Shift Happens: Junyo Changes Course

By Betsy Corcoran     Sep 26, 2012

Shift Happens: Junyo Changes Course

Edtech startup, Junyo, started off with a flourish about 15months ago: its chief executive, Steve Schoettler, left the high-flying social gamecompany Zynga to devote his time to education. He was at the beginning of awave of enthusiasm for applying the tools of "big data" and dataanalytics to education. He swiftly pulled together a strong team and won seedfunding from the likes of NewSchools Venture Fund.

Now comes "the pivot."

Within the past two weeks,Schoettler has had to make some uncomfortable phone calls to his four blended learning education partners, which together represent 11 schools. Junyo'schanging its plans, Schoettler told them. If they wish, Junyo will continue tosupport them through the end of the school year (next June) or refund theirmoney. But instead of working directly with schools, Junyo is refocusing its efforts around building tools for analyzing data on student performance.

It's the kind of change thathappens frequently in tech businesses but it rattles schools and with good reason. At the EducationInnovation Summit held at Arizona State University's Skysong campus last April,Chris Lehmann, who runs the ScienceLeadership Academy in Philadelphia, was one of the few educators in a seaof 800 business leaders, government leaders and philanthropists. Even asbusiness leaders talked up the need for revolutionary change, Lehmann remindedthem that education has a pace--and set of requirements--all its own.

"Sometimes teachersget burned," Lehmann said at the meeting. "When companies whose toolswe use go out of business, parents turn to us and say, 'What are you going todo about it?' Responsibility for students falls on us. Companies have got to bewilling to work with us on that."

Educators reached by EdSurge say they're stillassessing what the changes will mean. (One has decided to take the refund.) Schoettlersays he's committed to working with the schools to help them make smoothtransitions to other vendors. Up through December, Junyo will continue to addnew features and improvements to the platform it offers to schools. "Wewant them to have continuity of service and a smooth transition to anotherprovider," Schoettler says. 

Such changes, happening just as the school year takes hold, nonetheless add extra burdens to teachers, forcing them to scramble to rethink plans.

So what happened?

Schoettler says the originalvision for Junyo was to use sophisticated data analysis to better understandindividual students' needs, abilities and interests. Junyo wants to help answerthe question "what should students do next?" and it wants to helpteachers learn to use data and feedback to continually improve teachingpractices and learning experiences. Over the past 15 months, "we'veconfirmed, over and over again, that [such data analysis] is important,"he says.

Creatinga tactical plan to deliver on that promise, however, turned out to be a thornyproblem.

Onetypical approach for high tech companies developing new products is to identifya lead customer or two to work with closely to help define the product. A bevyof schools lined up to work with Junyo, which signed up four leading blendedlearning partners: Rocketship Education, Kipp Empower Academy in Los Angeles,Touchstone Education, and Oakland Unified (which had two schools, Elmhurst andEncompass).

Although the schools were alreadyusing technology products, they needed more technological underpinnings beforethey could effectively study student performance. Among them: a "single sign on" system that would let teachers and students get to work bylogging in once rather than multiple times; classroom management systems thatorganized incoming data; ways to represent or visualize data. There were not effective APIs or standards for programs to share data. And off-the-shelf technology solutions for such problems were scarce, Schoettler says.

Junyo adapted its strategy: ratherthan just focusing on data and analytics, it would build a platform for itspartner schools. (It did have at least one competitor, another NSVF-fundedcompany, EdElements.)

"We recognized all along thatthere were hurdles," Schoettler says. "Some of the hurdles we werewilling to go over." For instance, collecting datais most effective when the "learning objects" are narrowly defined.Junyo consequently started atomizing the Common Core requirements--breakingthem down into tiny chunks that could be assessed in minute detail.

