Interview | The Secret of Study Island with Tim McEwen

Tim McEwen is the CEO of Archipelago Learning, creators of Study Island, a web-based instructional system helping students master academic standards in a fun, engaging manner. He has held that position since March 2007. Prior to that, he was CEO of Harcourt Achieve, Inc., a multinational education company. He was also EVP and COO of Haights Cross Communications specializing in the development of educational products. Tim has also been president and CEO of Thomson Learning’s Higher Education and Lifelong Learning Groups (now Cengage Learning). He serves on the board of Edline Holdings, an edtech company. He received a BS in Education from East Stroudsburg State University and an MS in Education from the University of Georgia. In this interview, Tim shares his thoughts on high-impact low-cost education, hybrid learning, mobile devices, scaling best practices—and what the future holds.

Victor: What is Study Island?

Tim: Study Island is a web-based instructional system that helps K-12 students master grade-level academic standards in a fun and engaging manner.

The system is used by more than 10.7 million students in 23,000 schools across the United States, and it offers a comprehensive, standards-based program in math, reading, writing, science, and social studies. Our instructional model and interactive games provide targeted remediation when required, reinforce accomplishments, appeal to students, and generally create a culture of academic success.

Study Island is built directly from state standards and the new Common Core State Standards, with crosswalks between the two. It also includes inventive practice activities, formative assessments, and reporting tools to help improve performance.

For educators, Study Island also offers a parent notification system to simplify communications with parents as well as professional development tools such as standards-based lesson plans, lessons, online professional development videos, workshops and webinars, and other instructional resources.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Tim: The name, Study Island, represents the best of both worlds in education: rigorous academic content (Study) and a fun, engaging learning environment (Island).

From 2000 to 2009, Study Island was both the name of the company and our core product. But in early 2009, we rebranded under the umbrella brand name Archipelago Learning, kept Study Island as the core product name, and branched out into other “islands of educational excellence,” all united under our company brand name.

Victor: Who created Study Island? Why?

Tim: Study Island was created by two young entrepreneurs, Cameron Chalmers, a computer scientist, and David Muzzo, an economist and marketer, who were both passionate about developing an online educational program that would help learners of all ability levels.  The company evolved as professional educators and management were added to help improve the initial product and scale the business.  For instance, I’m a former educator with over 34 years in the educational publishing industry.

Victor: What does Study Island do? What are the benefits?

Tim: Study Island is a single, integrated online educational system that eliminates the need to purchase different resources for instruction, assessment, planning and communication. It saves schools thousands of dollars annually as well as valuable instructional time. “High impact and low cost” are what distinguishes Study Island from other programs. Teachers often comment favorably on the system’s balance of rigorous content and high student engagement, students’ time on task at both school and home, and, of course, their performance gains.

Each subject and grade level product offering is built — from the ground up —from each state’s standards and the Common Core State Standards. Since Study Island is web-based, students and teachers can log on via the Internet anytime, anywhere.

Each Study Island session focuses on an academic standard or underlying topic, setting clear goals for mastering a targeted skill or concept. Topics consist of lessons, practice questions, assessment explanations, remediation building block topics (when required) as well as games and a blue ribbon reinforcement system that make learning fun.

Study Island also helps students take responsibility for their own learning by offering immediate feedback and explanations for each question. If a student doesn’t master a standard, the system automatically prescribes remediation to build foundational skills and understanding of the idea and help that student move toward grade-level proficiency. Our system lets students study in standard test format, interactive game mode, or through the use of classroom response systems, and teachers can easily switch to any of those formats.

We included real-time reporting on student achievement, so teachers can quickly identify students’ learning gaps and how they relate to state standards. With that information, they can differentiate instruction and quickly provide targeted interventions. Additionally, Study Island offers teachers a digital forum for real-time collaboration and networking, plus e-learning professional development workshops to help them effectively use the system’s curriculum, assessment and reporting features and functionality.

