A Natural Curiosity

Randy Wilhelm surveys the digital learning landscape.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Randy Wilhelm.jpegHere’s a company that offers a suite of robust, student-focused and effective solutions that deliver results at the individual student level. Their entire team of professionals — from academics, to business leaders, to technology experts – bring a mission-driven approach to their work. At the helm is Randy Wilhelm, Knovation CEO and co-founder. “I passionately believe that students must be the ultimate and natural focus of education and learning,” says Randy. Back in 2012, what was netTrekker relaunched as Knovation – focused on making learning personal with solutions that create a fundamental shift from a one-way, one-size-fits-all type of education to a learner-centered approach that reduces barriers and customizes to the unique needs of every learner. “Our business is called education technology,” says Randy, “and we are passionate about the solutions and products we offer, working closely with the academic and business communities to listen, learn, and deliver unsurpassed solutions.” What motivates him in his drive to push these solutions out there? “Kids have a natural curiosity to know. Over time the system puts boundaries around that curiosity. The hope we have is that the curiosity to know is still embedded in every student and Knovation can empower teachers and schools to unlock that unlimited curiosity and passion to learn.” The edtech veteran shares his take on the digital learning landscape, adapting to keep up, the next few years of growth, and some advice for edtech startups.

How has the industry’s digital learning landscape changed over the past two decades?

Randy: Everyone now knows that digital learning is the way to go, yet two decades ago, there were only a handful of forward thinking school leaders that were willing to take the leap.  Over the decades, we have seen several fads come and go. We have witnessed districts wrongly think that they have to lead the transformation with device purchase, and we have seen the advent of the #GoOpen movement. The best part of never-ending landscape change is that there is always a tomorrow, where we hope for a better learning environment for students everywhere.

Simplifying platforms for educators helps us better serve the K-12 market and students.

How has your company adapted to keep up with new innovations in education technology?

Randy: While we pioneered the process to professionally curate, contextualize, align, tag and maintain free digital content and OER (Open Education Resource) in 1999, even then we had to innovate to find ways to fund our development of this incredibly value service because we knew it would be “years” before the market saw value in well curated free content. Now everyone is clamoring to help teachers with the curation effort, and our 17 years experience makes us the most logical service partner for districts, regions and states. There is great pain amongst teachers to find, maintain and teach using digital content. Over the years, we have been able to adapt and change our offerings to meet the market where it is as it learns to better use these digital assets. Truly, our web applications, netTrekker and icurio, created a genuine teacher-led love affair with what we put into the market. Now, as we stream our curations directly into the platform of the district’s choice (often LMS), we help surface valued free content where and when they need it the most. We are proud of our ability to adapt and continue to be on the forefront of innovation in the industry.

Where do you see potential for growth in the education market over the next few years?

Randy: Since districts, regions and states are at various points on the continuum of transformation, the window for us to serve more and more districts and their teachers remains wide open.  There is massive growth opportunity for those that buy their service, adding extraordinary value to an already free learning resource. And since we do this arguably better than anyone else, we foresee much growth in the next few years. We are dedicated to, focused on and passionate about making free digital content and OER more usable, and by doing so, giving teachers back the time to do what they do best: teach.

How will Knovation’s B2B model better serve the needs of K-12 education?

Randy: Everyone knows that teachers across the country are experiencing unprecedented platform fatigue. There are too many unintegrated platforms vying for teacher attention. At Knovation, we feel that this is unnecessary friction and can easily be avoided. So we designed an offering that has straightforward integration into other platforms, where the curated content can smartly surface where the teachers and students are exactly when they need it. For this reason, we have integrations completed with organizations like Canvas, Schoology, Google Classroom and others. Simplifying platforms for educators helps us better serve the K-12 market and students.

How do you incorporate feedback from districts and B2B subscribers using your products/services to improve upon your product and business practices?

Randy: It is very hard to be still and listen. However, since we are an entrepreneurial, smaller organization, it is much easier for us than most. Add on top of that our natural curiosity and we find ourselves asking an overabundance of questions.  There never seem to be enough times we can ask “why?”. Feedback and input are the hallmarks of our success, and will continue to help us better meet clients’ needs going forward.

I believe all of us are smarter than any one of us, so ask of others, “how can we work together to move the needle for kids?”

Do you have any advice for aspiring edtech entrepreneurs?

Randy: Oh my. Yes. Keep it simple. Ask questions. Partner and integrate often. Avoid creating software that only you can use.  I believe all of us are smarter than any one of us, so ask of others, “how can we work together to move the needle for kids?” And, our best hope to do that is together, not separately, and when we do, good things happen for our users and those that supply them solutions.

What is the state of education today?

