Boundless

The last startup we’ll discuss creates its products for universities, not K-12 schools, but it’s important to note the advancements being made in surrounding markets in educational publishing. Boundless demonstrates a startup that is taking a different approach to infiltrate their market than the ones we’ve seen. BetterLesson, Clever, Lore and GoalBook all offer innovative services to teachers and students through online spaces. Boundless, however, offers innovative products and competes directly with the big textbook companies in their market, something we may see more companies attempt to do as schools look for new ways to incorporate technology in their classrooms.

Boundless is also a notable company to explore because of the perspective they take on the work they are doing in this industry. Boundless’ CEO Ariel Diaz talks at TEDxCambridge 2013 on how he believes we need to reshape, or essentially flip, the way we teach subjects in all classrooms:

According to the company’s website, Boundless was founded in 2011 ” to revolutionize the educational experience.” Since its inception, Boundless has raised almost $10 million to fund this revolution and thousands of students across the US are experimenting with Boundless instead of using their traditional college textbooks.

In comparison to the etextbooks that the big companies Pearson and McGraw-Hill are producing, Boundless’ ebooks offer similar interactive features to help students learn and the company explains how it uses technology to make these features useful:

“Boundless Learning Technology, based on active recall and spaced repetition, prompts you with quizzes, flashcards, summarization and more at the optimal points during your reading to help you retain information.”

Boundless’ learning technology includes flashcards and quizzes, seen below,  built into textbooks that test students at optimal times in their reading to increase their memory and understanding of the content.  Students can also electronically highlight text and make notes.

Boundless' flashcards and quizzes use technology to enhance educational content

Boundless’ flashcards and quizzes use technology to enhance educational content

Boundless’ products are also notably less expensive than the college textbooks they’re competing against. The cost of many of the print college textbooks on the market often exceeds $100 and the costs are still rising; Boundless’ textbooks, on the other hand, are offered at a steady, accessible $19.99.

Boundless has done such a good job of offering competitive, affordable products that three of the big educational publishers–Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education and Cengage–sued the startup in April 2012 for copyright infringement and unfair competition, among other offenses. While the details haven’t been released, there were reports of a settlement. Regardless, the lawsuit didn’t stop Boundless from pushing forward with their innovative and affordable products.

We’ve seen that Pearson and McGraw-Hill are producing etextbooks and other digital products with similar technology and rivaling features, more K-12 schools may choose to take the path many college students are taking by choosing Boundless textbooks and look elsewhere for their educational content.

GoalBook

In this blog’s post about the benefits of digital educational materials, I touched on how technology can allow for a more personalized learning experience for students. As we’ve looked at the big publishers in this segment, we’ve seen this to be a common goal of many of the products they are producing, with a few of the companies approaching this goal through a focus on data (McGraw-Hill Education recently acquired Key Curriculum and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt recently purchased Choice Solutions). While the idea of providing a more individualized educational experience to students is a philosophy that is gaining more attention as new digital products make it easier, individualized learning has been an established accommodation for students for almost four decades.

The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) was introduced to school systems in 1975 in order to provide students with disabilities and special needs an equal opportunity in the classroom. IEPs outline modifications for coursework that meet a student’s specific needs and must set measurable goals for him or her, among other things. These plans show a need for a certain kind of educational materials, but the main educational publishers seem to be limited in what they offer for IEP students.

In this blog’s introductory post, we identified four main markets within education publishing, and materials for students with special needs were addressed in one of them: English Language Learners (ELLs). When searching through the websites of the big players–Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, Scholastic, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–this market is evident: when they broke their products down by category, English Language Learners was commonly included. However, this market needs to address more students with special needs than just ELLs. The number of students with IEPs is rising; DC public schools, for example, reported a two-point percentage increase of their IEP students from 2008 to 2012, with more than 10,000 DC students currently on IEPs. While the big publishers are doing a lot to extend the philosophy of individualized education to the general population of students, they need to do more to enhance the experience of the students for whom these programs were originally designed.

