Easy as eChalk

Helping teachers focus on what’s really important.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Daniel Watts CEO eChalkThe idea came to Daniel Watts when he was teaching: his frustration around sharing materials with students and communicating with parents had hit a tipping point. “I remember battling with the rexograph machine early in the morning before class, making handouts for the day and having just a few brief moments at parent-teacher night to talk with each parent about their child’s performance,” says Daniel (pictured). “I kept thinking there must be an easier and much more effective way to provide students with class materials, schedules, and information, and a way to keep parents up-to-speed throughout the semester, rather than just once at the end of the term. What if it was easy to hand things out, kids always had access to key materials and parents could keep up with what was happening in class every day?” Daniel thought there must be a way to use the Internet to do all these things, and so with Torrance Robinson, Daniel started eChalk. Here’s more about it, what genuinely gets Daniel excited about education these days, and where he sees it all headed.

Victor: What’s in the name?

eChalk logoDaniel: Torrance Robinson, our co-founder, came up with the name. Chalk was the old method of communicating in the classroom. eChalk is the new way.

Victor: Got an elevator pitch?

Daniel: eChalk is an online communications and instruction management system for K-12 schools. Administrators and educators can easily collaborate with colleagues, connect with parents and students, and share critical school and class information, such as assignments, lesson plans, class activities and materials; homework; sports, club and schoolwide calendars; and announcements. The patent for the system is held by the group of people who created the original design 13 years ago: Torrance Robinson, Al Garcia, Jose Garcia, Charlene Noll and I, all of whom are still with the company.

Victor: What’s it do and what are some benefits?

eChalk differentDaniel: eChalk enables schools to transform teaching and learning. Teachers can provide differentiated materials and exercises for their students, experiment with “flipping” the classroom by sharing lectures through eChalk and switching classwork to projects and coaching, connect 1:1 or BYOT devices on one common platform, interact directly with students and parents outside the classroom, improve workflow, and enable students to work in groups online in a safe environment.

Victor: How are you different?  

Daniel: Some of our differentiators include:

Integration. You won’t have to choose between Google, Office 365 or any of the myriad systems schools and districts are using right now. Our open architecture approach means that you enjoy single sign-on access to your preferred applications for email and collaboration. eChalk’s intuitive point-and-click navigation allows users to move between eChalk’s personalized learning environment and Gmail, Google Docs, Office 365 and other cloud-based applications.

Picture 6Support and service. We think of ourselves as your long-term partner, and we work to further your strategic objectives and support your entire community. Project management, training, tech support – that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We also help you make the most of your SIS and all of those back-end systems by delivering the right data to the right people at the right time.

Depth of application. We focus on classroom, teacher and student workflow, and include a strong emphasis on parent engagement.

Victor: When was your first release? How have things changed since then?

Daniel: Our first release was in early 2000, and we are now about to release Version 14 this summer. The application has developed significantly over the years, always with massive input from teachers and students in eChalk school districts. We are very excited about this year’s release, which will entirely transform the user experience, making it natively mobile, radically reducing clicks, and enabling teachers and students to personalize their experience.

Victor: Where did eChalk originate and where can you get it now?

Daniel: eChalk originated in New York City, where we are still located. You can start using eChalk easily by giving us a call. eChalk is easy to set up for new customers—it can be up and running in just a few weeks. Our website (www.echalk.com) includes a product demo, along with product information and customer stories. Prospective users can email us at info@echalk.com or call us at 800-809-3349.

Victor: Let’s talk costs and options.

Daniel: The solution includes flexibility, and there are options to meet different needs at different price points. The cost of the system depends on school and district size.

Victor: Fair enough; got examples of eChalk in action? 

eChalk in actionDaniel: South Berwyn School District 100 is doing an amazing job supporting the transition to Common Core with eChalk’s Lesson Planner. This gives teachers more structured and guided planning, the opportunity to more easily reach all levels of learners and collaborate with other teachers, and an overall positive change in teaching across the district.

Victor: Got any numbers?

Daniel: Shortly after implementation, the teachers already had 18,000 lessons stored for use throughout the district. Atlantic City School District is another local district that has mandated the use of Lesson Planner. Their teachers submit plans weekly. They use various templates across subjects, departments and grades. Corpus Christi School District has been with eChalk since 2007, and the solution has been critical for parent engagement. Upon implementation, Scott Elliff, Corpus Christi ISD Superintendent of Schools said, “eChalk will greatly expand our capacity to engage parents as partners. Our stakeholders expect information about our schools to be readily available, and eChalk will help us meet that expectation.”

Victor: That’s really great feedback. On to broader themes: what are your thoughts on education these days?

Daniel: I am genuinely excited about a number of things I see happening currently in K-12 education:

1. Affordable Technology. Technology has become inexpensive enough and ubiquitous enough that educators now have the opportunity to use it to have a truly transformative impact on teaching and learning. After years of promise, I finally see technology making a measurable difference.

2. The Common Core. Though I recognize that implementing the Common Core State Standards is a huge challenge, I am excited by the increased rigor and the focus on reasoning and critical thinking.

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

Daniel: I am a parent of two young kids (Tatiana, one-and-a-half and Luca, three-and-a-half), so I think a lot about what their educational experience is going to be. When they start going to school, I know I will want to be very involved, to know what material was covered and what their assignments are, without being a burden on the teacher. With eChalk, that will be easy.

Victor: Very nice. That said, what’s your outlook on the future of education?

eChalk future of educationDaniel: That is a big question. I’ve had the good fortune of working with inspiring people in schools and districts around the country for the past 14 years. One thing I’ve learned is that the challenges these educators face, the social, economic, and educational backgrounds of their students, and the structure and leadership of the districts they work in are so different that it is difficult for me to generalize about things like “the future of education.” That having been said, two (nearly) universal phenomena (in the U.S.)—the move toward more rigorous and desirable definitions of what we want students to learn and be able to do (the Common Core) and the spread of relatively inexpensive technology to allow for improved content, communication and differentiation—both seem to me to have potentially fundamental positive impact on students now entering school, like Luca and Tatiana.

Victor: Got any quirky stories from around the office or in your experiences?

Daniel: I gave an interview with the Boston Globe in the early 2000’s, and the interviewer asked me something like, “Why are investors currently so interested in the K-12 education space?” What I meant to say was, “I think investors see a lot of growth, a large market and potential for successful business models, so they have crowded into this market lately.” Unfortunately, I paraphrased and said, “K-12 is a hot sector right now. Students are ‘hot.’” What was published in the Boston Globe was, “eChalk Founder Daniel Watts says, ‘Students are hot.’” My co-workers posted the article above my desk and made the rule: No live interviews for Daniel.

Victor: Any last thoughts in this interview to impart to our loyal readers?

Daniel: eChalk is a foundation that makes many major initiatives to transform teaching and learning successful, whether the initiative is a 1:1 program, an effort to increase parent involvement, implementation of the Common Core or engaging students more actively in their own learning.

Victor Rivero is the editor in chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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