Edtech Companies Foresee Boost from New K-12 Standards

[Corrected 8/4/14, 10:24 am. See below.] As California teachers prepare for the start of classes this fall, many will face new uncertainties and demands. Starting in the 2014-2015 academic year, California school districts will begin implementing the Common Core, a new set of K-12 educational achievement standards that raise the bar for both students and teachers. The new criteria have been adopted by 43 states, though each state is putting them into effect on its own schedule.

Implementing these nearly nationwide standards may be a heavy lift for teachers and school districts, in California and other states. But the Common Core rollout may also be a boon to education technology companies such as San Mateo, CA-based Edmodo and Education Elements in San Carlos, CA, which are adapting their products and services to help educators nationwide to meet the challenges.

While the hundreds of Common Core criteria address basics like reading and grammar, arithmetic and long division, they also incorporate higher order skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. For example, by the fourth grade, students will be expected to be able to identify the theme of a story by reasoning from details in the text. As U.S. teachers prepare for these new goals, edtech companies are lining up to help.

“I think technology as a tool is more important than ever,” says Amy Jenkins, vice president of marketing at Education Elements, a consulting firm that advises schools across the country on their choice of learning technologies. Digital learning can reinforce a teacher’s lessons, deliver real-time reports on student comprehension, and free up time for instructors to work closely with individual pupils or small groups, she says. “It enables teachers to be able to push toward that higher-order thinking and do that in a sustainable way.”

From a business perspective, the uniform learning goals of the Common Core also make the U.S. K-12 market somewhat less choppy and segmented for edtech companies like Edmodo and Education Elements, which serve classrooms in many states. Rather than cobbling together multiple products tailored to each state’s individual standards—an expensive endeavor—companies can aim to create consistent online learning tools for users in the majority of states.

“There is absolutely a level of efficiency that’s gained,” Jenkins says.

Edtech companies have taken different paths toward incorporating the Common Core into their business strategies. Education Elements, which advises more than 100 schools in various states, focuses on redesigning the classroom experience to make the most of both technology and the teacher’s skill in order to satisfy the new achievement standards. More about that to come. But first, let’s look at Edmodo, which has recently launched a set of new features directly tied to the Common Core.

While Education Elements was founded in 2010 to serve schools as paying clients, Edmodo launched its business in 2008 by offering a free “social learning network” to instructors eager to try online education apps. Those early adopters spread the word.

Edmodo CEO Crystal Hutter

Edmodo CEO Crystal Hutter

“Teachers adopted it on a grassroots level,” says CEO Crystal Hutter. Teachers use the Edmodo platform to assign classwork, trade messages with students, and pull in online educational content from many different app developers. Edmodo has also been reaching out to school administrators, who can open free accounts to track how their teachers are using the edtech platform. Edmodo now claims an international user base of more than 35 million teachers, students, parents, and administrators. [A previous version of this story said that Edmodo had 35,000 users. We apologize for the error.]

With its new features geared toward the Common Core, Edmodo hopes to spur more teachers to use its free learning platform. But it also hopes to attract school districts as paying clients. Edmodo started in April with the launch of a free service called Snapshot for Teachers, which is designed to help instructors monitor their students’ progress throughout the school year on the Common Core standards in math and English language arts for grades 3-12.

At a teacher’s direction, Snapshot automatically generates test questions to gauge how well students grasp the concepts or skills required by a specific Common Core standard, such as an understanding of fractions.

Based on the results of Snapshot-generated tests, the Edmodo tool sends teachers recommendations for learning apps to assign to individual students who are struggling over particular topics—a mechanism for personalizing instruction, says Edmodo senior product manager Kevin Jenkins (no relation to Education Elements’ Amy Jenkins.)

“It gives really specific feedback, instead of just, ‘Try harder,’ ” Kevin Jenkins says.

On top of the free Snapshot tool for teachers, Edmodo also created a premium version— also focused on the Common Core—for school administrators and school district officials. On July 22, Edmodo launched Snapshot for Schools, which school districts can buy to keep tabs on how well their classroom teachers are managing to instill Common Core concepts in their students. Hutter says the new service was based on feedback from school administrators.

The fee is $2,000 per school, though there are various discounts, Kevin Jenkins says. Districts will get the most value from the premium service if all its teachers use the quizzes created by Edmodo’s Snapshot. These tests can deliver frequent real-time data on classroom progress, well ahead of the new assessment tests that might reveal Common Core knowledge gaps at the end of the academic year.

Making up quizzes is one of the routine chores that keep teachers up at night at their kitchen tables. Edmodo’s Snapshot not only creates a quiz targeted at the specific skill a teacher is trying to get across in a certain week, but also generates multiple versions of that quiz, says Kevin Jenkins. On test day, students in the same class may receive different questions, which thwarts any tendency to peek at another child’s answers, he says.