As we’ve seen, when there is a void in the marketplace such as this, startups have the ability to thrive. This is where GoalBook comes in; named the ninth top education startup of 2012 by TeachThought, GoalBook aims to be the first online, social resource for special education teachers. GoalBook strives toward success for “ALL” students and the company uses technology specifically to do this by creating an online space for special education teachers to improve their instruction. GoalBook believes that “teachers are THE factor” in the success of a student with special needs and wants to help them “make their work more effective, research-based AND sustainable.”

On its main page for teachers, the GoalBook website highlights the following benefits it provides to special education instructors: Our IEP Goals are Better; Align IEPs to the Common Core with Ease; Personalize to the Needs of your Students; We Help you Write Goals AND Achieve Them; Discover the Right Goal, Fast (as shown below with their “Goal Finder” feature); and Best In-Class Professional Development for Districts.

GoalBook's Goal Wizard

GoalBook’s Goal Wizard helps teachers find the right goals for their students

Unlike some of the education startups we’ve explored that offer their resources for free, GoalBook charges rates for their services: $32.95 a month for teachers, $395 a year for a district/school premium membership and $575 a year for a district/school gold membership, which offers analytics dashboard, online professional development and one-to-one coaching for teachers.

While the big publishers approach digital material from the big picture, startups like GoalBook can address the needs of a smaller demographic of students, such as those with special needs.

Clever

By sheelamohan from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By sheelamohan from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As technology is incorporated into more products, the digital data behind it becomes more important and useful for content creators. In an article from this past September, Porter Anderson at Publishing Perspectives discusses how the new digital book publishing industry is all about data. In the article, CEO of Publishing Data Networks Sebastian Posth comments,

“Data analysis is a business requirement and a necessary means to deal with the digital change. The publishing industry needs to learn this lesson if it wants to survive.”

Educational publishers have taken note of data’s potential to enlighten their work because in educational publishing, data doesn’t just translate to finding out how people buy their materials; it translates to finding out how students learn. McGraw-Hill has dedicated their attention to managing and utilizing their data, shown in part with their purchase of Key Curriculum in 2012.

As digital products stream into classrooms, schools are faced with an influx of information about their students, courses and staff, and they need products and services to show them how to manage this information effectively. As new needs such as this are created in the digital educational marketplace, startups have the opportunity to dominate, which is exactly what Clever has demonstrated.
TeachThought named Clever the third top education startup of 2012. Launched in June 2012, Clever already had 2,000 school using its services by October 2012. A little over one year later, it now reaches 6,000. Clever’s Newsroom page shows how companies are noticing Clever’s benefits: Imagine Learning, DreamBox, My Big Campus, and Learning.com have all signed deals with Clever in the past four months. Pearson’s PowerSchool is also among the Clever-supported applications.
Clever aims to remedy the new digital education systems that are emerging with Student Information Systems (SIS), which hold crucial data about students. Clever markets to both schools and developers and makes a call to the latter audience to use their services to make applications that “just work“. Clever offers developers samples of their API and open-source libraries.
To schools, Clever offers three simple selling points of their service: It has a Swift and Simple SetupSaves Time and Money, and is Technology You Can Trust. Clever notes the interoperability of their system: “With Clever, student data only needs to be entered once — from there, Clever syncs ongoing changes to all Clever-enabled applications.”
Both teacher testimonials on Clever’s main page highlight the value the company’s services have brought to their school’s assessments: Chief Information Officer of Springfield Public Schools in Massachusetts Paul Foster remarks that “Clever gets my teachers into the achievement network so they can use assessments to adjust instruction.” As assessment becomes more important and thus more present in classrooms, student data becomes even richer and services like Clever’s will become even more valuable.

