If Chris Dawson founded a startup

Anyone have a cool million or two to invest? No? Oh well...then someone should steal my ideas.
Written by Christopher Dawson on
During last week's taping of review:ed, Kirsten Winkler and I focused on startups, particularly those in the ed tech space. It's a good time to be a startup with educational technology chops; investors seem to be right on the edge of fueling a bubble where all it takes is a reasonably good idea, some social hooks, and some technical savvy in educational needs. Well gee, I have some good ideas. I can think "social" (can't we all?). I'm technically savvy. I'm even an educator! I should found a startup! Removing my tongue from my cheek briefly, I'd actually like to start a conversation around this. I'm not the only educator out there with an idea or three. I'll outline one of my favorites here, but talk back, discuss via Twitter, or chat on Google Plus and tell me what you think or where you'd put your efforts if you were founding your own startup. CADET (Christopher A Dawson Ed Tech) CADET (Christopher A Dawson Educational Technologies) wouldn't bring a radical, disruptive new technology to the table, even though that would be incredibly sexy and cool. I have some ideas in that would probably fill the bill (a fully mobile LMS, assistive robots for kids with autism that used biofeedback to detect and respond to stress levels, AI-driven integrated tutoring/assessment/RTI software delivered to thin clients, and student-optimized tablets all come to mind), but my expertise is in the development and deployment of educational systems. Given that, I would take systems integration models to the next level by providing a small selection of turnkey learning solutions for charter schools, private schools, and the public schools willing to buy in to a rigorously tech-driven learning model. CADET would only work with those schools and educational service providers looking to start with a clean slate implement an across-the-board integrated solution of 1:1 devices, administrative tools, data mining capabilities, and, most importantly, a set of curricula and pedagogical approaches designed to best exploit the technologies. Think of it as tech meets Montessori at scale. For Montessori schools, there isn't much deviation from the approach and curriculum. It's the Montessori way or the highway, which works very well for some people and school communities, but isn't for everyone. Where many end-to-end solutions fall apart is in their attempt to shoehorn any number of technologies into an existing hodgepodge of computers, information systems, data stores, and wishy washy levels of adoption. This approach is unavoidable in many school settings, where budgets, unions, state and federal regulations, and many other factors prevent the sort of "pure" technology implementation that CADET would be selling. However, charter schools, for example, are cropping up nationwide and are looking for ways to differentiate themselves and prove that their charters lead to improved student achievement. Similarly, educational institutions outside traditional school settings, whether private schools with unique missions, online schools, or even learning centers like those run by Kaplan for tutoring and test preparation or the Think Tank in Worcester, Massachusetts, have an opportunity to impose a level of technological integration and new approaches to learning that simply can't be achieved in many public schools. Our ideas about where students should learn and what schools should look like are changing quickly, both here in the States and abroad, creating a real opportunity for a company that can drop in technology and curricula that support these new approaches and do so in a proven, cost-effective, and replicable way. CADET would focus on complete, turnkey solutions in settings where they can be adopted fully, avoiding extensive costs around customization and compromises around the tech, the curriculum, or both. Organizations either buy into CADET or they don't. There is no half way here. It's a more manageable business model and, I believe, a more educationally sound way of providing services to students. While CADET is not designed for flexibility, it is designed for scalability and could be used by small homeschool cooperatives, mid-sized private schools, large charter schools, and everything in between.

Next: Details - the tech, the curriculum, and the model »