Study Island’s integrated notification system simplifies parent-teacher communication, using pre-defined or customized messages that allow teachers to quickly and easily email parents about student performance, assignments, suggested topics of study, and school events.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services?

Tim: Study Island is an amazingly economical resource. The annual, per-student subscriptions cost about as much as a box of crayons, so Study Island products are significantly less expensive than the traditional print, software and online products provided by large education publishers. Further, Study Island requires no additional software, no installation or maintenance, and no extensive implementation training.

It’s an e-learning system that is easy to use for both students and teachers, built using a scaffolding approach and including an array of online instructional content, supplemental resources, video lessons, a digital writing portfolio, online custom assessment builder, and animated games. In addition, it features an extensive online integrated professional development module, with teacher videos, lesson plans, lessons, activities, and supporting materials.

As I mentioned earlier, Study Island’s instruction, practice, assessment, reporting and productivity tools are built directly from each state’s standards and the new Common Core State Standards unlike other educational programs that were developed and later aligned to standards. Because the system is 100 percent digital, it has always been uniquely positioned to help schools and districts simply and cost-effectively transition curriculum and assessments to the new Common Core State Standards. And the fact that those standards are included in the regular subscription price is a huge financial benefit to districts and schools.

Study Island is highly scalable, so it suits the needs of schools and districts of all sizes. Our flexible, web-based platform can deliver instruction and assessment in multiple settings, including classrooms, computer labs, libraries, before and after school programs, summer school, and at home.

Finally, while other companies have produced offerings that include legacy print or assessment content from other sources, Study Island was built as one integrated that’s constantly updated.

Victor: When was Study Island developed? Where did it originate? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Tim: Study Island’s co-founders, Cameron Chalmers and David Muzzo, met as undergraduates at Vanderbilt University where they were fraternity brothers. After succeeding in the business world, Cam and Dave set out to develop an engaging, online educational program that would help learners of all ability levels master rigorous academic content and take ownership of their learning.  The genesis of the idea came from Dave’s mother, an Ohio educator, who was actively involved in the re-write of the Ohio reading and language arts standards.

One of their grandmothers had a condo in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that she wasn’t using, and she let Dave and Cam live there rent-free. They spent a year-and-a-half developing the first reading and math products for the state of Ohio and what would become Study Island. In the process, they did something unique — they took the perspective of the student. They approached it from the point of view of having to learn the material as a student who may or may not like school. They asked themselves how to make learning fun and engaging for students while keeping the content rigorous and capable of holding up to the scrutiny of educators serving on the committee that was rewriting the state standards.

To develop Study Island, Cam and Dave studied research regarding instructional models and learning modalities, and they spent hours in the classroom examining how learning styles differ, what activities motivate students, and where learning obstacles can arise. In addition, they focused on how to help students overcome their learning blocks, achieve success, and build confidence.  Moreover, they strived to make the program easy-to-implement and use within the realities of most schools, and to keep the program affordable.

When they launched their first Ohio product in 2000, it was an instant hit; students were engaged, taking control of their own learning, having fun, and improving their proficiency in core academic areas. Teachers were amazed at their students’ achievement, and they found the real-time reporting very helpful for informing instruction and keeping parents and administrators abreast of student progress.

From Ohio, Cam and Dave replicated their unique product development process in other states.  In 2001, they relocated the company to Dallas, Texas, where it is headquartered today. By 2006, the company was in 23 states and had hired approximately 50 employees.  It was at that time that Cam and Dave brought in experienced management, and since then, the company has hired several former educators and used the same student-centered approach to expand Study Island to all 50 states and the District of Columbia while continually upgrading its content and web application features and functionality.

Along the way, Study Island was named in the Inc500 as one of the top small businesses of 2006, earned a designation in District Administration‘s Readers’ Choice Top 100 Products of 2008 and 2010, won Business Week‘s prestigious STEVIE AWARD in 2009 for best customer service by a software company, and was named by Dallas Business Journal as one of the best places to work.

