Getting Out of the Way

Brad Baird of Schoology learns a thing or two from an unlikely source

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Brad Baird of SchoologyMore than 20,000 schools and districts now use Schoology as their learning management system. In many ways, they’re a study in what works for education, and there are plenty of reasons why. The cloud-based, collaborative learning platform for K-12 recently added a Chief Revenue Office to their ranks – yet another savvy move in their fast rise upward. Here, that latest hire, Brad Baird, talks growth, trends, the best delivery models and why — and what he learned from a random seventh grader’s response to him in the hallway one day.

Victor: What’s your take on growth in the edtech sector? What stats or figures are remarkable to you? What do you make of it all, why is there tremendous activity?  

Brad: The last 12 months has seen a $1.4 billion surge in edtech funding nationally – that’s a huge market.  What’s even more remarkable is the amount of money being raised in Series A and B rounds – in many cases, before product is even available – and the valuations are far greater than they were a decade ago during the first tech boom.

I believe we’re seeing so much interest and capital investment flowing into the education technology sector because there’s so much at stake.  Companies have been trying to achieve personalized or individual learning at scale for some time now.  How they get there, or their approach to individualized instruction at scale, is really what differentiates many of the established vendors and start-ups entering the market.

Victor: In any boom, there is usually an eventual wheat-from-the-chaff sorting process – mergers, acquisitions and folds – Who will be left standing and what makes for a robust edtech company in the current market?  

schoology logoBrad: Teaching is a difficult job and a 24/7 profession.  Often teachers are underfunded and lack adequate resources.  Rather than replacing the teacher, I believe the most successful edtech companies will be those that offer technologies and solutions that support the teaching process – rather than looking to replace the teacher.  The real gains will be had by those that support the instructional process through the teacher because often to achieve scale and widespread adoption in education you must go through the teacher.  Teacher acceptance and empowerment is the gateway to adoption.  Vendors that are looking to take the teaching process away from teachers will fail to gain widespread adoption and will likely find themselves acquisition targets in the future.

Back in the early 2000s the edtech industry experienced a shakeout.  Then we called it “Dot com and dot gone.”  I believe we’ll see a shakeout once again, but it will be determined by on-the-ground happenings vs. capital investment.  How key stakeholders i.e., teachers, administrators, students and parent embrace these emerging technologies will determine which vendors go on to live another day.

Victor: What are your major concerns for the next few years? Why those? 

Brad: Now that the election is over, it will be interesting to watch how modifications and reform of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act progresses under the Obama administration.  The administration has shared a blueprint for reform, including providing funds for states to implement a broader range of assessments to evaluate advanced academic skills, new provisions to Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers granted by Obama to states that agree to raise standards, improve accountability, and undertake essential reforms to improve teacher effectiveness.  These issues need to get settled and schools/teachers need to understand where accountability is going to lie moving forward.   I foresee NCLB reform will affect not only how schools react, but the technology community and publishers as well. The second major concern is the economy itself and getting the country’s financial house in order.

Victor: What are the key issues and trends that you are watching and what makes you interested in those issues and trends?

Brad: As shared previously, personalized learning is the single most exciting and influential trend driving the edtech today.  The Internet is a routine and daily part of life for K-12 students.  As a result, web-based technologies in the classroom are becoming common place. However, the increased use of web-based technologies in the classroom will force the industry to resolve the data integration and standardization challenges that persist.  This is critical to realizing the promise of personalized learning.  With data standardization educators can create a digital profile for each student that includes assessments, curriculum content and a student’s individual characteristics – using analytics to drive the educational lives of students.

This will also impact the teaching practices of teachers.  Teachers can use real-time data delivered via dashboards – similar to how businesses use enterprise-class business intelligence technologies – to evaluate and modify their lesson plans based on immediate reception.  I believe we’ll see more and more technologies emerge that look to empower, and not replace, the role of the teacher.  Platforms like Schoology that break down the classroom walls and become part of the daily workflow of how teachers engage with students and drive efficiencies at every level.

The other trend that is having a major impact on the industry is mobile technologies or “Bring Your Own Device to School.”  Just like how the Internet is woven into the fabric of our daily lives, so too is the smartphone or tablet.  In the past, most school districts had very strict policies requiring students to leave their cellphones and laptops at home. But, with districts now trying to keep pace with the advancement of new learning techniques and technologies, while facing budget realities, many are starting to rethink these policies and encourage students to bring their mobile devices to school.  I think we’re going to see more and more districts adopting BYODS policies moving forward.  This will also impact how publishers provide content and assessment tools.

