Anthony Kim is the CEO of Education Elements Inc., a California-based for-profit technology company that helps schools shop for and use educational software. He’s a behind-the-scenes leader in the blended-learning movement, where students learn from both computers and teachers. Before founding Education Elements at the end of 2010, Kim started the online virtual school, Provost Systems, which he ultimately sold to EdisonLearning. (Disclosure: Kim has worked with foundations that support The Hechinger Report.)
Q: What exactly does Ed Elements do?
A: There’s two parts to what we do. The first is digital content. We help schools select which software programs to use in the classroom. Like curators or personal shoppers, we give schools a list of recommendations of what we think the best reading or math programs are for their students. Ultimately, the school makes the final choice.
The second is technological. We create a user-friendly dashboard so that students can log on once and access any of the software programs their school has acquired for them. That avoids having to log on to each software company’s website separately.
We also create a single place for teachers and administrators to get data reports on student performance. It aggregates all the information generated by various educational software. It’s like financial software that puts all your 401(k), bank account, loans and credit card information into one website, so that you can get an overall picture of how you’re doing.
Why do schools need this?
School districts are overwhelmed with this surge in ed tech. Teachers and students are wasting too much time with technical issues. Ten minutes spent logging on is 10 minutes lost from learning time. And teachers and administrators are not getting the real benefit of all this technology if they’re not using the data it provides.
Our goal is to shorten the feedback loop so that teachers can easily access and understand the data to address students’ weaknesses in real time rather than waiting for test scores. That way, teachers can better plan what they will teach the students each day.
How big is your company?
So far, we’ve received two rounds of venture-capital funding totaling more than $8 million. We have 50 employees and offices in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C. And we’re working with more than 60 schools around the country. About 70 percent of them are traditional public schools.
Why did you switch your professional focus from online virtual learning to a blended approach?
Not every student in the country is going to sit at a computer at home and have a really engaging experience. We think that can only serve potentially 10 percent of the student body in the country.
But we want to give students the opportunity to learn basic skills as fast as possible inside traditional schools. One of those ways is through online content, like Khan Academy or any of the other providers out there.
Also, with educational budget cuts, class sizes are getting larger—sometimes 30 kids in a class. You can create instructional rotations between computers, teachers and activity stations that artificially reduce class size. That allows teachers to focus on small-group instruction.
What is wrong with the way schools are using digital content now?
The problem I see is that schools are sometimes using online content only for remediation, dropouts and the very top students. Essentially, they’re taking the bottom 10 to 15 percent and putting them on an online course. Or putting the top 10 percent of the students on an online AP course that they can’t offer.
We’re trying to flip that concept around. What if the middle gets the majority of the digital content, and as students go into the top 10 percent or the bottom 10 percent, the teacher gets more actively involved in their education?
I think the majority of the programs are really designed for the masses, not remediation or advanced thinking. It’s pretty hard to do mastery learning in an online environment. A lot of digital content is really proficiency-based. To demonstrate mastery, you might have to teach someone else the material. Or you would have to apply what you’ve learned to another situation. Most of the programs aren’t geared toward doing that.
Frankly, most of the programs are geared toward moving students to the next skill. Just because you successfully completed an Algebra I course in two months doesn’t mean that you’re a master in algebra.
What pitfalls should schools avoid?
What we see happening sometimes is a lot of shuffling of different software programs in schools. They keep shuffling the programs back and forth based on what a salesperson might pitch, or what they heard from a colleague, or what they’ve had prior experiences with. At a very high level, there are slight nuances that differentiate these programs.
One of the challenges is to explain to schools that there isn’t a single program that’s going to solve all their problems. What’s actually going to help them is shortening the feedback loop and using the data to help teachers make better decisions.
In the end, just sitting a kid in front of a program isn’t going to solve a kid’s problems with literacy or math. What it’s going to do is move him through the program. It’s critical that the teacher is involved in looking at the data and supporting the student so that they can address the specific points where a student plateaus or needs extra help understanding a certain skill or concept.