Ed-tech company Clever has made its way into 60,000 U.S. schools by keeping things simple, offering free solutions to often-mundane problems, and mostly managing to avoid controversy.
Now, though, the six-year old San Francisco-based company is pushing against those guardrails, launching a new service that takes aim at one of the most vexing technology challenges schools face: keeping track of how students are using all the technology in their classrooms.
The idea of Clever Goals, CEO Tyler Bosmeny said in an interview, is to give overwhelmed teachers and administrators a single dashboard where they can quickly get a snapshot of every student’s activity on a wide range of learning programs and applications.
“Educators around the country have told us they’ve never had more data to work with, but that it’s never been more difficult to access and understand,” Bosmeny said. “Our aim is to help them make sense of the data they already have, in a way that’s safe, easy, and smart.”
Experts in the K-12 and ed-tech arenas say there’s a glaring need for such a service. Many districts have invested considerable money in technology, but remain unable to answer basic questions about whether the tools they’ve purchased are being properly utilized, if they’re improving student learning, and whether taxpayer dollars might be better spent elsewhere.
It remains to be seen, though, whether Clever Goals can make a dent in those problems. This will be the first time the company is asking schools to pay directly for one of its services. Other companies have offered analogous solutions, but none have yet taken widespread root. And the most high-profile effort to date to use data to better connect schools and vendors, a Gates Foundation-funded nonprofit known as inBloom, crashed and burned after fierce backlash from parents and privacy advocates. (Education Week receives financial support from the Gates Foundation for coverage of continuous improvement strategies in education. Education Week retains sole editorial control.)
Given the stakes, and given Clever’s track record to date, this new effort will be important to watch, said Jennifer Carolan, a partner at Reach Capital, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm that is not invested in Clever.
“There is a huge need,” Carolan said. “And Clever is in a unique position to offer this product because they have such a large footprint.”
Addressing Aggravating Challenges
Clever initially made its mark in K-12 by helping schools solve a banal but aggravating challenge: getting class rosters and student accounts set up correctly in ed-tech programs and apps. Half of U.S. K-12 schools now use that service, Bosmeny said.
In 2014, the company also began offering a “single sign-on” service that makes it easier for students to log in to roughly 300 different programs and apps.
Now, after an extensive pilot involving 20 school districts and 30 third-party vendor partners, Clever is launching Goals.
Nikolaus Namba, the director of 21st century learning at one of those partners, California’s 4,200-student Lindsay Unified schools, described the challenge his district hopes the new product might help address.
Lindsay Unified currently makes district-wide use of five online learning programs, Namba said. For years, principals and teachers who wanted to see how students were using those tools have had to spend hours logging in to each program, downloading data from each, and manually merging the results.
As a result of that tedious process, he said, “it’s hard to know who’s doing what, hard to know the quality of the data you’re getting out [of the different systems], and you can’t ever keep up.”
With Clever Goals, though, Lindsay Unified educators and administrators can now quickly access a snapshot showing how many minutes each student spent on each of those five programs, Namba said. For each program, there’s also an indicator of student progress on a specific learning activity—for example, how many texts each child has read in an application called Reading Plus.
Teachers can also set usage and progress targets for individual students, and they can see on their dashboard how students are progressing towards those goals.
The service will initially work with the 30 vendor partners Clever has already lined up, including the developers of such widely used digital and online tools as Lexia, Newsela, and ST Math. Clever hopes that dozens of other companies with whom it already partners for its other services will soon take part in Goals, also.
Why are such functionalities significant?
One of the biggest problems in education technology, said Hal Friedlander, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Technology for Education Consortium, is that many schools end up using digital and online learning tools for far less time, and far less strategically, than the companies behind the tools say is necessary for students to actually learn.
The result has been an increasingly fraught debate over whether ed tech is failing, or whether it’s just being implemented incorrectly.
“If an app says it requires two hours a week, and kids are only getting 20 minutes, it’s hard to say the app doesn’t work,” Friedlander said. “It sort of pulls the rug out from under everybody.”
Competitor Critiques Strategy
Still, there are many questions about how big a difference Clever’s new dashboard might actually make for most schools.
Clever competitor BrightBytes, for example, offers an analogous service that is currently used in about 2,800 districts across 47 states. In an email, BrightBytes Chief Revenue Officer Ken Goldstein said the limited data Clever will offer through Goals—usage data, plus a single progress metric per program—are just “one piece of the puzzle.”
In order to really understand the impact of ed tech, Goldstein argued, educators also need data on how technology usage affects academic achievement, how that relates to the amount that was invested in the technology, and even how students perceive the tools being used in their classrooms.
“Our approach is about creating a more complete picture,” he said.
On the flip side, Paige Kowalski, a prominent proponent of effective data use in schools, worries that many educators will require extensive training before they can make effective use of even the comparatively limited data Clever offers.
“Teachers need help understanding what they can do with this information once they have access to it,” said Kowalski, the executive vice president of the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign. “If there’s not a conversation about how to make change in the classroom to help students, this is all for naught.”
Indeed, for all its excitement about Clever Goals, even Lindsay Unified’s experience piloting the product highlights some of its potential limitations.
As a national leader in the personalized-learning movement, Lindsay Unified has two things many more-typical districts lack: an extensive, thoughtful process for vetting the research behind any new software or app before it can be used in the classroom, and a culture in which administrators and teachers regularly use student data to drive classroom decisions.
As a result, Namba said, Clever Goals “has been overwhelmingly beneficial in terms of giving us additional data points to see whether we’re sticking to the tools we’ve committed to and done research on,” but “we don’t use it to tell us which programs are effective or not effective.”
“That would be oversimplified,” he said.
Impact Yet to Be Seen
For his part, Clever CEO Bosmeny acknowledges that his company is trying to thread multiple needles with its new product.
He hopes Goals will ultimately help the field gain a clearer picture of the impact that various ed-tech tools can have—but downplayed the idea that Clever will help determine which products are effective and which are not.
Bosmeny also said he believes everyone can benefit from Goals—but acknowledged that some districts will inevitably be better than others at using the product to make decisions about buying and deploying technology.
And as Clever positions itself as an intermediary that controls an expanding universe of student data, some districts and parents are likely to have big questions about privacy and security protections.
“It’s one thing to collect a little bit of data from each app, but as you push all that information together, you can build pretty complete profiles of individual students,” said Friedlander of the Technology for Education Consortium. “Clever is going to get asked questions about that by any reasonably sized district.”
When asked how much data is the right amount for a third-party intermediary to collect, store, and feed back to schools, Bosmeny trod carefully.
At the same time, though, Bosmeny acknowledged that tracking how much time students spend using technology can only tell schools so much—and carries some risks of its own.
Using technology should never be seen as a goal in and of itself, he said.
“But on the district side and the vendor side, everyone in education is hoping to see more consistent implementation and utilization of ed-tech products,” Bosmeny said. “We think we have a role to play in that.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Clever to Help Schools Track Ed-Tech Usage