What’s the Secret to Partnership Success?

Inside insight from a publishing exec for edtech companies seeking massive distribution.    

GUEST COLUMN | by Nader Qaimari

CREDIT Follett imageWhen I joined Follett, part of the allure of the role was that I would get to work with a number of the publishers and partners that once were my competitors, when I worked for a publisher. This was alluring to me because I finally had an opportunity to break down the perceptions I had formed over the years and truly see them for the value they bring to the education industry. It was no longer about who had the best marketing, talent or product innovation, but rather, all about the need they were fulfilling and how they were doing it better than anyone else. In my new position at Follett, I was coming into a land of hypothetical Legos, where I was able to put together solutions that, as the sum of many parts, could truly make an impact on education.

How can an edtech player’s offerings, combined with that of a larger, more established player, lead to new innovations that no individual company is capable of on its own? 

As an agnostic player, Follett is truly able to focus on the customer and align solutions to the needs we have identified having worked for 140 years with school districts across the world. We can anticipate a need based on predictive data, and assess a solution based on its practical application. In the end, it does not matter to us which publisher or provider wins, just as long as the need is met. This has built credibility over the years with our customers. However, it is not always evident to partners how we should and can fit into the equation. For them, we can quickly become the middle man. This is what makes my role challenging and interesting at the same time.

I can throw out clichés like “win-win” and “strategic partnerships,” but I will spare you. It’s really more about listening and understanding what each company is trying to accomplish. For some, like smaller edtech players, it’s about getting guidance, exposure, and penetration. For larger, more established companies, it’s about growth in new markets, innovation, and sales channel optimization. And, for each, it’s usually a different combination of issues. I will say, however, in almost all the cases, these companies have really good people trying to make a positive impact on education.

For me, partnerships are about figuring out how the sum of many parts is greater than the whole. How can an edtech player’s offerings, combined with that of a larger, more established player, lead to new innovations that no individual company is capable of on its own? From Follett’s vantage point, working with thousands of large and small districts, we can identify these unique needs and combine offerings to create new solutions. This, coupled with our massive distribution capabilities, allows for fresh conversations with partners that truly can further their cause, without disrupting their base business.

One of the most important lessons I have learned, however, is to truly understand their base business. No company wants to move backwards, and they definitely do not want to alienate a group of their employees for the sake of a new deal. Conversations need to accommodate the fact that sales reps need to see a new relationship as an opportunity rather than a threat. The provider’s relationship with the customer needs to grow, rather than get marginalized. And naturally, their revenues need to be maintained and nurtured. Having these conversations requires sacrifices on both ends, but if there is a clear need that is being solved with a partnership, the conversation runs smoothly.

The education industry today is getting disrupted. While many of us think that it will be the slew of small innovators that will lead this disruption, the reality is that it needs to be a mix. Smaller edtech companies can disrupt models but may also create a lot of noise and confusion in the process for the educators. It’s the right combination of tried and true players who have the experience serving the market, with the innovations of newer, more nimble companies, that will lead to impactful change. That’s where I see Follett fitting in. We can speak the language of everyone, and that language is that of the customers we serve, to make great things happen. Now, that’s exciting.

Nader Qaimari is Senior Vice President of Content Solutions and Services for Follett, managing Follett’s product portfolio and content/software relationships. Prior to Follet, Nader ran sales and marketing for Cengage Learning. In this role, he is focused on the marketing of the company’s digital assets and new initiatives, in addition to managing the Market Research, Digital Marketing, Branding, Outcomes and Measurement, and Marketing Strategy divisions. He has worked in the education industry for more than sixteen years. During his tenure, he has held positions in product management, editorial and curriculum development, and marketing. He holds a BA in English Literature from Kenyon College and an MBA from the University of Michigan. Write to: nqaimari@follett.com

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Cool Tool | Hybridge

Hybridge learning acceleration software is a solution from Compass Learning that allows educators to more easily create a blended learning environment for K-8 ELA and math classrooms. The software includes rigorous content, real-time progress monitoring, robust reporting tools, and the ability to translate nationally normed assessment results into personalized learning paths. Since it aligns with leading basal textbooks, it makes blending offline and online instruction easier. And differentiating instruction isn’t time-consuming or difficult; fully integrated with NWEA, MAP, and Scantron Performance Series, as well as aligned with state and Common Core standards, its reporting tools make data actionable and facilitate flexible grouping and instructional adjustments. The software can be accessed online anytime, anywhere from desktop, laptop, or a mobile device so that students are able to work both at school and at home. Check it out.

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Intelligent Choice

Why arent we using our best technology to improve education?

GUEST COLUMN | by Denise Wydra

CREDIT CogniiIn 2013, Ron Maggiano left teaching after thirty-three years. He was just 4 years shy of retirement, but he couldn’t take it any more.

