Picking Your Future ‘Classroom’ Will Shape How Students Learn

Feb 25, 2021

What’s the most influential technology in education right now? Or, more to the point, what’s been the bedrock of education since, say, March 2020?

Video conferencing platforms.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, we all vaulted into online conferencing platforms last year when the pandemic sent us home. Without them, most teachers would not have been able to connect to students.

But—and it’s a big “but”—none of these platforms were designed to support learning.

And now a prediction: A year from now, I expect to see a significant number of learners of all ages still using video platforms to connect with schools.

What will they use? And crucially: how will those platforms shape how they learn?

The extraordinary disruption that all learners have faced this past year has made it clear what learning should look like: It is collaborative; we learn from both educators and peers. We want to interact, not just listen to lectures. We need to participate, verbally and through projects, to show what and how we’re learning. Forcing students to just check multiple-choice options is an open invitation to cheat. And we all want to be freed from the confines of two-dimensional “Brady Bunch” style boxes.

The challenge ahead of the video platforms will be how well they can support learners and educators.

A year into the pandemic, both familiar and new video platforms are evolving, trying to figure out what they can do. And they will fundamentally shape learning going forward. This week, Class Technologies (formerly called ClassEDU) said it would begin licensing its technology to K-12 schools and higher-ed institutions. Pricing starts at about $10,000 a year for a school.

Founder Michael Chasen, formerly chief executive of the learning management system company, Blackboard, has raised a hefty warchest of funding: $46 million from investors that include Emergence Capital, Bill Tai (one of the first investors in Zoom) and leading education investors including GSV Ventures, Owl Ventures and Reach Capital. Chasen figures the company will have close to 200 employees by the end of this year.

Class is developed on the technology infrastructure built by leading video platform, Zoom, which brings both blessings and challenges. (The two companies are independent; Class licenses Zoom technology.) “Our idea was to take what teachers need to run a class and build it into Zoom,” says Chasen, in an interview. He and his colleagues talked with educators and administrators and started an interactive design process. “Some of the stories were so interesting,” he recalls. “One superintendent and his principals would dial into different teachers’ Zoom classes to make sure they were holding class. So we said: ‘Let’s add a dashboard of metrics so the supe or principal can know what’s going on.’”

Chasen’s team can take advantage of features that Zoom is already developing—for instance, transcription services—and instead focus on functions they feel are crucial for schools. On the list: taking attendance, organizing students by a seating chart, having a dedicated “podium” space for the teacher, and facilitating student-teacher one-on-one sessions without interrupting the rest of the class.

Another huge advantage of building on top of Zoom: Educators just keep calling. Chasen says his company has been flooded with more than 10,000 inbound calls from schools even before doing marketing.

That said, there are disadvantages, too. Zoom plans to continue to sell to educators. A small school with a staff of 20, for instance, pays about $1,800 a year. (More staff means adding more licenses.) Using Class means the school must pay for both a Zoom and a Class license. And because the Zoom platform uses a generous slice of computer memory, mobile devices or locations with patchy bandwidth struggle. That’s been a problem particularly for low-income students or those in rural areas that lack network connectivity.

Even so, Chasen believes that building on top of Zoom gives him a massive head start. Zoom has poured millions of dollars into building out its platform and “is the largest and most scalable network for audio and video,” Chasen says. “That’s a huge benefit for us.”

A competing startup, Engageli, by contrast, is being designed from the ground up to be more lightweight—and to offer educators a different way to interact with students. Engageli, which is targeting higher ed users, organizes students into “tables” of up to eight participants each. Teachers can glide between the groups, checking in as need be. Wrote industry guru Michael Feldstein: “One of the first emotions I experienced upon seeing Engageli was shock. I couldn’t believe how intuitive it looked.”

That said, Engageli has raised $14.5 million, less than half the funding of Class, and is still building out its technology and team. Chief executive Dan Avida says Engageli has “dozens” of higher ed institutions in the U.S., U.K. and Israel taking part in its pilot program.

And then there’s the engagement challenge. How much are students learning on these platforms? Are they “engaged”?

Enter the artificial intelligence tools that collect, analyze and share data around engagement. Cambridge, Mass.-based startup, Riff Analytics measures who’s been speaking the most and shares that information in real time. (Riff built its own infrastructure to do this). Microsoft’s Teams group has been working with another young company, Ment.io, to weave in AI that scores the “expertise” of comments made in a group—something that could help educators identify which students are more (or less) up-to-speed on the topics at hand.

Both Class and Engageli are also monitoring the students on their platforms. “We can let you know how long the teacher spoke for, the types of interactions. And when you overlay that data with grades, it will give us insights into [learning],” Chasen says. Avida says Engageli collects more than 70 data points to gauge interactions: “We monitor if a student is posting questions to their table or the class, if they are taking notes on the system and if they are participating in quizzes or polls. We also track how students are sending direct feedback to the instructor.”

The companies will have to walk a fine line between providing valuable information to educators and protecting students’ privacy. “We only measure specific data points relating to specific student activities,” Avida says, “[there’s] no recording, no gaze-tracking, no monitoring what other activity they’re doing.”

And there are other platforms, too. Google continues to offer Google Meet, free of charge. In China, developers were ahead of the game, building a remote learning platform, ClassIn. And then there’s the one video platform that many teens have fully embraced, namely Discord, which is a clever mashup of a messaging and video platform (think: Zoom meets Slack), that caters to gamers. And there’s a host of startups building augmented reality environments such as Metaverse that are eager to introduce new landscapes to video conferencing, too.

How will you want to learn in the future? Choose carefully: the platform will shape your experience and your learning more than you expect.

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