One of the fastest growing private education companies in America (Inc. 500 for the past five years), Schoolwires provides web-based communication and collaboration solutions designed to connect K-12 communities. Edward Marflak, Chairman and Founder, was raised in a family of educators and is a noted speaker on education technology. Christiane Crawford, President and CEO, has over 30 years experience in education and education technology. Here they discuss more about what led them to where they are today, the creation of Schoolwires, their thoughts on education today, and what K-12 administrators should be thinking about for the next five years.
Victor: Tell me briefly about your background in educational technology.
Edward: After graduating in business from a state university, I worked at a technology practice that developed forward-looking online solutions for Fortune 500 companies, national associations and educational organizations. I also had firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing school districts and teachers: my parents were both professional educators.
Chris: I have over 30 years of experience in education and education technology. Prior to joining Schoolwires in 2006, I held senior management and executive level positions at SunGard Higher Education (which recently was renamed Ellucian). Higher education faces many of the same challenges as the K-12 market; however, they are farther along in adopting technology. It’s exciting for me to see the growth of technology in the K12 market, knowing the impact these technologies will have on teacher effectiveness and student outcomes which are so critical to preparing children for their own future and the future of our nation.
Victor: Why did you create Schoolwires?
Edward: Based on my experiences in education and technology, I began considering how schools could leverage online solutions to improve education. I understood that schools have much more modest IT budgets and staffing levels as compared to the private sector, so they needed solutions that would be easy to use and easy to manage, as well as affordable. I firmly believe that the Internet is one of the great equalizers of education, and Schoolwires is leveraging it to help school districts build stronger school communities, more effective schools and more successful students. We’ve made a strong impact in a short time: our solutions are being used by almost 10 percent of all students attending schools in the US; and our solutions are in25 of the top 200 districts.
Victor: What does the name Schoolwires mean?
Edward: It communicates our focus and our mission. ‘School’ emphasizes the fact that we focus 100 percent on the needs of K-12 education. When people hear the term ‘wired’, they think of the Internet or a network. Our solutions certainly leverage the Internet, but more importantly, ‘wires’ highlights the connections that our solutions enable; connections to the information, services, solutions and people they need to succeed. A school system’s success ─ and a school leader’s success ─ is based largely upon how effectively it makes these connections.
Victor: What are your key solutions? What are their benefits?
Chris: Centricity2 is our flagship solution. It is a website and content management system that brings together all of a district’s essential technologies, tools and information in one placeto support district goals and communication across the K12 community. This means that a district has one single system that enables staff within the district and schools, and teachers and authorized groups (like a PTO) to build and manage websites that give parents and the public all the resources and information they need to understand district initiatives, to see what is taking place within the classrooms, communicate back to the district, and easily find opportunities to get involved.
For teaching and learning, it gives teachers tools to engage with students online and to provide them with learning resources and interactive tools that engage students more, extend the learning process beyond school hours, and give students experience in 21st-century knowledge tools. The collaborative tools also support the flipped model of instruction where students view an instructor lecture at home and then actively apply the lesson in the classroom with the instructor acting as a “guide on the side.” It gives teachers and districts a lot of flexibility to support the learning model that best suits them.
Saying it is ‘easy to use’ is not just marketing speak. If a teacher or other user knows how to use Word, they can create a website. And it is easy to post photos, podcasts and other elements as well as bring in outside resources, like links to websites with relevant educational materials. At the same time, it has richer functionality for more advanced users.
Also the district and teachers can incorporate third-party applications, like gradebooks or links to educational videos, into their websites. The combination of Centricity2’s ease of use and its integration capabilities means that that students, parents and teachers can easily find the information and resources they need, and this removes barriers and makes it easier for them to engage with the district and with their child’s education. It also means that more people are making use of technologies that the district has invested in, providing a stronger return on investment.
In addition to Centricity2, we offer Nimbus, a safe social learning platform, and Greenleaf, a virtual classroom exchange program that helps students embrace cultural diversity on an international level.
Victor: How is Centricity2 unique from other similar products?