Maggiano, who taught history at Springfield High School in Virginia, is no slouch. He won awards for outstanding teaching from both Disney (2005) and the American Historical Association (2006). But despite his passion and expertise, he could no longer “cooperate with the standardized testing regime that is destroying creativity and stifling imagination in the classroom.” He was quoted in The Washington Post 

“Research shows that today’s students need to be prepared to think critically, analyze problems, weigh solutions, and work collaboratively to successfully compete in the modern work environment. These are precisely the type of skills that cannot be measured by a multiple-choice standardized test.”

Educators, parents, law-makers, students, and education advocates all decry the over-reliance on multiple-choice items in standardized testing. And what’s on the tests drives the curriculum: student spend hours memorizing the factoids and that are amenable to this format; their homework and in-class tests are often multiple choice as well.

If we care about education, our teachers and students should be supported by technology that’s at least as good as what we use to drive e-commerce. 

But why does it have to be multiple choice?

Multiple-choice items are undoubtedly fast and easy to score. They also have the aura of being “objective,” in the sense that you either get it right or you get it wrong—there’s no fallible human judgment involved.

But test-making companies know how difficult it is to construct a reliable multiple-choice item. For starters, all ambiguities in wording and logic must be eliminated, and the distractors need to be equally plausible. There’s a good chance that many of the multiple-choice items students routinely encounter are confusing or misleading—so whether or not students guess correctly has little to do with what they know.

And what does it tell us that so much “coaching” for multiple-choice tests is actually about gaming the system, placing better bets? What are we really measuring?

Multiple choice to our core

The use of multiple-choice tests in large-scale assessment was originally intended to eliminate bias and to identify promising young recruits during World War I. It was a reasonable technology for its time and purpose.

In the past decade, creators of digital learning products have used this simple format as the engine that drives a wide variety of engaging and creative learning activities. Students can respond to videos, enter virtual worlds, play games, get help from their peers. Because multiple-choice is fast and easy for machines to score, students get immediate feedback, a huge boon.

But this is all built on a technology that’s conceptually over a hundred years old. You see a set of options and you click to place your bet.

We’re seeing exciting advances in education’s use of sophisticated technology. Big data can identify students at risk and highlight actions associated with success. Adaptive learning can provide each student with the optimal content for where she is in her learning path.

Yet none of this is helping to transform the core learning experiences and assessments themselves. Most adaptive products function by steering students to the most appropriate MC-based activity.

Shifting the baseline model

Here’s where education can learn from other sectors. Outside of the classroom, the use of Artificial Intelligence is growing rapidly. Medicine uses it to assist doctors in diagnosis and patient care. Journalism uses it to write new stories, and corporate America uses it to compose earnings reports. Amazon uses it to recommend new items to shoppers. And Apple uses it to help you buy movie tickets—and thus sell more iPhones.

Researchers have been excited about AI’s potential use in education for years. What we lack, though, are practical solutions that can be used to build the next generation of learning activities and assessments.

Imagine a classroom where students could get feedback on their projects as often as they wanted, before or after their check-ins with instructors. Imagine a tutoring system that could help students develop self-reflection and metacognition, not just quiz them with problem sets. Or an e-textbook that could engage in dialogs with students to assess and develop their deep understanding of the material.

Imagine a world where standardized testing actually assessed not only students’ deep conceptual understanding but also their ability to solve new problems and make new connections?

If we care about education, our teachers and students should be supported by technology that’s at least as good as what we use to drive e-commerce. We need to get moving on the use of Artificial Intelligence and other advancements to improve learning experiences, not just churn through multiple choice tests more quickly.

Personally, I’d be willing to give up on Siri’s ability to help me make dinner reservations if it would help students with critical, creative thinking instead.






Denise Wydra is currently COO at Cognii, a technology company focused on using artificial intelligence to increase the availability of high-quality learning experiences. Previously she was VP of print and digital product at Macmillan Higher Education and Editorial Director at Bedford/St. Martin’s, a college publisher, where she focused on innovative solutions for teachers and students.

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Trends | EdTech Goals, Progress, and Shifting Definitions  

CREDIT SIIA ETINAs revealed in the 2015 Vision K-20 Educator Survey Report conducted by the Education Technology Industry Network (ETIN) of SIIA, K-20 education institutions are making slow, but steady progress towards reaching their instructional and operational goals through the use of technology. Educators also reported needing more continuous access to adequate bandwidth and increased access to technology resources and training. Survey results also indicate the use of technology to manage student data has increased, and that educators use electronic data most often to track student performance and improve instruction. However, the report suggests that more training and access are needed to support educators’ use of individual student data. Also released by ETIN of SIIA, the Behind the Data Report shows a shift in the definition of an online course, which now includes any fully digital curriculum—even when delivered face-to-face in the classroom. The shifting definition partially explains a 320 percent increase in revenues from the previous year in the Online Course category of the PreK-12 Market Survey. Contributing factors that resulted in greater market acceptance for online courses include technology infrastructure, improved quality of online courses, curriculum gaps filled by online courses and real-market demand in niche areas.

