2014-02-19

Co.Labs

Can These Consumer Apps Crack The Education Space?

Educators are trying to decide whether to put their faith in big mainstream tech companies or education-specific startups with unproven track records.



Google Apps. Evernote. Dropbox. YouTube. You know them as technology products, but to millions of students and teachers they are platforms at the core of learning. A growing number of consumer-facing tech products are finding accidental success among educators—and may end up revolutionizing school forever.

GitHub joined the pack last week, lowering subscription prices for schools in response to student and teacher interest.

"We want to help the next generation of developers build the future," GitHub's education liaison wrote on the company blog, adding that 70,000 students had previously signed up to benefit from the site’s informal discount policy.

Beyond a discount, though, educators don't always know what to expect from a consumer product. Should they put their faith in mainstream technology companies that view schools as a form of low-cost customer acquisition in a social-good wrapper, or rely on education-specific startups with unproven track records? The answer, as it turns out, depends on the teacher.

Tapestry: Accidentally Making Writing More Fun

When Jana Trantow agreed to run storytelling app Tapestry, she expected to manage a consumer product. But as she and her team set about growing their community, they stumbled upon a fervent group of early adopters that caught them by surprise: teachers hungry for digital storytelling tools.

With Tapestry, Trantow says, "You can have a voice and really learn the timing of a story." Those features made the app appealing to educators hoping to make storytelling relevant to students more comfortable with Pinterest than poster board. "Students don't feel like they're doing an assignment. It’s writing, but it's fun," she says.

Moreover, the ability to share those tap-able stories with a broader community has kept students engaged and writing even after the semester ends—an outcome that’s the stuff of dreams for many an education entrepreneur.

"It's not just submitting something for a grade," Trantow says. "It's getting love from the community."

Tapestry has ruled out a full-on pivot toward education, but the team does plan to push for growth in schools and universities over the next six months. Like many consumer technologies, Tapestry discovered the strategic value of the education market—scale, high engagement, relative stability—by happy accident.

It’s a pattern that’s more common than you might expect.

How Evernote Became A Surprise Hit Among Educators

Evernote’s story is typical of technology companies that find themselves getting friendly with school leaders. The company created Evernote for Schools, a marketing extension of Evernote Business, after seeing organic trends in school adoption. Two years later, education is the single largest market vertical served by Evernote Business, with teachers and students representing one in 10 users. (Many more education market users are individual customers—university students in particular are loyal fans.)

From the company’s perspective, converting a user early in life is a clear win. "It's great to have people start using Evernote," says John McGeachie, head of Evernote Business. "Hopefully it's something that's useful to them forever."

So far Evernote has sidestepped the potential administrative challenges of working with schools, which range from students too young for school-issued email addresses to parents concerned about privacy and security. Overcoming those barriers is up to school leaders, not Evernote product developers. "We don't want to get in the middle of it," McGeachie says. "We know we have a product that's great for teams of people, large groups."

Contrast that approach with Three Ring, a startup that offers a product similar to Evernote and boasts 35,000 users. With Three Ring’s mobile apps, teachers can capture and manage the artifacts of students’ work, such as photos of projects or video of presentations.

"Focusing on education alone is an edge because the classroom is a pretty sensitive and complicated environment," says Michael Lindsay, cofounder and CEO of Three Ring. He believes that teachers prefer technology solutions that understand the nuanced differences between messaging a fellow teacher versus a student, for example.

From Theory To Classroom Practice

That choice is one that computer science teacher Eric Allatta knows well. Allatta is part of the instructional team at the Academy for Software Engineering, a new public high school in New York City where students of every background can master the skills and concepts required to build software. In theory, it’s the ideal home for an offering like GitHub Education.

"We've never used GitHub in the classroom, though I would love to," Allatta says. "I'd love to have kids contributing to open source." But for now, while the school serves just freshmen and sophomores (it will add one grade per year), Allatta prefers Scratch, Snap, and Bootstrap, all visual programming tools run by accessible university teams.

"All of the programming environments we use are very small operations—we're communicating with the developers," he says.

At the same time, along with millions of teachers around the world, Allatta uses Google Apps, with custom scripts he helped author and a teacher dashboard created by New Zealand startup Hapara layered on top. While Google can’t offer Allatta the access to developers that he values in his instructional tools, it can offer him an open, flexible platform and an evolving stack of third-party solutions that together facilitate workflow management in his classes.

Sleeper success Hapara, a lightweight bridge between class rosters and students’ work, lacks the brand awareness of a Khan Academy but is arguably one of the most successful startups in education. The two ventures are more similar than you might think—branding aside, Khan Academy is essentially a content layer with recommendation algorithms built on top of YouTube.

"One of the bets that we've made is that education as a whole is going to move to platform solutions," says Jan Zawadzki, the founder of Hapara and an engineer by training. "For these horizontal industry players, the cost of opportunity—for education—it's just too high. The ROI doesn't work."

Like Tapestry, Hapara launched as a broadly commercial product. Product tweaks that Zawadzki implemented as a favor to a few teachers led to an avalanche of interest. "We were in half a dozen countries even before we had a website," he says. "Educators are very well connected." Zawadzki declines to share user data, but points to trends in Chromebook sales and leaps in Google Apps usage as proxies for Hapara’s expanding footprint.

Remix To Ignition?

In what perhaps portends the future, Allatta supplements Google Apps and Hapara with scripts specific to his school’s needs. Functions that would otherwise join a long list of technical requirements managed by a district-approved vendor—"Send an email alert to parents when students are tardy," for example—are suddenly projects that a teacher can quickly implement. Cloud Lab, an initiative run out of New Visions for Public Schools, has been partnering with Allatta and other teachers to build out a library of these scripts—a sort of educational IFTTT ("if this then that") for Google Apps.

"They take more work, they take more tinkering, but they're extremely flexible. We're teaching other teachers how to use them more and more," says Allatta, who has started running professional development on the scripts for his peers. "At our school there's definitely more excitement than intimidation."

Could that same spirit of hacker optimism take hold in other schools? Teachers, after all, are accustomed to solving problems without much in the way of help or money.

Like it or not, they may have to. Even for a well-positioned vertical play like Hapara, venture capital dollars are in short supply.

"We definitely look at layers on top of education apps somewhat skeptically," Michael Staton, partner at Learn Capital, says of his venture firm's approach. "It's difficult to conceive how they can create a meaningful company without getting sideswiped."

Eileen Rudden, cofounder of LearnLaunchX, a Boston-based education accelerator, says she has found startups with deep pedagogical underpinnings to be attractive, given the landscape. She mentions CueThink, a recent addition to her portfolio, which is building a peer-to-peer learning platform for math problem-solving. "It incorporates new thinking on pedagogy and new student-centered approaches, which are not available from a company that is customizing what it has for the education sector," she says.

Some teacher advocates might groan at the idea of putting even more burdens on educators’ shoulders—last I checked, time for writing scripts is not accounted for in most union contracts. But if there’s a silver lining to this story, it’s that technology is moving in a direction that more faithfully mirrors the way that teachers and school leaders like to operate. A generation ago, teachers asserted their professional voices by photocopying and re-ordering the chapters of their textbooks. Today, they can mash up software and design systems that are comfortably at home in their classrooms. The learning curve may be steeper, but over an academic year the efficiencies are potentially worth that price.

Let’s just hope that the platform players, with those heartwarming education landing pages, keep up their end of the bargain as a foundation for teachers' ingenuity.

[Image: Flickr user SickestFame]






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