A teacher for 40 years, Reed Howard worked hard to reach her students through engaging and interesting lessons all throughout those decades. Nonetheless, she found that she couldn’t reach every student the way she wanted to. The two companies her family has founded since then, Wowzers and their first education-based company, Brain Hurricane, were developed with the goal of engaging students and building a love of learning. “When we launched Wowzers in 2011, we wanted to use the latest adaptive, game-based technology to engage students, and help them learn at their own pace so they remained interested in math lessons, which can be particularly challenging for many students,” she explains. “Each lesson on Wowzers is individualized to the student and scalable to students across the country, and we hope eventually students around the world.”
A story-drive, game-based math learning solution built from the Common Core State Standards, Wowzers can also be described as an adaptive online learning platform for grades 3-8. The program includes complete Common Core curriculum content for 3rd-5th grade and supplemental curriculum content for 6th-8th grade, and is available on any internet-connected device including PC/Mac, iPad, Android. Students engage in gameplay that collects information about their understanding of the content. As the students answer questions, behind-the-screen proprietary adaptive algorithms identify how much instruction and reinforcement a student needs before moving them on to the next challenge.
In the Wowzers world, students interact with lessons, reinforcement activities (games, virtual world quests) and assessments through an avatar. They earn virtual coins for positive academic performance that can be redeemed for virtual goods. Teachers see real-time data about student performance and can use that data to provide individualized instruction for each student. And Reed, so long a teacher herself, can see the difference she has made.
Victor: What’s the story behind the name Wowzers?
Reed: The name Wowzers is really the reaction we want kids and educators to have after using our product. Our program was originally going to be called Huggaville, and it was going to be a world where kids would learn to read through interacting with characters, like Mike the Monkey, who would teach you about the letter “m.” But as we started to develop digital prototypes, we realized that we could develop a much more adaptive and powerful math program. So we started to brainstorm the name for the new company, and while we had a list of nearly a hundred names, none of them seemed to click. And then we talked about the reaction we wanted people to have when they used our product – and “Wowzers” was it. We still argue over who first blurted out “Wowzers!”
Victor: What does Wowzers offer or provide that other software products don’t? What companies do you see as in the same market?
Reed: There are a number of things that separate Wowzers from other educational products, including:
__Wowzers is built for Common Core: From the ground up, Wowzers was built for Common Core. As you know, the new CCSS assessments (PARCC, Smarter Balanced) will assess students for depth of knowledge, and the content we build for Wowzers teaches content the same way students will be assessed. Many content providers are re-labeling old content as Common Core, but that model won’t be successful in the new CCSS world.
__CCSS assessment model: Wowzers constantly assesses using question types directly modeled from the PARCC and Smarter Balanced test questions. Teachers are able to view real-time assessment data for their students and on a daily basis, identify how each one is likely to perform on standardized testing allowing time to address areas of weakness for each student. The assessments are embedded in the program as part of the gameplay and learning experience, so students aren’t distracted by the idea of a “test.”
__Access on any device: Wowzers works seamlessly on any device; through a browser on desktops or laptops, and through an app on mobile devices. This allows districts that are using different devices to have an uninterrupted experience with Wowzers, and allows students to access Wowzers anytime and anywhere, including on their own mobile devices.
Educational technology is an exciting field right now. I see several companies doing interesting things with math instruction, including Compass Learning, Think Through Math, Dreambox and iXL.
Victor: Who is your primary audience? What age/grade do you see the greatest appeal?
Reed: Wowzers has the greatest appeal to 2nd – 10th grade students. Although our content is tailored to 3rd – 8th grade students, there are some high and low performing students on either end of the spectrum that benefit.
Victor: What results or feedback have you seen from those schools that have integrated Wowzers into their classrooms? What are some examples of Wowzers in the classroom?
Reed: There are a number of positive examples of Wowzers in the classroom, including a recent pilot program, where Wowzers was adopted by 14,000 New York City students. Another example comes from KIPP Create, a new charter school in Chicago. KIPP Create chose Wowzers as the digital math solution for their blended learning school, to be implemented during the daily math period as a supplement, and at individual stations during the school’s daily “power hour.” During the math period, teachers were initially reluctant to use Wowzers as the primary instruction tool, continuing to introduce concepts on the board. But the teachers quickly realized Wowzers was much more effective at introducing concepts because of the program’s ability to move at each student’s individual pace.
Wowzers is now the primary way KIPP Create’s math teachers introduce concepts. When a student doesn’t understand a concept, Wowzers enables teachers to provide that student extra support, while allowing students that understand to advance at their own pace. Interestingly, a few enterprising students figured out how to log into Wowzers at home or at the library and have already progressed through an entire year of fifth grade content! Wowzers is also used during KIPP’s “power hour”, giving students up to two hours of math instruction daily.
Victor: Classrooms are slowly shifting to a flipped learning concept. What are your thoughts and insights on this?
Reed: In the next couple of years, I think we’re going to see the early adopters and the early majority move to some version of this model. The idea that students with a hunger for knowledge can advance at their own pace, and students that need more time can receive that, and then all of those students can discuss and interact surrounding their understanding, is how learning should really work.
Victor: What, in your mind, are the most pressing issues in education today? How does Wowzers help in addressing some of these issues?
Reed: As a nation, we continue to spend more money on education without better results. I believe we should expect more value and more return from the dollars spent on education, and it has to start with the student experience. The key is to understand how kids think, and teach them that way. Wowzers is a relatively cost-effective solution built based on the way kids think, to make learning fun and more effective.
Victor: You’ve no doubt seen dramatic shifts in teaching and education in the past four decades. How do you envision classrooms in 10 years?
Reed: I believe the teacher is still going to be the most important asset to a student’s learning. However, I think teachers will spend more time teaching and less time doing repetitive work such as grading papers or creating broad one-size fits all lesson plans. I also think big data will allow teachers and administrators to see trends in student learning more readily, and thus be able to identify what instructional methods and content are the most successful, which I hope will lead to a richer learning experience for students.
I don’t think these things are going to happen overnight. But I do see a serious shift from “seat time” to a more “competency based” model. We can see the value of this with Wowzers. For example, one student in a Wowzers classroom told me how he was happy that it was okay to make mistakes in Wowzers. With technology that can ameliorate a student’s concern about making mistakes, we see less impact on a student’s confidence, which can translate into strong gains and hopefully, foster an enjoyment of school and learning.
In 10 years, I think the school walls will be less of a barrier; more learning will happen on both sides of those walls. The cloud will enable a student’s data to easily and quickly come back to the educator, and that data will be used to free the student learning experience and provide more individualization. But it’s still going to take great teachers like it did 40 years ago!
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