To VC or Not to VC

An edtech company executive on the pros and cons of taking on venture capital.

GUEST COLUMN | by Alex Bloom

CREDIT CBinsightsAs the CEO of a decade old edtech company, I am often asked about the pros and cons of taking venture capital. With today’s influx of funds flowing into the education technology market, this topic is of particular interest to many entrepreneurs. According to CB Insights, education technology companies raked in more than half a billion dollars in venture capital in Q1 2014, and this figure continues to grow.

Our founder was an educator and was focused on – no, obsessed with – solving a problem for he and his fellow educators. 

For the sake of full disclosure, my company has chosen to forgo outside investments. However, that doesn’t mean that venture capital isn’t a viable option for many other edtech companies. In prior jobs, I have run companies with extensive Sand Hill Road venture capital and have seen both models work.

We all know that the primary reason for taking venture capital is typically the capital itself and the opportunity it brings. But what additional value can you gain in exchange for giving up as much as half of your company?

My advice would be to take a step back and recall why you started your company in the first place. What were the problems that needed to be solved? What other companies are competing with you to solve those same problems? What educational experience do you bring with you? Were you an educator that experienced these problems and set out to solve them on your own?

If you don’t have the experience or connections in the education market, can investors bring that expertise and industry partnerships with them? If you don’t have many competitors (perceived or otherwise), do you need the outside funding to remain competitive? What about your employees? How would outside funding change their position or motivation?

And, most importantly, what about your customers? After all, it will be your customers that decide whether or not you make it. Are you adding value and helping them to solve a difficult problem? If the venture capital company that is courting you does not have direct experience in education and/or your target audience, are they going to be able to guide you to deliver the most valuable product or service to market? Not all venture capitalists will have your customers’ best interest at heart. So you must remember what your priorities were when you started the company.

At the ed tech company I run today, not taking outside capital was the right move. Our founder was an educator and was focused on – no, obsessed with – solving a problem for he and his fellow educators. He had experienced the problems and set out solving them, leveraging personal experience. At the time, the market was still nascent and the potential partners were limited. It was a small enough community where he could personally make the necessary connections. And by growing organically over time, he could always keep his customers’ best interest at heart without being pulled by outside influences.

At the end of the day, as long as you keep your customer at the top of your priority list, you will succeed – with or without venture capital.

Alex Bloom is the president of WebAssign and member of its board of directors. Alex has extensive experience in taking digital media to the consumer. He has led the development of content platforms, managed product and process development, and forged strategic partnerships with media companies and content owners. He spent much of his career in the mobile industry and has managed businesses related to direct-to-consumer eCommerce, eReaders, and content distribution.

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Cool Tool | Brainzy

CREDIT BrainzyToday, kids can finally play, have fun, and really learn with a new online learning system – and new friends like Officer Ice Cream and Penelope Pegacorn. Education.com has announced Brainzy, a first-of-its-kind learning program now available with over 300 fun games, videos, and stories that teach reading and math skills for kids 3-7. In June 2014, education apps were the second-most popular category of apps downloaded in the iTunes store, as parents looked for supplemental educational activities and games. And they have plenty to choose from – over 100,000 apps are labeled as “educational.” In a cluttered marketplace of one-off educational apps and programs, Brainzy stands apart in following a child’s development, building on previous skills and masteries. With over 300 games and activities, Brainzy will keep kids busy far longer than snack time.

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Cool Tool | MimioBoard touch board

CREDIT Mimio MimioBoard touch boardWith its entry into the interactive touch board market, Mimio has expanded its award-winning MimioClassroom™ suite of products to a full range of interactive teaching technology options for collaborative activities and lessons. The company’s newest addition, the MimioBoard™ touch board, features six-point Touch 360° interactivity – among the highest number of standard touch points available – for best-in-class performance. The Touch 360° interactive technology accommodates up to six single-point touch users or three dual-touch and gestures users. Whether users write or manipulate objects above, below, or parallel to one another, their control and touch experience will remain uninterrupted. Available in 78-inch and 87-inch models (diagonal size), the MimioBoard touch board provides a 16:10 aspect ratio for widescreen views. The Porcelain-on-Steel surface is classroom-rugged, projection-optimized, and erasable, so teachers can also use it as a conventional whiteboard. Check it out: www.mimio.com

