Trends | Venture Capitalists and EdTech

CREDIT youngStartUp ventures imageMore than 500 VCs, corporate VCs, angel investors, investment bankers and CEOs of early stage and emerging growth companies will soon gather at the prestigious New England Venture Summit being held on December 9th, 2015 at the Hilton in Boston Dedham. Whether you’re a startup seeking capital and exposure, or an investor seeking new deals, The New England Venture Summit presented by youngStartup Ventures – is one event you won’t want to miss. A highly productive full-day venture conference, the summit is dedicated to showcasing VCs, Corporate VCs and angel investors committed to funding early stage and emerging companies. Featuring a distinguished line up of more than 80 Investors as speakers and judges, there will be presentations by more than 80 companies seeking funding, and high-level networking opportunities. EdTech Digest is pleased to announce its sponsorship and invite you to attend. Special discount. Use discount code “edtechdigest” and receive $100 off the current rate. A partial list of VCs confirmed to speak can be seen here. To register now and receive the special discount use the following link and enter discount code “edtechdigest” by December 25th at midnight:  This conference will be attended by the best people in the industry. Register early to avoid disappointment.

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Happy Learners

Discovering the secret ingredient for student motivation.

GUEST COLUMN | by Vinod Lobo

CREDIT Learning Upgrade studentsWhat motivates a student to spend more than 20 hours completing a rigorous online curriculum both inside and outside of class? Teachers strive to motivate students, but how can they use technology to further motive even the hardest to reach students to not only complete rigorous work, but do it in a way that students approach the work with joy and a sense of accomplishment?

I found an unexpected answer to these questions during my recent visit to a school not unlike many others across the country, one with a high at-risk student population that

Its educators and leadership created a rare, elusive, almost magical atmosphere where students are self-motivated to learn with technology.

struggled to motivate these kids to own their learning and enjoy the fruits of their labors. The students there made significant gains within one school year using an online supplementary program in math and English. The secret ingredient to this school’s approach surprised me: igniting a joy for learning!

Field trip

The school I visited was an urban middle school in San Diego where 88 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, 98 percent minority, and 42 percent are English learners. At the end of this past school year, I was invited to join 140 students to celebrate the past year’s accomplishments over pizza.

To kick off the celebration, an English Language Learner and recent immigrant was awarded the grand prize of a tablet computer for her achievements. Tears filled her eyes as she accepted the award, and I will never forget the look of accomplishment and self worth on her face. This one student had spent more than 40 hours completing several online courses at home – on her own time, not just completing them, but also mastering each concept along the way. This student recognized that she had earned this herself, moving step-by-step to climb the ladder of lessons until all were completed. She was no longer a lost new arrival, but rather, a student well on the road to academic success.

As the rest of the recipients were announced, students clapped in between bites of pizza. I thought to myself, all this work for pizza?

A reason to celebrate

Another student had transferred to the school just two months before the party. With a solid plan for success, he used a school-provided netbook at home, working every evening and over weekends so he could catch up with his classmates and join the party. While we walked to his class, student accolades and accomplishments covered the walls. He pointed excitedly to his — proof that he had not only completed the course, but also achieved greater than 95 percent proficiency in each of the math and ELA lessons that were completed.

Suddenly, other students crowded around, excited to share their successes with me —and it hit me: the excitement wasn’t about pizza — these students were proud of what they had done, of what they had learned, and accomplished.

A sixth-grade student completed 6th, 7th, and 8th grade courses despite starting sixth grade below grade level and behind his peers. Through a combination of in-class, after school, and at-home time, this student had completed 60 lessons to over 95 percent proficiency, with roughly 25 hours time-on-task per grade level course to earn his spot at the party. Through a combination of the right amount of support and encouragement from teachers, involvement from school leaders, and completing lessons (from Learning Upgrade) that are chock-full of music, games, song and videos (no more drill and kill!) students surpassed all expectations. They were motivated!