The further Junyo travelled downthe path of creating the underpinnings that would support its efforts tocollect and analyze data, the more executives worried that few of those effortswould tap the large volumes of data that analytics engines need to workeffectively. Junyo's partner schools took different approaches to blended learning and soneeded their systems to work slightly differently. "If we continuedto provide for the needs of schools, we wouldn't have the resources to buildstrength in analytics," Schoettler says.

The ambiguities in Junyo's strategy caused unrest. InApril, one of Junyo's founding team members, Eric Berger who was vice presidentof engineering, left. (He has since joined edtech startup, Desmos.) In August,another cofounder, Matt Pasternack, jumped to Clever, which was founded totackle a specific, vexing problem that schools face (namely, how to connectindependent software products with school's student information systems). Then asJunyo refocused on its analytics mission in September, cofounder Kim Jacobson steppedout of daily management. (She remains part of Junyo's advisory board.)

"People leaving startups ispart of the space," says Schoettler. Junyo still has a full time staff of16 including many with teaching backgrounds and engineering chops. "Theteam we have is a good group for moving ahead on analytics, even if we'respending less time with schools directly."

With its renewed emphasis on dataand analytics, Schoettler expects Junyo to partner with companies that areinvolved in creating or handling large volumes of data, such as publishers,those who build assessment systems, and even online schools.

"A lot of existing partnerstell us they wish they had time to present data in ways that areimpactful," Schoettler says. "The market will be better served ifpartners could split the work and together take care of the needs of schoolsgoing down the blended learning path."

NSVF's Wayee Chu says she believesthat refocusing on analytics is the right path for Junyo. "This is hardwork. Steve has tried to be very thoughtful and immerse himself in the needs ofschools. He's given me confidence that he will make this transition as seamlessas possible."  

It's easy to say technology involves risk--another thing to experience it. Now these blended learning programs are getting testing, perhaps sooner than expected, on one of the greatest challenges posed by new technology: just how flexible can these early adopters be?


Editor's note: EdSurgehas received funding from NewSchools Venture Fund.

ALSO SEE: Is Your School Ready to Date a Startup Again?

Shift Happens: Junyo Changes Course

By Betsy Corcoran     Sep 26, 2012

Shift Happens: Junyo Changes Course

Edtech startup, Junyo, started off with a flourish about 15months ago: its chief executive, Steve Schoettler, left the high-flying social gamecompany Zynga to devote his time to education. He was at the beginning of awave of enthusiasm for applying the tools of "big data" and dataanalytics to education. He swiftly pulled together a strong team and won seedfunding from the likes of NewSchools Venture Fund.

Now comes "the pivot."

Within the past two weeks,Schoettler has had to make some uncomfortable phone calls to his four blended learning education partners, which together represent 11 schools. Junyo'schanging its plans, Schoettler told them. If they wish, Junyo will continue tosupport them through the end of the school year (next June) or refund theirmoney. But instead of working directly with schools, Junyo is refocusing its efforts around building tools for analyzing data on student performance.

It's the kind of change thathappens frequently in tech businesses but it rattles schools and with good reason. At the EducationInnovation Summit held at Arizona State University's Skysong campus last April,Chris Lehmann, who runs the ScienceLeadership Academy in Philadelphia, was one of the few educators in a seaof 800 business leaders, government leaders and philanthropists. Even asbusiness leaders talked up the need for revolutionary change, Lehmann remindedthem that education has a pace--and set of requirements--all its own.

"Sometimes teachersget burned," Lehmann said at the meeting. "When companies whose toolswe use go out of business, parents turn to us and say, 'What are you going todo about it?' Responsibility for students falls on us. Companies have got to bewilling to work with us on that."

Educators reached by EdSurge say they're stillassessing what the changes will mean. (One has decided to take the refund.) Schoettlersays he's committed to working with the schools to help them make smoothtransitions to other vendors. Up through December, Junyo will continue to addnew features and improvements to the platform it offers to schools. "Wewant them to have continuity of service and a smooth transition to anotherprovider," Schoettler says. 

