The new age of personalized learning, an interview with Jennifer Carolan of New Schools Venture Fund

I have avoided K12 education technology investments historically, dismissing them as facing a long and hard slog to adoption. Not only did K12 entrepreneurs have to develop a great product, they had to hire an army of salespeople and push school by school and district by district to get it adopted.

In my interview with Jennifer Carolan, a partner at New Schools Venture Fund, we discuss early evidence that today may be a new age – how a wave of new K12 businesses is flourishing by using viral modes of distribution that go direct to teachers and parents.  These new companies also promise to give teachers the ability to deliver to students a more personalized 1:1 learning experience. As a former high school history teacher, no one is better qualified than Jennifer to parse out what can be impactful versus product that will never succeed in the classroom.

Interview with Jennifer Carolan, Partner at New Schools Venture Fund

QUESTION:         Jennifer, we’ve known each other for years, and you’ve been at NewSchools Venture Fund for the past 7 years. Can you talk a little bit about what NewSchools is and what your focus is today?

ANSWER:              Sure. NewSchools is a nonprofit venture philanthropy fund. We describe ourselves as halfway between a foundation and a VC fund. We were started about 14 years ago by John Doerr, Brook Byers and Kim Smith. The idea is that we make grants and investments in education entrepreneurs with the potential for big impact in K12. We have made investments over the years in some of the most disruptive education entrepreneurs like Don Shalvey at Aspire, Alex Grodd at BetterLesson and Bill Jackson at Greatschools.

QUESTION:         You have an unusual background for a venture capitalist, having started as a teacher. Could you share what got you interested in investing?

ANSWER: I taught 8th grade US. history in high school  for 7 years and then went to grad school and studied curriculum and teacher education. As a teacher and grad student, I was really interested in differentiation and personalized learning. I started seeing all the entrepreneurial activity in consumer tech and the other spaces and I thought wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could meld entrepreneurship and education. That’s when I saw Kim Smith speak and realized that it existed. It was called New School, and so I started working at New School right after grad school.

QUESTION:         A lot of people including myself who invest in education have never set foot in a classroom. Can you talk about kind of the perception of investors around education and the reality of going in everyday and teaching 11-year-olds what they need to learn to be successful?

ANSWER:              Your dad was a teacher so you’ve got it in your DNA. I think what investors don’t always understand is that teaching is a lot more difficult than it looks. You think “oh, yeah, I can go in and teach Civil War to a class of thirty-three 14-year-olds,” but that lesson actually has many hours of thoughtful construction behind it.

It still feels very close to me how difficult teaching is, so I really look to find what are the solutions, what kind of problems can we solve right away for teachers. That’s been the foundational pieces of our investing.

QUESTION:         A lot of people say that the best teachers can advance a student a grade and a half and the worst advance them from nothing to half a grade. Do you think technology can change that?

ANSWER:            I guess there are some out there that think that technology can replace the teacher. I don’t think most investors believe that or most people think that can happen. We look for ways to make the teacher’s time more efficient. Right now, the teacher’s job is just overwhelming. Teachers are working weekends, nights. It’s really an intense job, and there is a lot that can be automated, so we’re looking for ways that we can make the teacher’s time more efficiently spent.

Also I think there has been a big shift in the last 20 years towards trying to deliver a more personalized instruction for every kid. This is where teachers intuitively know that each kid needs something different. Any teacher that has been in a classroom learns the first week of teaching that kids are different, and then when you are a parent you really understand how different kids are. So, I think that one of the problems of technology is how can we give the teachers a set of tools to help them differentiate instruction more effectively.

QUESTION:         One teacher and there are 33 students in a room, how do you personalize it?

ANSWER:              Well, I think there are a number of different approaches. We were just talking about blended education, where companies like Educational Elements are helping give teachers a template on how to set up their classroom so that they can more effectively personalize. Educational Elements also provides a system-wide thoughtful approach to integration of technology so there is some standardization across classrooms and throughout the district

A real life example of how personalization happens in the classroom is through using learning stations- where you put kids in groups and create different tracks for all these different student groups. This is a huge amount of work for a teacher and there can be a lot of benefit to using technology to help do this and allow different students to move forward at different paces.

