Ever since the days of overhead projectors and microfilm readers, American schools have had to play catch up with the rest of society in the technology they offer.
“Teachers have very complex jobs, and traditionally have had archaic tools to do that complex job,” Jennifer Carolan, co-founder and senior partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Reach Capital, tells Business Insider.
Carolan’s firm has made it a mission to seek out companies that help schools go from Luddites to early adopters, all in the hopes of personalizing kids’ education as much as possible.
Here are some of the companies Reach has invested in that Carolan believes could transform the American education landscape.
Carolan says early education is one of the hardest areas to invest in, because 'you just don't want to put kids in front of screens at all.' One company taking a unique approach to using screens in early education is Kaymbu.
Kaymbu, founded in 2015, is a communication portal that lets teachers send pictures, video, and notes to a child's parents. That may seem unremarkable at first glance, but Carolan says the program has led to greater attendance rates -- a critical component of achievement later in life, according to some research. The company claims it saves teachers 1.5 hours each day and 5,000 sheets of paper each year from moving communication online.
'I think this is the first wave of this tool, because preschools are non-tech places, which is a good thing, but when you can capture the learning you can use it as professional development tools to train other teachers,' says Carolan.
Only 3 years old and already in 75% of American classrooms, Newsela is a sophisticated literacy program designed to build reading skills for K-12 students.
The program has two main components: intelligent software that adjusts news stories to the reader's ability; and real-time, in-text feedback that teachers can use to see how kids are handling the text.
Newsela has already managed to raise literacy among kids below the 50th percentile on standardised tests by an average of 12 percentage points, according to the company. 'That's like passing hundreds of thousands of kids,' says Matthew Gross, Newsela's founder and CEO.
Coding has gotten a lot of attention in the last decade since many education policymakers see it as a vital skill in the modern student's arsenal. Carolan says the K-8 platform Tynker is one of the stronger companies in the space. More than 34 million kids have used the platform since its launch in 2012.
Kids can use Tynker either at home or in school to learn basic coding at their own pace. They can build apps and games and use their code to control drones and robots.
Earlier this summer, Apple chose Tynker as its go-to platform for the many Apple Camps held in the company's retail stores.
As classrooms move toward the coveted 1:1 ratio of one laptop or tablet for each child, Carolan says teachers need all the help they can get in managing student progress. The trouble is, there's no real centralised system that lets them get to the necessary level of organisation.
That's where Nearpod comes in.
The software portal allows teachers to issue assignments on a master device, such as a tablet, and see on each student's own device how they're handling the material. Since launching in 2012, the startup has entered thousands of US schools. It covers a variety of subjects, from science to photography to English.
Schools are slowly moving away from standardised curricula in favour of a grassroots model, Carolan says, adding that the biggest player in the space is a company founded in Teachers Pay Teachers.
Founded in 2006, the online marketplace contains over 1 million pieces of content and allows teachers from all levels in all subjects to share materials and lesson plans, either for free or at reasonable rates. Carolan sees these kinds of companies dominating education in the future as teachers move even closer to fully-personalised education.
And the company has a leader who knows a little something about online marketplaces -- Teachers Pay Teachers' CEO is Adam Freed, the former COO of Etsy.
Artificial intelligence stands to make a big splash in grading, Carolan says, especially in maths and computer science. Gradescope, launched in 2014 and now in over 100 universities, is one of the top companies in the space.
After students and teachers upload assignments to the Gradescope website, the grader can go through each one and take off points where needed. They can also make changes to the rubric as they go, and Gradescope's AI will retroactively update the ones already graded to match the new rubric. Over time, the AI also learns how certain problems are graded, saving more time.
At the end of a grading session, Gradescope produces a data visualisation of student performance. 'They can see what are the patterns that came out of this batch of 300 assessments, and that helps them more effectively target instruction,' says Carolan.
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