How teachers are using digital tools to truly personalize learning

Tech startsup are pioneering a wave of new ways to personalize the learning experience for every student in the classroom

iPad shining a spotlight on a student in a classroom

(Illustration by Matt Murphy)

Culinary school can be a study in absolutes. Students can go through rigorous classes where they must work on a dish for hours, only to have instructors reject it, Iron Chef–style, for being too dry, or not flavourful enough.

The problem isn’t that the instructors are cruel, but that they don’t know what the students did during the process—they have only the end product to judge. Large classes mean they can’t always be looking over each student’s shoulder to see if they’re following instructions or whether something might be missing.

Variations on this problem are endemic in nearly every school, whether vocational or academic. Test scores are often all that matter; whether students actually learn anything in the run-up to that final grade is largely secondary. Those students who figure out how to game the system by supplying only the desired answers or product can get by without absorbing much of the information being taught.

Sesame, a startup based in Kitchener, Ont., is looking to change that. The company’s Sesame Snap app allows students to track and document the progress of a project or class with their iOS or Android device. They can share photos, videos and checklists of each step with their teacher, who can see where mistakes might have been made.

“We want to change the output of the school system so that it’s not just transcripts and test scores,” says company co-founder Ian Tao. “That’s the part that’s missing the most.”

The education sector is proving to be an attractive one to Canadian startups like Sesame. Canadian schools of all levels generally rank well internationally, thanks largely to their willingness to be innovative with how students are taught. Whereas other civic institutions, such as governments and hospitals, have been slow to adopt new technologies because of inertia or bureaucracy, many schools are actively looking for ways to improve the experience for both students and teachers.

Spending has been rising as a result. A Statistics Canada report last year showed that school board budgets have grown by 53% over the past decade. In 2011, Canadian schools spent $53 billion on a student population of about six million—about $9,000 per student.

Though teacher salaries make up the bulk of that spending, technology investment has been a significant part too. Ontario, for example, last year announced a $150-million plan to get more technology into classrooms. The District School Board of Ontario North East, for one, is considering a plan to install Wi-Fi on school buses. Education startups are increasingly finding that schools and entire districts are eager customers with substantial budgets to spend.

“The schools we’ve dealt with generally have a more positive outlook on technology,” Tao says. Sesame now counts the Toronto and Waterloo school boards as customers, along with private school Trinity College in Port Hope, Ont. and the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College—no more Iron Chef–style showdowns.

‏School boards are similarly seeking out Charity Republic, based in Kitchener, Ont. The company makes an online tool for digitally tracking work placements, internships and volunteer hours. The idea revolves around replacing paper-based tracking methods, which can easily be lost. Like Sesame, Charity Republic creates data that can shared between teachers, students and parents.

‏“We found students weren’t graduating because they’d lost a piece of paper,” says founder Popy Dimoulas-Graham. “When they see students not graduating because of paper inefficiencies, schools are definitely drawn to using products like ours.”

‏Dimoulas-Graham had previously worked as an online course facilitator in epidemiology for the Public Health Agency of Canada before starting Charity Republic in 2010 with an eye to helping charities manage their volunteers. The business only started growing three years ago, after she realized the software could plug an existing hole in the education system.

‏Thirty-five school boards and universities in Ontario are now using Charity Republic’s software, with more coming soon in Alberta and British Columbia, she says. The company, which still deals with charities as well, is up to five full-time and two part-time employees.

Ooka Island is seeing similar growth. The Charlottetown-based startup makes interactive e-books for kids aged three to seven that are more like video games. Kids get their own personal avatar, who must help the elves of the fantastical Ooka Island learn to read. Their choices branch the story in nearly 7,000 possible directions, with the kids winning badges and items for their avatar along the way. The story presents new activities based on the program’s assessment of the reader’s comprehension level, which individualizes the experience for everyone who tries it.

“We wanted to make it so that it didn’t feel like homework, so that they want to play it,” says CEO Kelly Shaw.

Shaw came on board as CEO last year from educational publisher Pearson, where she was in charge of finding learning products that could adapt to students’ different needs.

“I had seen a lot of educational technologies and this really caught my attention,” she says. “Every child has a different learning need so the more you can customize to that need, the more success you get.”

For their part, schools aren’t simply throwing money at startups. Many are carefully studying which ones fit their curriculum and whether they can improve the experience for both teachers and students. TFS, a private school in Toronto, runs a “tech prefect”—a sort of high-school level student council where members help identify innovation opportunities. The students provide the “voice of the customer,” according to Bob Tarle, executive director of innovation and technology.

The school also runs pilot projects in conjunction with the DMZ incubator at Ryerson University. Tech-savvy, early-adopter staff and students take part in these projects and ultimately judge whether the technologies they test will be of interest to the wider school population.

The school is currently working with Toronto-based TapFun, which makes game-like learning apps for younger children, and an online grade book developer Edusight.

“We don’t bring in tech just for the sake of bringing in tech,” Tarle says. “We want to make sure there’s real value happening.”

More often than not, it’s individual teachers who are motivating schools to get involved with educational technology startups. With the rise of smartphones and tablets, many teachers are now more comfortable with technology and are purposely seeking new tools that can help them find new efficiencies or capabilities.

Joseph Romano was a teacher for seven years and now works with the Toronto District School Board to help identify such opportunities. Teachers are open to new ideas, he says: “There isn’t really a resistance because it’s not the way of the future—it’s the way the world is operating today.”

Romano is currently working on getting iPads rolled out to first- and second-grade students in 13 Toronto-area schools. He’s also assessing various startups, apps and technologies to see which can add value.

He’s been impressed with Chalk, a Kitchener, Ont. startup that makes a sort of Microsoft Office suite of online software for teachers. The company’s eponymous software, which is aimed at K–12 teachers, encompasses lesson and unit planning, assessments and attendance tracking.

“It really mobilizes the technology and allows data to be shared with parents,” Romano says.

Chalk co-founder and chief executive William Zhou got the idea for his product after talking to his own teachers at the University of Waterloo. He initially thought their jobs were easy, but quickly changed his mind after coming to understand how much time teachers had to spend working away from class. The existing software that was available to them wasn’t helping much in that regard.

Teachers were either using several different programs for each part of their job, or they had all-encompassing software suites that were too monolithic. Zhou saw an opportunity to create something better.

“They weren’t just my mentors, they were also my friends. I wanted to help them out,” he says. “A teacher doesn’t want to go and find 20 different things. At the same time, they don’t want one giant thing that is really hard to use.”

After a slow start selling directly to individual teachers, Chalk shifted to a freemium model—making a basic version of the software available for free to teachers, and a more feature-rich version available to schools for bulk licensing.

The company is growing quickly now, with 12 employees, and customers including the Niagara School Board in Ontario and Charter Schools USA, which manages 70 schools across the southern United States.

Zhou believes Chalk contributes to the trend of individualized education because it allows teachers to easily create separate lesson plans for students based on their learning requirements and levels. That, in a nutshell, is the future of education.

“Maybe we can’t get to one-to-one instruction, but we can get to a class of 30 and start dividing that up into five different groups. It’s getting closer to that.”


This article is part of the The Networked Society The Networked Society