partner in Rethink Education which has invested in BrightBytes, said BrightBytes is intensely focused on the needs of school administrators. “When they’re purchasing it, they’re purchasing it because it’s providing data and insights they’ve never seen before,” and it’s data on topics that administrators could lose their jobs over, he said.

Vibhu Mittal, CEO of Edmodo, said “the very definition of a viral loop is to find something of interest to one person, and use it to signal” to others that “Joe Schmo really liked this, and we think you will, too.” A key to success,  he said, is to make sure that you aren’t misaligning your connections by, for instance, sending a French game to a middle school student who is identified clearly as someone who loves math.

For Quizlet, which in 10 years has grown to 40 million users a month with its user-created content, teachers pay $25 per year. It’s a price point that is likely to encourage teachers to take out their own credit cards to pay for it, said Andrew Sutherland, president, founder, and CTO of the company. Teachers also have an option to send an invoice to their school administrators from the site, in case the service is paid for by the district.

Companies whose products have gone viral need to make careful choices as they convert from “free” to paid status.

Corey Reid, CEO of MasteryConnect, which has users in 170 countries, distributes his product using both a “freemium” model, which offers the product free but charges for additional functionality, and a sales force.

Reid said he does not believe that the “K-12 space is large enough” for a product to be free for awhile, then convert to charging its users, so MasteryConnect has a free model that teachers can use. “When we hit their pain or opportunity point [because they want more,] we don’t want their money. We want them evangelizing to their administrator,” he said. “Thirty percent of our school and district sales have a teacher involved.”

Baltimore County Tech Rollout

A team from Baltimore County schools, led by Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, talked about how they are using technology in a program called S.T.A.T., for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow.

“In order for us to eliminate the achievement gap,” Dance said, “we have to leverage technology.” The district started with Blueprint 2.0, a strategic plan that involved more than 200 community meetings. “People talked about the inequities in the system…inequities around technology.”

Now, he said, the community sees an implementation underway and understands why it was put in place.

The work began in the early grades. “Most superintendents always think high school…but I think we made the best decision by focusing [first] on the earliest learners,” Dance said. “Then you build a system to where kids drive change throughout. It was a very spirited debate, but I think it was one of the best decisions we made.”

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