An exec from the educational app platform for families talks about our mobile future.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Schools focus on providing a safe learning environment for kids, one that’s conducive to students taking risks and learning new things without doing harm to themselves or others, according to the philosophy of Matt McDonnell (pictured back row, third from left), Chief Operating Officer of Famigo, a platform for families to safely discover, manage and enjoy educational and entertaining apps, videos, and games on all smartphones and tablets. So it follows that App marketplaces should be the same way, “but before we launched, they were geared at adults,” says Matt, a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, who took a leave of absence from the University of Texas School of Law in order to focus all his attention on this booming company. “We wanted to create a nurturing, positive learning environment on mobile tech for young kids to learn and grow in. We worked to make sure that kids weren’t seeing racy ads, spending $100s of their parents’ money on in-app purchases, or otherwise running into inappropriate content. That was the first step.”
Edtech is evolving rapidly and as a result, so is the profession of teaching.
Victor: Okay, then what? Where did you take it from there?
Matt: The other strong consideration for us was that although edtech is a really hot market, very few companies serve the early childhood and elementary markets, or they serve it with imperfect solutions—pared down versions of apps originally designed for middle- or high-school. At Famigo, we know that the ROI for effective early childhood education is very high compared to later interventions, and we wanted to provide something that would help kids in that age group learn. Mobile technology is particularly powerful, because kids who can’t yet read and write now have access to computing power and the universe of internet based content for the first time ever.
Once we created an app that provided a positive learning environment, teachers actually started using it in their classrooms. This started about two years ago, around the time tablets were being issued to schools, but without corresponding software, appropriate curricula or instructional plans. We provided cleaned-up, kid-safe environment where teachers could configure what they wanted to have available to students. Customers ended up bulk licensing Famigo for schools. We also met some partners, including United Way, General Motors and FarFaria who were also interested in being part of our educational platform
Victor: What’s something interesting about Famigo’s development history?
Matt: Famigo’s roots are in consumer mobile development, and that turned out to be an asset in today’s era of convergence between consumer and enterprise technology. A lot of edtech has its roots in enterprise software, which tends to be dry and not terribly user-friendly. But the consumer and enterprise markets are converging on the characteristics of consumer software, and so is edtech. Every app, in other words, is heading towards its most user-friendly iteration, and I think our consumer background helped us beat that trend. I respect and admire other edtech companies, like BrainPop, who have anticipated that trend and designed their apps to be as intuitive and easy to use as possible.
Every app, in other words, is heading towards its most user-friendly iteration.
Victor: Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?
Matt: As a student myself, I didn’t fit well into the mold of formal education, primarily because I, like most people, learn best by doing. That frustration led me to experiential and outdoor education. I worked for Outward Bound for a number of years, and I’ve founded two experiential dropout prevention programs. I’ve always been interested in educating the whole person rather than a disembodied mind. I’ve worked in experiential education venues for high school and college students, but it became very clear to me that I could have a much bigger impact if I could work with people at a younger age. My career went from working in college, to high school, to middle school, elementary, and finally, little kids.
From years of my own teaching experience, I learned that the classroom setting does not reach individual learners. When conventional computers arrived in the classroom, I saw a huge opportunity for individualized education being missed.
According to conventional wisdom, if we equip each child with a computer in the classroom, we will accomplish full integration of technology with education. That’s incredibly over-simplified. Using computers in the classroom is important, but that shouldn’t mean taking the same outdated, rigid classroom experience and simply translating it into a mobile version of the same broken experience. We need to change how and where people learn, and we need to use technology to enable the user to take greater control of their own educational experience. This requires that the traditional classroom model change. In a typical classroom, you have thirty kids whose skills are roughly distributed around a bell curve. The pedagogical approach is to teach to the middle—but that’s crazy, because statistically, there’s no single person in the ‘middle’.
Victor: Where do you get your passion for education and coming up with education-improving solutions?
