Imagine K12’s 2011 Startup Class Aims To Invigorate Education With Technology

[tc_speakertext_off]One of my favorite bits from Disrupt SF was the set of rapid-fire presentations from Imagine K12, an incubator for education-related startups. We heard in June that some 200 applicants had been narrowed down to 10 companies, and those 10 made brief presentations in front of the audience at Disrupt. We couldn’t write them up at the time, so here is a belated rundown of these interesting new companies and services.

I urge our readers to watch the video or at least skim our summaries and evaluations. Startups too seldom directly address social issues like this, and one of these services might be something that can really benefit you or your kids.

I’ll go through these in the order they gave presentations, and I’ll give timecodes for each so you can skip directly to them if you like.


(4:33) The disconnect between group-based teaching and individual learning is addressed by Goalbook, which hopes to produce for every student a single, shared learning plan. The alternative, parent-teacher conferences and counselor meetings, is totally out of date, and simple social networking tools can improve the situation significantly, in their opinion. Instead of a file in a cabinet somewhere and a few notes jotted on attendance sheets or classwork, every student is a node in a network of educators, administrators, and parents. A database of goals, strategies, and so on will be used to create a recommendation engine for helping students. They’re launching in a number of Bay Area districts and private schools.

The question for me is whether teachers will in fact have the time or inclination to do much more than rubber stamp this profile when homework is or isn’t put in, when they do or don’t attend, and so on. Rich data is a good thing, but someone has to create it, and teachers are already hard up for time.

Formative Learning

(7:45) Training of teachers, while an expensive and highly necessary process, is stuck in the past, with paper-based tracking and feedback, and irregular goals and recommendations. Formative learning hopes to put all this teacher training in a single location, where everything is done in a universally-understood way and that data is used to recommend courses, videos, and so on to improve teaching.

Naturally this is only one part of the training process, and the most important bit is still attracting and retaining motivated teachers. And no matter how right-on your recommendations are for this or that skill, hands-on learning and a supportive, happy staff is going to be more key. Of course, that’s a whole other problem.


(11:03) There are a number of reasons why the means of communication between teacher, student, and parent are limited. There are questions of authority, privilege, and so on. Yet effective and timely communication is an important part of education, and something that’s far more likely to be found in small class sizes and private schools. Remind101 wants to provide a safe and effective tool for this using a form of communication kids seem to prefer over face-to-face interaction anyway: text messages. The founder describes it as “Twitter for teachers,” but with careful controls to make it secure and private. Instead of having teachers use personal cell phone numbers and so on, Remind101 acts as an middle man between teachers, their students, and the parents of those students.

I honestly can’t think of any drawbacks to this. It’s safe, it’s simple, and it uses existing infrastructure. It can be integrated with school databases in a day and engagement level is up to the participants. We did a follow-up interview with Remind101’s founder here.


(13:30) Crowdsourcing tutoring, who’d have thunk? TutorCloud thinks that they’re going to be the ones who make the $8 billion tutoring market a little more modern and accessible. Their service works as a marketplace for college students hoping to shop themselves out as tutors to younger kids or peers who can’t quite get the hang of organic chemistry. They use the Facebook Connect API to make personality matches as well as subject and pricing. All the communication happens within the system so personal information remains secure, and more responsive tutors get higher rankings. The actual tutoring occurs via video chat with a shared whiteboard space.

The marketplace for tutors sounds fine, but to be honest, I don’t think video-based tutoring is going to engage enough to make people want it over a real-life person, the advantages of which are many. I’m afraid parents would rather pay for a tutor’s gas or drive their kid to the library for a meetup. Perhaps as online collaboration tools become richer and more accepted this will seem more of a viable option.


(17:05) Kids these days don’t play Carmen Sandiego or Mavis Beacon, and that’s a tragedy, but they do like to play games online. Why shouldn’t these games be interesting, social, competitive, and educational? BrainNook is putting together a lot of new games and experiences aimed at elementary-level kids that hopes to be engaging while providing some standard lessons in arithmetic, spelling, and so on. The information from these games would be available to kids’ parents and teachers.

I have to admit here that I’m a bit disconnected from the world of online kids’ games. But BrainNook sounds like a great thing to have available to teachers for extra credit. Miss a homework assignment? Get to level 3 in the math game. Home sick? Sign in and talk to your friends in the virtual classroom. Whether they can actually make the games fun is a question yet to be answered, however. Kids are fickle creatures. What BrainNook needs is personality.


(20:09) Schools collect a ton of data just in order to be compliant with various laws and regulations: keep this many years of counselor records, teacher evaluations, etc. on file in case they need to be checked. But all these years of data, from which something meaningful might be gleaned or trends detected, are sitting in drawers or stuck in separate databases. Few schools really organize this information well or provide access to people like teachers and administrators. Eduvant integrates all this data into a single platform. You can put all kinds of data and analytics in one place with quick, browser-based access. There are tools for creating new data as well — referrals for counseling and such.