I was just looking at this company Nearpod recently where the kids are on tablets and the teacher from their tablet they can actually put kids in groups and push out different pieces of content to the kids based on their level.

QUESTION:        How important is the tablet to learning? I mean there are thousands of educational apps. People are saying it’s going to change their classroom. How do you think about the tablet and the impact?

ANSWER:            I’m really excited about the potential of the tablet in the classroom. We’ve already seen how beneficial it is to special needs students. To have that sort of direct connection from brain to finger to learning on the tablet is really helpful to special needs kids.

More broadly, I think that the explosion of content and different tools for teachers is very exciting. I remember when I was teaching you got one textbook and taught the history curriculum out of this textbook. Teachers were always really resourceful and going to the library before there was the Internet to find different content.

Today, the tablet is a really convenient function to more easily deliver a lot of content to the students. For example, we invested in this company called Educreations, which turns every teacher into a Khan. They provide a white board on your tablet. You can create a lesson, voice over, bring in photos or images and actually create a lesson on your tablet and then push it out to your students.

QUESTION:         You know, what you’re getting at is a place where the best lecturers per say are going to be able to reach millions of students instead of dozens of students.

ANSWER:            Exactly. Yeah. There is a company called Megastudy that we looked at a long time ago in Korea. The teachers there are rock stars. They’re driving Lamborghinis and reaping financial rewards for being great. And they’ve been given these incredible platforms through technology where they can reach a much wider audience. I don’t know how far we are in the US from using that model, but definitely the best teachers are going to have a larger platform and be able to reach a broader set of students. That’s very exciting.

QUESTION:         Can we take a step back. Can you give just a little background in terms of the current fund you’re investing and what you’re looking for from all the potential educational entrepreneurs out there?

ANSWER:            The Seed Fund seeks out early-stage education technology entrepreneurs focused on K-12 that are going to have a presence within our public schooling system.  Our seed fund builds from what Kim Smith once called “Around-the-Corner” investing, which sought to look ahead and seek what was coming and to seed investments in newer areas.  More and more we’re looking at founding teams with a technical co-founder onboard, but more importantly, an entrepreneur who is scratching their own itch.  Many of our entrepreneurs are trying to solve a problem they experienced as a teacher or student.  For example, Alex Grodd wanted to get his hands on better lesson plans while teaching in Atlanta so he started BetterLesson to do just that.

QUESTION:         Do you think there is room for big publishing and content businesses to emerge or do you think that’ll be a disperse market, with thousands of small publishers and a number of curation tools and platforms to aggregate this content?

ANSWER:            Yeah, that’s a great question. I wish I could answer that one, but it’s a space that we are really looking at carefully and want to cultivate the ecosystem. We don’t want to sort of recreate the oligarchy, the publisher oligarchy online and on tablets.

QUESTION:         So, last question, what other particular themes outside of blended learning that you are pursuing for investment?

ANSWER:            One of the things that we’re really excited about is finding ways to shorten the amount of time that students are spending for core foundational status-based learning, and free up some time in the day and the calendar for students to engage in more immersive, project-based, real world learning.

That’s what I think actually is one of the huge maybe not talked about as much benefits of blended – is it’s not just about kids going online and learning from technology, but it’s like this sort of totally disrupts the school day and helps us rethink how we want to use that time.

You can envision a school day where the students are online in the morning doing the sort of core foundational pieces of learning, and then in the afternoon they’re engaging in collaborative learning, maybe immersed in something in the local community. These skills are going to be so important for kids to be successful in the new economy, things like persistence and grit.

QUESTION:       You’re learning by doing.

ANSWER:            Yeah, exactly.

QUESTION:       You watch the lectures at home and at school you can do things that are more immersive that really enable your growth and character development.

ANSWER:            Well put, yes. Exactly. Basic learning, and students seeing the connection of what they are learning to the real world.

QUESTION:       Thank you Jennifer. It was great having you here today. I appreciate it.