Randy: There are so many competing ideas, many of which have merit. However, it seems the more we yell at one another, the better we feel. All ideas should be measured against what it means to the student.  If we stay focused on that, then we add value to the equation.  Anything short of that is debiting value from the ecosystem, and that is not helpful. I believe in the future. I believe in the curiosity built inside every child.  If we can tickle that curiosity and get them asking vexing questions, then we can scale education transformation faster than any systemic approach. I remain hopeful and encourage others to do so as well.

What is technology’s role in improving or transforming education?

Randy: Educators—when technology helps teaches do what they are born to do best, then it is valuable and helpful.  Anything short of that is not useful. Students—when they exit from their K-12 experience, technology in higher ed or in work is not only essential, it is expected. So to me, technology is a critical ingredient to a successful recipe of post K-12 student success.

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



Posted in cool tools | Leave a comment

Cool Tool | Drawp for School

CREDIT Drawp for School.pngSince we originally wrote about Drawp for School as a Cool Tool for collaboration in 2014, the product has transformed into a multi-use workflow, design and collaboration tool. Drawp for School is a powerful content creation and collaboration platform for students and teachers. Teachers use Drawp as a robust workflow management platform to automatically distribute, collect and sort assignments and to track collaboration. Students use its creative design tools to add drawings, photos, text and voice recording stickers to any assignment for any subject. Its swipe-to-share feature gives students an easy way to collaborate with other students. In December, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Drawp with a grant to research and develop the Digital Scaffolding Tool for English Language Learners, a tool that allows students to toggle between two languages to support learning in any subject. In 2016, the Drawp Resource Marketplace was launched as a repository of resources that teachers can use to easily find, download and share lesson plans, worksheets, images and other resources. The tool is localized in more than 15 languages and is now available for Windows, Mac, iPad, Android, Chromebook and as a web app. Drawp’s COPPA-compliant platform has won top awards for both design and privacy protection and is certified by TrustE. Teachers can download Drawp for School to begin a 30-day free trial. Drawp subscriptions are $99.99 per year, per teacher with unlimited students, unlimited classes and unlimited cloud storage. One thing that hasn’t changed about Drawp: It is still equally useful for creation and classroom workflow management. It may be used for one or the other, but its real strength is in using it for both. With creative tools and a seamless interface, Drawp remains a tool that will inspire students to learn, create — and really immerse themselves in their work. Check it out. Also, read more about how teachers are using Drawp for STEAM, language learning, PBL, design thinking and more on the Drawp for School blog.

Posted in cool tools | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cool Tool | VitalSource Content Studio

Since its launch last year, VitalSource Content Studio™ has proven to be a growing interactive authoring resource for publishers, numerous higher education and K-12 institutions, as well as corporations and professionals looking to create training content for their employees. They output content as EPUB 3 that renders in their Bookshelf, one of the world’s largest digital textbook platforms, or any compliant reader. The content produced is fully responsive on desktop, tablet, or smartphone screen sizes, enables interactivity, and supports industry-standard accessibility requirements. It’s also available online or offline through Bookshelf’s native applications and enables access to notes and highlights. It now supports the authoring of mathematical content that is fully accessible, as well as support for complex tables and one-click publishing to their reading platform. In addition to giving users more control, this one-click publishing capability speeds up delivery time of learning materials and makes edits and revisions easier and timelier. Learn more.

Posted in cool tools | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Students on the IT Front Lines

Seven steps to creating a student-run tech support program.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jon Phillips


CREDIT DELL EMC LEyden High School 212.pngClassrooms and learning models across the country are beginning to show signs of transformation and innovative engagement with the implementation of more technology empowered learning, with an emphasis on 1-to-1 programs which puts a device in the hand of every student. While these new tools are enhancing the ways students learn and providing them with valuable technological experience, supporting this growing number of devices can be a serious challenge for school districts and IT and support teams. A few school districts have addressed the strains of a more tech-heavy classroom and learning models with innovative solutions around student-led tech support programs.

The student support program at Leyden High School has closed 25,000 help desk tickets, taking a huge workload of minor issues off of their professional support team, who can then focus on larger projects.

Leyden High School in Franklin Park, Illinois, and Huntsville ISD in Huntsville, Texas, have found success with this approach. Other school systems can get similar results by implementing their own student-led tech support programs.

  1. Put the right teacher in place

The student program in Huntsville began when the district’s IT organization realized the imperative need for additional support in the coming years with an aggressive plan to deploy 6,500 new devices.

