Teacher Union, Popular Ed-Tech Startup Join Forces

By Benjamin Herold — October 03, 2014 6 min read
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In a move that could help expand access to free online instructional materials for thousands of U.S schools—and may signal a shift in the sometimes-rocky relationship between the education-technology industry and classroom educators—rising startup company Clever has joined forces with the 1.6-million member American Federation of Teachers.

The partnership is one of several new “integrations” with creators of free educational apps and Open Education Resources, or OER, announced by San Francisco-based Clever in recent weeks. Teachers at the 27,000 schools currently using the company’s services will now be able to freely access, with a single login and password, everything from high-powered web-based graphing calculators to high-tech physics simulations to the thousands of free, teacher-generated instructional materials that have been curated online at Share My Lesson, the AFT’s free online lesson-sharing site.

For schools awash in educational software and apps, the new agreements mean that managing dozens of separate usernames and passwords for both students and teachers no longer needs to be a significant barrier to classroom use of free open education resources.

For creators of OER, the partnerships could mean greater use of their materials and a more level playing field with the creators of paid educational software, many of which have already established connections with Clever or one of the handful of other companies offering “single-sign on” technology to schools. Clever has waived the fees it typically charges paid software programs to selected applications (including Share My Lesson), that are completely free to schools.

And for AFT President Randi Weingarten, the new relationship between her 98-year old trade union and a two-year-old Silicon Valley hotshot is a tangible demonstration of the growing recognition within the ed-tech industry that teachers aren’t going away anytime soon.

“We’re starting to see fewer entrepreneurs going around teachers and instead starting to say, ‘How can we talk to them to find out what they really need?’” Weingarten said in an interview.

“Clever knew that from the beginning. And that’s one of the reasons they’ve been so successful.”

Solving teachers’ problems

For his part, Clever founder and CEO Tyler Bosmeny doesn’t talk like the typical ed-tech entrepreneur.

“For the past decade, technology has been the thing that has kept kids from learning,” he said in an interview.

Bosmeny pointed to the headaches described by legions of teachers frustrated by the tedious logistical challenges associated with getting whole classrooms of kids logged on to educational software.

Rather than attempt to revolutionize public education, Clever’s business model is predicated on solving that very specific problem.

The company got its start in 2012 by serving as a bridge between schools and software providers, in effect taking over the nitty-gritty technical work of integrating a new software program with a district’s existing student information system so that student accounts could be created and managed automatically.

In May, the company went a step further, announcing a new feature dubbed “Instant Login,” which provides teachers and students the ability to access more than 100 software programs via a single username and password.

But until recently, the digital learning tools that schools could access via Clever were almost entirely software programs that cost money.

The new partnerships, Bosmeny said, are primarily a response to requests from schools to gain similar access to no-cost open education resources.

“There’s all this really incredible content available online for free that schools would love to use if it were just easier” to access, he said.

A real-world example

In just a few months, about 15 percent of the 27,000 schools using Clever have enabled Instant Login, according to the company.

Big examples include Miami-Dade public schools in Florida and the Houston Independent School District in Texas.

The 58,000-student Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia offers a glimpse of what the experience entails—and why its implications could be significant.

The district has been “working on building our digital ecosystem for the better part of the last three years,” culminating with a move to provide all middle and high school students with Chromebooks by next school year, said Adam Seldow, the district’s executive director of technology.

During that time, the district actually built its own dashboard that provided teachers with single-sign on access to approved software programs.

But when officials decided to purchase two software programs, Dreambox Learning and Interactive Achievement, this summer, the companies told them they would only integrate via Clever.

And when Chesterfield officials decided they wanted to expand use of some of the OER resources that were already in use in their schools, including those by CK-12, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based nonprofit that provides customizable, open-source science and math lessons to schools, they found the organization lacked the technical chops to make the integration happen on its own.

CK-12 was, however, working on a partnership Clever.

So Chesterfield signed up.

Now, when the district’s 4,200 teachers log in to their single account, they can access not only paid software, but also CK-12’s free interactive science simulations, without having to separately log into CK-12’s website.

The biggest impact, said Seldow, is that SSO removes a big excuse often cited by teachers reluctant to try new digital learning materials.

“Now, it’s all there, all kids can get to it through a single click, and there’s no longer a reason teachers shouldn’t try it if it offers the resources they need,” he said.

A significant opportunity

Other Open Education Resource providers that Clever now partners with include Desmos, a free web-based graphing calculator; CodeHS, an online computer-programming course developed by computer scientists at Stanford University, and TypingClub, an online program to help students learn to type faster.

The company has worked with OER heavyweight Khan Academy for years, but for smaller groups, the partnership is a potential boon.

“In this day and age, all schools and districts should have easy access to high quality digital open content through a single sign on,” said Neeru Khosla, Executive Director at CK-12, in a statement.

While the 300,000 free teaching materials available on the American Federation of Teachers’ Share My Lesson platform are strictly for educators and not to be used by students, Weingarten said there will likely be similar benefits.

Teachers are “mere mortals,” she said, many of whom lack “the encyclopedic memories needed to memorize all their passwords.”

Now, though, teachers in schools served by Clever who are looking for lesson plans or other resources can do “one-stop shopping,” Weingarten said.

And in the bigger picture, she said, the union’s relationship with Clever offers a lesson for others in the education-technology field.

“If you want your product to be used in schools,” Weingarten said, “talk to teachers.”

Photo: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten addresses the ATF “Reclaming the Promise” convention last June in Los Angeles--Damian Dovarganes/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.