Special Report
Executive Skills & Strategy

Ed-Tech Problems Open Doors for Entrepreneurs to Solve Them

By Michele Molnar — April 23, 2019 8 min read
Michelle Brown, the CEO and founder of CommonLit, sitting on a student desk at the Washington Leadership Academy in the nation's capitol.
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Jeff Scheur started NoRedInk out of frustration over the seemingly endless hours he spent grading English papers and realizing there must be a better way to help students improve their writing.

Michelle Brown decried the unequal access to educational resources between the “haves” and “have-nots” in her two teaching positions. To try to correct the problem, she launched CommonLit as a free reading program that teachers can use to choose lessons, share them with students, and track progress.

Guido Kovalskys took lessons learned after starting companies in other industries and applied them to K-12 education when he co-founded Nearpod, a student-engagement platform that teachers can use to create interactive lessons.

These three CEOs are part of an expanding cadre of ed-tech founder/leaders who each wanted to solve a specific problem in K-12 education. While that may sound like common sense, it’s become clear that the only way an ed-tech company can have an impact in schools is by addressing a problem and offering a solution that teachers need. Often, the best solutions to problems come from people who have faced those problems head-on as classroom educators. And sometimes, people who come to education from other industries bring a fresh perspective about how to identify and solve problems.

Following are the stories of how three ed-tech CEOs identified a problem and tried to correct it.

NoRedInk / Jeff Scheur

Jeff Scheur

For a former English teacher, Jeff Scheur is big on calculations. Over his eight years as an educator, he spent up to 50 hours each time he offered feedback on 150 to 170 student essays. Having taught more than 1,000 high school students, he spent more than 12,000 hours in the classroom.

That was enough of an investment to identify the problem.

Scheur began documenting the issues that repeatedly arose in his students’ writing and produced a manual they could refer to as they revised their essays. Could, but often didn’t.

Soon, he decided to devote more and more time to building a comprehensive writing curriculum and automating the exercises himself. Eventually, he set aside $20,000 to pay an engineer to build tools for his students to help them with various aspects of writing.

“Once I got to a point where I had something that I thought was useful, I shared it with other teachers in Illinois,” he said. Within 10 weeks, the site had 15,000 users, and by November 2012, it jumped to almost 100,000.

That same year, Scheur’s writing program earned media attention, and he won NBC’s $75,000 Innovation Challenge. The teacher was invited to move to California to work with ImagineK12, a startup accelerator focused on ed tech that is now part of Y Combinator, which helped launch companies like Airbnb and Dropbox. That’s where he learned how to raise money for his burgeoning business.

“One of the advantages I had as a teacher was being able to build curriculum and then use it with students and iterate based on what was working and what wasn’t,” said Scheur. His understanding about the demands in a teacher’s day inspired him to create features like the ability of an educator to preview any exercise from a student’s vantage point—a simple idea “that somehow doesn’t appear in plenty of ed-tech products today,” he said.

Now, a free, limited version of the writing platform is used by millions of teachers and students in grades 5-12. A premium version provides a comprehensive writing curriculum for schools and districts, guiding students through the writing process and tracking student progress on state and national standards.

Teaching and innovation go hand in hand, said Scheur. “Something every teacher understands is that any activity you do has to pass the boring test if kids are going to approve.” Educators need creativity and ingenuity to bridge the gap between teaching the skills that will help students prepare for their future and helping them understand why they should care about those skills, he said.

Scheur, whose company is based in San Francisco, said he is particularly upset when he hears ed-tech leaders critique public education as if it is “completely broken.”

“Ed-tech CEOs ought to focus on how to help teachers and administrators do their jobs better, rather than trying to disrupt education—or whatever jargon gets used in Silicon Valley,” he said. “True innovation in ed tech requires deep empathy and appreciation for the realities of being a teacher and being an administrator.”

What does he miss most from leaving the classroom? “Spending time with kids. The raw, unadulterated joy that kids bring to their everyday activities is refreshing and inspiring,” he said.

CommonLit / Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown

When Michelle Brown walked into a Mississippi Delta 7th grade classroom to teach English/language arts in 2009, she was shocked to discover that there were no books and also no “institutional knowledge” because of high educator turnover.