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Cool Tool | Ping Pong

Ping Pong is a smart communication tool that increases interaction between teachers and students in the classroom. The platform turns any mobile device into a next-generation “clicker,” or classroom response system, which enables teachers to ask students questions about the lesson and immediately collect their responses. Ping Pong translates the responses into visual graph form, so students can grade themselves and teachers can instantly monitor their comprehension. Ping Pong is free, works on existing iOS and Android devices, and requires no extra installation.

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No Black and White

Navigating the best course forward through complex technology implementation issues.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero 

JulieCarter With the growth of technology immersion in the classroom and the rise in availability of digital content and tools, navigating the best course for implementation can be a daunting task, even for the most sophisticated organizations. Experienced administrators Dr. Julie Carter and Rob Dickson (both formerly named “20 to Watch” Education Technology Leaders by the NSBA) have launched a new company focused on helping schools plan and execute their technology goals. GreyED Solutions focuses on a personalized approach to visioning and planning for both schools and the edtech industry, emphasizing that the education landscape is not black and white. Strategies for technology implementation as well as product marketing and messaging must be personalized to represent the unique needs and challenges of every organization. In this interview, GreyED Solutions co-founders share with us their insight into the creation of their company, the challenges facing schools with implementations today, and advice on where to start and what to avoid as you begin your implementations. 

Victor: Where did the vision and desire to build GreyED Solutions come from?

Julie: With our experience in K12 education we know first hand the challenges, triumphs and intricacies of well-executed implementations. Having championed some of the best technology implementations in the country we quickly realized the demand for support and assistance as we fielded questions, lent support, shared materials and worked to share our successes so other schools and districts could benefit from what we learned. Julie’s administrative experience comes from her leadership at Minnetonka Public Schools where she served as a classroom teacher and media specialist before becoming the executive director of technology. Rob’s experience stems from his work as the director of technology for Andover Public Schools and more recently in his current role as the executive director of information management services for Omaha Public Schools.

RobRob: Over the past several years we have consulted with districts nationally helping with the assessment and design of technology planning. GreyED Solutions was born out of the realization that every district has its own unique culture and fingerprint, where merely replicating models and materials does not equate success. While there is an enormous amount to be gleaned from the success of others, modifications to best fit your individual organization are necessary to ensure successful implementation. The vision of GreyED is to perpetuate the success of technology enhanced learning through personalized services which recognize implementations are not black and white.

Victor: Working with both schools and the industry is unique – why did you choose to focus on both?

Julie: We believe that it is essential for the edtech industry to understand the challenges and needs of today’s learners. Bringing leading educators together to engage in collaborative discussions with the edtech industry makes for the most innovative,

Bringing leading educators together to engage in collaborative discussions with the edtech industry makes for the most innovative, successful and purposeful uses of technology that will positively impact students. 

successful and purposeful uses of technology that will positively impact students. By using our industry knowledge we are able to impact the design and development of edtech products and we can introduce districts to great products and services that can enhance and accelerate learning in their classrooms. For us, schools and the industry work together hand-in-hand for the betterment of today’s learners.

Victor: What advice do you have for schools beginning an implementation? Is there a place to start?

Rob: Establishing your vision and desired outcomes is the place we recommend you begin. What is it that you want your students to be doing or be able to do as a result of your implementation? Beginning with the vision and listing out your desired outcomes allows you to stay focused on your goals while designing the remainder of your plan. Don’t get hung up on the perfect vision statement, but rather focus on articulating or depicting a picture of the learner and what he or she will be able to do as a result.

Victor: Why do you think schools struggle with implementation processes? and/or How do you help districts with their implementation process?