Chris: Centricity2 has several robust and unique features; however, most districts choose Schoolwires as their partner because the company is unique in very important ways. What I hear the most from our customers is that Schoolwires consistently puts the customer at the center of all we do. Our customer satisfaction levels with our products, hosting, training, template designs and support continue to remain at 99 percent–which is the satisfaction rate we have achieved year over year since the founding of the company. In addition, we believe our customer retention rates (greater than 95 percent year over year) far exceed those of other companies delivering similar products and services. To the customer, this means less risk, higher adoption, higher satisfaction among their community members, and more time to tend to students, parents and other district matters.
Victor: What are some examples of Centricity2 in action?
Chris: It’s hard to choose. Centricity is the communications hub for more than a thousand districts of all sizes, but here are a few examples. Hickman Mills School District saw a direct correlation between the implementation of its teacher websites and parental involvement that led to improved student performance. Higley Unified School District experienced increased community awareness about the learning taking place within its schools within just one year of implementing Centricity2. The consistent, professional and comprehensive websites are driving enrollment at the district, too.
Howe ISD says the experiences their students are having through Centricity2 gives them practice as a contributing member of a virtual community, and a better understanding of how the Web connects them to everything; all valuable 21st century skills.
Placing information on websites rather than sending home paper handouts also saves districts money and supports their green initiatives. Higley realized an overall school supplies savings of $100,000 in one year.
Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?
Chris: There are so many challenges that affect education today. Budgets remain tight while demands on teachers and administrators continue to rise. Keeping students actively engaged in learning continues to evolve. And encouraging and enabling parental involvement in a child’s educational journey is essential. Certainly, technology plays a critical role in addressing all of these challenges. And technology companies dedicated to education must continue to innovate and deliver solutions that improve educational outcomes and help districts engage more deeply with their community, in the classroom, and with other districts and secondary education institutions not just domestically, but globally.
In addition to delivering safe and effective communication vehicles for parents, teachers, students and other individuals, technology companies must deliver effective ways for districts to provide those individuals with safe and secure access to the myriad of systems used by district in the education process.
We are seeing more and more demand in the K12 market for single sign on to these systems as well as for portal functionality that renders information relevant to the user based on his/her role—providing a self-serve, personal workspace with the rich functionality of several applications served up to the user under one user interface. I saw the popularity and impact of these integrated portals when I worked at SunGard Higher Education. I’m thrilled to be part of the Schoolwires team that is delivering this to the K-12 market now.
Demand for better communication; for access to information and resources at the state, district, school and classroom level; and for more accountability for students (with parent and teacher involvement) to plan, assess and manage their education drives our technology innovation.
Victor: What should administrators be thinking about today in terms of educational technology in order to be prepared for the next 5 years?
Edward: Technology will transform the business of education. I can’t state that strongly enough. Teaching and instructional methods are changing already and will continue to evolve. Here is what administrators need to think about to get ready.
First of all, content will go digital this decade. The technology (devices) are ready now, and they will become intensely more powerful and less expensive over the next five years. Having the majority of content available digitally creates new possibilities and districts need to be ready to embrace them.
Second, school leaders need to think strategically about technology and take a leadership role in its application. Technology has the power to be transformative, but districts will miss the opportunities if they leave its application in the hands of IT. Administrators need to think through the impact of change on all stakeholders. They need to think through how their organization can be fundamentally changed by technology. And they need to take a holistic view of technology. Technology has become so pervasive that they can no longer buy discrete solutions. The integration of applications within a single platform is as important as the pieces themselves.
Third, now is the time to implement a system-wide safe social learning platform for learning and collaboration. Many studies, like Project Tomorrow, tell us that this is where students are engaging today. A collaborative learning environment is necessary for project-based learning, peer-based learning and global learning. It has to be effective and it has to be safe. This is not a future direction; this is where students are today. A safe social learning platform also is the necessary foundation for the changeover to digital content.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Edward: Our challenges are massive. The United States is ranked 24th out of 29 countries for student mastery of basic math concepts. We have a persistent high school dropout crisis. Colleges and universities say that students arrive at their institutions with inadequate academic skills while the workforce laments the lack of qualified workers.
The good news is that technology can be transformative, and it is the great equalizer in education. Game-changing technology and processes are here today. We are very close to the tipping point where it will change everything and deliver stronger results. For example, it will allow new instructional practices and processes for individualized learning that simply can’t be achieved in the traditional classroom model. It will allow connections to the best resources possible, without the restrictions of geography. These are just two examples. As technology capabilities continue to double in power and reduce in prices, these new approaches can be incorporated at less cost.
