A continuing conversation with renowned edtech executive Sari Factor.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
She began her career as a mathematics teacher but soon thought of much bigger ways to impact students. Recognizing that technology could greatly transform the way students learn, Sari Factor made a career move into education technology and has been working to leverage technology to help students, teachers, schools, and districts ever since. Sari joined Imagine Learning in 2011 and has held leadership positions at successful educational publishing and learning technology companies, including Kaplan, McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, and Everyday Learning Corporation. “I knew that I could fulfill my vision to combine technology with research on learning to make education truly student-centered,” she says. As Vice Chair and Chief Strategy Officer at Imagine Learning, she sat down with EdTech Digest more than a decade after we first chatted, sharing changes, milestones, where things are at now and and what’s coming down the line—including an interesting new approach to AI-powered educational solutions, the challenges schools face now—and a fundamental shift in teaching.
We last published an interview with you April 12, 2012. So, 11+ years later, would you agree with your own outlook from then, when you stated, “The future of education lies in individualized learning that treats each student distinctly and I’d argue that technology is absolutely the enabler of personalized learning. We’re looking forward to the day that technology is applied well in every learning setting, from public to private to virtual, in a way that inspires and gives teachers the bandwidth to do what they signed on for when they first pursued their profession.”
A lot has changed over the past decade, yet I continue to believe that in the hands of educators, technology can personalize learning in a way that cannot be effectively managed without it. The difference today is that nearly every student has access to a device with high-speed internet. As learners work online, their teachers have instant access to actionable data to tailor instruction, whether those lessons are delivered by the teacher or assigned digitally.
‘…in the hands of educators, technology can personalize learning in a way that cannot be effectively managed without it.’
Technology, coupled with high-quality digital curriculum and virtual instruction, empowers potential by giving students access and opportunity to engage in coursework not available in local schools, such as upper-level math and science courses, world languages, Career and Technical Education, and Advanced Placement courses, empowering the potential of students regardless of their zip code.
We’ve been in edtech long enough to witness much change—what have been some of the milestones from your perspective, and what are some current highlights in terms of your work with Imagine Learning?
One milestone is the large influx of new devices and availability of high-speed internet in schools, which has enabled access for many more students. Our research shows that more than 90% of districts are now 1:1, so every student has access to their own computer. This has changed the landscape, enabling districts to benefit from digital-first Core curriculum solutions. Imagine Learning now offers digital-first Core solutions, in math (Imagine Learning Illustrative Mathematics), ELA (Imagine Learning EL Education), Science (Twig Science), and Social Studies, with Traverse, our new 6-12 Social Studies program.
The introduction of generative AI is another milestone that we believe has the potential to help teachers become more effective and efficient, in support of student learning. As a digital curriculum leader, we’ve always leveraged technology and AI, though we know that human interaction is at the heart of teaching and learning. At Imagine Learning, leveraging AI means empowering H.I. (Human Intelligence).
‘…we’ve always leveraged technology and AI, though we know that human interaction is at the heart of teaching and learning.’
With the rapid advent of Generative AI technology, we continue to innovate to enhance our solutions. As excited as we are about these new technologies, we recognize the crucial importance of responsible A.I. development and transparency about how A.I. is used. We will assert our high standards to safeguard data security, ensure equitable access, and uphold academic integrity. We have several new applications using A.I. in the works that I’m not ready to share today, but you can count on some announcements from us in the near future.
Let’s talk about Imagine Learning Ventures—what is this, and what is it not? What is the most exciting part of this, and what do you have to say to entrepreneurs worldwide that might come forward for such an opportunity?
Imagine Learning Ventures will make investments in promising A.I.-powered educational solutions. The fund is designed to complement Imagine Learning’s internal A.I. development initiatives with investments in startups that are at the forefront of innovative solutions for K-12 educators and learners. To your readers who are entrepreneurs, if you have novel ideas for using A.I. to benefit teaching and learning, through IL Ventures you would have access to our company’s industry expertise and domain knowledge, and potentially have access to our content and relationships with schools and districts across the U.S.
What is the state of education in light of technology these days?
Educators are now more accustomed to using technology-enabled solutions in their classrooms since the pandemic. Many had the opportunity to try new applications, find new, more efficient ways to do their work or engage students, or learned that certain students thrived by having access to technology tools or digital-first curricula. Educators also learned what didn’t work (e.g. six hours of synchronous instruction via Zoom) and the importance of matching the tool or curriculum to the specific learning need. It’s important to remember that teaching and learning are essentially human endeavors – which can be well supported by technology. There is no doubt that a caring teacher will always be the most important component in any learning environment. Technology is a tool— a vital one—in every educator’s toolkit. What’s indisputable is that educational technology can empower teachers to deliver better learning outcomes.
What trends are you watching closely over the next 6-12 months—why those? And what are your thoughts on the future of learning?
Since we’ve already talked about A.I., I’ll focus on two challenges that schools face that we’re not only watching, but actively collaborating with educators to address: the significant number of students who do not meet grade-level proficiency and the teacher shortage.
First, according to NWEA, though students grew academically in the 2022-23 school year, they did not grow enough to overcome the achievement gaps exacerbated by the pandemic. The average student is now 4.5 months behind in mathematics and 4.1 months behind in reading. To change this trajectory, we’re working with schools to fundamentally shift how these subjects are taught.
‘The average student is now 4.5 months behind in mathematics and 4.1 months behind in reading. To change this trajectory, we’re working with schools to fundamentally shift how these subjects are taught.’
As one example, the School District of Philadelphia recently adopted Imagine Learning’s Illustrative Mathematics and EL Education, as part of their Accelerate Philly strategic initiative to improve student achievement.
Another challenge faced by far too many districts and schools is the acute teacher shortage, made worse by the pandemic. Although many states are allowing emergency and alternative certifications for prospective teachers, we are working with a few hundred districts who are using our Imagine Learning’s virtual instructors to augment their teaching staffs, especially to provide instruction in upper-level math and sciences, world languages, and other electives. We have also seen demand for Speech Teletherapy, a relatively new offering for us. Of course, it’s always better to have a local educator or therapist, but the labor shortage is requiring some new and creative approaches.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org