Smart Data for Schools

A rich and bold perspective from the founder of one of the original edtech companies.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Harvey Hughes of SEAS EducationIn an environment of compliance and accountability, districts require tools for tracking individual student achievement. A leader in education plan management software for schools, SEAS Education has been around since 1995 and helped thousands of school districts achieve goals of fidelity, compliance, accountability, collaboration, achievement, and positive student outcomes. For example, SEAS Achieve transforms a district’s paper forms and disparate processes into a unified, intuitive, interactive digital environment. Monitoring and reporting upon multiple student plan types provides educators with critical new insights while also bolstering a

You would tell a story of someone who made a positive impact in your life. Someone who, instead of teaching you a subject, may have just taught you how to learn.

district’s resource efficiency. The company’s education software products and services are designed to save teachers and administrators time as they juggle the management of necessary paperwork with devoting ample time to their students. The “secret” to their success is their team’s ability to listen to the anxieties and to discern the needs of those on the front lines of our educational system. As founder Harvey Hughes has long told teachers and administrators, “You guys built this. We just listened.” An innovative technology company dedicated to solving problems in education, the company’s original product was born out of the need for school districts to manage the deluge of paperwork required by the new Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Today, over 120 CAS associates serve both special education and general education nationwide from offices in eleven states. In this lively discussion, Harvey (who himself has had a colorful career with experiences ranging from Walmart to the International Space Station) ponders both the details and the broader picture. Enjoy!

Victor: There’s a lot of activity in mobile. There’s a lot of smartphones in students hands. What are the opportunities? What are the caveats? What’s next in this area?

Harvey: In education the issue of mobilization is about timely tracking and reporting of on-demand measurements. Just in time information can be delivered immediately to keep the learning cycle moving. For our At-Risk and Special populations, such as, Behavior RTI students, the classroom teacher can note a student’s behavior on their ‘daily report card’ in real-time. That same information can reside on the student’s and parent’s smartphone, giving them immediate feedback.

There are numerous service providers (speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, etc.) who can use a mobile device to quickly log their services no matter where they are delivering their service (in the library, in the gen ed classroom, etc.). With cloud integration, manual paperwork is radically reduced.

In the general education space, a teacher can conduct an online skills assessment for a struggling learner and then quickly push specialized content to the student’s mobile device. The content can also be sent to the parent for homework activities.

Mobilization also helps both students and teachers achieve healthy time and resource management. The caveat is that mobile devices need to be accessible in both the school and at home. We’re also excited and looking in to the coming Apple Watch. This device can assist in providing a personalized educational dashboard for students and even help with tasks such as monitoring a student’s vitals for health care.

The future will be about distributed learning – meaning that maybe students don’t come to class every day but rather the assignment is online. Now students get sick, and they miss a day. In the future they will be able to complete assignments online and not miss a beat. I think higher education is taking a lead in this area but general education is catching up quickly.

Victor: You’ve been providing educational planning applications for a myriad of school districts for 18 years now – you’ve seen much change – could you touch on a few milestone highlights and catch us up to present time?

Harvey: When we started 18 years ago it was about building electronic portfolios for just the special needs students – roughly 12-14% of the overall population. And even then it was all about compliance to federal regulations. Meaning, “was the student disability properly identified and placed in the correct subgroup for individualized help?” Technology was extremely limited and grossly inadequate to perform the complicated processes of IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. Back then the SEAS program was a PC based system and often shared between multiple teachers in a building. Collaborative work and accurate reporting was extremely difficult.

Once technology improved from PC based systems to Wide Area Networks (WAN) then to the Web (Cloud as we call it now) and application development technology improved, the industry exploded with innovation, with taking concept and ideas from the design boards, to prototypes, to management tools much more quickly. It was a very exciting time to take the educator’s comments of “what if we could do this” to “You mean like this?” The technology maturation process during this time probably had as much benefit to the education industry as any other I know. So many people where affected by having immediate access to an effective education model of collaboration, real-time data collection and accountability reporting. The first transition was to more of a compliance model of “did we identify the student that needs extra help” to an education accountability model of “are the identified students showing progress?” Recent advances in technology have allowed the world to ask the question “shouldn’t every child have individualized learning plan designed to their individualized skills and preference for learning?” — and so that is the overall shift in the last 18 years. As technology matured over these years, it became evident that technology can empower this and many other major transitions.

Victor: What formative experiences in your own life helped you arrive to where you are now? Why is the timing right for what you are doing?

Harvey: As far as my experience that helped form a passion for education as an industry – I am the product of a small town, caring school system, where every student mattered and was nurtured to be all they can be. I remember before “college and career readiness” was a standard term being coached and encouraged by my counselor to go to college.

My school even went so far as to provide me with jobs to support myself. All the while they instilled in me the belief that I could pursue my wildest dreams. Now I have the opportunity with SEAS to pay it forward. It is very rewarding to be able to help educators become more effective in helping other students.