The Tech While the technological solutions CADET brings to the table won't (and don't need to be) bleeding edge, the focus will be on solutions that simply work well and are appropriate for their settings. A CADET adoption in K-6 is going to look a fair bit different than CADET in 9-14 (I'm including post-graduate tech education settings here). There would be core elements that carried across any deployment, though, keeping in mind that CADET represents a complete solution of integrated technology and curriculum. Wherever possible, open source solutions would be chosen for cost savings and customer customizability (while CADET would not be in the business of customization, organizations would be free to customize open source portions of the solution). All elements would also be hosted in the cloud by CADET or integrated third parties. On-premise solutions would not be supported.
  • Learning management system: For larger deployments or older audiences, this would be a customized version of the Instructure Canvas open source LMS, already populated with all curricular and assessment components. For smaller deployments, a Joomla! CMS instance would handle content needs. Both were chosen for their ease of use for end users and simple integration with other systems and tools.
  • Google Apps for Education: For most organizations using CADET, this would be a complete, free groupware and collaboration solution. For-profit users would have the cost of Google Apps for Business included in the cost of CADET. While there are other groupware solutions available, Google Apps arguably represents the best of breed in fully cloud-based solutions and simplifies the deployment of instructor and 1:1 hardware
  • Centre SIS: A complete student information system that can handle a variety of data collection and reporting needs that would be CADET-branded and -customized to handle both state and federally mandated testing and the aggregation of formative and summative assessments outlined in the curriculum.
  • R Project for Statistical Computing: A complete, open source data analysis package with many CADET-customized and -written procedures for data mining, exploration, and analysis. From an administrative and instructional perspective, this will be the most important component of CADET, enabling deep, actionable analysis of student data.
  • Instructor hardware: A principle tenet of CADET will be paperlessness, so instructors will be provided with universally with Chromebooks or Android tablets and, as needed, with workstations for analysis and content development.
  • Student hardware: CADET adopters could choose Android tablets (custom-rooted by CADET to accommodate content management and application needs), convertible Classmate PCs, Chromebooks, or mobile workstations depending upon the age and specific needs of the students. All would connect with a custom cloud-based content and LDAP server infrastructure that would ensure synchronization of educational resources and easy application management.
  • Untangle Internet Gateways: I'm coming into the home stretch on my book on Untangle and it's clear that this is an ideal tool for ensuring appropriate use of Internet resources and managing bandwidth in a really cost-effective way without imposing Draconian tools that run counter to CADET principles of open learning and learner responsibility and empowerment.
  • Virtual Classroom: I'll not explicitly specify WizIQ here, since I work for them...OK, yeah, CADET would set up WizIQ instances for all teachers and administrators to handle lesson capture, extended learning day activities, flipped classrooms, homework help, virtual parent conferences, etc. All lessons would be captured for later review by students and lesson study activities by teachers.
The Curriculum The CADET curriculum would be aligned with the Common Core standards, but would focus on the active use of technology to deeply explore concepts and integrated constructivist, project-based learning. A combination of rigorous research (with a focus on data analysis and the thoughtful synthesis of information), the arts, and yearlong deep dives into subjects across the curriculum would dispense with current approaches that disguise teaching to the test with vague nods to the standards. Learning to read? Best of breed literacy software and a complete library of leveled readers will be available in the cloud or pre-loaded on the devices. Classroom sets of probes would interface with data collection software for age-appropriate science exploration and experimentation. Mathematica and Geometer's Sketchpad would be pre-loaded for older student deployments to extend mathematics skills. Libraries of shortcuts to vetted online resources would also be pre-loaded, while schools that identified programming or content creation would have appropriate tools like Eclipse or Adobe's CS5.5 pre-loaded on mobile workstations. More interesting, though, than any particular software solution would be the integration across the curriculum. All secondary school curricula, for example, would feature a year-long unit on the Renaissance, with English classes using Adobe Story to write period-correct plays, history classes using Google Docs to contribute to shared research documents that would inform the play, and math classes recreating classic experiments and verifying Regiomontanus' famous trig tables with Geometer's Sketchpad, and so on. This curriculum would be a living set of documents that would continuously evolve based on feedback from schools and a guiding counsel of educators and technologists. The Model School A final key component of CADET would be the establishment of a model school where teachers from schools adopting CADET would be able to observe the technology and curriculum in action and which would act as a proving ground for both the tech and new approaches to tech-enhanced learning. The school would also be used to produce professional development and instructional videos for CADET adopters. The model school would be a K12 institution, relying on small class sizes and well-paid educators who contribute actively to the research and also provide support and training to outside adopters. These educators would actually make up the bulk of the staff at CADET and would be selected both for their educational prowess as well as their ability to develop the courseware, tools, and curricula sold to adopting schools. They would be supported by a team of engineers, writers, and instructional designers who would ultimately create the products adopted by educational institutions. From an investment perspective, it would be a very costly venture, but would be critical to CADET's ability to develop a replicable and rigorous approach to tech-enhanced education. Sounds cool, right? I've pondered on this for quite a while. In fact, this startup idea has been years in the making as I considered what it would really take to get away from what I refer to as the "thin veneer of technology" over the same tired approaches to teaching and learning. CADET would at once be a systems integrator, software development house, hardware vendor, educational think tank, and highly competitive school. It would be expensive to start, expensive to run, and potentially quite profitable as parents, policymakers, educators, and students demand something very different. While we've seen great strides among many progressive schools and educators, both in pedagogy and technology integration, I'm inclined to believe that it's time for a "Montessori of tech" to bring something that is far greater than the sum of its parts to 21st century education. Now I want to know what you think? Where should all of these investors who are suddenly interested in education spend their money? What do you like about this plan? What don't you like? I look forward to your comments. And if any wealthy angels out there like the plan...well, you know where to find me. For more about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the ed tech startup scene, check out the current episode of review:ed below.

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Show Notes

[02:00] Airy Labs layoffs and the Thiel Fellowship
Sources: TechCrunch | Hack Education

[14:20] Education Hype or Bubble? Sir Ken Robinson’s talk outdated

[22:20] Thank you to our sponsor Languagelab.com

[26:10] Interview with Jani Penttinen of Transfluent

[30:30] Transfluent translates the Obama Campaign Tweets into Spanish

[36:11] Pivots as part of a startup’s lifecycle

[46:47] Advice for young entrepreneurs

[49:23] Interview Lesley Beth & Kevin Condon of Jazzles

[51:00] History & methodologyof Jazzles

[59:00] Business behind Jazzles

[1:12:50] Would Google be as successful without Eric Schmidt as CEO?

[1:15:25] Inkling launches publisher platform


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