CREDIT Learning UpgradeUnlocking the joy of learning

At that point, I realized that this school was special. Its educators and leadership created a rare, elusive, almost magical atmosphere where students are self-motivated to learn with technology. This school cracked the code on harnessing the joy of learning to motivate their students!

It wasn’t a few slices of pizza they were after. It was recognition, the feeling of achievement and accomplishment, a boost in self-confidence, and the fact that they seized the opportunity to prove that they can “do it”.

For some, this may have been the first time in their lives that they felt confident enough to engage in their learning, let alone succeed. This was written all over the faces of students at the party.

Support from the top

The success at this school started with leadership. In this case, the vice-principal spearheaded the initiative, and encouraged a group of teachers to move forward with their plans to motivate students to achieve greatness. He visited every classroom giving each student the chance to share what he or she was doing and brag about progress being made. Because of his position, students and teachers took his message to heart. He offered praise and reminded every student of the goal, their success, and the prize that awaited them. He took the time to show he cared.

This hands-on approach touched every student in the school with a personal and exciting message: when you achieve this goal, you will be rewarded and recognized for your accomplishments.

Inspiring teachers make motivated students

My visit to these classrooms, talking with students, and a number of teachers was inspirational, to say the least. Teachers made a point to have daily conversations with students about progress, encouraged them to finish, provided support when needed, showed on-screen reports using classroom projectors, and proudly displayed the gold certificates from each student on classroom walls. They created an atmosphere where academic success was encouraged, rewarded and cool!

On the day of the party, these teachers walked proudly into the library with their students. They were a team, working together, like a coach and players going up to claim their hard-earned trophy.

Enjoy motivating and instilling a joy for learning in your students

It takes work by leadership and educators alike to create the joy of learning in students using a tech-based curriculum. The reward is the magic atmosphere where students are motivated to complete rigorous individualized lessons on their own. The smile on the face of a student as he or she shares recent accomplishments truly says it all. Every student can be motivated to achieve great things by adding some joy to their world of learning.

Vinod Lobo is the founder and CEO of Learning Upgrade, which publishes online courses to teach math and reading through songs, video, and games. In 1998, he brought together educators, musicians, artists and programmers to produce innovative, engaging lessons designed to support struggling students in reading and math. Through the incorporation of song, video, games and educational research, Learning Upgrade has helped over 1 million students find a new path to learning success. Follow him @learningupgrade

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A Terrific Friend

How technology can inspire a joy of reading.

by Victor Rivero

CREDIT myONIn The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says a good book is one that, when you’re done reading it, “you wish the author … was a terrific friend of yours, and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

That’s an apt description of the pleasure we get from discovering a good book. There’s nothing quite like the joy of connecting deeply with a story: Losing yourself in the plot or the characters, or feeling like you’ve been transported to a different time or place.

Reading sparks the imagination. It opens up entirely new and different worlds for students. And it’s a gateway to success not just in school, but in life as well.

Developing a personal connection to a book, an author, a character, or a series can awaken the joy of reading for a child—and technology can help make that connection for students.

Reading nourishes the spirit and calms the mind, and it’s a respite from the hectic pace that life throws at us. Technology is a key contributor to this frantic pace, but ironically, technology also makes reading more accessible to students.

A key challenge for educators is helping students find the books that inspire them, books that mark the perfect intersection of a child’s interests and abilities. Technology can help with this task. It also makes books more available to students, giving them thousands of titles to choose from with just a few taps on a computer screen—and the kinds of text supports that can open doors for struggling readers.

Consider the example of two young sisters: Malia, age 8, and Maya, age 4 (pictured, above).

Although Malia was a good student, she didn’t really enjoy reading. “I wouldn’t call her a reluctant reader, but she only read if she had to,” says her mother, Amy.

But that all changed when she began reading in a personalized literacy environment (see myON) which recommends appropriate titles for students based on their personal interests and reading level.

Malia loves sports, and through this digital reading environment, she discovered the “Girl Sports” series of books by Jake Maddox. According to Amy, these short chapter books completely captivated her—and one book in particular, Storm Surfer, inspired her to take up surfing.