It’s interesting to look at how mobile has been adopted by less-developed countries.  Many African nations have skipped over traditional computing and have gone straight to mobile devices.  

Victor: What lessons have you learned about taking things to scale, possibly with your ILC experience or at GlobalScholar? Is it more possible today than 5 years ago to bring things to scale and sustain quality? yes/no and why is that? 

Brad: It’s very difficult to sell an enterprise product.  Schools are reluctant to replace existing technologies and tools for one enterprise tool.  Today however, with the proliferation of cloud-based systems and the advancements of the SaaS delivery model, many schools and districts are looking to replace their clunky, locally hosted LMS for a more agile solution that can easily scale to meet their evolving needs and enable them to avoid the high costs of vendor lock-in.  Platforms like Schoology offer a low maintenance, cloud-based solution that can easily scale, integrate with existing systems, and be customized to support district-wide programs and curriculums.  

Victor: What makes this such an exciting time for education?  

Brad: The industry is shifting quickly from process or course-based to user-based.  Again, the goal of personalized learning is really reshaping education and how vendors approach problems and build and deliver products.  Cloud computing and open technology infrastructures are accelerating the pace of innovation in a way never seen before.  And mobile technologies are allowing students and teachers to interact and collaborate in a totally new way. 

Victor: What’s the biggest barrier to technology integration into the classroom? 

schoology imageBrad: I believe the biggest barrier to technology in the classroom is the teacher. But, they are also the most influential and important early adapter. When teachers are tech savvy, then anything is possible in the classroom. But if they lack fundamental technology skills or fear change, then technology integration in the classroom becomes much more difficult.

Secondly, data integration and the need for a standard, consistent format for technologies to talk to one another continues to plague the industry as schools fear the deployment headaches associated with installing new technologies. Groups like the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC) are helping bring a set of shared services that will connect disparate student data and learning content that currently exist in different formats and locations and don’t integrate with one another.  Vendors themselves are opening their APIs in order to foster cross-platform integration that encourages rapid innovation and content sharing that ultimately benefits students and teachers.  The Schoology App Center is a testament to this trend.  Its open API and public developer platform enables vendors and end-users to extend the functionality of their systems or attract new business opportunities via a services model.

Victor: What emerging technologies and or trends are just around the corner that haven’t really been talked about yet?

Brad: How content is delivered and the evolution of digital resources still has a long way to go.  I believe there’s a technology that has yet to emerge that will change the content process and force a paradigm shift making it easy to port content from device to device.  Content will be served to the individual in a user-friendly manner that’s personalized and customized.  Of course, to make this happen, the industry will first need to resolve copyright issues and figure out who owns what content. 

Victor: Got any quirky stories or anecdotes that capture the spirit of the times or that really illustrate your mission?

Brad: Several months ago, and prior to my joining Schoology, I was in Florida visiting a school on a consulting assignment.  In the hall, I ran into a young 7th grade student who was feverishly texting away on her phone.  I asked the young girl to share her impressions of how technology was being deployed in the classroom and in her opinion, what her teacher’s technical aptitude was like.  I will never forget her response: “You people (meaning adults) are in my way.” This statement spoke volumes to me.  These young people have never known a world without the Internet or hand-held devices.  It is truly ingrained in their being and they have very little time or patience for technologies that fall short of their expectations.  As education technology providers we must create and deliver a user experience that is fun, intuitive and engaging by providing tools and services that look and feel like the popular social networking sites students enjoy.  From the instructor’s perspective, the system must be easy-to-use, but comprehensive in its offerings. Teachers must be able to master the technology quickly and easily to see immediate return and win respect from their students. 

Victor: What else would you like to add or emphasize concerning your company, technology in education — or anything else?  

Brad: What attracted me to Schoology was its focus on the end-user experience – be it a teacher, student, or parent.  The platform is so intuitive and so easy to use it doesn’t require huge training or implementation teams.  Instead, resources can be put toward building a better product.  At Schoology we listen to the community’s wants and needs and can build and release rich, succinct features that address these needs quickly – leaving the traditional model of implementing software behind.  That’s what schools need.  An easy-to-implement, easy-to- integration, easy-to-maintain and use technology platform that improves the learning lives of students and helps teachers teach better today. 

___

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest. To enter the 2013 EdTech Digest Awards Recognition Program, write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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