Victor: What are some of the biggest challenges facing K-12 administrators in terms of technology that supports communication, collaboration, and social learning – and how do your solutions address them?
Chris: There are several, but I will focus on two. First, it isn’t surprising that in order to keep students actively engaged in the learning process, we need to understand how they communicate and collaborate in a social setting. Providing learning experiences that utilize the social tools these students use every day will engage them more deeply.
With that said, the second challenge is ensuring that the learning environment remains safe from profanity and predators. This is the responsibility of the district and the teachers and administrators who monitor these spaces. There are both policy and technology aspects that must be considered in providing access to a safe social learning environment. However, if districts want to maximize the level of engagement of their students and improve teaching effectiveness, it will be imperative that social learning environments be adopted sooner than later.
In some cases, teachers have virally adopted social learning tools in their classrooms, sometimes without the knowledge of the district/school. This has many unintended consequences for districts as they are asked to support and integrate multiple social learning tools adopted by various teachers in their district.
Also, the district shares liability for teacher communications on these social websites. Having a district evaluate the best and safest social learning application and working with a technology company seasoned with enterprise level implementations in these engaging environments is the best course of action.
Victor: Schoolwires has expanded into China. What can you tell us about that experience?
Chris: Schoolwires decided to explore the education market in China for several reasons. I’ll focus on one of them. China has put unprecedented focus and resources on improving educational outcomes for their students and is very interested in partnering with other countries to expand the learning experiences of their students. Based on our market research, including discussions with officials at the federal and provincial levels, we learned that Chinese schools were interested in and could benefit from technologies and services provided by Schoolwires.
We also learned about how technologies and services provided by Schoolwires could benefit both the US and China as both countries continue to increase emphasis on the importance of global and cultural immersion in today’s ever growing global workforce. To that end, we piloted our Greenleaf Virtual International Classroom Exchange program with the participation of State College Area High School in State College Pennsylvania and Yu Yuan Tang High School in Bejing.
The Greenleaf program supports 21st century learning, leveraging students’ natural desire to engage and learn from their peers. As they collaborate and learn together virtually on projects developed in alignment with the Schoolwires Greenleaf curriculum and on our Nimbus social learning platform, students in the U.S. and China gain a deeper understanding of global issues and how to interact effectively with people from a different country and culture. More than a virtual learning program, Greenleaf is an international cultural exchange opportunity that promotes digital and global citizenship.
On a personal note, I am honored and amazed when I visit schools in China participating in Greenleaf. Sitting in as an observer, I watch in awe as I see children energized by learning English and so excited to work on projects in their virtual classroom with their US teams. The children literally became glued to me, using their English to ask questions about American life, American students, and American education. They share their strong desire to study in the US. And yes, every student continually asks me if American students have lots of homework. They won’t take “absolutely” as an answer!
To know that Schoolwires is playing such a meaningful role in the development of these US and China based global citizens with our technology and people is very satisfying. We continue to deepen our relationship with officials in China to jointly discover how to leverage the Schoolwires’ solutions for content management, safe social learning, and virtual international classroom exchange.
Victor: What are some of the company’s newest and hottest solutions?
Chris: Last year, we introduced Nimbus to help improve student outcomes through the use of online collaborative tools but within a safe social learning environment. With Nimbus, students experience collaborative, blended and virtual learning in a safe social network designed for education.
Social enrichment opportunities include extracurricular, civic, and athletic activities. Nimbus provides the critical collaborative learning environment that Ed talks about as being the foundation for project-based learning, peer-based learning and global learning. Yet it does so in a safe and secure way, eliminating parents’ objections to online collaboration and district’s exposure to potential liabilities.
Victor: Is there anything else you want to share with educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Schoolwires?
Edward: I want to help administrators really understand the transformation that technology is driving, and stress to them that they need to have a short- and long-term vision of the strategic role of technology in their district. They need to have an aspirational goal for where their district is headed and it needs to be grounded within the direction the world is headed.
Then they need to take concrete steps to move forward. We’ve created a Maturity Model that details what I call a ‘stair step’ approach for districts to take. And the value we bring is not only the technology, but the vision and the direction to move them ahead.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: [email protected]