Interview | Martin Brutosky: The Simplicity of eChalk

A K-12 software platform that schools use to manage communication and instruction—that’s what eChalk is. The company was founded in 1999 in response to the growing need for technologies and services that would meaningfully connect teachers, students, and parents to the information and resources they need to be successful. Torrance Robinson and Daniel Watts, eChalk’s co-founders, met while working in New York City schools and shared a vision for increasing student engagement through the Internet. They quickly became leading advocates for e-rate, which has had a profound effect on school connectivity. With that as their origin, eChalk is especially proud of its long track record of focusing exclusively on the interests of K-12 schools. Martin Brutosky (pictured) joined the company in 2008, bringing more than 30 years of experience in education technology and software. Here, Martin talks about the beauty of simplicity, the right climate for innovation—and as a bonus to readers of this interview—Martin introduces a special offer. 

Victor: What products and services does eChalk provide?

Martin: eChalk is a K-12 software platform that schools use to manage communication and instruction. Schools use eChalk to:

    • Build and maintain easy-to-use school websites.
    • Create, share, and use standards-aligned lesson plans.
    • Provide consistent classroom pages that deliver access to dynamic instruction and varied learning resources.
    • Organize and manage each student’s schoolwork, interests, and activities.
    • Coordinate and promote groups, departments, and professional learning communities.
    • Communicate with parents and the community via web, email, and safe social networking.

It’s that simple. Which it should be.

Victor: You previously worked at TetraData, another education company, before joining eChalk. What compelled you to take the helm at eChalk, and continue to devote your career to the education industry?

Martin: An education executive once asked me, “Now that you’ve been successful in business, do you want to be significant?” That question caused me to pause and reflect on the importance of helping to drive American education toward effective lifelong learning. eChalk is central to the mission of U.S. education. And just like the educators we work with, eChalk associates represent all that’s right with education today – smart, creative, and committed to helping schools improve.

Victor: In what ways is eChalk’s offerings unique or different from its competitors?

Martin: We’ve always kept it simple: we bring all of your learning into one place. eChalk has had single sign-on for six years, just released a mobile app in September, and will release Google and Live@EDU integration this semester.

Perhaps what sets us apart most of all is that schools are free to choose with eChalk. Whether it’s integrating a subscription to netTrekker or weaving in Gmail and Google Docs, schools benefit from our educator-friendly, student-safe environment without being limited in their choices.

We bring schools a communication and learning management platform that’s intuitive for beginning users just getting started. And at the same time we offer a set of tools so comprehensive that it excites even the most savvy of technology enthusiasts.

Let me take it one step further for your readers. We’re so confident in our software and the people behind our platform that we’ll back it up. If your readers email me personally, cite this article, and elect to sign with eChalk in November, we’ll arrange it so that they pay nothing until July 2012. What’s more, if schools aren’t happy and decide to move to another competitor in July, don’t pay us. With renewal and referral rates in the high 90s, we know how to do right by schools.

So—that’s different. What’s curious to me is…would any other vendor in our space say the same thing? And then back it up? Why not?

Victor: What are the advantages of using eChalk?

Martin: Schools cite many advantages of using eChalk, from saving time to increasing student engagement. But perhaps this biggest advantage is that eChalk offers a set of tools that teachers actually use. As technology directors know, some teachers go reluctantly into the web while others have long-since dived headlong into online classrooms. eChalk’s advantage is that we can serve both ends of the spectrum.

It takes just three minutes for a teacher to activate her classroom, and 30 minutes to get it up and running with events, resources, assignments, and notifications. That’s less than a standard class period to launch a highly engaging, richly informative learning environment.

Victor: Why is a website mission critical to schools and districts? 

Martin: What’s mission critical to schools and district’s is having the ability to effectively and efficiently communicate, engage, and transform their learning community. Parents rightfully seek access to their kids’ learning and community members are vested stakeholders in the success of their schools.

Websites are uniquely powerful gateways into schools. From events and information to learning resources and emergency notification, today’s school websites are called upon to do far more than create online curb appeal—though our designs do that, too.

Victor: Does social networking have a place in schools?