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Globalized Classrooms

Shifting demographics make language and literacy technology tools imperative.

GUEST COLUMN | by Nick Gaehde

CREDIT Rosetta StoneEducational technology has transformed today’s schools and plays a critical role in classroom instruction, but to fully grasp the extent to which the industry has grown, one simply needs to look at the numbers: According to a recent projection by the Center for Digital Education, K-12 IT budgets will have increased another 3%, to $10.2B in 2015. The industry’s continued growth reflects the rapid changes in education in recent decades, most prominently an emphasis on personalized and blended learning.

Growing immigrant populations are driving the demand for technology solutions that engage not only students, but teachers, parents and communities.

Technology is clearly leaving a positive and long-lasting impact on education, enriching and engaging students’ learning environments and helping teachers do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. Research supports these claims and shows the many benefits of technology, including enhancing literacy development, impacting language acquisition, providing greater access to information, supporting learning motivating students and enhancing self-esteem.

Sophisticated digital tools have become the backbone of personalized learning, and teachers increasingly are turning to technology to tailor instruction to students’ individual needs and strengths. By giving students a path to learning that is self-directed and self-paced, learning becomes more engaging and fun. In return, a culture of collaboration between students and teachers is cultivated, enabling teachers to better manage their time and to facilitate rather than dictate.

Ethnic diversity, globalized learning environments

As classrooms increasingly become more ethnically diverse and the world more globalized, the need for effective language and literacy solutions, in particular, has never been more imperative. Growing immigrant populations are driving the demand for technology solutions that engage not only students, but teachers, parents and communities. Digital language and literacy learning solutions both accelerate the learning of English-Language students and provide native English speakers with the opportunity to build global competency skills through world language acquisition. School leaders are fast realizing that such tools are no longer a luxury, but rather a necessary step to boost the competitiveness of their students.

Mooresville (NC) Graded School District (MGSD) and Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) are two districts among the scores of innovative communities with whom we work to provide access to language learning they might not otherwise receive. Not only have these districts recognized the many benefits of early language acquisition and preparing students for success in today’s increasingly global and diverse marketplace, but they’ve implemented programs that are delivering results and making significant impact.

MGSD, a nationally recognized leader in digital learning, has implemented language learning modules for the 3,000 students in its five elementary and intermediate schools. Given limited resources, the district needed a cost-effective way to provide even its youngest learners the opportunity for exposure to a new language and give them the best preparation for the intense language instruction that awaits them in middle and high schools. The program they use not only affords students an opportunity to learn a new language both in school and at home, it also allows teachers to use this technology to personalize learning experiences, track learner data, monitor student progress and, ultimately, obtain better results for their students.

CPS, the third largest school district in Ohio, with an English-language learner (ELL) population that has grown more than 500 percent over the last five years, has used a grant from the state’s Straight A Fund to provide its 33,000 students and their parents, and more than 4,200 CPS employees access to English Language Learning and World Language Learning programs from my company. The partnership has helped to bridge linguistic differences, improve academic success and create cultural understanding among the district’s students, parents and employees.

Literacy skills, dramatic gains with the right technology

Similarly, educators in nearly 14,000 schools worldwide are using personalized instructional technology from our offerings to engage with more than two million students and dramatically accelerate reading skills development. Using real-time data to inform instruction, the program has consistently enabled students in grades pre-K–5 to reach higher levels of reading proficiency. Through the Kansas Reading Initiative, dramatic gains in reading were reached in the program’s first year, with the percentage of students meeting their grade-level benchmark increasing from 45 to 70 percent. Moreover, 99 percent of the more than 2,000 at-risk readers accelerated their reading skill acquisition by mastering at least one year of grade-level skills, and 87 percent advanced two or more grade levels.

These examples just touch the surface of how technological innovation is driving learning. Our objective is not unlike any school district with whom we work: to empower teachers and students by providing the most effective instructional tools possible so that every child—regardless of their background—is prepared for the challenges and opportunities that a global society presents.

As demographics continue to shift within school districts, and the importance of language and literacy skills increases, education technology will play an even greater role in affecting change in today’s classroom.

Nick Gaehde is the Senior Vice President of Rosetta Stone’s K-12 Education division and President of Lexia Learning, the company’s K-12 literacy and assessment division.

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