Today, Archipelago Learning (NASDAQ:ARCL) is a leading provider of subscription-based online education solutions used by about 13 million students in over 35,000 schools throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Archipelago Learning (www.archipelagolearning.com) products supplement traditional learning tools and include standards-based instruction, practice, assessments, and productivity and reporting features.

Those products include:

• Study Island (www.studyisland.com)

• Reading Eggs (www.readingeggs.com), an early balanced literacy program for students ages three to eight.

• EducationCity (www.us.educationcity.com), an online resource of reading, math, and science instructional content and assessments for students in pre-school through grade 6.

• Northstar Learning (www.northstarlearning.com), programs that provide instructional content and exam preparation for the post-secondary market.

Victor: Where can you get Study Island now?

Tim: Purchasing information, along with pricing for individuals and quantity discounts for educational institutions, is available at the Study Island website: www.studyisland.com. Study Island is available for purchase by schools, districts, and learning centers as well as by parents and students.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Tim: Study Island meets the diverse needs of K-12 schools at a very affordable price, averaging $3 for one subject to $10 per student for all four core subject areas. In high school, the price can be a little higher for SAT, ACT and AP products.

Additional Study Island product offerings include:

• Reading: Reconsidered and Revisited (http://www.studyisland.com/intervention), an online graphic novel reading intervention program for K-12 students.

• Study Island SAT (http://www.studyisland.com/SAT), a web-based review program for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

• Study Island ACT ( http://www.studyisland.com/ACT), a web-based review program for the ACT tests.

• Study Island Advanced Placement (AP) (http://www.studyisland.com/AP), a series of products designed to help high school students master the knowledge and skills needed to succeed on AP exams.

Pricing for individuals and quantity discounts for educational institutions are available at the Study Island website: www.studyisland.com.

Victor: What are some examples of Study Island in action?

Tim: Study Island exhibits benefits to a diverse array of learners, including general education, at-risk, English language learner (ELL), Response to Intervention (RtI), and special education students. This has resulted in improved learning for students of all ability levels. For example:

Vero Beach High School (Fla.) implemented Study Island in 2009 to provide standards-based instruction, practice, and assessment to students in grades 9-10. In its first year of use, the school experienced significant gains in the percentage of students achieving proficiency on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). In 2010, Vero Beach High School was also named again to Newsweek magazine’s annual list of the nation’s best high schools. “We increased our performance across almost all grade levels and core content areas,” said Principal Eric Seymour. “Students know Study Island is making a difference in their performance and they are proud to say they use Study Island.”

In addition to FCAT preparation, Vero Beach High School uses Study Island to help students prepare for Advanced Placement (AP), SAT, and ACT exams. “The school saved more than $54,000 in printed test-prep books and materials by using the online service,” said Seymour.

Kosciusko Middle Elementary (Miss.) began using Study Island in 2008 with all students in grades 2-3 in math and reading. Consistently ranked as one of the top schools in Mississippi, the rural Title I school was honored by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 as a National Blue Ribbon School in recognition of its high academic goals and student achievement.

“Study Island has played a vital part in preparing our students to meet the rigorous challenges of high stakes testing. Our school is regarded as one of the top elementary schools in state of Mississippi. We score in the top 5 percent, year over year, on our state testing,” said Principal John-Mark Cain.

Union City Schools (N.J.) is located in a small, densely populated city of 1.4 square miles and more than 80,000 people. In the urban district, 92 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, 42 percent are ELLs, and 11 percent have special needs. All K-8 students work on Study Island in math, reading and writing. In addition, students performing below grade level, ELL students, and students with disabilities work on Study Island at the high school level.

