Anthony Kim first became inspired to get involved with education technology in 2000, after working with Foothill and De Anza Community Colleges. After helping them manage several technology projects, he wondered why there was such a gap between technology use for consumer and business purposes compared to education. “Personally, I would have liked some access to online programs when I was in high school,” he says. It very well may have helped. Thoughhe enjoyed math, his high school stopped at Calculus. Anthony took it several years in a row with the same teacher, but simply got the same lecture over and over again. Despite the repetition, his scores didn’t improve, and his interest waned. After spending several years doing virtual schools, he felt that there was an opportunity to leverage that kind of instructional technology in the classroom, as
part of the regular curriculum. “Digital learning has the power to personalize instruction, measure progress and inform teachers’ own hands-on work with students,” says Anthony. To him, that had to be a tremendous opportunity for education. Nonetheless, he felt that the way schools were adopting technology “was, and still is—inherently flawed,” he says. They are simply layering on more tools without actually taking advantage of the unique capabilities of those technologies as a way to re-imagine teaching and to reallocate resources. As a result, schools are spending a lot of money and time trying to manage all those technologies, and failing to see the hoped-for improved student outcomes, according to Anthony. “One of the key turning points that really hammered home the importance of what Education Elements [a leading developer of blended learning solutions] is doing came early in our development, in the fall of 2010,” says Anthony, CEO and Founder of Education Elements. KIPP Empower—the new elementary school they had been working with on creating a new blended learning school in Los Angeles—opened its doors to four classes of kindergarteners at that time. “They were so excited to learn on the computers, of course—but what was really powerful was seeing how that environment enabled them to work together with their classmates, with the technology and with their teacher to understand the new process of learning in a blended classroom,” he says. For Anthony, seeing that kind of engagement, and the academic gains that came out of these efforts, was very motivating and inspired him to work hard on building a business that could create that experience for other students in other schools. In this interview, Anthony talks more about his own schooling, more about Education Elements, how it addresses his concerns about education today—and why he thinks we’re at a critical moment in education.
Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Education Elements?
Anthony: Over the years, I’ve taken online courses for my own personal and professional interests and certifications, like the Six Sigma business process. The benefit is that I can engage in this learning at my own pace and place. However, I have found that while this is useful for some basic learning, most online content isn’t all that engaging. For that aspect of learning, I get much more out of small-group discussion with instructors and peers, as well as direct in-person interactions with experienced teachers who can explain concepts at higher levels. That’s really driven the way we think about blended learning at Education Elements: creating the optimal classroom environment with a combination of self-paced online learning at the student’s own pace, peer discussions and group work, and in-person instruction from a live subject-matter expert who can explain things in a way a computer or book simply can’t.
Victor: What does the name mean?
Anthony: The dictionary defines “elements” as parts or aspects of something that is essential. Education Elements looks at what is essential to education, starting with the process of optimal student learning and how educators teach best, but also to the way schools are structured and managed. Then, with a technology-focused lens, we ask: what are the essential elements of instructional technology that can lead to both operational efficiencies and better academic outcomes?
Victor: What is it and who exactly created it?
Anthony: Our work began with consulting services for schools that were considering “blending” online learning into their traditional classrooms, showing them what blended learning is, what its potential could be, and helping them to make it a reality in their schools. Then, we quickly began developing a hybrid learning management software platform that lets those schools easily manage blended learning. I founded Education Elements on my own, but with the support and insight from some smart people in the field, like Michael Horn at the Innosight Institute, who has studied this issue intensely and spent time looking at lots of different approaches, and Gisele Huff at the Jacquelin Hume Foundation, who’s been advocating for (and supporting) digital learning for years. Thanks to some recent investments, we are scaling our team quickly now to meet growing demand from districts, schools and charter school networks across the country. We are also part of a larger movement to move education from an industrial factory model, where all students are marched through their learning by teachers standing in front of a classroom, to a personalized model in which students receive customized instruction from a combination of online and offline means, and teachers are empowered to work closely to support their students in that quest.
Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?
Anthony: We have two primary offerings: services and a technology platform. On the services side, we help our clients understand the different ways they can put blended learning to work in their schools. For example, some schools find it makes the most sense for them to have students rotate between the classroom and a computer lab; others prefer to have students rotate in groups within the classroom, with an area for computers and other areas set up for small-group instruction. What schools and teachers tell us is that while they value the personalized, tailored instruction that online content provides, they are really most excited about the way it enables teachers to do more – and better – small-group instruction. Education Elements does whatever we can to help make more of that happen. That leads to our second offering, a technology platform that integrates whatever third-party online content a school chooses into one easy-to-use interface for students, teachers, and administrators. That platform is where our clients’ administrators set up the online content they’ve chosen for their students, and where those students log on for their online instruction and assessments, and where teachers monitor students’ learning and needs. (It also happens to be an appealing platform for online content providers themselves: Education Elements’ platform makes it easier for those companies to get their products up and running quickly in more schools, because our product handles the account set-up, integration with the student information system, and reporting out of results to teachers and administrators.)
Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?
