Education changemakers: Blended solutions

Education changemakers: Blended solutions

It has become a truism that education is ripe for change.

“The current system of education was designed in the Industrial Revolution,” says creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson.

Education technology (edtech) startups have been doing incredibly well in recent years with record amounts of investment from venture capital and angel investors. Direct sales of technology into schools have never been higher, and many edtech startups are being snapped up by large education organizations like Pearson as they watch their old business models crumble.

“We need technology in every classroom and in every student and teacher’s hand,” says educator David Warlick.

But a multi-trillion-dollar market such as education is tough to change over night. One in every 15 people employed in Canada works in the education industry. This inertia makes it hard to change behaviours, and transition teachers and students from paper and pens to screens and bits.

The education cluster at MaRS Discovery District is home to around 60 education ventures that sell into or partner with the K-20 system in North America. They range from high-tech to low-tech, from large to small and from for-profit to not-for-profit.

In our experience advising dozens of high-tech startups, the ones that succeed tend to have an eye on the future of ubiquitous computing in classrooms, but also sell their products and services with an appreciation of the realities of the low-tech infrastructure in North American classrooms.
What they offer are blended learning solutions: technological platforms that find an entry point with a low-tech “anchor”—something a teacher can use quickly and easily to engage students. For instance, Mimetics Digital Education uses simple robots to open up the world of programming and Bluetooth communication to kids. One Plant Per Class uses the simple act of watering plants to engage kids in a process that gets them involved in their school’s green initiatives through their smartphones.

Mimetics Digital Education and One Plant Per Class

For education entrepreneurs looking to scale their hi-tech ventures, a gentle, low-tech invocation such as One Plant Per Class’s call to “water your plants” is essential.  Ventures always build new solutions upon what has come before, and for education companies that means a low-tech, centuries-old infrastructure. The successful entrepreneur will find a way to use this to their advantage.

Read more on the philosophy of “blended learning” and meet some of MaRS’s education entrepreneurs below. More suggestions for education entrepreneurs looking to break into Ontario’s education system can be found here.

In Canada, there is approximately one computer for every five students compared to an average of 1:13 among OECD countries

Statistics bolster the claim that Canada is one of the leading education systems in the world for access to communications technology.

What the numbers hide, though, is the gap between teachers who are comfortable with technology and those teachers who are uncomfortable with technology in the classroom.

In 2009, Cisco embarked on a wide-ranging project to evaluate the use of technology ranging from educational games to calculators. It found many barriers to the practical use of technology in the classroom, consisting of a lack of any of the following: “vision; access to research; leadership; teacher proficiency in integrating technology in learning; professional development; innovative school culture; and/or resources.” As Mark Cuban puts it, computers in classrooms are “oversold and underused.”

Statistics can also be misleading, in that they are aggregate numbers and do not speak to the state of technological integration in a particular classroom. If an Ontario school has, on average, one computer per five students, it does not mean that students have access to those computers during the entire day. They might be collected in a computer lab, for example, that needs to be signed out, or statistics might include computers used in the library or teacher offices.

In 2006, Canadian 15-year-old students used computers more often than the combined OECD country average.
In 2006, Canadian 15-year-old students used computers more often than the combined OECD country average.

Stephen Morris, Vice Principal at York Mills Collegiate, runs a Twitter feed called Technology Today that comments on the usage of technology in education and shares innovations with a wide community of teachers, administrators and private companies. Morris has worked on getting access to Moodle, interactive whiteboards and wireless technologies for the TDSB, and on integrating the programming language C# and programs such as MarkBook at school levels.

For Morris, who was also the Tech Integration leader for the southeast family of schools in Toronto, the question of technology in the classroom is not based on the use of technology per se, but on challenges of integration, accessibility, training and pedagogical direction.

“You don’t want to buy a technology for the sake of the technology,” he says. “How will it help students and help the school?” Introducing MarkBook, for instance, spoke to the Toronto District School Board’s desire to make assessment of students as equitable and objective as possible.

MarkBook also enabled teachers to start thinking about different learning styles in assessment, as marks had to be categorized in different ways (e.g., distinguishing between “rote learning” as a “knowledge” assignment, evaluating a writing assignment designed to test “communication” skills). This led teachers to a valuable debate on equity and assessment and different styles of learning. “These aren’t technology issues; these are pedagogical assessment issues,” says Morris.

To successfully integrate technology into a school, you cannot foist it on teachers from above. “Teachers have to be on board,” says Morris. “You start with the ones who aren’t afraid of change, of risk. They share and promote for you, then you get the other teachers to follow them.”

A report released in 2009, which collected research from board trustees across Ontario, found that, “While there is innovative practice to support the integration of modern technology into the operations of the board, schools and classrooms, it is not because of a provincial vision or plan. It is because of leadership which is often teacher and board staff generated.”63

The goal is to build the use of technology into the school’s culture, which requires a concerted effort from the school administration that goes beyond buying gadgets and giving them to teachers.

The importance of not treating technology as a panacea to student achievement is not limited to Ontario. A recent OECD study of member countries found that because education policy-makers “could not see schools and teachers adopting technology at the desired pace and with the expected intensity or clear-cut evidence of the expected benefits, a certain discomfort, if not skepticism, began to silently propagate.”64

The report identifies teacher confidence in the use of technology as a major drawback to its implementation. Changing teacher confidence in technology is a long, complex undertaking, one that entrepreneurs cannot treat lightly.

