Interview | Dan Levin Has Answers in His Problem-Attic

Teachers were working way too hard on some things that modern technology could make so much easier, says to Dan Levin. “Precisely, there are a lot of questions available on the Internet, but they tend to be in the form of PDF files,” he says. “Teachers need to get the PDFs, skim through them, find the kinds of questions they are looking for and then, after doing all that work, they still have to cut and paste and reformat.” His solution to all that, Problem-Attic, makes the process a whole lot faster, simpler and more convenient. Here, Dan discusses what the name means, takes us through the late 1980s when technology integration into the classroom began in earnest, through an era of large vertical systems—and into the present time environment of technology in education to fill us in on what he thinks is really going on with teachers and technology.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Dan: The name Problem-Attic gradually evolved from a lot of experimentation with words such as test, quiz, problem, question and exercise. We wanted to combine that part of instruction with the concept of storage, particularly long-term storage, and content curation. A lot of the documents that we thought we could make more searchable and useful to teachers have been up on websites for years. Some of them have been gathering “digital dust” because they are much harder to access than they should be. We eventually realized that Problem-Attic was a really good play on words for what we are doing.

Victor: So the attic is really coming from the attic of the house?

Dan: That’s the metaphor. There are gobs of really good questions on the Internet that organizations and states have been putting up for decades – New York Regents Exams are a good example – but they were too hard to access. But they’re great questions! To us, attic means long-term storage, so we thought Problem-Attic was appropriate. Really, what we’ve done is dusted off the questions and made them modern and accessible – made them new again.

Victor: What is it? Who created it?

Dan: Our company, EducAide, is the creator of Problem-Attic.  We have a long history of providing schools with high-quality, standards-based material for assessment and instruction. What we’ve done with Problem-Attic reflects more of a startup mentality. Like a lot of young companies, we spotted a problem that could be fixed, and we thought we could make the lives of teachers, homeschoolers, tutors and parents a lot easier. It was fortunate for us that our company had experience developing question banks and teacher tools.  Even though we approached this with a startup mentality, we were able to apply some unique skills because we had already been doing something similar for a long time. We’d already figured out how to handle the formatting, and we knew how to scale up and organize a lot of questions quickly. I think we brought in a good understanding of what needed to be done and how to do it.

I helped found EducAide about 20 years ago. Some people might have given up and moved on, but we’ve always approached our work as a long-term effort. A lot of things happen quickly on the Internet, but this is content curation, so we’ve had to grow our offerings almost as a museum director would. Knowing how to organize content and make searching efficient requires a particular set of skills. I think that we were uniquely positioned to develop Problem-Attic because we had been grappling with these issues for a long time.

I was a teacher before this company was founded, so the main idea behind Problem-Attic, which is coming into play now, comes from my own experience.  As a teacher, I was frustrated. Computers were entering classrooms in the late 1980s, and I had a dream, even back then, of building a massive database for teachers to eliminate the problems of cutting and pasting, searching for material and sharing.

So Problem-Attic is not a new idea, but a confluence of factors was needed to make it a reality. One is the whole Web 2.0 model, which is only about 10 years old. The second is a good understanding of how websites like this should work, what the interaction should be. A lot of the technology behind the website is actually very new – probably no more than a few years old. So even though I think we were way ahead of our time 20 years ago and we tried mightily to do something like Problem-Attic back in the 1990s, we were stuck with desktop applications and databases, and we had no good distribution model.

The model became clearer around 2002 to 2003 with No Child Left Behind. We started to get some insight into what a large-scale solution might look like. Then, in recent years, the quantity of available material became even larger, states began to coalesce around certain things such as Common Core standards, and people became very comfortable with the idea of software as a service. Everything came together perfectly for us, which is to say, changes in the world around us finally made our dream of Problem-Attic achievable. I hope Problem-Attic is an overnight success, but it will have taken us 20 years to achieve that overnight success!

Victor: What does Problem-Attic do? What are the benefits?

Dan: First and foremost, Problem-Attic puts a lot of good material back in the hands of teachers – material that was excellent when it first came out and has unfortunately gotten lost or buried, become inaccessible over time or was not in a good form for teachers. Problem-Attic gives them access to great questions that have already been written and shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s a waste of time for so many educators around the world to be rewriting this stuff, reinventing the wheel.

From the technical side, Problem-Attic eliminates the drudgery of cutting and pasting, reformatting and putting questions together into a test, quiz or worksheet. Problem-Attic’s output is gorgeous and can make a teacher feel proud. It doesn’t look like you took scissors and tape and went over to the photocopy machine.  It looks like there is real desktop publishing muscle behind what you created. I think that’s really neat and that a lot of teachers are going to appreciate it. The documents look very professional.

