Personalized learning models combine new technology with ongoing assessment, data use, and changes in how teachers use time and structure the school day, in order to create dramatically more personalized learning experiences for students. Shauntel Poulson is helping to shape this transition. As a principal with NewSchools Venture Fund (for which my Bellwether colleagues recently led a successful CEO search), Polson identifies and makes investments in technology companies and models that are at the cutting edge of developing new personalized learning models with the goal of dramatically improving outcomes for schools and students. A native of Denver, Poulson, 31, earned her degree in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked as an engineer with Proctor & Gamble before earning masters degrees from Stanford in both business and education. She lives in Oakland, Calif.
What do you do as a principal with NewSchools Venture Fund? What types of portfolio investments do you focus on? What are you looking for in potential investments?
As a Principal at NewSchools I source potential investments, conduct due diligence, and provide management assistance for the Seed Fund. The Seed Fund makes investments in early-stage education technology companies that have the potential to transform K-12 teaching and learning. Currently we have a focus on classroom infrastructure, school infrastructure, digital content, special populations, and college, career and community.
I am looking for highly scalable solutions that will ultimately improve outcomes for students, especially those from underserved backgrounds. The founding team is critically important and I look for passion, scrappiness, and multi-disciplinary expertise in business, education, and technology. The venture must be solving a real pain point and have a unique technology, business model or approach. The venture’s market should be sizeable and growing and there should be evidence of success from early adopters or paying customers. Since we are a seed stage investor, I also look for financial sustainability and evaluate capital efficiency and the ability for the venture to attract follow-on funding.
How do you expect technology and personalized learning to impact education over the next 5-10 years?
I expect technology will continue to drive the shift from one-size-fits-all instruction to personalized instruction where curriculum is tailored to students’ individual needs and interests. The disaggregation of content will lead to more granular lessons that come in a variety of forms like games and from a variety of sources besides publishers. These lessons will be delivered through teachers equipped with tools to better assess students’ capabilities in real-time. Lessons will also be delivered through online platforms that adapt based on a student’s learning trajectory. Learning will happen anytime, anywhere and students will explore their own interests and passions through relevant, engaging material that stretches their thinking and prepares them for the workforce.
What are some of the potential opportunities?
As the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, there are more opportunities for students to learn from others around the world. Technology can facilitate more peer-to-peer collaboration where students become the experts and learn by teaching. The “protégé effect” suggests that students will work harder, reason better, and ultimately understand more by learning to teach someone else than they will when learning for themselves.
Another opportunity is to leverage technology to better engage parents in their children’s education. Right now school is a “black box” and technology platforms could improve teacher-parent communication and provide information and resources to help parents better support their children.
What are some of the challenges or pitfalls?
Too often classroom tools are not designed with teachers in mind and teachers don’t have sufficient support to implement new tools. We recently partnered with the Silicon Valley Education Foundation to pair entrepreneurs with teachers so that teachers can get direct support and entrepreneurs can think through classroom implementation and design teacher friendly products. EdSurge is also bringing together teachers and entrepreneurs in local Summit events where teachers demo products and provide immediate feedback.
Another challenge is measuring the ROI of education technology investments. One of our portfolio companies, BrightBytes, is helping schools better understand how technology is linked to student outcomes and is giving school leaders the tools to make data-based decisions about technology integration.
Why/how did you come to work in education?
Education was always a priority in my household growing up. My mother came from a low-income background and overcame countless barriers to obtain her doctorate and become a professor. She instilled in me a drive for academic achievement that would enable me to build a strong educational foundation.
I know not all children have been afforded the same opportunities as me or have had someone to instill in them a love for learning and a sense of empowerment. As a way to give back, I mentored and tutored students all throughout college and was a facilitator of an afterschool program while working in Cincinnati. It was in this role that I began to see first hand the disparities in education and the dire consequences of a flawed school system. I saw my students’ talent and potential going to waste, their spirits defeated, and their dreams shattered all because of where they lived.
Deep down I knew education was my calling and I decided to leave my job in Corporate America to pursue a career in education so that I could take a more active role in effecting change.
Before you joined NewSchools Venture Fund, you were an engineer. How does your background as an engineer impact your work or the way you view the education landscape? What advice would you give to others in the STEM fields who are interested in getting involved in education?
Engineers by definition are problem solvers and education has many complex problems to solve. I realize there is no silver bullet to improving the education system and that it requires a holistic approach of improving the different levers like curriculum, infrastructure, teachers, and leadership. I am also an innovator at heart and like trying new approaches and thinking beyond the constraints of the current education system.
I would encourage others in STEM fields to explore the variety of ways to use their skills in education, and to especially consider teaching as we are in dire need of more STEM talent in the classroom. One of NewSchools’ grantees, ElevatED, is working on recruiting college STEM majors into teaching as a way to meet the goal of increasing the number of excellent STEM teachers by 100k over the next decade.
There are also many ways for STEM professionals to get involved in education on a volunteer basis. We just funded a company called Nepris that enables STEM professionals to virtually connect to a classroom and discuss their work, provide project mentoring, and answer students’ questions.
My one piece of advice to STEM professionals considering education is to take the time to get grounded in the sector by learning about the existing structures, spending time in classrooms and talking to educators.
Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?
I have a deep respect for all teachers who work tirelessly to educate students and I am especially thankful for my high school chemistry teacher who sparked my interest in chemistry and inspired me to pursue a career in chemical engineering. I also admire the passionate, committed education entrepreneurs I work with everyday who show me that the powerful ideas of a few can impact the lives of millions.
My manager and mentor Jennifer Carolan is a pioneer in the field of edtech investing and brings an important perspective as a former educator. She continually teaches me how to evaluate potential investments and how to best support our companies. I also look to other edtech investors like Mitch Kapor who grounds the conversation in social impact for underrepresented communities and Matt Greenfield who reminds me to ask myself “does the world need this company?”
What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now? What do you hope to have accomplished?
In 5-10 years I hope to still be working on impacting the lives of students either as an investor or as an operator in education technology. I hope to have helped create an education ecosystem where students of all backgrounds get a quality education and reach self-actualization.
What interests do you have outside of work?
I stay active by doing boot camp, hiking, hip-hop dancing and running around the lake near my house. I also enjoy traveling and teaching a class of 4-5 year olds at my church. I love watching football and am an avid Denver Broncos fan.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.