Second to None

Beyond video games, online program aspires to help students master mathematics.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Bob Sun First in MathWhile the national media has been putting a lot of focus into harnessing games in the classroom to teach core subjects, a local company has been doing it for 20 years and has been seeing tremendous success throughout school districts in Philadelphia. First in Math, an online program that helps students in grades K-8 master math skills, goes beyond video games and grasps the power of gaming with a deep foundation in education. The result? Effective learning strategies that provide rapid feedback, forcing students to rethink and alter strategies— truly helping them master mathematics. Philadelphia-based creator Bob Sun (pictured) discusses why this method is extremely effective for the generation who’s obsession with video games and not so much with traditional, slow-paced classroom lectures that can seem so un-engaging.

By allowing students to tackle the complex subject of math in manageable parts—stopping when an error occurs and practicing that one skill until it is perfected—they march steadily toward mastery.

Victor: What prompted you to develop the First in Math? What issues, challenges, problem were you trying to solve?

Bob: I have a deep respect for the importance of practice in mastering any discipline or skill. I observed that when learning math, children were missing an essential element that motivates practice – built in feedback.

Think about a basketball player practicing free throw shots or a baseball player swinging the bat. When the ball misses the hoop, or the bat swings through the air, they receive immediate feedback about their success or failure, because our physical senses serve as a built-in feedback loop. Now, imagine doing both of those things with a blindfold. How long would you be motivated to practice?

With First In Math (FIM), we remove the blindfold and provide students with immediate feedback.

Victor: What’s something interesting about it’s development history?

First in Math logoBob: About ten years ago, when we were launching FIM, many content providers were debating the validity of the internet as a delivery method for educational content. At the time, about 3% of schools had high speed internet access. For this reason, many educational publishers chose to use CD-ROMs rather than the internet as their delivery mechanism.

Because we had more than a decade of experience in running tournaments using the printed 24 game cards, we understood the power of competition as a motivating tool. With the internet, everyone is easily connected. We committed to the internet recognizing its potential as a long-term medium. And, one that would support our goals to build a community of math enthusiasts who could participate and compete on a variety of levels — on their own, as a classroom, or school – at the state, region, nationally or international levels.

Victor: Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?

Bob: After graduating from University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Electrical Engineering, I worked for 7 years designing and inventing industrial controls. If you asked me to describe in one word what I did in those years – that word would be “feedback”. Major companies came to us because they had a complex manufacturing process that they could not control because they lacked a feedback loop.

I had one project that drove home the importance of immediate feedback. This company made dynamite fuses which contain an outside casing and inside is the charge. The product came off their machines at 400 feet per minute. They wanted a system that could detect voids in the charge so that they could insure quality and predict demolitions more accurately.

We provided a solution that worked very effectively and I learned the importance of a principal that has guided me ever since, immediate feedback is critical to the learning process. They told us that our system taught them more about making dynamite fuses than the 20 years they were in business, because now that they had immediate feedback, they could adjust a dial early in the process and right away see the impact on the output.

Victor: Where do you get your passion for education and coming up with education-improving solutions? 

Bob: I learned about the power of math at an early age. I arrived in Philadelphia from Shanghai at the age of nine. I spoke very little English and was teased mercilessly by the other kids in my class.  They would torment me on the playground, but they would turn to me for help in math. I learned that math had power, that it transcended cultures and that with a solid foundation in math, one could cross many boundaries. I want children everywhere to discover this power within themselves.

Victor: What’s your 60 second pitch to someone on what exactly it is, benefits?

Bob: First In Math… fuels the desire to learn. Ignites the passion for excellence. Motivates the drive to achieve.  

We are providing comprehensive, engaging content with multiple entry points for any skill level that encourages children to take ownership, learn from their mistakes and be motivated to practice.

Students want to engage with FIM. When they are given the freedom to make mistakes, they push their skills to the edge, that’s where real active learning occurs. When they take ownership, they are intrinsically motivated and their sustained practice leads to mastery over time.

Victor: Do you have any direct or indirect competition?

Bob: Although there are limited dollars available to be allocated to supplemental educational programs, we don’t view others in the field as direct competition.

Most products are geared toward teaching, ours are geared toward learning through deep practice.

We have  many long-term relationships with school districts around the country that illustrate the effectiveness of our approach. The School District of Philadelphia has used First In Math districtwide (grades K -8) for more than 10 years. The district achieved over that period a 40 percentage point increase in students scoring proficient and advance on the Pennsylvania standardized tests.

Victor: Any highlights in test marketing or starting out, any interesting feedback?

Bob: First In Math evolved from the success of the 24 Game and contains many of its components and most popular features. We had a strong base of support that we were able to build upon when we introduced First In Math online. The initial response was extremely positive.

Victor: What else can you say about the value and benefit of First in Math?

Bob: One of the most exciting aspects about FIM is our ability to scale on a vast level quickly. The power of the internet has allowed us to engage about 1.5 million students annually who have solved over 13 billion math problems to date.

This is in part due to our commitment to the concept of “deep practice” – a system that provides an immediate, non-judgmental feedback loop where proficiency is attained through immediate awareness of success or failure.

By allowing students to tackle the complex subject of math in manageable parts — stopping when an error occurs and practicing that one skill until it is perfected — they march steadily toward mastery. This is the hallmark of Deep Practice and an important benefit of our program.

Victor: Anything else in the works?  

Bob: We are developing a vibrant community for FIM. In addition to the United States, we are initiating efforts in India, Israel and the United Kingdom.

We are also creating modules on our site that encourage collaborative problem-solving involving students throughout a school. We want to encourage kids to speak math — to develop their confidence and fluency with a skill that can open doors and provide opportunities.

We think of this as Social Math, an initiative that encourages and supports the use of spoken math to engage in interactions that provide feedback and motivation to master fluency in this universal language.

Victor: Your thoughts on education in general these days?

Bob: Our education system is out of balance, putting most of its resources into teaching but precious little into practice.

We place too much reliance solely on teaching — and too much pressure on teachers — in the rush to get immediate results that are transitory rather than sustainable. Passing a test based on memorized facts may be interpreted as success in the moment, however, learning that is based on intrinsic motivation and repeated engagement, provides a successful practice for a lifetime.

Perhaps the translation of the two Chinese characters that denote learning/study say it best, one represents the “accumulation of knowledge” the other “constant practice, as in little birds learning to fly.” Teaching is certainly important, but you cannot run on one leg. Put a sustainable practice piece in place and you can get long lasting results.

I believe that sustained practice will become the norm when we create a love for math that permeates our culture — especially in our schools and homes.

Victor: Any guidance or advice to educators these days?

Bob: First, I applaud our educators for making the commitment they do to our next generation. All of us can remember a teacher who made a lasting impression and influenced our life.

Today’s teachers face so many obstacles and so much pressure to produce results that are externally imposed. Each child is unique and deserves the freedom to make mistakes that can be the foundation of their learning.

Stay true to your heart and honor the art and science of the profession. While content knowledge is important, we’ve observed that a student’s attitude toward the content is often a deciding factor in their success or failure in the classroom. The greatest success occurs for both teachers and students when they mutually experience engagement as the first step in the learning process.

Intrinsic to FIM are multiple opportunities to affect attitudes and content knowledge while providing teachers with the resources they need to engage their students in achieving math fluency. Equally accessible are the data and feedback necessary about each student’s progress to assist teachers in making important curriculum adjustments and decisions that affect attitudes and learning success.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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Life After Graduation

Revitalizing career and technical education programs.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jeff Lansdell

Life After GraduationWith the introduction of Common Core State Standards and the demand for 21st century learning, K-12 districts around the country are putting an increased emphasis on preparing students for life after graduation. Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs are committed to college and career success by providing access to a variety of educational experiences and hands-on training for every student. Recently, CTE made headlines when President Obama promoted the advancement of career and technical training in middle schools, high schools and colleges in his fifth State of the Union Address. With a rising national commitment to graduating more students, many states are looking to advance their CTE programs to help students thrive in a global economy.

Through the platform’s career exploration curriculum, FISD helped 8th-graders choose an endorsement area with in-depth industry information, such as virtual job descriptions and customized career videos. 

School districts nationwide are implementing initiatives to provide students with real-world experiences that enhance traditional learning. In 2013, Texas passed House Bill 5 (HB5), which requires students to choose an endorsement area of study before entering high school. Just one year earlier, Kansas sought to stimulate interest in CTE programs by offering tuition reimbursement for high school students enrolled in college-level career and technical coursework. The Alabama Department of Education has also adopted CTE programs of study, and Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon and Arizona are among the many states investing in CTE by drafting and building comprehensive guidelines to promote the development of a career pathways system.

