Building a platform bottom-up to let teachers and students work together.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
A small, dedicated team of people who are changing the world — that’s who this smart San Francisco-based company is comprised — and they’re doing so for teachers, students and classrooms here in the States and beyond. In alphabetical order, members of Tangient (makers of Wikispaces Classroom) are: Eric Ablett, Dominick Bellizzi, Ryan Bowse, James Byers, Sarah Cove, Max Dobrusin, Adam Frey, Jeff Hanke, Ryan Koopmans, Julie Newcomb, and Carole Snitzer. Since early 2005, they’ve been dedicated to building the world’s easiest-to-use wiki service by listening closely to the ever growing Wikispaces community. They now host millions of wikis, and have products designed for the smallest classroom and the world’s largest corporations and institutions, helping over 10 million teachers and students. Here, Adam and James, co-founders of Wikispaces (and authors of this interesting article), have a lot to say about improving the classroom experience for teachers and students.
Victor: How would you briefly summarize what it is you are doing with Wikispaces Classrooms?
James: In short, we give teachers and students what they need to be more effective. And we know how to do this because we’ve been working with them very closely for years. Wikispaces Classroom was built on the experience of serving teachers through Wikispaces for seven years. Rather than being built top-down, it has been built from the bottom-up. We started with a core product, Wikispaces, that is fundamentally about letting teachers and students do their day-to-day work together. On top of that, we’ve built features like the social newsfeed and formative assessment functions. These tools were developed because millions of Wikispaces users helped us understand that they will make teachers’ lives easier and students more engaged. This, in turn, increases student achievement.
Victor: You’ve never done media outreach before. What impact do you hope to make by talking about education-technology and Wikispaces now?
Adam: News about our product releases tends to reach teachers and students worldwide by word of mouth, so we haven’t historically done traditional media outreach. From a business perspective, we don’t really need to. Our teacher community does our marketing and sales for us.
But in the last couple of years, interest in education technology among the investor community has come roaring back. Having seen bubbles build and burst several times before, we wanted to lend our voices to the debate over what success in ed-tech means and share our experiences on how to achieve it. We’ve therefore been reaching out more broadly than in the past to talk about how to build an engaged, teacher- and student-focused company. We are also talking about the pitfalls to avoid and providing practical advice for other entrepreneurs who want to make a positive impact on the lives of teachers and students. Talking about our product, specifically what we’ve built and why, is in service of this broader conversation.
Victor: How will teachers and students specifically be helped by Wikispaces Classroom?
James: Wikispaces Classroom helps teachers be more effective, helps students be more engaged, and ultimately improves student outcomes. It does this by providing tools that make it easy to do the day-to-day work of the classroom while giving teachers deep insight into each of their students.
1) Wikispaces Classroom makes teachers more effective. A lot of what teachers do online is manage their classroom, assign work to their students, collaborate on that work, evaluate their students, and engage with them to help each student achieve. Wikispaces Classroom makes all of that easier than ever. Our new clear design, simplified tools and features, and increased focus lets teachers spend less time thinking about the tool and more time thinking about their students.
2) Wikispaces Classroom helps improve student engagement. Our social news feed is a new, modern, social way for teachers and students to discuss and manage all of the work of the classroom. We’ve been told repeatedly that making it easy for teachers and students to engage with their work, in the way that makes most sense for each individual in the class, dramatically increases engagement among students, especially those who sometimes struggle in traditional classroom learning models. We believe Wikispaces Classroom will play an important role in increasing that engagement.
3) Wikispaces Classroom helps improve student outcomes. Our new formative assessment function give teachers real-time actionable insight into how each student is doing and the information teachers need to provide timely and focused help. By making teachers better able to understand each student and provide them with the guidance they need, Wikispaces Classroom will improve each students’ outcomes.
Victor: What’s next for education technology as a sector?
Adam: There are a lot of education technology companies being built right now, and many will fail. That’s how the world of venture-backed companies is supposed to work. At the same time, there are incredibly impactful technologies springing up everywhere that are already helping teachers and students. We are excited to be part of this world.
There’s also a lot of talk about how to disrupt the education industry and how to create entirely new models of education. These are admirable and important goals, but we think that there is enormous good to be done by delivering technology today that helps teachers, student and institutions do the work they know they need to be doing more easily, efficiently, and effectively.
Victor: What in your experience has really informed your current approach and led you up to this point?
James: Our earliest, most formative experience, was realizing how little technology was being used by teachers for their day-to-day teaching and learning in the classroom. Our industry has just not done a good job of putting tools in teachers’ hands that they liked and could actually use. The lesson we learned was to lower barriers to entry, make it simple, and make sure we are building products that teachers want.
The second important lesson we learned was how big an impact simple technology can have on the lives of students. A recurring story we heard was about the students who never participated in class but who, once exposed to the wiki platform, ended up building incredibly rich and effective resources such as study guides for themselves and their classmates. These students were more engaged and more likely to achieve outside of the traditional bounds of the classroom and the class day. Teachers would tell us over and over how empowering it was to be able to enable students to learn in the ways that best suited them. From this, we learned that we had to listen closely and engage deeply to understand how to build a tool that was flexible enough to handle many different styles of teaching and learning.
Victor: What advice or caveats do you have for those involved in developing platforms to serve teachers? What are some essential elements to consider? Why those?
Adam: That’s a big question, and one we tried to address pretty comprehensively in our article “How to Succeed in Education Technology.” (https://www.wikispaces.com/content/topic/how-to-succeed-in-education). In summary, we think it’s important to make sure you understand what “success” means to you, make sure you are passionate about achieving that success, and make sure that what you’re building is sustainable. Then you focus on grassroots engagement to grow your company. If you share our definition of success, which is all about helping teachers and students, we think this is the best recipe for achieving that success.
Victor: On a broad level, what do you believe is the purpose of education technology? What makes you say that?
James: Ultimately, education technology is about helping students achieve better outcomes. Wikispaces achieves this by helping teachers help students, and by helping institutions help teachers. We know that teachers, schools, districts, and universities aren’t going anywhere for a while, and we know how much we can help them by developing solutions they need and love. So that’s where we focus.
But it’s not easy. Technology can do so much that excites the imagination, and it is capable of creating so much wealth, that other goals can get in the way. The challenge for education technology companies is balancing the excitement around what is possible with a daily focus on helping teachers and students.
Victor: Anything else you care to add or emphasize about your current project, your thoughts on the future, or anything else you’d like to mention?
Adam: Our new formative assessment feature is a good example of a lot of what we’ve been talking about. So much of “assessment” is not really about helping students – at least not directly. But with a platform like Wikispaces, and the incredible amount and quality of data that it generates as a byproduct of teacher and student collaboration, there was a great opportunity for us to deliver a formative assessment tool that could actually help teachers help students.
With Wikispaces Classroom, teachers can now use the formative assessment tool to deliver individualized attention to each student according to the needs of that student. As importantly, teachers can access that assessment without having to do any extra work.
James: It took us a long time to build the platform that made it possible for us to start thinking about building a formative assessment tool. It also took us a long time to understand how to build a formative assessment tool that would actually help teachers. But our approach of being patient and actively listening has afforded us that time. In the end, we were able to deliver something we, and our users, are incredibly excited about.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. Get your story told through case studies, white papers and other materials you can share at trade shows and on your website. Write to: [email protected]