Martin: In a word, yes. We see no reason to deny kids the opportunity to engage in learning the same way they engage in life, but we also see no reason to diminish the pedagogical value that educators bring to these environments. Simply recreating a Facebook-like environment falls short of the need to meaningfully support and enhance the teacher, student, and parent workflow. Using tools like eChalk, social networking can and should facilitate “natural” learning using stories, anecdotes and common human interaction. And it’s essential that these activities happen with the proper safeguards in place. For example, a New York City school recently selected eChalk—led by a student research and review initiative—because it provides the  right combination of networking features and safety/security measures.

Victor: What do you think are the barriers to effective technology integration in schools, and how does eChalk help educators and schools overcome them?

Martin: The largest barrier we hear from new customers has been the difficulty in finding products that are easy to learn and easy to use. When you think of the natural acceptance and use of certain technologies, you can see how those technologies first captured the way people do their work without technology and then build on that to make the tools acceptable and easy to use.

eChalk used a method called “contextual design.” We studied the natural workflow of teachers and have 95 percent to 100 percent utilization rates among educators since we automated what they do for a living and save them time on task.

Victor: Parental involvement is an important factor in student achievement, what tips can you offer to schools to increase parental involvement?

Martin: As with any technology adoption, making it easy to understand and use is key. Parents at eChalk districts, for example, can view all of their kids’ information in one view, even if they attend different schools. Simple things like eliminating parents’ struggles to access info goes a long way.

Along those lines, we created the eChalk Academy for the benefit of all eChalk schools. Through this online resource, we publish best practices in many areas, including parent engagement tactics like facile page design and communication strategies. We’ve also created a resource kit for school communications officers that they can use to share their story.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Martin: The easy, safe answer is to say things like  “bright” and “full of potential.” While those are indeed true over the long term, my outlook is that we have some tough years ahead of us. Our political climate has the potential to deadlock federal support of key programs. States are strapped for cash and schools are struggling to cut costs, identify new revenue streams, and increase student achievement.

We get it because we’re in schools every day and we see just how hard administrators, technology leaders, and teachers are working every day to meet higher demands in tighter economic times.

And in that kind of climate, American innovators start to emerge. We see it in states that have reduced their dependency on the old textbook paradigm. We see it in schools that staff support desks with their tech-savvy kids. We see it in parents who get energized by a deeper involvement in their kids’ learning. And we see it in eChalk educators across the country who already do more with less and simply refuse to throw in the towel. These are our kind of people and we are investing in solutions that enable this type of innovation.

Victor: How does eChalk address some of your concerns about education today?

Martin: We can’t solve the political climate and we can’t fund state revenue shortfalls. Among the many problems we can’t solve, however, there remains one group of people we can definitely serve—educators.

That includes, in particular, technology leaders that need tools their teachers will actually use. Tools that are so simple to understand that teachers get it right away; personal service that’s proactive, not reactive, and aligns our software to each school’s specific objectives. In short, eChalk is able to address some of our most pressing concerns about education today by crawling deep inside the issues and working side-by-side with the educators and education leaders who are best-positioned to solve them. Anything else a software provider might prioritize is totally unacceptable.

And eChalk is ready to put “usage” as a measurement of technology that is effective. Let’s not waste money on technology that sits on a shelf. We provide usage statistics of our solution and are ready to bring lucidity to usage of other technology solutions so that educators continue to invest intelligently.

Victor: Where is eChalk headed in the next 1 to 5 years?

Martin: When negotiating intellectual property rights, some publishers have introduced a clause that includes “for products yet to be invented.” This is so that they don’t lose the opportunity to use existing IP in new domains as they emerge.

In the same way, our client services, professional learning, and product development teams are always thinking about the “yet to be invented.” And that’s not limited just to product. We’re coming up with innovative ways to support customers, train end-users, and evolve alongside technology leaders.

This school year we’ve already seen the release of a new eChalk Mobile App and we’re launching Google and Live@EDU integration this semester. And that’s just the beginning of what will be an exciting five-year period of rapid eChalk evolution – just like the schools we’re working with. A key to our innovation will be “integration” and provision of the ability for educators to leverage multiple technologies/learning resources through eChalk. We also want to ensure that social networking becomes a help to educators, not a disruption or threat.

When I think about what lies ahead, even after twelve years, thousands of schools, and millions of eChalk users, it feels like we’re just getting started. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

——-

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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