The team understood that a successful and properly integrated student tech support program would require a leader with extensive understanding of how tech support works and the role technology plays in the greater scheme of things within the school. Administrators tasked teacher Melissa Thornton, who had a background in both teaching and instructional technology, with designing the tech support program in tandem with Huntsville’s professional IT organization. Thornton’s approach centered on understanding the balance of how to create a functional tech support program with good customer service standards, while also giving room to the students to make their own mistakes and learn from them.

  1. Seek out quick wins

Working against tight deadlines, the Huntsville team was forced to act quickly to initiate the student tech support program, leading to some quick wins that got the program rolling right away.

The district gave Huntsville a hard deadline to implement a 1-to-1 program, requiring 1,600 new devices to be tagged and set up within a few months. The labor would have cost the district $30,000, but the Huntsville team saw it as the perfect opportunity to kick off the student tech support program. Staff leading the program turned an existing computer lab into a legitimate professional tech workshop, and students took on the role of an assembly line to set up the new devices in the new “professional” workspace.

  1. Ignite the passion & establish continual growth

The Huntsville team believed that setting up students for continual growth would be key for a student tech support program to maintain continual success. Students needed the opportunity to advance both in skill level and motivation, just as they would in a professional job setting.

Not only did the Huntsville program institute a standing time each day for repairs and assistance with their devices, just as a normal repair shop would operate, they also implemented a tiered curriculum for students participating in the program. The team designed the program with the following growth trajectory in place: Students start their curriculum with the goal of becoming A+ certified as sophomores. After receiving certification, they begin work in the shop handling low priority needs, unboxing and cleaning equipment, and learning basic customer service skills. They can work their way up to handling work orders around campus, and can even apply for a co-op position their senior year that earns them minimum wage alongside the professional IT team, making them career-ready upon graduation. Additionally, students can help with the recruitment of their peers through word-of-mouth or advertisement assignments.

  1. Tie student tech support to academics

Leyden High School created a support program within an existing class framework. At the start of each class period, students received a role for the day, ranging from managing the front desk and customer service to repairing a variety of devices.

By having to fill a variety of roles and figure out how to work as a team to streamline repairs for a grade, students began learning real-world skills that would someday help them in real jobs–tech-based or otherwise.

  1. Get buy-in from your professional tech team

Today, the student support program at Leyden High School has closed 25,000 help desk tickets, taking a huge workload of minor issues off of their professional support team, who can then focus on larger projects.

In return, the professional support team spends the extra time saved by serving as mentors for the Leyden students. Though it takes time for the professional team to train and mentor the students, the results are invaluable in terms of the real-world experience students gain and the increase in productivity for tech support across the entire district. Buy-in and mentorship from the campus’s professional tech team is a necessity for student-led programs to succeed. Teachers can provide the curriculum for the repairs and ins-and-outs of devices students need to learn, but there is no substitute for the opportunity to shadow a real professional in the field.

  1. Choose devices & support systems with management and maintenance in mind from the start

It’s a good rule of thumb that the devices you implement in the classroom must be durable, easy to fix and maintain onsite. If a device must be shipped away to be serviced, it not only causes a time strain but also is a missed learning opportunity for students. For example, a device might be easy to take apart, but the students might be unable to get hands on practice fixing the device due to warranty constraints. Work with your professional tech team to identify devices that are not only easy to take apart, but also field serviceable. This approach will better provide valuable knowledge and real world experience in tech repair for students who could eventually become vendor-certified for practicing on these devices.

  1. Collaborate with industry

Leyden High School’s district compiled an advisory council made up of tech professionals from a variety of companies to stay up to date on industry needs and create or adjust coursework accordingly.

Setting up a student tech support program is a great way to get students initially invested and involved with tech repair. It also opens doors for them to explore other tech-related career paths and better prepares them for a job out of high school. Once they begin receiving hands-on learning working with professional technology, it is easier for them to cross over into related studies, such as programming or video game design. Creating the channels and resources for them to gain timely, skills-based experience will not only make maintaining your school’s new technology easier, it will uniquely prepare the next generation workforce for the competitive job market of the future.

Jon Phillips is Managing Director of Worldwide Education for Dell EMC.

Posted in guest column | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cool Tool | Schoolrunner

CREDIT Schoolrunner.pngThis is really a school achievement engine; it empowers schools to engage administrators, teachers, students, and parents with important information around student progress. Their focus is on real-time data and student accountability both academic and behavioral, all at a teacher’s fingertips. With this platform one can establish ownership and accountability, and improve student outcomes by using data to drive decisions. They aren’t a data warehouse or SIS; it’s data on your own terms: schools are not only able to access data, but help teachers create, analyze, and take action based on student learning habits. From data goal-setting and coaching, to training and implementation, their team supports schools to ensure that they meet their culture and learning targets. Learn more.

Posted in cool tools | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment