Building a platform bottom-up to let teachers and students work together.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
A small, dedicated team of people who are changing the world — that’s who this smart San Francisco-based company is comprised — and they’re doing so for teachers, students and classrooms here in the States and beyond. In alphabetical order, members of Tangient (makers of Wikispaces Classroom) are: Eric Ablett, Dominick Bellizzi, Ryan Bowse, James Byers, Sarah Cove, Max Dobrusin, Adam Frey, Jeff Hanke, Ryan Koopmans, Julie Newcomb, and Carole Snitzer. Since early 2005, they’ve been dedicated to building the world’s easiest-to-use wiki service by listening closely to the ever growing Wikispaces community. They now host millions of wikis, and have products designed for the smallest classroom and the world’s largest corporations and institutions, helping over 10 million teachers and students. Here, Adam and James, co-founders of Wikispaces (and authors of this interesting article), have a lot to say about improving the classroom experience for teachers and students.
Victor: How would you briefly summarize what it is you are doing with Wikispaces Classrooms?
James: In short, we give teachers and students what they need to be more effective. And we know how to do this because we’ve been working with them very closely for years. Wikispaces Classroom was built on the experience of serving teachers through Wikispaces for seven years. Rather than being built top-down, it has been built from the bottom-up. We started with a core product, Wikispaces, that is fundamentally about letting teachers and students do their day-to-day work together. On top of that, we’ve built features like the social newsfeed and formative assessment functions. These tools were developed because millions of Wikispaces users helped us understand that they will make teachers’ lives easier and students more engaged. This, in turn, increases student achievement.
Victor: You’ve never done media outreach before. What impact do you hope to make by talking about education-technology and Wikispaces now?
Adam: News about our product releases tends to reach teachers and students worldwide by word of mouth, so we haven’t historically done traditional media outreach. From a business perspective, we don’t really need to. Our teacher community does our marketing and sales for us.
But in the last couple of years, interest in education technology among the investor community has come roaring back. Having seen bubbles build and burst several times before, we wanted to lend our voices to the debate over what success in ed-tech means and share our experiences on how to achieve it. We’ve therefore been reaching out more broadly than in the past to talk about how to build an engaged, teacher- and student-focused company. We are also talking about the pitfalls to avoid and providing practical advice for other entrepreneurs who want to make a positive impact on the lives of teachers and students. Talking about our product, specifically what we’ve built and why, is in service of this broader conversation.
Victor: How will teachers and students specifically be helped by Wikispaces Classroom?
James: Wikispaces Classroom helps teachers be more effective, helps students be more engaged, and ultimately improves student outcomes. It does this by providing tools that make it easy to do the day-to-day work of the classroom while giving teachers deep insight into each of their students.
1) Wikispaces Classroom makes teachers more effective. A lot of what teachers do online is manage their classroom, assign work to their students, collaborate on that work, evaluate their students, and engage with them to help each student achieve. Wikispaces Classroom makes all of that easier than ever. Our new clear design, simplified tools and features, and increased focus lets teachers spend less time thinking about the tool and more time thinking about their students.
2) Wikispaces Classroom helps improve student engagement. Our social news feed is a new, modern, social way for teachers and students to discuss and manage all of the work of the classroom. We’ve been told repeatedly that making it easy for teachers and students to engage with their work, in the way that makes most sense for each individual in the class, dramatically increases engagement among students, especially those who sometimes struggle in traditional classroom learning models. We believe Wikispaces Classroom will play an important role in increasing that engagement.
3) Wikispaces Classroom helps improve student outcomes. Our new formative assessment function give teachers real-time actionable insight into how each student is doing and the information teachers need to provide timely and focused help. By making teachers better able to understand each student and provide them with the guidance they need, Wikispaces Classroom will improve each students’ outcomes.
Victor: What’s next for education technology as a sector?
Adam: There are a lot of education technology companies being built right now, and many will fail. That’s how the world of venture-backed companies is supposed to work. At the same time, there are incredibly impactful technologies springing up everywhere that are already helping teachers and students. We are excited to be part of this world.
There’s also a lot of talk about how to disrupt the education industry and how to create entirely new models of education. These are admirable and important goals, but we think that there is enormous good to be done by delivering technology today that helps teachers, student and institutions do the work they know they need to be doing more easily, efficiently, and effectively.
Victor: What in your experience has really informed your current approach and led you up to this point?
James: Our earliest, most formative experience, was realizing how little technology was being used by teachers for their day-to-day teaching and learning in the classroom. Our industry has just not done a good job of putting tools in teachers’ hands that they liked and could actually use. The lesson we learned was to lower barriers to entry, make it simple, and make sure we are building products that teachers want.
The second important lesson we learned was how big an impact simple technology can have on the lives of students. A recurring story we heard was about the students who never participated in class but who, once exposed to the wiki platform, ended up building incredibly rich and effective resources such as study guides for themselves and their classmates. These students were more engaged and more likely to achieve outside of the traditional bounds of the classroom and the class day. Teachers would tell us over and over how empowering it was to be able to enable students to learn in the ways that best suited them. From this, we learned that we had to listen closely and engage deeply to understand how to build a tool that was flexible enough to handle many different styles of teaching and learning.
Victor: What advice or caveats do you have for those involved in developing platforms to serve teachers? What are some essential elements to consider? Why those?
Adam: That’s a big question, and one we tried to address pretty comprehensively in our article “How to Succeed in Education Technology.” (https://www.wikispaces.com/content/topic/how-to-succeed-in-education). In summary, we think it’s important to make sure you understand what “success” means to you, make sure you are passionate about achieving that success, and make sure that what you’re building is sustainable. Then you focus on grassroots engagement to grow your company. If you share our definition of success, which is all about helping teachers and students, we think this is the best recipe for achieving that success.
Victor: On a broad level, what do you believe is the purpose of education technology? What makes you say that?
James: Ultimately, education technology is about helping students achieve better outcomes. Wikispaces achieves this by helping teachers help students, and by helping institutions help teachers. We know that teachers, schools, districts, and universities aren’t going anywhere for a while, and we know how much we can help them by developing solutions they need and love. So that’s where we focus.
But it’s not easy. Technology can do so much that excites the imagination, and it is capable of creating so much wealth, that other goals can get in the way. The challenge for education technology companies is balancing the excitement around what is possible with a daily focus on helping teachers and students.
Victor: Anything else you care to add or emphasize about your current project, your thoughts on the future, or anything else you’d like to mention?
Adam: Our new formative assessment feature is a good example of a lot of what we’ve been talking about. So much of “assessment” is not really about helping students – at least not directly. But with a platform like Wikispaces, and the incredible amount and quality of data that it generates as a byproduct of teacher and student collaboration, there was a great opportunity for us to deliver a formative assessment tool that could actually help teachers help students.
With Wikispaces Classroom, teachers can now use the formative assessment tool to deliver individualized attention to each student according to the needs of that student. As importantly, teachers can access that assessment without having to do any extra work.
James: It took us a long time to build the platform that made it possible for us to start thinking about building a formative assessment tool. It also took us a long time to understand how to build a formative assessment tool that would actually help teachers. But our approach of being patient and actively listening has afforded us that time. In the end, we were able to deliver something we, and our users, are incredibly excited about.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. Get your story told through case studies, white papers and other materials you can share at trade shows and on your website. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Today, technologies offered by companies as diverse as U.S.-based Knewton, CogBooks, from Scotland, Smart Sparrow, founded in Australia, and Cerego, first launched in Japan, as well as numerous other organizations are delivering solutions based on the science of cognition and learning, according to a new whitepaper by Adam Newman, Peter Stokes and Gates Bryant of Education Growth Advisors, a revenue strategy consulting and advisory firm. ”These solutions can support individualized educational experiences at a scale that is genuinely ‘adaptive’,” they write. And if you’ve heard of some of these companies, it’s likely you already know a thing or two about adaptive learning. In the era of MOOC mania, competency-based credentials, and “complicated policy debates about how best to increase access to higher education while simultaneously reducing costs and maintaining quality” – well, adaptive learning is in some respects higher education’s best-kept secret. But that could well be about to change. Read Learning to Adapt: A Case for Accelerating Adaptive Learning in Higher Education and find out why.
The ever spiraling madness of funding, financing and technology
CLASSROOM 21 | by Greg Limperis
The times they are a changin’. It used to be, the only thing you had to worry about budgeting for in education besides the usual cost in personnel, infrastructure and maintenance — was textbooks. I know, I have simplified this list — but let me digress. Today there is an ever growing need for schools to go digital, but how to do so and to fund it properly is a growing problem that is quickly spiraling out of control. Let me explain.