“She started surfing last year, and now she is surfing for the Western Surfing Association (and is) on tour for their U10 team,” Amy says.

Finding books that she was passionate about has unlocked the joy of reading for Malia, Amy says, and “that has spiraled into her wanting to explore other series.” She is now reading everything from comic books to nonfiction books about science and engineering.

For Maya, who is just learning to read, an interactive digital platform is a perfect match for her natural curiosity.

“She loves that she is able to hear the words spoken aloud and can watch as they are highlighted,” Amy says. And this level of engagement is instilling a joy of reading in Maya at a very young age.

Maya traces the words on the screen with her finger as she listens to her favorite books, which include books about the Disney movie Frozen and anything that has to do with singing.

“She’s interacting, laughing, smiling, and enjoying it,” Amy says. “She’ll even ask if she can have her device to read when we’re at a surfing contest or a soccer event. We bought an inexpensive Android device for her, so if it breaks, that’s okay—and every night we download a few of her favorite books to the device. She knows how to access them, and we do literally read them wherever we go.”

In The Catcher in the Rye, there is more to Holden Caulfield’s quote. After describing how he feels when he has read a good book, he adds: “That doesn’t happen much, though.”

During his own school experience, Holden hasn’t been introduced to many books that have inspired him. But, because of personal literacy tools, it’s a very different story for students like Maya and Malia.

Developing a personal connection to a book, an author, a character, or a series can awaken the joy of reading for a child—and technology can help make that connection for students, starting them on a lifetime journey of discovery and reflection.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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Good Marks for TenMarks

Now an Amazon company, their GM says they’re still an edtech startup at heart.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Rohit AgarwalRohit Agarwal spent his early childhood years in India, where math is a strong focus of education. “I realized the value of a strong foundation in math, and tutored students in math through my graduate school years to pay for school,” he recalls. He also realized that students who don’t have a strong math foundation by middle school “are more likely to accept that ‘math isn’t for me’ by the time they get to high school,” he says, “severely limiting their career options.” Rohit also realized that “one of the challenges was that students wanted to get math, but weren’t comfortable asking for help—so why not create something where they could learn using hints and videos, just when they realize they need the help while working on problems.” It’s been several years now since he embarked upon an adventure to make math more meaningful for all students. “TenMarks has had an amazing journey over the past six years with numerous milestones.” In this EdTech Digest second EdTech Digest interview, a lot has happened since we first chatted with Rohit. Here, he talks about iterations, adaptive learning, the startup mindset, working with a larger company, and in what state he thinks education is today. 

We learned to grow in a methodical and meaningful way, and also learned how and when to double-down on areas of strength.

Could you briefly walk us through some of the milestones you are referring to?

Rohit: First, getting validation from our customers that the idea of real-time feedback and embedded learning – via an adaptive teaching method was positive and helpful—teachers told us it worked with their students and resulted in improved outcomes and increased passion for math. The response from our customers—students, parents and teachers—helped us to know we were on the right path.

Next, we adopted a “freemium” model in 2010, which was new to ed-tech at the time. Opening it up so that any teacher in the country could use TenMarks free, got the program be adopted by tens of thousands of teachers across the country.

Finally, in 2013, Amazon acquired TenMarks, which validated both our efficacy and go to market approach to serving educators and families. We knew we were on the right track with the concept of personalized learning and the depth and rigor of the new curriculum. The Amazon acquisition allowed us to grow at a pace that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Victor: How have your own schooling and/career highlights informed your current approach?

Rohit: This is a great question and a couple things come to mind right away. When I was in graduate school I tutored young adults in math, and I saw a major deficit in the foundations of their math education. I realized there was a large gap between the comprehension high schoolers graduate with and what is expected of them in college.

From a career standpoint – I spent more than 20 years in the technology industry. I learned that there are several tech concepts that could be applied to education. These include using video in the classroom to reinforce instruction, and employing algorithms to plan and personalize a student’s coursework.