Anthony: The first iteration of our Hybrid Learning Management System (HLMS) happened in partnership with one of our first clients, KIPP Los Angeles and its KIPP Empower Academy, which was a new elementary school in development when we began working with them. Founding principal Mike Kerr found himself entertaining the idea of blended learning when some expected public funding for his school fell through, leading him to think about ways he might accomplish the same level of hands-on instruction with fewer teachers and classrooms than he had planned. With Mike and his team, we thought through what a blended learning environment might need, and organized the development of our HLMS around that. We certainly don’t have all the answers yet, but we do have some ideas. First, we believe strongly that in order for it to be useful, technology must maximize teaching and learning time in the classroom, which means it has to be easy for teachers and students to use. For example, we made sure students could use a single sign-on for all their online content, and we made that interface age-appropriate, using pictures of the youngest students’ faces for them to click on as a way to sign into their accounts. Also, much of the power of technology lies in its ability to manage and display data, but that data needs to be appropriate and digestible, and ideally predictive. So we came up with ways to slice and dice the data in visually appealing ways that mirror what teachers want to track: which students are struggling, and in what way? How should I reorganize my classroom and my instruction to address those needs?
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Anthony: Education Elements is now working with more than 30 schools around the country, many of which are pioneering blended learning as a way to better meet the needs of the low-income and minority students they serve, who often come to them performing below grade-level and in need of significant academic intervention. Some are charter schools and school networks, like KIPP Empower, an elementary school, as well as some of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools’ new middle and high schools in Los Angeles, which are part of its new Blended Learning for Alliance School Transformation (BLAST) initiative, and IDEA Public Schools down in Texas. Others are traditional district schools, like the work we are doing in Pennsylvania to help some of their districts and schools incorporate blended learning. We’re also working with a private K-8 Catholic school, Mission Dolores Academy in San Francisco’s Mission District, which re-launched this school year when two financially struggling Catholic schools merged and which took the opportunity to rethink the best approach to instruction and operations.
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Anthony: We’re firm believers that blended learning can make sense in any school environment, if the model is structured and implemented in a way that takes into consideration that school’s unique academic needs, staff capacity, technological infrastructure, and so forth. That said, we’re targeting and tailoring our work toward the schools that are ready and willing to try blended learning – not those who want to just sprinkle technology into their classrooms to appease parents or funders, but those who want to deeply integrate it into their day-to-day work, using technology for what it does best and balancing that with what teachers do best. For now, our goal is to help 10% of the schools in the country implement blended learning approaches.
Victor: Your thoughts on education these days?
Anthony: It’s a pretty exciting and promising time to be working in education technology, and a lot of people are confident that technology is going to make a difference – but then again, we’ve been here before. If this technology is implemented poorly, without being put in the proper context and used in a way that makes instructional and operational sense, it’s going set us back substantially, much like those dust-collecting beige computers did in the 1990s. But if we are thoughtful about technology as an enabler to actually transform what schools look like – for the better – then we can avoid that fate.
To get there, I think we have to remember that technology is not a replacement for instruction or people. It’s a tool. On its own, it can’t solve education’s problems. It needs to be used by well-trained educators who understand how to work with small groups of students and comfortable with using data to drive instruction. They also need the support of principals and administrators who know how to acquire, implement and manage technology correctly – and there’s a huge gap in that training. But at the same time, these educators and administrators should also be demanding high-quality technology products that will actually help them do their work better and more efficiently, rather than adding one more task to their already busy days. The education technology market is so fragmented today (see the Ed Tech Market Map that we helped NewSchools Venture Fund to create) that it is hard for schools to adopt high-quality tools. What we’re trying to do is make this technology more accessible, usable and useful.
Victor: How does Education Elements address some of your concerns about education?
Anthony: Simply put, I think technology can be used better than it has historically been used in education. If you look at the typical bell curve of student achievement in a classroom, technology has traditionally been used for remediation with the struggling students in the bottom 10 percent and for enrichment with the top 10 percent, with everyone in between relying primarily on the teacher and textbooks alone. I don’t think this is the right way to address these issues. What if we flipped this? What if we used technology to teach the basic concepts to those students ready to receive that instruction, so teachers could focus their efforts on the bottom 10 percent of students who arguably need the most hands-on help, and on accelerating everyone’s learning by engaging them with critical thinking and other skills that are better taught by humans rather than computers? Education Elements is helping schools and teachers – and online content providers – to ask these kinds of fundamental questions about the role of technology in their classrooms, and will be looking closely at the data to see what works best for students and teachers in the years ahead.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Anthony: I think we’re at a critical moment in education. I think the school budget situation is actually much worse than anyone is anticipating. A lot of states and districts are going to respond by cutting teaching positions, resulting in larger class sizes, fewer support programs, and probably lower-quality instruction as schools struggle to provide the same or greater quality of instruction with a smaller quantity of teachers and other resources. It’s always a challenge to do more with less. But at the same time, I’m always reminded that the greatest creativity and ingenuity comes out of challenging circumstances. We have an amazing opportunity – almost a mandate – to make transformative changes in the way we structure schools and learning, so they can accomplish more without spending more, and deliver on their promises to students.
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@VictorRivero.com