Matt: I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t really interesting to me. As a Cub Scout, I’d teach my brother’s younger den. In college, I enrolled in a nine-month long student outdoor education course to learn how to be an experiential educator. That was the first formal instruction I got in teaching. I also worked at a Pre-K through 8th grade charter school where I had the opportunity to do just about every available job at the school – from building a library and electronic card catalog system to teaching first grade. This was a pivotal experience for me, because it short-circuited the path to finding out what I really wanted to do in education—it was immersive and diverse enough to help me quickly realize that teaching as a professional isn’t my cup of tea. The reason for this is in the way we teach; it isn’t scalable—I could be the best teacher I could possibly be, but I’d only ever impact twenty-two kids a year. Ultimately, this propelled me into edtech.
Victor: What’s your 60-second pitch to someone on what exactly it is, benefits?
Matt: Famigo is the company providing a safer experience for children, teachers and families on mobile devices. We create and curate only the highest-quality educational content, so that your kids can learn and play in a safe environment. We provide parents and teachers with the tools necessary to make sure that the right content gets to the right child at the right time. We do this by offering roughly $20 worth of age-appropriate content delivered right to your mobile device each month for $4.99. It’s like Netflix for your mobile device but includes apps, ebooks, games and a kidsafe web browser, too.
It’s like Netflix for your mobile device but includes apps, ebooks, games and a kidsafe web browser, too.
Victor: Do you have any direct or indirect competition?
Matt: Our biggest source of competition is indirect, and it consists of basically everything else out there that’s competing for a child’s attention on a mobile device. That is more concerning than any of Famigo’s direct edtech competitors, because a lot of what competes for a child’s attention for screen time is not educational, or not enriching their lives. There are lots of ed tech competitors, but relatively few are very focused on early childhood and primary school education like Famigo. Most competitors replicate the one-size-fits-all approach of a traditional classroom, with products that claim to encompass skill levels from K through 12, but I have yet to understand how a product could effectively serve both 5-year-olds and 18-year-olds.
Victor: Any highlights in test marketing or starting out, any interesting feedback?
Matt: We’ve always worked with pilot schools. Our first was a private school that served a population whose demographic profile essentially fits a Title I school and it has a large percentage of non-native English speakers. We’ve also added pilot school populations with different backgrounds. The reason for diversifying our pilot schools is that different schools operate differently, and have different needs.
In edtech, people talk about sales to school districts as if a school district is homogeneous, and my experience in schools has taught me that’s simply not true. By running pilot programs with diverse populations we make sure we don’t sell something we developed for one school and assume it’s transferrable throughout that school’s entire district.
Also, in terms of our target age group, we need to reach early childhood centers. It’s very difficult to conduct reliable market research in early childhood centers because these centers rarely have reliable broadband.
Victor: What else can you say about the value and benefit of Famigo?
Matt: Our guiding principle is that we deliver the right content to the right student at the right time, and that applies to our entire platform. Sometimes the right content is a game; sometimes the right student is a child at home who’s three years old, or an 8 year old on a road trip who wants access to ebooks. The point is that the individual who does the supervising, coaching and delivery can vary. A child’s first teacher is their parent, so we want to give parents tools to be effective teachers. At school, teachers are effectively stand-in parents, so those roles overlap some in early childhood. We don’t think that learning stops when the school bell rings, and we try to reflect that in our software by connecting the experience between home and school.
A child’s first teacher is their parent, so we want to give parents tools to be effective teachers.
Victor: Anything else in the works?
Matt: Our K-5 product is in pilot schools right now, and will be available by this upcoming school year. One of the big problems in edtech is that teachers don’t want to adopt new technology because they view it as more work; and 99.9% of the time, they’re absolutely right. Oftentimes, edtech adoptions create additional work on the part of teachers. At Famigo, we always keep this in mind, and one of our guiding questions is: How do you improve instruction without requiring additional work from teachers?
Victor: Your thoughts on education in general these days?