BetterLesson

Teach Thought named BetterLesson the top education startup of 2012. BetterLesson was created in 2011 by teachers as a digital space where they could connect and communicate with each other to share ideas and resources. Teach Thought notes that the company had already raised more than $1.6 million by the end of 2012 with more than 250 teachers signing up each day.

BetterLesson’s altruistic efforts to help teachers and improve the system is evident in the testimonials of its team. Founder and CEO Alex Grodd writes that he started Better Lesson to “address the challenges he faced in the classroom”; Director of Product Development Yevy Spivak hopes that his work “will help more kids realize the value of education”; even Director of Engineering Grejdi Gjura aims to “change the world one line of code at a time”.

BetterLesson is using technology not to just enhance instructional material, as we’ve seen with Pearson and Scholastic, but to enhance instruction itself. The website’s main page summarizes the services it offers teachers:

Better Lesson offers teachers a collaborative online community of resources and knowledge.

Better Lesson offers teachers a collaborative online community of resources and knowledge.

Since its inception, BetterLesson has already evolved from a site for teachers to share lessons to a more concentrated effort to improve the teaching system. BetterLesson recently partnered with the National Education Association (NEA) to develop a master teacher program, which selects educators who demonstrate exceptional and innovative teaching. The program collects their lessons and methods in order to share these best practices with teachers across the nation. Cofounder and VP of Operations Erin Osbourne explains,

“What we’re trying to do is frame a living breathing body of knowledge around effective teaching. We feel that’s been missing. When they get feedback that they’re not doing a great job — often they’re just told to read an article or go watch a video or take a webinar. We’re trying to give teachers access to the full richness of their instruction.”

NEA has dedicated $3.9 million to the program; these funds come in addition to the $3.5 million the start-up received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in late 2012 to develop a master teacher program that focuses on the new Common Core standards in 6-12 mathematics.

BettLesson’s efforts to share information among teachers so they can learn from one another is indicative of a recent push in schools for more group work and accountability. Teachers are encouraged to move away from operating as individuals and working toward becoming groups. For the past 10 years, for example, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has been working to create Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) where educators work “collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve”.

When discussing innovative digital communication tools with The Wall Street Journal, Chief Executive of NewSchools Venture Fund Ted Mitchell notes BetterLesson’s use of videos and other tools to help educators “crowdsource” their teaching methods. This crowd comprises teachers across the nation and in creating this digital space for them to collaborative with each other, it encourages schools, districts, and even states to move away from operating on their own in an effort to create  standardized, nationalized teaching practices, a huge push of the new Common Core standards.

Free social networking companies such as Lore and Better Lesson address the financial limitations many schools face when addressing instructional issues and incorporating technology into the classroom. But it’s these companies that demonstrate how low-budget schools can still benefit from digital publishing, even if it’s not with Scholastic’s interactive white boards.

Lore

By Kromkrathog from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Kromkrathog from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

While Digital Education Watch focuses on K-12 educational publishing, the site will occasionally explore innovations being made in the higher education world, in the hopes that the technology will soon come to benefit the younger grades as well. Lore is one such company, and a start-up to be exact. While other companies have aimed to infiltrate Blackboard’s dominance in the K-12 classroom, Lore’s advancements in the higher education world is one that merits exploration.

Lore is one of the top 10 education start-ups of 2012, according to Teachthought.com.  While the last post explored how Pearson has used technology to enhance their content and products, Lore demonstrates another use: social media and social networking. Many publishers, and businesses in general, have noticed the great benefits social media and social networking can bring to their companies. In this week’s edition of the GWU’s Professional College of Studies Publishing Program’s e-newsletter, the students explore how social media is affecting the publishing industry and this blogger discusses how it affects the publisher’s marketing role.

Lore shows how valuable social networking is in the educational publishing segment, where it can be used to enhance both the student’s learning experience and the teacher’s instructional role. Lore brings social media to the classroom by creating a digital community around learning. This is an essential step to make in the shift from print-to-digital in educational publishing. With Facebook and Twitter’s prominent presence in the rising generation’s world, the students of today are creating digital communities for everything else in their lives, and we must incorporate education into their online world in order for them to connect with it in more meaningful ways.