Districts can prepare for career education initiatives by providing teachers with CTE-related curriculum that helps students make well-informed decisions about postsecondary education and future career plans. Just last month, Frenship Independent School District (FISD) in Texas announced a pilot program that would help the district implement HB5. Looking for a way to assist both teachers and students in the transition, FISD turned to online learning platform, iCEV. Through the platform’s career exploration curriculum, FISD was able to help eighth graders choose an endorsement area with in-depth industry information, such as virtual job descriptions and customized career videos. This blended CTE curriculum model not only assists students in making informed decisions about their areas of interest, but also provides a tailored educational experience that meets both college and career readiness standards.

Like HB5, which requires students to choose an endorsement area in eighth grade, CTE exploration can begin as early as middle school with high-quality courses in specialized career pathways. Early implementation strategies can help students explore their interests, gain experience and receive exposure to relevant industry skills. CTE courses integrate academic and technical education to better meet student abilities and provide real-world context to subject areas like math and science. And like many college majors, a career pathway is not set in stone, as CTE programs provide the flexibility to accommodate students’ changing interests.

Although many states are beginning to employ career and technical training strategies, CTE programs still face some implementation challenges, such as a shortage of CTE educators and the need for strong postsecondary and industry partnerships. Despite these challenges, CTE has become a viable option for schools looking to prepare students for college and career success. CTE programs offer technical and employability skills that not only help students reach their full potential, but also advance a district’s ability to transition students to their next education or career opportunity.

Jeff Lansdell is the president of CEV Multimedia. With a deeply rooted Career and Technical Education background, Lansdell takes great pride in providing educational solutions for teachers, along with instructive and engaging curriculum for students. Currently, Lansdell is a member of the National FFA Sponsors Board, serves as the Secretary of the National Ranching Heritage Endowment Board and is an annual member of the American Cancer Society’s Cattle Barons Ball Committee. 

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Trends | EdTech Bubbles

CREDIT Dan AbendscheinLooking for an edtech bubble? Here are plenty of them. As venture capitalists continue to pour the big bucks into edtech, reporter Dan Abendschein shares an interactive graph with New Schools Venture Fund data. Each bubble represents one of over a hundred deals from 2013. Big deals are green, medium are yellow and the small red ones still represent some hefty chunks of cash. Click on the map or click here to get to the interactive map.

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Helping Teachers Help Students

Former educators create technology platform to aid teachers in reaching every student. 

PROFILE | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT NSVF-Daniel Jhin Yoo“At Goalbook, teachers are heroes.” This philosophy has clearly guided the company from its inception in 2011. Two years later, the company has grown rapidly to partner with over 200 district customers in 40 states, as the energetic team continues its mission to empower teachers to personalize instruction for all students. Founded by former teachers and administrators, Daniel Jhin Yoo and Justin Su, the company graduated from ImagineK12’s inaugural class and became the first company funded through New Schools Venture Fund’s Seed Fund.

A former software developer at Google and Oracle, Daniel (pictured) decided to leave the tech industry and received his special education teaching credential. He spent five years as a middle school special educator and district coordinator in Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto, CA.


Company: Goalbook

Founders: Daniel Jhin Yoo, Justin Su

Notable: graduates of ImagineK12 inaugural class; funded through New Schools Venture Fund’s Seed Fund 


In those five years, Daniel learned from exemplary teachers and administrators. Teaching students with disabilities energized him on an intellectual and emotional level. However, he was overwhelmed by having to tackle compliance tasks, while also designing individualized instruction for his students, who encompassed a wide range of academic and behavioral needs. He felt compelled to pursue a way to help teachers reach their potential through technology.

While Daniel found many new products and apps aimed for students, he noticed a dearth of technology designed for teachers. Daniel joined forces with Justin, a district administrator who helped design and launch blended learning models at four charter school networks across the country, including at Rocketship Education. Justin’s business background, with prior experience at Deloitte and IBM, combined with Daniel’s unique experience as educator and developer, and the company was formed.

A holistic approach to supporting teachers

Goalbook logoThe company’s key to success draws from its unique approach to teacher development. Daniel and Justin have created a holistic solution that combines innovative technology, pedagogical research, and professional development. “Decades of research show that teachers are the most important school-based factor in a child’s education,” says Daniel. “We believe the best way to overcome existing achievement gaps is to empower educators with the resources and tools to design instruction that accounts for each student as an individual and makes the success of every child attainable.”