Matt: Even though we are slow to abandon outdated methodologies of teaching, we’re living in the most exciting time in the history of education. It’s frustrating that it’s still very difficult to transfer credits between institutions, for example—protocols and bureaucracy that doesn’t serve students are slow to evolve. But there are forces at work to revolutionize how we approach learning philosophically, and that’s very encouraging. We need to do a better job of empowering children in the classroom to teach one another. I firmly believe that the vast majority of learning occurs between two individuals, one of whom is just slightly more skilled in that area. How do people learn to mountain bike? They go out with their friends who are a little more experienced. We also need to do a better job of empowering people to learn things on their own. This means the education field needs to get better at embracing change and the unexpected.
Even though we are slow to abandon outdated methodologies of teaching, we’re living in the most exciting time in the history of education.
Education and access to information is the foundation for democratic participation. The information medium that made good citizens hundreds of years ago was the Pony Express and newspapers, now it’s the web and increasingly, the mobile web. We need to embrace this rather than fear it. This will help accommodate a greater diversity of learning styles, which will in turn strengthen our focus on the individual.
I think one of the primary reasons the DSM is exploding with learning disabilities is that the way diagnosed individuals learn doesn’t fit with the way schools teach. Let’s change the way we teach people, and expand our concept of education to include hands-on learning and apprenticeships. We have a huge population in the US who can’t fulfill the high-skilled jobs we need, and we talk about them getting degrees, what’s wrong with a profession-specific apprenticeship? That’s a better way to retrain someone and get them on their feet than requiring an investment of $60K a year for a degree that may have little or no return on investment. We need to think about the type of person we want our schools to produce: Why is group work the most prized kind of work in school now? Which learning style does that prioritize? We need a broader understanding of how people learn and work in order to unlock our individuals abilities and talents. We’re going to face some pretty big problems in the rest of the 21st century and I’d prefer to harness more rather than less collective brainpower to solve them.
Victor: Any guidance or advice to educators these days?
Matt: I have a lot of respect for people who are in the classroom everyday, and I’m reluctant to give them advice. I will say that edtech is evolving rapidly and as a result, so is the profession of teaching. There’s a lot of young people who are energetic about making these changes, but they are often met with resistance from people who are reluctant to take the risks necessary to implement meaningful change. The trick is going to be striking the right balance between preserving tried and true methods developed from years of teaching experience and embracing innovative practices. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but our fear of doing so should not prevent us from throwing out the dirty bathwater as well.
The most valuable prize for us is to find a school, teacher or district administrator who’s willing to give honest feedback about our product in an articulate way. This kind of relationship is priceless. A lot of times, schools get approached by a company, and the schools must choose whether or not to add additional software that has been created in isolation from how that school works, and those school’s particular needs. We need to move away from that model and towards a model where companies develop software with schools. If you’re a teacher and you want to help, and you email an edtech company and say let me keep giving you feedback about how this software translates in my curriculum and in my classroom, they’d absolutely love that. The more people who are involved in education in the capacities that best suit their personalities and talents, the better our education system and ed tech products will be.
Finally, lots of teachers are really good researchers, because research is a key element of preparing solid lessons or earning the advanced degrees required for their jobs. When teachers are willing to be a part of studies that prove the efficacy of edtech, we can really make a difference in how we teach our young people. Without the teachers, who are on the front lines of education, none of us truly know what works in edtech.
Victor: Anything else you’d like to add?
Matt: I think there are three unique skills that, in today’s technology-rich world, are more valuable than ever. One is project-based learning. Wherever there’s technology, there are malfunctions, and also users with different skill levels. Producing positive learning outcomes in classrooms that use technology requires that children work together. Kids that know how to problem-solve together will thrive in whatever endeavors they choose later in life. So will kids whose parents were empowered to teach them. We refer to this process of empowering parents to be a child’s first teacher as Parental Development. This kind of PD has even led parents to report a decrease in depressive symptoms concerning their ability to impact their kids’ educational outcomes. The third skill is digital citizenship. As the amount of online information continues to grow, it will become critical for children to become discerning consumers of information. The ability to find and use quality information is a requirement for positive political participation, and today and in the future, the vast majority of that information resides online.
Victor Rivero is the editor in chief of Edtech Digest. Write to: [email protected]