Two years later, she moved to Boston, where she taught 7th grade reading at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, a public school, and “they had everything I didn’t have in Mississippi,” she said. “I saw how a good curriculum makes such a difference for kids.”

CommonLit, her curriculum of free online instructional materials for literacy development in grades 3-12, was born of her passion for equitable access to digital learning tools. Based in Washington, CommonLit recently hosted a party celebrating the 10 millionth sign-up of teachers and students for her organization’s service.

Brown started her nonprofit ed-tech organization when she was pursuing a master’s degree from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and chose building and testing CommonLit as her thesis project—at her adviser’s suggestion—because she was dissatisfied with the pace of change in education policy.

At Harvard, she was able to work on her open education resource in a formal academic setting and incorporate learning science as part of the design early on, Brown said. She conducted a study with 222 students in nine Boston schools and got promising results with students showing statistically significant gains, she said.

Having experience as a teacher gives a person insights that many ed-tech entrepreneurs don’t have, she said. “Teaching 7th graders anywhere is messy,” she said. “When you’ve been a classroom teacher, you have a special respect for how unpredictable kids can be. Sometimes, unpredictable moments are the best learning moments.”

A lesson she’s had to learn is how to manage funding to keep her nonprofit going. “In the past two years, we’ve been thinking a lot about sustainability,” said Brown. “It’s a criticism of OER that often comes up.”

CommonLit’s theory of change has, well, changed a lot, she said. Its first iteration was as a supplemental-reading tool. “Our new theory of change is that going directly to teachers with individual lessons or resources only gets you so far if you really want to move the needle on achievement,” she said, noting that the teacher version will continue to be free. Meanwhile, the OER provider is building a full-year curriculum that will deliver aligned interim assessments as part of the fee model, along with instructional coaching linked to the content.

To Brown, it’s “pretty shocking how few teachers are invited into the process” of creating ed tech, particularly the ones who are from the underserved schools with large populations of poor students.

“I wanted to build a company that had all these people who are never at the table in the same office building together,” she said.

Nearpod / Guido Kovalskys

Guido Kovalskys

“My passion is for solving problems that seem very meaningful” and that are both big and difficult, said Guido Kovalskys. That’s what he and his co-founders did in other ventures, including companies in the U.S., Latin America and Europe, in industries from healthcare to software development. Going into classrooms as an entrepreneur about seven years ago, and realizing how technology could impact teachers’ and students’ lives, was “addicting; it was almost like education absorbed me,” he said.

To get a read on what teachers and students needed, Kovalskys left Miami for awhile to become a fellow at Stanford University’s d.school, which focuses on “design thinking” and a user-centric approach to technology. There, he learned how to empathize with the demands teachers face by spending time in schools every week where the product was designed, tested, and revised based on feedback and insights gained in classrooms.

The end result is Nearpod, a student engagement platform that teachers use to craft their own lessons and that now also features K-12 lessons from other partners, from iCivics to PhET, which provides free, interactive science and math simulations. In addition, Nearpod recently acquired Flocabulary, a company teaching subjects through hip-hop videos. Nearpod is free to teachers to create their own content, with enhanced versions offering more features available to teachers and administrators at a cost.

Today, Nearpod reaches 7 million student users a month, said Kovalskys, and he is committed to expanding by adding more digital content and creating professional-development services and solutions that will support teachers.

Encouraging teacher engagement is as important as student engagement to Nearpod, said Kovalskys. “There’s a general feeling amongst teachers that ‘the old model’ is no longer working, and they are becoming very open to exploring new tools and ideas,” he said, especially the newest generation of teachers who are digital natives themselves.

From his perspective beyond education, Kovalskys identified trends that he said could slow innovation in K-12 education. Privacy concerns are on the rise, and ed-tech leaders need to do their utmost to protect student data, he said. Nearpod doesn’t store any personal information about students.

Decisionmakers in schools may be unfamiliar with frontier technologies like virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, and they may be more hesitant to try them than in other industries, Kovalskys said. Educators who are interested in being at the forefront can help by advocating for these new technologies and showing their impact, he said.

Kovalskys said the fact that he and his co-founders have a background in business gave them an understanding from the start about how to build a company that would be sustainable financially. “We’ve greatly benefited by the fact that we had an expertise that was not limited to education,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2019 edition of Education Week as CEOs Target Problems to Solve

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