The most important lesson I’ve learned, though, is that technology is the catalyst for change in any industry. But within the ed-tech space, new technological advances need to complement educators, and help them keep students engaged. TenMarks is successful not just because it helps students, but because it gives great teachers the tools to do what they do best.

Victor: Could you tell me about the Summer Math Program – it’s history, value, benefits, and current results?

CREDIT TenMarksRohit: The TenMarks Summer Math Program is an adaptive online program that provides students with both an upfront assessment and personalized lessons that are tuned to their individual needs. The program helps students their math skills sharp over the summer to help reverse learning loss. From day one of TenMarks, we understood that parents were a key part of the education lifecycle, so we listened to them very closely. Many parents said their children had summer reading lists, but none had work to keep their math skills sharp – and evidence showed they students were losing 3 months of math learning during that break.

With that insight, we used our algorithms to create the first iteration of our program and charged families $39 for the summer, which was very successful – parents saw immense value. This is another area where the Amazon acquisition was helpful for us, as we were able to start offering it free to families across the country, to have a national impact that is orders of magnitude greater.

Hundreds of thousands of students have used the summer program so far, and last year participants showed an average 11 percent increase in scores from grade level assessments conducted at the beginning of the program. This is a huge improvement in such a short period of time, especially since students will otherwise lose roughly two to three months of grade level equivalency during the break.

Victor: Why are summer math programs so essential these days?

Rohit: These programs are much more important than they were in the past because we now realize that math is core to a student’s success—math of any kind, any practice—is beneficial to students. A study by the National Math and Science Institute states, “…jobs in computer systems design and related services, a field dependent on high-level math and problem-solving skills, are projected to grow 45 percent between 2008 and 2018.” Even if students don’t go into computer science, the odds that their jobs will require an advanced level of math proficiency is much higher than in past generations.

Additionally, with math curriculums across the country changing to the new standards. Today’s math curriculum is much more conceptual than ever before. Students aren’t simply asked to solve a problem; they’re asked to understand the concept behind the problem. The TenMarks summer program helps students hone these conceptual reasoning skills.

Finally, summer math programs in general help students and teachers begin the new school year with confidence. Students won’t stress about forgetting last year’s concepts, and teachers don’t have to spend weeks reinforcing previous lessons.

Victor: Are there any updates to the TenMarks Summer Math Program since we last spoke?

CREDIT TenMarks imageRohit: 2014 was a year of growth for TenMarks, and we have had a few changes.

First, the depth and rigor of the content has improved and every line of content on TenMarks is less than 3 years old to ensure that when a student works on a program, that learning is aligned to the new curriculum standards.

We also launched a new student engagement model, which our customers really enjoyed. Students can now create their own persona, earn points and badges, and compete with other students. That little bit of competition really motivates and incentivizes students.

And from a technology perspective, as of six months ago, TenMarks is now available on the various device operating systems – iOS, Android and Fire OS.

Victor: How does the company still carry through on that same entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that kept it growing and a success in its earlier days?

Rohit: That’s a great question. What people might not realize about Amazon is that is truly is one of the most entrepreneurial and innovative companies today. It may be a huge business, but culturally it functions like a startup. TenMarks fits nicely with what Amazon has always been about: thinking big, innovating and simplifying, while delivering results for our customers.

Amazon has allowed TenMarks to remain independent, which is great because we get to maintain our sense of an aggressive startup while benefitting from Amazon’s resources. We have greatly extended our reach, revenue and team in the past 18 months.

I should also note that we have learned a lot from Amazon’s culture. We learned to grow in a methodical and meaningful way, and also learned how and when to double-down on areas of strength. Additionally, we’re able to pursue goals that were previously outside our grasp, looking at the future to reach students in different ways—whether through device innovations like Echo or Kindle Direct Publishing or others.

Victor: Since being acquired in 2013, what has changed at the company since the deal?