Multiple quiz versions also make repeat testing more effective, Edmodo’s Jenkins says. The teacher can give a quiz before the lesson, then schedule follow-up quizzes a second or third time after the lesson to check whether each student understands. The Edmodo system keeps track of which questions each individual student has already seen, he says.

“We make sure no student sees repeat questions,” Kevin Jenkins says.

Teachers may also like Edmodo’s invitation to give their blue pencils a rest, says Hutter. “It grades the quizzes,” Hutter says.

Snapshot presents the results to the teacher through graphs and charts. These display each student’s individual performance, and also show the percentages of students that have mastered the skill, those with a borderline understanding, and those falling well behind. Based on the results, teachers may decide to review concepts in the classroom, or to coach individual pupils. But the new Edmodo feature also suggests specific online lessons, drawn from a variety of edtech company apps, which can be assigned as follow-up exercises for each student who needs more instruction in a certain Common Core skill.

While the teachers are monitoring their students, administrators can monitor the teachers’ performance with Snapshot for Schools. The officials can create online groups for teachers who need some help conveying particular Common Core skills, and encourage master teachers to contribute tips. Snapshot even formulates diplomatic messages that invite teachers who are not doing well to take part in a group.

“Go find your next great idea,” the message might read, Kevin Jenkins says.

Edmodo’s platform works with Android, iOS, and Windows, so students can use it both at school and at home on their own devices. Teachers have the option to assign quizzes and other digital work outside classroom hours, Kevin Jenkins says.

By contrast, Edmodo’s fellow Bay area edtech firm Education Elements assumes that all digital learning must take place inside the classroom, Amy Jenkins says. Within the schools it advises, 60 percent of students are eligible for free or subsidized lunches—and they may lack their own mobile devices or reliable Internet access, she says. As a result, teachers are intensely focused on making the most of the time in the classroom.

Education Elements helps schools and individual teachers structure that time, and find digital learning apps that match up with that allocation of minutes. This could mean that a 15-minute interactive worksheet wins out over a 25-minute online lesson, Amy Jenkins says. Time is also an important element in the data Education Elements provides to teachers, through its digital platform, Highlights, on student performance in online exercises. The company found that teachers wanted to know how long each student took to work through each unit, in addition to the number of correct answers.

For those reasons, Education Elements revised the data summaries it provided to teachers, which were formerly tied to achievement of Common Core Standards or various state criteria, Amy Jenkins says. But the Common Core standards are still the goals underlying Education Elements’ services—to make students “college and career-ready.” The company tries to do this by using technology to relieve teachers of mundane chores, such as the intensely time-consuming task of grading worksheets, thus freeing them to give students more individual attention, she says. For example, one popular classroom pattern would divide students into three groups that would each rotate through three different activities: a stint in a computer-based learning lab that delivers lessons and generates performance data; a small group session with the teacher to work through questions and problems; and a student peer meeting that develops critical thinking skills as members work together on a joint project.

The Education Elements platform also loops in third-party educational content chosen by each school. This can include Edmodo or its competitors such as Schoology, which can be defined as “learning management systems.” Both Edmodo and Schoology feature social networks that allow teachers to collaborate with each other as well as communicate with their students.

Whether many districts and teachers are ready to make full use of Edmodo’s microassessment tools tied to specific Common Core standards remains to be seen. The company is offering an added inducement to schools and districts to try out its premium service, Snapshot for Schools. That lure is a sneak preview of another new feature, Edmodo Practice, which will include a set of educational apps with “premium functionality,” developed by Edmodo itself. These will be available to premium Snapshot customers. The full launch is planned for the fall.

Edmodo maintains that its proprietary apps will not conflict with the aims of the Edmodo Store, the one revenue base the company has already established. The online marketplace offers more than 600 free and premium apps from third-party developers. Edmodo earns a percentage of each sale of the premium apps, which make up about two-thirds of the offerings. Users of Edmodo Practice will see recommendations for both third-party premium apps as well as Edmodo’s own applications.

While school districts are seen as the ultimate source of substantial revenues for edtech companies, so far teachers are the source of most of the Edmodo Store’s earnings. Although teachers use the Edmodo learning platform for free, they also make most of the purchases of premium apps through the Store, the company says. Edmodo, a private company, doesn’t disclose revenue figures. To date, Edmodo has raised $87 million from investors, which includes a recent $30 million round led by Index Ventures.

Although the apps Edmodo is developing for Edmodo Practice are geared toward set educational standards, students will be able to choose among them and customize their use, the company says. And Edmodo has further plans in the works to make classroom learning even more personalized—like providing apps tailored for students with particular learning styles, such as those who absorb visual information more readily than text or speech, Kevin Jenkins says.

“The promise of technology in education is only starting to be felt,” he says.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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  • David Casseres 65

    Very nice article, but there’s a typo: Edmodo has 35 million users, not 35 thousand.