From 2005 to 2008, limited English proficient (LEP) students and special education students significantly increased their test scores in both language arts and math on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK). “Since we introduced Study Island, we’ve seen marked improvement in our student subgroups,” said Silvia Abbato, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Shamokin Area School District (Pa.) launched Study Island in 2006 to improve the performance of middle school students receiving special education services, and then expanded the implementation to provide standards-based instruction, practice, and assessment to students in grades 3-11. From 2009 to 2010, the percentage of middle school special education students scoring at the Proficient level in math on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) jumped from 38.8 percent to 62.5 percent. In 2010, for the second year in a row, the district made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) across all areas of the PSSA.

“My special education students have made tremendous gains in math. I’ve had several students who in fifth and sixth grade scored at the Below Basic or Basic levels on the PSSA, and then in seventh and eighth grade they jumped to the Proficient or even the Advanced level,” said Darlene Beishline, a special education math teacher for grades seven and eight, and the K-12 Study Island facilitator for the district. “The main benefits of Study Island are that it helps my students achieve grade level growth, and it gives them a sense of accomplishment.”

Victor: How does Study Island address some of your concerns about education?

Tim: Study Island is all about “high impact and low cost” educational solutions. Our completely online system levels the playing field in terms of delivering “best practice” targeted instruction to all students, regardless of initial ability levels, and it enables students to achieve grade level proficiency. Plus, we help educators and students improve performance through one easy-to-implement-and-use system that costs about the price of a box of crayons for an annual subscription. We are, therefore, all about equality and achieving academic growth gains for all students while saving educators time and money. Moreover, our programs are data-driven and continually improved based on daily student results and educator feedback, resulting in a constantly improving program and rich set of formative and benchmark assessment data for educators and parents.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Tim: We envision that the future of education will involve a hybrid situation, whereby students receive some instruction in traditional classroom settings, but more will be done remotely via the web and mobile devices, with online connections to master teachers and fellow students. The shift from print-based to interactive web- and mobile-delivered education will enable the scaling of best practices and provide the opportunity for all students to have access to a quality, global education, at an affordable price. We believe that Archipelago Learning is a pioneer in this paradigm shift and will be a leader in the delivery of high-impact, low-cost educational programs that will continue to improve the performance of the educators and students we serve.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Study Island?

Tim: Study Island helps schools quickly realize a return on their investment by eliminating the need to purchase multiple print or technology products for supplemental instruction, practice, assessment, teacher productivity, and parent communication.

Victor: What makes you say that?

Tim: Too many programs are simply too expensive, too complex, and do not yield academic performance gains, which is unacceptable. Study Island, on the other hand, provides one integrated, cost-effective, comprehensive, and easy-to-use solution to meet the diverse needs of K-12 schools at a very affordable price, averaging $3 to $10 per student. By making learning fun and engaging, Study Island is helping students of all ability levels master core content and skills, overcome learning blocks, build confidence, and achieve success.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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3 Responses to Interview | The Secret of Study Island with Tim McEwen

  1. Jon says:

    i do study island for k12 and it is retarted. it goes over nothing that i do in the OLS and it is stupid that when you miss a few you have to keep doing the lesson over and over again to get the grade up when it could just restart. get some common sense. STUDY ISLAND SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!

    • J. says:

      It is apparent that your grammar skills are lacking- maybe if you worked with Study Island and paid a bit more attention to you teacher’s lessons (I am assuming you are a student due to your immature response above) you would find that SI is quite beneficial in the classroom. My students learn a great deal from using it and the Blue Ribbon Award system encourages them to do their best. The games in game mode are also a big help to keep students engaged and critically think about the answers since they must get the answer correct to play the mini game.

  2. I have taught a computer based math class as a connections class for two years. I have a degree in Health aand Physical Education. Due to budget cuts I was reassigned to math. Using Study Island I have retrained myself and now assist the students in learning math on their grade level. The program is great for teaching grade level material to all students and the building blocks help them with the necessary skills that are missing. The ability for them to play games while learning also helps to keep their attention for the 90 minute periods. Our license runs out this year but if funds are available we will continue to use this program. I give it an A+.

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