How Software Can Make a Differentiated Difference
opinion

How Software Can Make a Differentiated Difference

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Last weekend, I sat in a sewing class with my 10-year old daughter and was surprised to learn that ⅓ of our day would be dedicated to programming our sewing machines. The room full of women, most over 60 years old, happily embraced the automation of tasks like embroidery now possible thanks to the software running their machines. Marc Andreessen is right: Software is eating the world. It’s eating education too, but not in the way critics would have you believe. 

Mainstream media has oversimplified edtech, too often characterizing it as apps aimed to replace teachers. In Matt Richtel’s NYT's  piece profiling the no-tech Waldorf School in Silicon Valley, he quotes a parent, “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.” 

The truth is, the overwhelming majority of education technology entering our K-12 schools today are tools and content designed for teachers to support their efforts to differentiate instruction. Those same Silicon Valley, high-tech parents would never consider going about their jobs without the latest software to give them an edge. Yet, our teachers are expected to personalize learning with primitive tools in a one-size-fits-all educational system. (120-150+ students per teacher at the secondary level, summative assessment system, limited planning time, etc) The green Ward lesson planning book is still widely used. The basis for starting the Seed Fund three years ago was to invest in cutting-edge tools for differentiating instruction, the other theses areas grew from there.

Differentiated Instruction (DI) has become an educational buzzword used to convey different ideas from personalized learning to student grouping. In plain language, differentiated instruction means: the methods a teacher uses to respond to individual learning needs in the classroom. A teacher can differentiate by modifying:

  1. how they teach (process);
  2. what they teach (content);
  3. the product (evidence of learning); and
  4. the learning environment.

Teachers need tools and content to help them efficiently differentiate these four areas while managing a classroom and their overall load of students. Our investment thesis is to seed companies that can differentiate along the following dimensions: 

Content Differentiation: Children learn in different ways and it’s helpful to present content in multiple formats to increase the odds of reaching more learners. An extreme example of how technology can enable new ways to present conceptually challenging ideas is the Solar Walk app which leverages the touch screen pinch and expand technology of the iPad to represent the scale of the Universe in a very unique way. There is credible research to show Solar Walk increases comprehension of these concepts. Not only are we seeking new, digitally enhanced content, but we also aim to fund content tools able to adapt to the needs of individual students. Companies like Blendspace, eSpark, Zaption, Zeal and Educreations enable personalized content for students thereby optimizing the path a child takes to achieve their learning goals.

Learning Environment Differentiation: Nearpod and Hapara are workflow or learning environment tools. Nearpod gives teachers the ability to toggle between whole class, small group and individual instruction in 1:1 learning environments while Hapara is a layer of software that helps teachers manage student work in the Google Apps for Edu environment. 

Assessment and Feedback: In order to differentiate effectively, teachers need to gather information on a child’s understanding. We look for formative assessment tools that give teachers the information they need to modify their instruction as needed. Assessment and feedback go hand-in-hand; some tools combine the two. The key feature we are looking for is that the teacher has a place in this assessment/feedback loop. Mobile assessment tools like Socrative shorten the assessment/feedback cycle even enabling teachers to adjust instruction on the spot. 

We are seeing some of the strongest innovation in these categories as the tools evolve alongside mobile technology. Its important to note that DI is a foundational principle of the Seed Fund and cuts across all of our investment areas.

Editor's Note: This article is part 3 of a series of posts that ran on NewSchools Venture Fund's blog site (part 1 here)  and part 2 here. Also NewSchools Venture Fund is an investor in EdSurge. 

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