From there, Problem-Attic’s benefits flow down to students. Although it is definitely a time-saving tool for teachers, that is only a means to an end. The goal is to help students learn, to personalize learning. Giving kids quick feedback, having a convenient way to do ongoing assessment, being able to serve classes of mixed abilities, meeting students’ individual needs – all that makes for a powerful tool!

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market? 

Dan: One of the interesting things about the web is that it is pretty easy to put up a shingle and say you’ve started a business. So there are many companies out there in the same general space. I don’t think there is anything profound in what we’re doing, but there was definitely a need for Problem-Attic, an unmet need.

I think we are way ahead of what anyone else is doing in terms of scale – just the sheer magnitude of the number of questions we’re able to put up and how much more we have coming soon. We have probably another 200,000 to 250,000 questions that we can put up onto the site. That’s pretty formidable. And again, that’s because of our 20-year history.

Victor: When was Problem-Attic developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Dan: I would narrow it down to just the last few years. Just a few, key things needed to be in place for this actually to work. One is a really good model for serving up content through the web. So, if I can take you down Memory Lane a tiny bit, you will see what I mean. The ’90s were pretty much all-desktop applications with some networking, and then by the late ’90s, we were into the dot-com boom – which people are now calling Web 1.0. It was a different kind of model: less interactivity with users and more just plain selling. You went on the web to buy stuff. People didn’t quite understand this notion of interacting in a deep way with a website where it is, say, a software service – and then, of course, social networking was in its infancy as well. As we all know, the dot-com thing imploded and there were some survivors, some amount of e-commerce and online purchasing. Gradually, out of the ashes, came a lot of new technologies and a new understanding about how users might want to interact with websites. This is all changing really quickly now with mobile phones and iPads.

Interestingly, in our industry, I think No Child Left Behind stalled things quite a bit. Around 2001 to 2002, a lot of interest, including our own interest in what we developed, shifted toward large-scale assessment, state standards, and scoring and reporting – basically, toward data-driven instruction. The way I see it, there was a need for development in that area, but ultimately it sidetracked us a little bit from that dream we had in the ‘90s of doing more pure content and serving the needs of teachers.  Like a lot of companies, we shifted our focus to assessment, and in retrospect, that’s a different industry, a different model. It doesn’t work quite as well with Web 2.0 because it is so large and integrated.

So that whole era, from about 2001 or 2002 to just a couple of years ago, was based on the concept of large, vertical systems that did everything for schools and teachers – everything from attendance and grading to curriculum management, from tracking student progress  to contacting parents. And that still is somewhat of a model in education, though I think it is fading. In the last three or four years, we began to see a change, an understanding that websites could be more directed at specific needs, and that they could speak to each other. So it turns out you don’t really need big systems.  Thus there has been fertile development in a lot of areas, a shift toward best-of-class solutions for specific problems.  Of course the solutions should talk to one another so teachers end up with a complete solution that is best-of-class, seamlessly integrated, convenient and, of course, usable on a whole bunch of different devices and with different applications in the classroom.

That’s the change which has occurred, or rather is occurring, in K-12 education.  The shift from big, vertically integrated systems is producing a fertile environment with much more adaptable software, with a better understanding that the end user, rather than the company that made it, should decide how to do the work. So that’s our philosophy:  Let the end user decide the best way to make use of all of these great questions.

And I think that what I just described is how a lot of people are approaching the web these days.  It is not unique to education.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Dan: As I said earlier, Problem-Attic was developed by EducAide, of which I’m one of the founders.  We still make a desktop app, and we will continue to support that because it is a really good development platform. It has allowed us to build up our massive database of questions.  And it is still a great tool for teachers who want an industrial-strength program for putting their own questions on the computer, for authoring, organizing and publishing.

Teachers can find Problem-Attic, with more than 45,000 questions from the New York State Regents Exams and tens of thousands more to come, at www.Problem-Attic.com.

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

Dan: Access to the questions and current tools on Problem-Attic is free and will remain free. Down the road, we will consider adding some for-pay options that might include additional content, editing and document management and storage capabilities. We might do some partnerships with publishers or content developers, where they would use Problem-Attic’s platform to deliver their questions to their audience. We will almost certainly begin to look at exporting questions to various devices – everything from tablets and phones to more traditional classroom applications such as assessment systems – in the very near term.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?

Dan: Problem-Attic is tailored for any educator who finds the content relevant. The New York State Regents Exam questions that are available now are largely targeted at a secondary audience – not just in New York but in every state – and as we add more questions in the future, there will be content for all grade levels.