Again, my issue is that producing this data may be more work that teachers and others in the system can’t handle. The principal dashboard they showed would be handy, but how live is it? Who is generating that data? Who’s scanning in paper reports? Expecting a quick changeover to this online system is optimistic in my opinion, as useful as it could be. But whether it’s Eduvant or one of its descendants, I definitely see systems like this in place a few years from now when these hurdles have been cleared.


(24:20) There are a number of services available to teachers for various in-class tasks like putting together quizzes, distributing work and resources, and receiving homework online. Unfortunately, they lack connectivity, and one useful tool may not communicate to another, or it may require extra work on the part of the teacher. ClassConnect wants to offer a one-size-fits-all package that lets teachers create lectures, test and assess students, and manage class content. They also made a rich lecture presentation tool that lets students interact with the content.

The trouble here is that it requires a certain level of savvy on the part of students as well as teachers. Students who aren’t motivated will take the path of least resistance, and that will likely be the old tools: paper, pencil, and excuses. And underprivileged kids and districts are going to be left out of this, so it’s going to be hard to make it a standard tool. That said, the easy creation and sharing of class data could shave precious minutes off teachers’ schedules and leave more time for the all-important in-person interactions.


(27:47) The creation and distribution of rich educational media is a space Educreations feels is going to blow up, but the tools required to effectively make content are disconnected and not aimed at beginners. They’ve created a simple online service where you can draw, type, and bring in external content that gets automatically encoded and shared in a single place. It’s like an Open Khan Academy.

I have no doubt of the company’s ability to deliver what they’re describing, but is it really that valuable? This form of visual aid (essentially a whiteboard recording) may or may not be a good match for the content teachers are presenting. I feel like they’re hitching their wagon to the nearest star, and not looking forward far enough. Also, writing with a mouse sucks.

11 Learning

(30:55) The $13 billion textbook industry is ripe for disruption, says 11 Learning’s founder. The existing system of working for perhaps years on a single large volume is inefficient and expensive. They’ve put together a platform on which authors can create and edit textbooks and publish them for minimal cost.

If I’m not mistaken, this whole startup is essentially valuing the contributions of authors and professors at zero. A few professors may be okay with donating some of their time to editing a textbook, but are the 40 or 50 overworked profs, copy editors, and artists really going to continue giving away their work with the promise of some rev share later on? 11 Learning’s $5000 “fixed cost” figure is meaningless. Producing high-quality content is time-consuming and expensive because the people who create that content value their time. Furthermore, many subjects simply do not lend themselves to “crowdsourced” editing and content creation. And the way teaching is moving, centralizing content is on its way out anyway. This is like making improvements to steam engine production lines when the automobile is about to make its debut.


(33:55) Managing student behavior is a major problem in our school systems, wasting tons of class time and monopolizing the attention of new teachers in particular. In ClassDojo, students in classes are publicly awarded points and badges via a web or smartphone app, and that data (+1 for answering, -1 for passing notes) is automatically tracked and shared with parents.

From the moment this guy said “we’re making software that fixes bad behavior in class,” I was skeptical. And when he said it “improves behavior in real time,” my alarms went off. This is just gold star stickers in a web app. It’s a huge overpromise that relies on way too many assumptions and ignores the realities of bad behavior. If students behave poorly because they don’t respect the teacher or value their time in school, that’s not something that will be fixed by a simplistic virtual point system — it will be either ignored or resented by the majority of students. Real behavior problems and real behavior management require time and work. There’s no way around that, especially not with something as flimsy as this.

The test for many of these startups is whether they last beyond the trial phase, which all of them are clearly in. The big numbers they’re seeing are like the initial bump in any new service. You hear about it (in this case Imagine K12 certainly pitched the local districts), you give it a try, and then, organically, you either continue or stop using it.

Some I can see truly picking up. Remind101, Eduvant, and ClassConnect I give a good chance of being picked up, if at first only for a fraction of what they do. I think some of these may be forced to fold or pivot when confronted with non-theoretical use scenarios. And of course every teacher and school is different, and has different requirements, so support is going to be a full-time job.

Also, and I recognize this is an industry-wide problem with young startups, but it would help to have a little more proving time under their belts. Sure, a few weeks or months in however many districts is good, but what these guys really need is to pick two or three very different classrooms and work very closely with them for an entire school year, or failing that, at least half of one. What they need isn’t skyrocketing user counts, which often fall under the cooked numbers category, but real-life case studies. No principal is going to care that you have 10,000 classrooms being tracked by your tools. They will, however, care when you tell them about one classroom that dramatically improved engagement, or showed a 50% increase in parent involvement, or what have you. Too many of these startups are under the impression that a burst of momentum in the beginning means their service is effective. Not true. The service is effective if it is effective, and education isn’t a sprint, it’s a long haul.

Even though I don’t agree with the ideas or execution of all the companies in this first “class” of Imagine K12 companies, I’m all admiration at the fact that they are being attempted at all. Too much of startup culture is focused on bleeding-edge consumption, totally ignoring areas where even minimal applications of the tech we take for granted could improve conditions significantly in education, social services, and so on. I look forward to the next generation of Imagine K12 startups.