Rohit: A number of things changed in the 20 months since the acquisition. The core TenMarks team is the same, but we’ve also been able to add some very talented new teams. Also, the TenMarks vision has gotten a lot bigger – with Amazon, we’ve taken on greater challenges and aimed higher than we ever would have as a startup. Everything we’re doing has accelerated beyond anything we could imagine. For example, a new TenMarks platform called Math Teach, web-based professional development and instructional resource for teachers in grades 1 to 8, launched within months of the acquisition. Without Amazon it would have taken much longer to get it to market.

Victor: What is your take on the state of education today?

Rohit: I don’t have a large overall comment on the state of education today, but I will say that it is the most exciting time to be a part of education in modern history. We’re in the middle of a period with core changes to both curriculums and access to technologies in the classroom. We’re seeing that the one-size-fits-all education model is no longer effective. Instead of teachers simply broadcasting their knowledge, we’re seeing more personalized learning for every child. This would be impossible, or at least very challenging, without advancements in education technology. Teachers can use unique ways and resources to change students’ lives; all helped by the role technology plays in the classroom.

I will say that it is the most exciting time to be a part of education in modern history. We’re in the middle of a period with core changes to both curriculums and access to technologies in the classroom.

We’re building a generation of students that not only will be better learners, but they will also become life-long learners because of the blend of education with technology.

Victor: Any words of wisdom for educators, parents, administrators, or others in an around edtech?

Rohit: Stay open and stay adaptive. Educators, administrators and parents realize that education technology is ever-changing. Some concepts will work and some won’t, but if we stay nimble and iterative and open to new ideas, we’ll see that things can be done differently to benefit our students.

Victor Rivero is the editor in chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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Students, Phones and Apps They Will Really Use

The chief product officer at Cengage Learning discusses an effective new learning app.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Jim Donohue CengageJim Donohue oversees the development, ideation and creation of all Cengage Learning products. He also is responsible for establishing and maintaining an open collaboration between product development and the company’s users to ensure that all of Cengage Learning’s products meet and exceed the expectations of customers. Prior to joining Cengage Learning, he served as Managing Director of the Global Clinical Reference group at Elsevier Health Sciences. Jim began working at Elsevier in 2006 as Managing Director for Science and Technology Books and then as the SVP and General Manager of MD Consult. Earlier in his career, he founded and served as Chief Executive Officer of NetDoctorUK, the U.K.’s leading internet

Technology helps improve students’ workflow, allows instructors to customize the course, and offers more visibility into individual progress. Applying these same principles to a mobile technology just raises the game even more.

health website and the fifth most recognized website in the U.K., and went on to serve as CEO of NetDoctor Europe. He has also served as VP of EMEA at Times Mirror International Publishers, President of Simon and Schuster European Professional Publishing Group and Vice President of Marketing Higher Ed at Harper Collins. He holds a B.A. Honors in Political Science and Rhetoric from the University of Arizona, and an M.A. in Rhetoric and Public Address from the University of Iowa. Jim is based out of the Cengage Learning San Francisco office. Their latest product, which he discusses in quite a bit of depth here, is the MindTap Mobile App.

What prompted you to develop this app? What issues, challenges and problems were you trying to solve?

Jim: The app was developed based on what students told us they wanted. Students today are never far from their phones. More than 90 percent of instructors tell us that students bring their smart phones to class. And half of students with smart phones say they use them to study. Based on this data, we know we need to design technology-based tools that are available where students ‘live.’

It’s no surprise that students who are more actively engaged with their course materials tend to be the ones who get the most out of class. According to our research, a majority of students (77 percent) say they’re more engaged when their courses use digital learning tools. Why? Because technology-enabled learning tools encourage more collaboration between students and their instructors and classmates. Technology helps improve students’ workflow, allows instructors to customize the course, and offers more visibility into individual progress. Applying these same principles to a mobile technology just raises the game even more. With our new app, students can engage in their learning while they’re on the go, living their lives. 

Why and how is technology and mobile redefining the constructs of traditional learning? 

Jim: Technology is opening up opportunities for a better learning experience by:

-Increased engagement in course materials (students can interact with material and be more hands on in controlling how they immerse themselves).

-Better use of time (students can study anytime, anywhere – making the most of pockets of time like commutes or treadmill time at the gym).