By the way, when I say any educator, I mean teachers, parents, homeschoolers, tutors, researchers, and so on.  I’m not sure if “self-educator” is a common term, but certainly students can access the site also and make use of the questions to further their own learning.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Dan: I think it is a really exciting time for education. Everything I just talked about that has happened over the last 20 years is making it an amazing time because there are so many things that can be done now to improve education and help teachers. We look at our company as helping to solve one piece of the puzzle. Problem-Attic helps fulfill the promise of a digital classroom – personalized learning and everything that goes with that. It is a great time to be in this field.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education and teaching career helped to inform your approach to creating Problem-Attic?

Dan: Like a lot of inventors going back centuries, it was frustration over something that had to be better. Of course, I don’t think Problem-Attic is a complicated type of invention or discovery compared with some. But it can help solve teachers’ frustration with not having easy access to, or not a having a good means of formatting, high-quality, proven content. I have two daughters, and I help them at home with their math homework. I was a math coach and a math club adviser when they were in middle school. There were a lot of times I would have done anything to have a product like Problem-Attic because I was spending so much time trying to pull questions together. I hope we can help teachers of all types who are in search of good questions, in and out of the classroom, to help kids understand difficult concepts.

Victor: How does Problem-Attic address some of your concerns about education?

Dan: Education needs help in many ways, but the system is also showing great promise right now. I think Problem-Attic, like a lot of other great web tools, does change the economics. I think that it shows, among other things, that this can be done affordably and that valuable resources can be made available free of charge. There is no reason that the tools that educators need should be costly. And that isn’t just our discovery. Khan Academy does free videos, and so do others. A couple of companies that could be considered our competitors have realized that they will have to make a lot of things available for free. I think that is maybe the biggest way we are changing the economics – making the solutions less expensive and more widely available, if they are done right. It took a lot of years to figure out how to do this; there were no shortcuts.

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

Dan:   I’m excited about where education is headed, toward more online and blended learning. I also realize there will be bumps in the road.  One thing I feel strongly about is that as we enter this new age we shouldn’t throw out everything that worked before.  Many things still work well. That doesn’t mean they can’t be improved, but it would be a mistake to think that every student can be put in front of a computer and learn that way. Teachers can and should and will remain an integral part of the learning process for a long, long time to come. I think that inspiration and education often come from the personal side of teaching – the human side. That is very much what we are trying to support. We are not putting our heads in the sand; we are not thinking that education is always going to follow that old, traditional model of a teacher in front of a classroom. But we also don’t think that the importance of that teacher, tutor, mentor, parent – whomever – should be overlooked. They need quality tools like everyone else! They need tools that will make their jobs easier and make them more efficient, so they can concentrate on teaching and learning.

There is no doubt that technology is bringing about great changes, but my observation is that much of what has gone into classrooms in the past 20 years has not directly aided the teacher. A lot of it helps tangentially, but most– and I’m not putting it down – has been for student use, or for communication between parents and teachers, or for administrative purposes, like grading or attendance.  When you get right down to it, few things can actually be called tools for teachers. The main exceptions are probably email and word processors, and everybody has those.  But you see my point: If they were doctors or journalists or electricians, they would have new tools and a new kind of tool belt to carry around!  While teachers have a lot more software and hardware, interactive whiteboards for example, some of it makes teachers’ lives harder. Our focus is to support the work of teachers.

Victor: Could you share an anecdote that our readers would find interesting?

Dan: The most interesting thing is being a long-time player in the game. As I watch all of the really exciting things being done in education, many by young people, it’s kind of fun to be an “adult” in the room. It’s wonderful to see the energy of people with new inventions and their excitement about the changes that are taking place. The reverse is sort of exciting too, when I can share the lessons I’ve learned over the years with the new people coming into the industry and my view of what things might be improved.  I like being in that position.

Victor: Anything else?

Dan: EducAide is in a city called Vallejo in California. It’s north of Silicon Valley and not exactly a high-tech mecca, but we’re going to try to turn it into one if we can. It’s actually a great location, and we hope our company will get some recognition and some other small startups and high-tech companies will come our way.

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2 Responses to Interview | Dan Levin Has Answers in His Problem-Attic

  1. Dave Moore says:

    Dan knows of what he speaks. My hope is that his experience and collection can be connected with the applications of new startups; there is no reason to throw out so much that has been developed over time (and works). I know he is working on it.

    • John Awunganyi says:

      This is an amazing collections of problems, and I use it quite a lot – every week- and the students and parents like it. It is so easy to make a quiz or test in under 10 minutes, and I will pay to have a this program available to me – but it is FREE! What gift to educators, parents and students.

      The New York Regent questions in mathematics is organized according to topics – Algebra 1, Geometry, etc, can you do the same for other States Assessments, or at least group it into Elementary, Middle and High Schools. I know it is going to cost time and money and many teachers will be glad to make a small monthly contribution for this effort. This will greatly cut down the time when looking up topics to cull problems for a quick Quiz, test or sponge activity.

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