Such changes, happening just as the school year takes hold, nonetheless add extra burdens to teachers, forcing them to scramble to rethink plans.

So what happened?

Schoettler says the originalvision for Junyo was to use sophisticated data analysis to better understandindividual students' needs, abilities and interests. Junyo wants to help answerthe question "what should students do next?" and it wants to helpteachers learn to use data and feedback to continually improve teachingpractices and learning experiences. Over the past 15 months, "we'veconfirmed, over and over again, that [such data analysis] is important,"he says.

Creatinga tactical plan to deliver on that promise, however, turned out to be a thornyproblem.

Onetypical approach for high tech companies developing new products is to identifya lead customer or two to work with closely to help define the product. A bevyof schools lined up to work with Junyo, which signed up four leading blendedlearning partners: Rocketship Education, Kipp Empower Academy in Los Angeles,Touchstone Education, and Oakland Unified (which had two schools, Elmhurst andEncompass).

Although the schools were alreadyusing technology products, they needed more technological underpinnings beforethey could effectively study student performance. Among them: a "single sign on" system that would let teachers and students get to work bylogging in once rather than multiple times; classroom management systems thatorganized incoming data; ways to represent or visualize data. There were not effective APIs or standards for programs to share data. And off-the-shelf technology solutions for such problems were scarce, Schoettler says.

Junyo adapted its strategy: ratherthan just focusing on data and analytics, it would build a platform for itspartner schools. (It did have at least one competitor, another NSVF-fundedcompany, EdElements.)

"We recognized all along thatthere were hurdles," Schoettler says. "Some of the hurdles we werewilling to go over." For instance, collecting datais most effective when the "learning objects" are narrowly defined.Junyo consequently started atomizing the Common Core requirements--breakingthem down into tiny chunks that could be assessed in minute detail.

The further Junyo travelled downthe path of creating the underpinnings that would support its efforts tocollect and analyze data, the more executives worried that few of those effortswould tap the large volumes of data that analytics engines need to workeffectively. Junyo's partner schools took different approaches to blended learning and soneeded their systems to work slightly differently. "If we continuedto provide for the needs of schools, we wouldn't have the resources to buildstrength in analytics," Schoettler says.

The ambiguities in Junyo's strategy caused unrest. InApril, one of Junyo's founding team members, Eric Berger who was vice presidentof engineering, left. (He has since joined edtech startup, Desmos.) In August,another cofounder, Matt Pasternack, jumped to Clever, which was founded totackle a specific, vexing problem that schools face (namely, how to connectindependent software products with school's student information systems). Then asJunyo refocused on its analytics mission in September, cofounder Kim Jacobson steppedout of daily management. (She remains part of Junyo's advisory board.)

"People leaving startups ispart of the space," says Schoettler. Junyo still has a full time staff of16 including many with teaching backgrounds and engineering chops. "Theteam we have is a good group for moving ahead on analytics, even if we'respending less time with schools directly."

With its renewed emphasis on dataand analytics, Schoettler expects Junyo to partner with companies that areinvolved in creating or handling large volumes of data, such as publishers,those who build assessment systems, and even online schools.

"A lot of existing partnerstell us they wish they had time to present data in ways that areimpactful," Schoettler says. "The market will be better served ifpartners could split the work and together take care of the needs of schoolsgoing down the blended learning path."

NSVF's Wayee Chu says she believesthat refocusing on analytics is the right path for Junyo. "This is hardwork. Steve has tried to be very thoughtful and immerse himself in the needs ofschools. He's given me confidence that he will make this transition as seamlessas possible."  

It's easy to say technology involves risk--another thing to experience it. Now these blended learning programs are getting testing, perhaps sooner than expected, on one of the greatest challenges posed by new technology: just how flexible can these early adopters be?


Editor's note: EdSurgehas received funding from NewSchools Venture Fund.

ALSO SEE: Is Your School Ready to Date a Startup Again?

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