Informed Decisions

ConnectEDU CEO discusses how to unlock student success. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Evan Nisonson of connectEDUDoing big things with statewide education intiatives in Montana, Massachusetts, Texas, Hawaii and Michigan among others, ConnectEDU is a technology company helping students make connections between education and career. Their services include data management for both K-12 and postsecondary, enterprise deployments, and evaluation and assessment tools, among a wide range of other offerings. CEO Evan Nisonson joined ConnectEDU with the acquisition of Epsilen, where he also served as the CEO. Prior to Epsilen, Evan served as senior vice president of strategy and portfolio management at SunGard Higher Education, an education

How can data help teachers make decisions on individual students more rapidly? We have a great opportunity from an educational perspective to get it right. 

company that provides software and services to help institutions find better ways to teach, learn, manage and connect. From 1999 to 2005, Evan was director of e-learning solutions at WebCT, an online proprietary virtual learning environment system known today as the Blackboard Learning System. Prior to that, he was a UCLA instructional technology coordinator, overseeing implementation of academic and related technologies for the university, and he previously was a lecturer in the English department at Loyola Marymount University. Evan received a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia College in 1984, a master’s degree in English from Loyola Marymount University in 1995 and a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1999. In this far-ranging interview, he discusses what he believes are the keys to student achievement.

connectedu logoVictor: The Common Core is at the forefront of education discussions. You have two recent Common Core initiatives-an Education Data Portal built for New York state and a grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Literacy Courseware Challenge. Could you tell us more about them?

Evan: My experience with Common Core initiatives began while I was CEO of Epsilen, an edtech company selling an online social learning platform. We participated in the EdSteps project in 2010. The project occurred during the very early stages of the Common Core initiative and ultimately tried to answer the question “How do we implement Common Core successfully?” by introducing students to the new vocabulary around Common Core. The project turned out to be a great chance to familiarize the Company with the ins and outs of the Common Core initiative early on and has helped as we’ve gone on and tackled the bigger aforementioned projects at ConnectEDU.

The Common Core initiative in New York State is a very forward thinking way of addressing how to implement the Common Core. Essentially, this project utilizes data and recommendation engines as a way to create transparency and immediacy for educators around the Common Core. We’ve coupled data and the efficiencies of technology to create a dashboard that makes the data immediately accessible, consumable, and applicable to the day-to-day activities of education.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Literacy Courseware Challenge is looking to answer the same questions as New York, but in a more open-ended way. We’re partnering with a content provider to see if there’s a way we can bridge the gap between Common Core and eventual career preparation.

All three are working towards answering a central question, but in different ways: what is the best way to implement the Common Core?

Victor: Many schools sit on a wealth of data, yet they struggle to derive any meaningful insight. How do you see technology playing a part in informing educators?

Evan: When you start talking about data and its value to educators specifically, it’s all about time. How can data help teachers make decisions on individual students more rapidly? How can data help educators assess student comprehension more quickly? And most critically, how can data be used to accelerate the process of reinforcement or remediation to intervene on a student’s behalf?

CREDIT connecteduIf educators accept this as the main purpose of data in the classroom, the value of data for teachers then becomes based in helping them keep better in touch with their students in ways that would normally be impossible because of time constraints. Unfortunately, there’s a perception that incorporating data is a tool to manage teachers. In the past, superintendents and state officials could use data as a way to assess quality of teaching. If implemented with this narrow goal in mind, this use misses the mark. Data should be utilized as a tool to help teachers better support student success, not solely as a measuring stick for teacher management.

Victor:  Why is personalized learning such a big focus of education technology these days?

Evan: The whole notion of personalized learning shines light on the fact that learning is not an institutionalized homogeneous experience but rather one that is individualized.  Technology overcomes the barriers to achieve this level of personalization by providing insight into a student’s capabilities while also helping educators create an individualized roadmap that students can follow and educators can support.

Victor:  Cloud and Big Data technology have been the buzzwords in technology the past couple years. How is access to these two technologies changing the education landscape?

Evan: The attraction of cloud technology for education is the same as it is for any other industry. Cloud technology ultimately makes technology resources more accessible and available. While it’s debatable that it drives down the overall cost of technology, it does allow education organizations to focus on their core mission, as opposed to having to devote time and resources to technical support.

In terms of Big Data, the concept will ultimately be useful at a macro level as it’s providing a horizontal view of how education is happening in a given context and then using that as a common denominator to how an individual or very specific cohort might be doing over that common denominator. That’s useful perhaps not for educators themselves, but for school principals, district superintendents, states, and policy makers.  For example, wouldn’t it be great if a teacher could know all the students that have successfully mastered a specific Common Core objective and where their students place in the district, or across their state, or even nationally? Big Data helps you identify large common denominator groups, but it also helps you understand trending.

What’s not being done right now with Big Data, and where I hope Big Data goes in education is the determination of student readiness for specific careers that they might encounter or need to be prepared for down the road.  That would be ideal.

Victor:  Why is ConnectEDU so focused on connecting education to college and career readiness? Can you give an example of how your technology is helping do this?

Evan: This is the number one question we have to solve as an American society and as a global economy. At ConnectEDU, our technology empowers students by informing both their academic and career decisions to lead them down a path of achievement and success. We’re working with multiple states – Massachussetts, Hawaii and Michigan are a few – and countless schools in this way. We also help employees play a more collaborative role in education, connecting with their future talent on internship, job, and experiential education opportunities.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education in general these days? What makes you say that?

Evan: I think there should be more active collaboration amongst the primary, secondary, postsecondary, and workforce constituents. We need to figure out the alignment of Common Core to career preparation in addition to teaching our students reading, writing, and arithmetic. We need to teach them the analytical and the soft skills that are critical for their success. We tend to assume that those are skills that are encouraged, but what we’re seeing now is that learners aren’t prepared as they progress to the workforce.  We have a great opportunity from an educational perspective to get it right — if we’re really open about what some of those skills are, and how they can be encouraged and reinforced through greater collaboration with the aforementioned constituents.

Victor: What guidance or advice might you provide to education leaders facing down issues and challenges relevant to technology?

Evan: Educators need to be honest and open about the objectives they’re trying to achieve with technology. They need to focus intensely on what those outcomes should be and make certain that the technology initiative gets the proper support, buy-in, and understanding from key constituents. Ultimately, technology initiatives succeed or fail for a variety of reasons, but for me, the primary one is lack of clarity or consensus around the true outcome of what you’re trying to achieve. Be clear on this and your initiative is set up to succeed.

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

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