-Greater visibility into progress and standings.

What’s something interesting about its development history?

Jim: We developed it based on extensive student feedback – we surveyed more than 1,000 students! We really wanted to understand what features students want in a mobile app. As a result, it includes the features students value most – messaging and notifications, flashcards and practice quizzes. Moving forward, we’ll continue to solicit students’ feedback so we can make changes as students’ needs and wants evolve.

The education of millennials: there’s a generational shift driven by mobile device natives. Why is this shift not only important, but here to stay?

Jim: Today’s students have grown up with technology and mobile devices. They always have their device on them. Knowing that mobile access is such an important part of today’s students’ lives, we need to adapt to the students by finding more ways to make material accessible for them whenever and wherever they want it. 

How was it working in the classroom, talking with the students, collaborating with specialists? Any lessons learned? Was it a shock going from development theory to classroom practicality? Did you make some key adjustments at that time due to student or teacher feedback? 

Jim: Everyone learns differently; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. That’s why we constantly gather feedback from our student end-users and adapt accordingly. This allows us to create personalized education experiences that engage and prime them for success.

Often times, we go into focus groups and research with strong assumptions about what we’ll learn. And sometimes the greatest moments in the product development process are when we learn we were wrong – this gives us the opportunity to listen more closely to our student customers. For example, while today’s students are very digital-centric, I was surprised to learn that when it comes actually reading textbook material, they prefer a paper textbook to reading on their digital device (mobile or otherwise). Based on this insight, we shifted our early development priorities for the app to other demands that rated more strongly – such as practice quizzing features and Flashnotes.

On a “Digital First” theme: why does education need a digital foundation moving forward and how does Cengage prioritize tech when developing new products?

Jim: Digital is at the forefront of Cengage Learning’s transformation. Embracing technology in new ways is absolutely critical to the future of education. That’s why we’re focusing on students—talking to them and truly listening to what they say they want and need—as we develop truly innovative digital products that engage students and help them achieve their goals. 

What’s your 60-second pitch to someone on what exactly it is, and its benefits?

Jim: The app allows students to access many features of the platform directly from their smartphones anytime, anywhere. It’s not just student-centered – it’s life-centered. We’re taking our materials to where the student actually is, rather than where we’d like them to be.

The app will help on-the-go students stay organized, optimize small pockets of study time and interact directly with their instructor and classmates on a mobile platform. It’s designed for today’s students’ workflows, not the workflows from 10 years ago. We created the App using direct feedback from students, so we know the features align with what today’s students want, like course notifications and messaging, flashcards and practice quizzes. And, what makes it different from competitors is that it works with any MindTap course the student has – so students don’t have to manage multiple apps for multiple courses.

What else can you say about its value and benefit?

Jim: This app underscores our commitment to producing student-focused learning tools. We continue to develop and expand the platform and find new ways to collaborate, inspire

Technology provides the critical “paintbox” that can be used to design new learning experiences. This is an exciting time to be able to personalize learning so every student can be an active and successful learner.

and improve learning across social, mobile and digital platforms. Offerings like this furthers our end goals to improve grades, keep more students in school, broaden access to quality education, and better prepare students for success in the workplace.

Anything else in the works? Additional products, features or series/angles?

Jim: We continue to innovate and update the app and platform based on what we learn from students and professors. Expect to see updated versions in the future.

Your thoughts on education in general these days?

Jim: The education industry is at a crossroads. More and more people need a college degree or some amount of post-secondary education to enter today’s workforce, and everyone who works in education is looking at how to best serve more students. To this end, technology provides the critical “paintbox” that can be used to design new learning experiences. This is an exciting time to be able to personalize learning so every student can be an active and successful learner.

At our company, we are operating with a renewed and heightened focus on the needs of our student end users. Our app directly addressed a question we often hear from students, ‘What do I already know and what do I need to work on?’ The technology not only identifies areas of weakness, but it also recommends the content that will help generate the best student performance – resulting in a better user experience for students and ultimately producing better learning outcomes.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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