You see, the talk in education is the knowledge that it is in the students’ best interest if the school or district could find a way to put an Internet capable device in the hand of each child. Yes, what we are talking about is the ever so popular adage “going one-to-one.” Just think of the possibilities. We give every child in our school or district a device that can connect them to the ever changing world instantly. From flipping the classroom, to MOOCs to virtual field trips and so much more. The options are truly endless. We can make learning, fun, engaging, personalized and well expensive.
Let’s face it, one-to-one is expensive and the ever popular question keeps popping up in schools worldwide, how do we fund it? According to Doug Johnson of Educational Leadership magazine, in the December 2011/January 2012 issue, “schools in the United States spend a lot of money on education technology—estimated then to be $56 billion dollars—36 percent of which is spent in K–12 education.”1
Just think of how much tablet demand has increased this number since then. I am sure the amount has gone up. Also, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, “total spending was $524.0 billion, of which $317.8 billion went to instruction and $179.0 billion to support services, such as school bus transportation and the operation and maintenance of school buildings and equipment. Per pupil expenditures amounted to $10,615 with great variation among the states. The District of Columbia led all states at $18,667 followed by New York ($18,618).”2
Looking at the statistics from the two links provided, that works out to be a staggering 26.5 percent of per pupil expenditure is on technology purchases. That is huge. With State and Federal Governments helping to defray some of this cost, coupled with CIPA regulations impacting e-rate funding, there is little margin for error. How do schools get this right and how do they do it without losing funding is the real concern.
There are so many unanswered questions. Which device is best and what do you give up or gain by using the device you choose? Do we have the infrastructure to support this initiative? Do we have enough broadband? Do we have enough access points to truly be wireless everywhere on our campuses or will we have dead spots? Do we qualify for e-rate funding?
With e-rate funding comes the ever added pressure of ensure you comply with CIPA regulations. Often this fear of losing e-rate funding often can come to seem like educators are making “ill-informed policies that are widening the digital divide”. As Vala Afshar states in this same article:
The learning benefits of social media are far too great to restrict it out of hand by applying a conservative interpretation of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Instead, do your homework; gather data by talking with teachers, and test it first-hand.3
So we need to ensure we plan, talk with people and ensure we are compliant. We need to seek alternative forms of funding to fill in the gaps of what e-rate funding does not cover that leaves us coming up short in funding any new educational technology initiative. Competition for these funds is fierce. Can we get towns to raise taxes to cover it? Will parents agree to offset costs incurred by a one to one plan? Can we find unique ways to get the community to assist?
Ok, so let’s say we decide to go to a BYOD policy, new questions arise? What happens if I depend on a student to bring their own devise daily and they forget it, what can they use for the day? What happens if their device get broken, who will fix it so they can continue to participate with the class? How do I control what they bring pre-loaded onto their own device so it is not violating CIPA regulations and or is not a distraction or offensive to others in class? How well did we plan so our AUP is prepared for these questions? What do we do one a device goes missing?
As you can see, there is so much a school system needs to think about, plan for, and plan about before it even can approach funding these issues. It is no surprise why some just choose to avoid it all together with so much more that we have to worry about in education such as raising test scores.
It is going to take true leaders with real vision to see that we need to make these efforts, we need to do this planning, we have to talk and get everyone including parents, community and industry believing that if we want to move our students forward and to prepare them for the future, no minute can be wasted as we try to find ways to make technology funding real and sustainable.
“If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” —Benjamin Franklin
3. Are Your Ill-Informed Policies Widening The Digital Divide?, Vala Afshar, 4/15/2013, Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vala-afshar/your-illinformed-policies_b_3085514.html
Greg Limperis is Supervisor of Instructional Technology for his district in Lawrence, Mass. He is the founder of the very popular Technology Integration in Education professional learning network, reaching thousands of educators worldwide. Greg has shared with others what he knows and they have joined him in sharing their insights as well. Join them in bringing about change using your 21st century skills.
Now it’s possible for teachers to be in two, three or even six places at once in a classroom setting with FLEXCAT. Lightspeed designed this audio system for group learning to provide teachers with the flexibility they need for small group and differentiated instruction, specifically to enhance teacher-student and student-student communication. Teachers are able to monitor small groups, quickly redirect off-task behaviors and encourage student collaboration, to increase the quality of the time teachers have with their students. Beyond these more obvious benefits, it is being put to use to assist with formative assessments in the classroom. With it, teachers are able to listen in to student groups, hear who is actually participating and gauge their individual understanding of a subject or topic. Because teachers are able to monitor from a different location and without students knowing, they are able to get a quick and more accurate assessment of which students understand, interact and contribute. Check it out.