Lore agrees. On their website, the company explains that “Our education system today can be better. It’s not relevant enough, engaging enough, or, most importantly, accessible enough.” In a 2012 New York Times article about the startup, one of its founders, Joseph Cohen, expands on this concept: “Our education experience is truly offline,” he said. “We want to build what Facebook has done for your personal life, but for your school.”

In an article about the company also from 2012, the Economist explains how founders Joseph Cohen, Dan Getelman and Jim Grandpre dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania in May 2011 to create Coursekit, soon renamed Lore, which has already raised $6 million from investors such as Social+Capital, David Tisch, Joel Spolsky, and IA Ventures.

Joseph Cohen describes Lore as a “social-learning network for the classroom.” Cohen’s description gives us an appropriate name for the social networks educational publishers can benefit from: social-learning networks, networks that further the classroom experience by enhancing the communal aspect of it. Classrooms, in their nature, facilitate a group learning experience, something that can be lost when materials are moved online and learning becomes more individualized. Lore brings the sociality of learning back to the classroom by, ironically, taking it online. Lore recognizes that the Internet has allowed us to become more social, to create communities easier and to communicate within these communities more conveniently. These concepts greatly benefit learning, as students can better understand what they’re learning by share, discussing and questioning the content with their peers; they can also bond with one another to create a learning community. Professor at Boston University Edward Boches explains how using Lore for his advertising classes has made his teaching  “more interactive, [it] extends it beyond the classroom and stimulates students to learn from each other rather than just the professor.”

As one of Lore’s featured “Popular courses,” Professor Jeff Ely’s Intermediate Microeconomics class at Northwestern University is made publicly accessible from Lore’s main page. With Lore’s platform, Ely posted the class’s calendar, the course’s syllabus and readings for his students:

Intermediate Microeconomics (Northwestern University)

Ely’s Lore page for his course also features a discussion board that he and his students used to discuss and ask questions about assignments and concepts covered in the class. While Ely has made this course public, professors can make their courses private and they can control who has access to their network and see exactly how they’re using it, a solution to one of the limitations of technology discussed a previous post in this blog.

Lore is not the first company to attempt to bring online social networking to the classroom. The most notable company to do this is, of course, Blackboard. While Blackboard has gained success in many K-12 and university classrooms across the US and earns a profit by charging for its service, Lore offers many solutions to the problems students and teachers have noted when using Blackboard. From my own personal experience using Blackboard in high school and in my undergraduate and graduate university courses, Lore’s usability looks superior to Blackboard’s, particularly with their discussion boards. Founder Joseph Cohen agrees when he addresses their competitor in a note on the Lore blog from March 2012 and declares that Blackboard’s “products remain lousy.” Matt Cannon at The McDaniel Free Press urged those at McDaniel College with the “Blackboard Blues” to try Lore and offered a comprehensive view of Lore’s improvements on Blackboard’s system to encourage his readers. He notes Lore’s calendar tool, which keeps students abreast of upcoming deadlines, and Lore’s gradebook tool that opens up the grading process for more discussion between teacher and student. Ki Mae Heussnew at GigaOM.com updated us in summer 2012 on how Lore’s redesign has “upped their ante” against Blackboard.

After launching its first version in November 2011, 600 universities used Lore in at least one class in the 2012 academic year. While it’s no doubt that Lore is enriching the classroom in innovative ways with its social-learning network, the company’s future is still unclear–to its customers, as well as its founders. Lore is currently free to users, and the company has expressed that attracting users is its main goal, founder Joseph Cohen has also said that if enough students begin to use Lore as their main resource for learning, the site could eventually sell textbooks and other educational resources. If Lore approaches learning materials with the ingenuity they’ve brought to their social-learning network, we should be in store for even more innovations in the classroom from this start-up.