As far as my experience that helped form a passion for technology in education – Looking back it’s interesting to think that SEAS is one of the original edtech companies, but looking ahead we struggle like every edtech company to continue to be relevant to the growing needs of educators – hopefully making their lives easier and more effective. Nimble advancement in technology is the only way we can keep up the pace.

We struggle like every edtech company to continue to be relevant to the growing needs of educators … Nimble advancement in technology is the only way we can keep up the pace.

Why is the timing right? Education is one of the last frontiers for technology opportunities. In that, banks have built up an industry and consolidated, same with the cellular business. Education is one of the coolest industries for technology companies, both startups and mature companies, because I am not sure this industry will ever completely consolidate or stop trying to improve, define, and deliver a quality education to every student. Educators have a natural desire to nurture and help students achieve more. So as long as education models evolve so will there be the need for evolving technology companies to assist.

Victor: What lessons from NASA and the International Space Station do you carry with you that influence your current work? What are those/that lesson(s) and how do they inform what you’re doing now?

Harvey: NASA has lofty goals for science and technology and they filled the room with people who thought in terms of “Yes it can be done”. Basically my time with NASA taught me to be a problem solver. Some basic concepts are: introduce the elements of time and money at the end of the equation, their are no wrong answers or bad ideas in “brainstorming”, bring passion to the problem but not emotion, don’t have an ego and don’t be intimidated working with a smart team because everyone is important in collaboration.

These are exactly the concepts we bring to our design teams at SEAS. No one person knew exactly how we were going to solve our technical challenges when we got started!

Victor: What anecdote or story might you relate concerning the origin of SEAS? Was it gradual, or one fine day? How did it unfold? What was your light bulb moment – if there was one?

Harvey: One day I was finishing up a programming project for a large district in Arkansas, while giving the superintendent the final status report, he asked me what my next project was going to be. I remember telling him that I wanted to focus on a worthwhile problem, something that could help a lot of people and something I would be passionate about. He said great, but before you go on your life’s journey would you help me do one more project? He said “talk to my Special Ed department, they have issues I fully do not understand.” I met with the team in March of 1996 and they explained the issues with IDEA compliance and reauthorization. The Special Education director said while this is a problem they have, if I can solve it, every teacher in the country will need to use it. That was the “Aha” moment, and since that day I have worked on nothing else.

Victor: Let’s talk about your product/service and partnership with Metova. What is your product and how does it work? Who is it for and what can it ultimately do for students and educators?

Harvey: Originally SEAS developed software to help educators deal with compliance and accountability for our special needs population, specifically in the aftermath of the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act of 1990. With the transition to Results-Driven Accountability (RDA) for all student achievement, SEAS has evolved in to an electronic Individualized Learning Plan (ILP) ranging from Special Needs populations to Gifted and Talented, from birth to graduation, known as College and Career Readiness. SEAS basically organizes all the moving parts around academic and behavior improvement plans by tapping in to all Assessment data to identify areas of academic weakness, and then creating an intervention plans with goals, objectives and interventions aligned to grade level expectations. Then SEAS organizes intervention resources such as content, supplemental workbooks and tutorial software aligned to the target area of need. Also, SEAS helps teachers implement intervention strategies by setting up a scope, frequency and duration of intervention, thus measuring effectiveness and progress of the intervention resource, instruction and student’s achievement.

To summarize, SEAS helps educators implement and engage technology, allowing them to be more effective in teaching to the individual student. The reason SEAS is widely used among educators is because it is the only type of system in education that collects, reports, analyzes and enables corrective action at the heart of the instruction, between the teacher-student relationship at classroom level.

SEAS suite of products tailors to several specific educational needs:

  • SEAS Achieve supports all school district education plan types
  • SEAS Medicaid provides advanced Medicaid reporting services
  • SEAS Class helps teachers identify student skills or functional level of academic performance
  • SEAS SmartEval enables educators to create evaluation and assessment reports
  • SEAS University is a professional development platform for online delivery of training and certification
  • SEAS AvaTalker for iPad helps nonverbal children communicate through pictures

It’s important to always look outside of our internal capabilities. In doing that we have discovered some impressive technologies – and Metova offered these. We enjoyed working with Metova so much we created a formal partnership of collaboration, project management and software development. They bring insight into the world of mobilization and distributive technology. Together we are challenging the possibilities of innovative technology to benefit students and teachers. Our passion is to help K-12 educators meet the individual needs of all students, by leveraging on demand technology in real-time.

Victor: More broadly, what are your thoughts on technology in education these days?