GreyED Solutions logoJulie: The implementation process is a daunting task because there are so many phases to planning and development and often numerous stakeholders to plan for and report to. Often schools are focused on the “what” rather than the “why” and begin a conversation about the product or service rather than the end result. As an example, when a district begins an implementation focused on a 1:1 initiative, we often hear and see conversation and questions about the device itself, not about the rationale or desired outcomes from the initiative. The danger here is the missed opportunity to engage stakeholders, understand the desired outcomes and design the communication, professional development and infrastructure around the stated goals. Schools also struggle in large part due to the lack of internal capacity to plan and design such initiatives. Using a third party to facilitate this process allows you to seek advice from an objective party who has championed other success stories and can leverage the best of your organization to design an implementation plan to meet your needs.

Rob: GreyED’s approach is focused on our LEARN process where we 1) Listen to your needs, desired outcomes and challenges as it relates to technology and instruction, 2) engage your stakeholders through surveys and interviews to capture multiple viewpoints within the organization 3) Analyze the information gathered, 4) Recommend goals to meet your long term objectives, and 5) help you create next steps for your implementation that are attainable and measurable.

Victor: What are the most common implementations you are seeing happen in schools?

Julie: The most common implementations we are seeing are personalized learning efforts that are commonly coupled with a 1:1 initiative. While the devices remain varied in these implementations, we are seeing a rise of BYOD in districts that have an existing population of high device ownership. We believe the personalized learning approaches are naturally pairing with 1:1 as the technology is being used to leverage opportunities for adaptability and individual creativity to personalize the learning experience in ways not previously possible.

Victor: What are some of the missteps you see districts making with their implementations?

Rob: The most common missteps we are seeing are a disconnect between the technology and the teaching and learning. For example, we see initiatives that are scaled on the technical side to be successful in terms of the infrastructure, capacity for bandwidth and high-density wireless and plenty of devices in the hands of students. However, the teacher preparedness and the transformation of the teaching and learning has not grown to scale to match the technology that is in hand. While some have seen this as a ‘if you build it they will come’ scenario, we have seen this to be detrimental to implementations where the technology becomes a glorified device for taking notes or projecting content and has not transformed or impacted student learning.

Julie: The flip side is just as detrimental to an initiative when a district has well-prepared teachers who have transformed their pedagogy and the infrastructure cannot support the devices. In these cases, the frustration seen in the classroom from the teachers and students

We hope the impact of today’s technology immersion efforts have transformed the teaching and learning opportunities in the classroom to shift the conversation towards the products and outcomes students are demonstrating and creating rather then discussing what types of devices to implement.

often halts any success as the technology is seen as unreliable and therefore not used because teachers feel the need to prepare two lessons in the event the technology is unusable.

Rob: When these two are in balance and the infrastructure and teaching and learning are ready, the misstep we see here is districts going too far too fast. While you may have laid excellent groundwork and gained significant progress, be careful not to spread your resources too thin to support and sustain an implementation that does require time and dedicated support from your organization. We are a big believer in going slow to go fast and recommend that curricular focuses can be one way to scale an implementation to assure all students have the benefit of devices without undertaking an entire district in one single rollout.

Victor: What benefits are you seeing from districts moving to devices in the classroom?

Julie: There is no question that one of the biggest benefits of devices in the classroom has been the increased use of formative assessments for teachers to monitor and adjust their instruction. Teachers report the ability to make corrections quickly and shorten the length of time on student follow-up creating a tighter feedback loop. We are also seeing data driven decision-making that is allowing for tailored learning experiences, saving teachers what they need most, more time.

Rob: Devices in the classroom are also pushing pedagogy out of the ‘talk and chalk’ technique and truly moving the teacher into the information facilitator role, rather than being the information keeper. Schools are seeing increases in student engagement, higher levels of collaboration and increased communication.

Victor: How do you feel your responses to these questions may be different if we asked them of you in 5 or even 10 years from now?

Julie: In 5 to 10 years, we hope the impact of today’s technology immersion efforts have transformed the teaching and learning opportunities in the classroom to shift the conversation towards the products and outcomes students are demonstrating and creating rather then discussing what types of devices to implement. We believe the ‘device’ truly will be agnostic in these conversations with the increased use of cloud-based technologies and cross platform compatible digital curriculum and we can finally say we have ubiquitous computing!

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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