LearnSprout is one of the seven civic startups in the inaugural class of the CfA Accelerator.
When the first computers began to make their way into classrooms back in the early 1980‘s, there was great hope and excitement that their introduction would revolutionize education. A similar excitement came in the 2000’s as we began to wire classrooms for access to the Internet. Today it’s the promise of social, mobile, and the cloud that have many of us within the edtech space nearly giddy with excitement that the long-hoped for revolution might be near. However, I can’t help feel a tinge of skepticism given the fact that experts have been hailing the “imminent” revolution in K-12 education for the last 30 years, if not longer.
True, some of these innovations might be characterized as “disruptive innovations” in the context of the market they were introduced in, but so far, their application within the context of K-12 education can be described more as “sustaining innovations” that continue to enable the status quo and allow the current educational model to maintain relevance in a changing world.
Some might argue that this is a good thing, that the current factory model of education is best and should be preserved, but I disagree. The idea that kids can be grouped by age, standardized (normalized) with the exacting precision of a six-sigma production line, advanced from stage to stage on an annual basis then graduated (shipped) as a complete product is IMO, well… silly.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the excitement. My experience at Facebook showed me how quickly radical disruption could completely transform our world. But from the outside looking in, it seemed to me that K-12 was very good at adapting and absorbing whatever types of innovations came it’s way and unless something radical changed at the core of the educational model, history was bound to repeat.
In fall 2011, I began to chat about education with my old college buddies Joe and Anthony. We became interested in how we could help break this cycle and began to study K-12 education and edtech more closely. The more we learned, the more interested we became and soon we began to see an opportunity to do something different — something that had the potential to disrupt the status quo. I can remember the feeling. It was like we discovered the dilithium crystal before warp drive was invented. It was at that point we decided to quit our jobs at Microsoft, Google, and Facebook and do something that would make a difference.
This is why we Code for America.
When we founded LearnSprout in January of this year, we understood that in order to have a radical change in education, we’d have to build something that got at the very core of the current educational model.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that in every school and district, there is something called a student information system (SIS) that controls most of the day-to-day operations. These systems were designed to serve and support the status quo and contain some of the most useful and interesting data on student engagement and achievement: Grades, GPA, Attendance, Assignments, Standards Progress, Scores, Discipline, Demographics, Health, and so on. Unfortunately, most of these systems are antiquated, expensive, and very difficult to access.
For example, two of the newest and most popular systems are 15 and 16 years-old and cost between $4 and $6 per-student annually. Most school districts must manually pull data from these systems or rely on a nightly, flat-file transfer script to integrate their SIS with other systems that require SIS data. These procedures tend to be limited in the amount of data they can access, time consuming and are often very insecure (i.e. non-FERPA compliant).
What we realized was that if we could get at the data inside these systems, we could extend the capabilities of the SIS and enable a new generation of edtech apps that would not be constrained by the trickle of data that until now, presented an insurmountable barrier to entry for aspiring edtech startups.
Until we find a way to change how the SIS serves us, then we are constrained by its limited capabilities. We believe that finding a way to open up the SIS so that it can support the new edtech ecosystem could mean the difference between an edtech bubble and a real revolution in K-12 education. And so, the first-ever universal API for multiple SISs was created.
Coming up with the idea to build an API was easy. Needless to say the next 10 months would prove to be an incredible journey. Considering how little we knew about K-12 education and edtech just a year ago, I’m often amazed by the depth of conversation we are engaged in and who we are conversing with. Thanks to Code for America, some of the most notable luminaries in tech and edtech have taken the time to help mentor and coach our team, including Tim O’Reilly, Aneesh Chopra, and John Danner, and that’s just scratching the surface.
Beyond the awesome mentorship was a powerful network of allies that opened its arms to LearnSprout to help us gain access to some of the most coveted events in edtech. We have been invited to compete in the SiiA Innovation Incubator contest, the GSV Advisors Education Innovation Summit, and were invited to the White House to participate in the first ever Education Datapalooza. None of this would have been possible without the support of Code for America.
But most importantly, since we joined the Code for America accelerator, our little company has grown dramatically. Hundreds of schools and dozens of companies have signed on to LearnSprout, and we’ve managed to attract some incredible talent to the team, including a kick-ass developer from Adobe and a 12-year edtech veteran from Pearson. There are few things as validating as paying customers and willing employees.
It’s a strange new world for three guys who used to live comfortable lives inside their cubes at their respective gigantic corporations, but we somehow managed to hit the ground running and are now growing our business at breakneck speed. So, while we’re eager to strike out on our own to prove ourselves in the wide-open edtech market, we do so reluctantly. Code for America has been a blessing. Like living with your parents in college, part of you would stay if you could.
But what they say is true: Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.