Harvey: Technology is allowing the science and art of education to come alive in ways we only dreamed of many years ago. Consider this point of view, there is a science to the education model of “grade level expectation” basically when subjects are introduced and at what age students can learn these concepts. For example, scientific research has shown that the mathematical building blocks of Algebra such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are best introduced around 5th, 6th and 7th grades to prepare for Algebra introduced in the curriculum around 8th grade. Algebra is basically the correlation of these concepts under one subject. I am convinced that we all struggle and fall behind in Algebra. Maybe we only fall behind a day, a week or a semester but the Art of education is to know individually who is behind, where they are behind and how to catch them up quickly to the pace of the class curriculum. By introducing the correct technology designed to Assess where an individual student’s skills are deficient, build a Plan with interventions aligned to the exact grade level content or strand of learning, for example 6th grade numerations, then correlate the lesson plan with interventions such as tutorial software to Teach that concept and bring the student back to the pace of the class all before their next class meets. I call this intervention model the “APT” Model (Assess, Plan, Teach). That is the purpose and the challenge of education technology, to help educators be more effective in helping every student reach their potential at the exact moment they fall behind. Educators have an impossible task of dealing with all the compliance and accountability issues of today and technology has to be innovative to help with this challenge.

Victor: Even more broadly speaking, what are your thoughts on the state of education today?

Harvey: Our society has evolved to where everything is real-time. We want information immediately, we want it to be accurate and we want to make quick and decisive decisions. We struggle to strike a balance between our rights and responsibilities. I think education is

We want information immediately, we want it to be accurate and we want to make quick and decisive decisions. 

finding itself with the same transitional concerns as our society. I think education over the last 20 years has moved from a 80/20 rule of teaching to 80% of the student and finding a way to deal with the 20% of At-Risk students, to a model of teaching to each student based on their individual skills and preference for learning.

Education has moved from a goal of graduation percentages to the goal of graduating every student prepared for college or career. I think education is taking a serious concern and appropriate steps to help guarantee a safe environment with a focus on nondiscrimination and anti-bullying initiatives. I think when you add up all the moving parts of compliance, accountability, safety, security, rights, responsibilities, individualized progress, open classroom, Flipping Classroom, large classrooms, online classes, collaborative learning, assessment and end-of-course exams just to name a few of the anxieties, it can seem overwhelming and unmanageable.

On a positive note, I have never seen so many people committed and empowered to find a way to be more effective, through outreach programs, online learning, after school programs, teaching styles focused on academic results and teachers willing to change and adopt to new ways of reaching and engaging students. Often times these new strategies include the technology that is in the student’s hands – smartphones. Instead of starting the class by saying, “turn off your phones and be quiet” they are reaching the students by saying “turn on your phones, and collaborate with your neighbor!”

Education is adapting to teach strategies and lesson plans to the lifestyle of the student. By being proactive and reaching students where their minds are already – in their technology devices – education is eliminating any and every excuse why a student cannot learn at their individual abilities and style. Which is super cool, especially when I am in the business of making that model work better with technology. If you are over 30 years old, just imagine what your education experience would have been like if you had immediate access to all the information in the world in the palm of your hands! Why would we still be teaching from chapter 5, section 2 of the 7th grade math book right after a big lunch and 45 minutes of dodge ball on the playground?

Victor: Any advice for those in and around education out there these days?

Harvey: A clinical definition of public education might be, to transfer knowledge in a safe and nurturing environment. Yet if I ask you who was your favorite teacher I bet you would stop, think and start smiling. You would tell a story of someone who made a positive impact in your life. Someone who, instead of teaching you a subject, may have just taught you how to learn. Maybe more of a mentor than a teacher. So, if for the vast majority of us school was more than a place to learn but a place to develop, then we should all have a natural desire to pay it forward and help with our talents.

Victor: Any other words of wisdom, parting thoughts about mobile potential, and where the world is going in the next few years?

Harvey: With the advancement of software and hardware technology, everything we do will be mobilized. My tablet has replaced my PC, my smartphone has replaced my land line. The next transition will be to utilize this technology to connect and communicate silo’ed data more efficiently. Data collaboration and Data Analytics for better Data-driven decisions or what I like to call Smart Data. The phrase ‘data-driven decision making’ has been around for a long time but with the advancement of smarter analytic tools, this area of technology will grow rapidly. We have access to more data today, we can tie it together easier and we can add a layer of “what if” statements to the equation and predict the outcomes. This is a very exciting area for technology and one we are working heavily in education. Since we are in the data collection business and tracking student achievement metrics such as successful intervention content, successful teaching strategies and student progress, we can start utilizing data analytics to help prescribe strategies that work best on a local, state and national level. All industries will benefit from smarter data.

Victor: Anything we missed that you’d like to address here?

Harvey: The better education can harness the power of social media, the more effective the Individualized Learning Plan model will be. Educators have a natural desire to nurture, share and care for any struggling learner. The best part of social media is they can collaborate in a world network.

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

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