For many educators, it is the connection between academic research and practice that sets the company apart. Teachers learn instructional strategies and are able to apply them to their classrooms on a daily basis. In particular, the company utilizes Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a design framework for applying evidence-based strategies to reduce learning barriers and improve the learning for all students.

Drawing from the challenges they faced as district administrators, Daniel and Justin emphasize the importance for districts to gain teacher support and communicate effectively to ensure a successful implementation. Their team forms deep working relationships with district leaders to support implementation planning, professional development design, and program evaluations.

“We partner with districts to implement technology and design professional development thoughtfully,” says Justin. “We work together to equip teachers with the tools to smash learning barriers and make a real impact in the classroom.”

Their content spans PK-12 in the core academic subject areas, in addition to behavior, social emotional, English language learner and autism support.

A district success story

The company can point to many district success stories for their work. A notable example is Churchill County School District in Nevada. Before implementing Goalbook, the district was facing the same challenges as districts nationwide in creating a successful special education program.

“We had made a lot of progress on [special education] compliance in recent years. It was now time to shift the focus from compliance to quality instruction,” says Will Jensen, the district’s director of special education. “What made this shift even more challenging was the adoption of the new set of Common Core standards for our educators to learn.”

The company partnered with Will Jensen and Churchill County, and they worked together to empower the district’s IEP teams break down the needs of a student and create goals to meet these needs. By doing so, the IEP became a blueprint for designing specialized instruction that met the needs of the student and aligned with the new standards.

“I believe traditional one-and-done professional development misses the mark. I wanted a program that provides an infrastructure for continued learning, and that’s what [this company] delivers,” says Will.

An experienced district administrator, Will understood that a tool alone does not automatically lead to intended results. The implementation and ongoing program evaluation are absolutely critical. Will took the time to communicate and receive feedback, working to ensure that teachers were fully invested in the change.

“I initially had one teacher that said he found the program not to be useful. First of all, I was expecting a lot more pushback. I was amazed that I only had one dissenter,” Will says. “After several months, I get a note from the same teacher. It turns out he dived into [the program] and he now felt it was a great tool for the district. I’ve never had an implementation go so well.”

Will has structured ongoing evaluation so that he and other district leaders could be 100% sure that the company delivers a positive impact. His team has monitored teacher usage and analyzed IEP goal development. The analysis shows that goals have indeed been more precise, measurable and appropriate with regard to grade level standards. During the next school year, Will plans to dig deeper into instructional planning and look at student achievement trend data.

“A success story like Churchill County validates the innovative work at Goalbook,” says Daniel. “We are excited to continue our partnership with districts as we work together to empower and support our teachers with personalizing instruction for all students.”

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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Cool Tool | Universal Search

CREDIT Follett LibraryDestiny Library Manager 12.0, released by Follett recently, includes Universal Search, the new interface that allows students to seamlessly search and access all print and digital content. Whether reading ebooks or conducting research, students can now access the content they need from one system that offers a consistent, simplified user experience with single sign-on access. “Universal search saves collection managers and users oodles of time by curating the entire collection and making it seamlessly accessible to learners,” says Michelle Luhtala, librarian at New Canaan High School in Connecticut. “It solves the ‘container problem’ we have seen with digital content. Now, students can access all their content through the Destiny portal regardless of its material type, format, distributor, and publisher, including websites, downloadable audio content and of course, eBooks. Universal Search empowers learners to focus  on inquiry rather than resource location, thus challenging them to build their capacity for higher order thinking.” Rather than having students and teachers use a separate tool for digital content from each vendor the schools purchases from, Destiny Library Manager is a universal solution that provides students and teachers access to multiple types of resources from multiple vendors, within the convenience of one system. In use at more than 55,000 K-12 schools nationwide, it offers powerful federated searching so a student can find a wide variety of high-quality relevant resources with minimal effort.  The new Universal Search interface is built to provide an optimal experience on virtually any size screen. Universal Search also takes advantage of Destiny Library Manager’s deep integration with Follett eBooks, allowing users to directly check out content, place titles on hold, and provide direct access from mobile devices. With the introduction of Universal Search’s cloud-based functionality, Follett will add new, dynamic capabilities on an ongoing basis. Schools have the flexibility to introduce the new features at their own pace.

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