In this feature are profiles of six education startups being incubated at the MaRS Discovery District who have strategies to balance their high-tech solutions with the often low-tech, risk-averse atmosphere of the 21st Century classroom. They each answer three questions on their strategy to capture a share of the education market in North America:



1. What makes SMARTeacher unique?

We’re the only game that can respond to a child’s emotions. By using a wireless biosensor that the child that can wear like a watch, our game can sense when a user is engaged, frustrated or bored. And that allows our education game, which is for children ages 5-11, to respond accordingly.
Outside of the emotional piece we’ve also created an extremely fun game. We’ve found a proper balance between educational and fun. It’s very tricky to find something that’s fun enough for children to play but still educational enough that parents are comfortable allowing them to sit on the computer.
With our reporting, parents and teachers can see through exactly how their child is doing in the game: every single question they’ve answered, how long it took them to answer, on a skill-by-skill basis, so that they’re confident that their child is actually learning from our game. This is all available for less than an hour of private tutoring.

2. How does the eLearning component of SMARTeacher integrate into the often low-tech reality of the classroom?

The most important part of what we’ve tried to do when facing the reality of a low-tech classroom is trying to make our product engaging enough for children that they go home and practice math voluntarily. The teachers we’ve worked with actually use SMARTeacher for maybe half an hour to an hour per week at the school in their computer lab and the majority of the time the child benefits from it at home.
The kids go home and they pick up where they left off because we store their entire progress and their individualized learning profiles, such as all the hints that we’ve offered them and whether or not we’ve helped them securely online so that they never have to slow down.

3. Where do you see the next big areas of opportunity for Edtech startups?

I think a key one is differentiated instruction or personalized instruction. Teachers constantly tell us that one of their biggest problems is the skills gap between their students. They have a class full of let’s say, 20+ students and some of them are high achievers, others are struggling significantly in certain key skills and they’re expected to accommodate each and every one of them, keep them engaged and have them all learn at some reasonable pace. It’s a very daunting task.
The other piece is math fluency. There seems to be a hesitancy to have children practice key math skills like their times tables, and where we’re coming from we view these skills as completely core to a child’s success in math. If you don’t have a strong foundation you spend too much time on what should be routine to actually learn the higher-level skills.


Weblish Pal

1. What makes WeblishPal unique?

One of the unique things about WeblishPal is that we’re very simple to use and we’ve integrated all the tools that teachers and students need into one place. We’ve integrated the ability to socialize, to message people, to take classes in video-enabled classrooms, with e-commerce. We’ve integrated things that are commonly used like Skype, QQ and MSN video messaging tools. We really want to take the learning and make it less complicated.
The other thing that I think is pretty unique about WeblishPal is that we play really well across the borders. Most people in Canada and the US really think of the online world as Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube, but what people don’t realize is that if you’re working in markets like China, the servers block those tools. So our platform really is unique in that we’ve been able to build a process accessible from pretty much everywhere in the world.

2. How does the eLearning component of WeblishPal integrate into the often low-tech reality of the classroom?

We don’t really want to be a substitute for a teacher in the classroom. Our solution really is a supplement to what is happening in the classroom so students can supplement their English learning that they do with their teachers, by going home, or during recess, or during scheduled time in the schools, to actually spend time with English teachers from North America. So that is a very effective complement to what is already happening.

3. Where do you see the next big areas of opportunity for Edtech startups?

Education really has had distribution problems for a while. What we’re seeing is opportunities for better distribution models and connecting the right people to deliver the right content or maybe for topics not as commonly taught. Focusing on outcomes regardless of borders is a really big opportunity for educational technology startups.
The big opportunity really is increasing the value transfer between the educator and the students rather than all the other stuff that goes in between, whether it’s marketing for the schools, or paying for expensive buildings and maintenance. The question should be how do you really deliver education in a better way, at a lower cost, and get the student skills up, rather than just passing them through an educational facility and then granting them a degree.



1. What makes Mimetics unique?

We have 12 years experience bringing robotics to kids and families through the Ontario Science Centre. When we look back we’ve done probably over 250 workshops, bringing robotics to over 13,000 kids. That give us a level of experience that is one to two orders of magnitude greater than what anybody else has done in terms of educational robotics.

We have a model of continuous improvement, working through, looking to see where there are bottlenecks in the work, the things that people didn’t really like, resulting in something that is the highest rated activity in the history of the Ontario Science Centre. It’s something that in our participant evaluations we typically get 95-100% excellent ratings.

2. How does the eLearning component of Mimetics integrate into the often low-tech reality of the classroom?

Our first product, the Jade robot, is designed for the basic classroom. A big part of this product is that it can work anywhere in the classroom (which can be as simple as a teacher’s desk and some tables for the kids). Normally an educational robot will have a PC for programming and for downloading apps. We’re taking that PC and integrating it into the robot so there is no technical infrastructure required for the classroom. We bring the robot in, it works.

When we look at our customers, teachers are often not experts in math, science, or in technology of any kind, so we want to bring something that the teacher can easily use. They will be able to learn to use the robot very simply without having a degree in computer science. They can select the program, create their own program and test it out while just working right there on the robot with very little training and no technical infrastructure.

3. where do you see the next big areas of opportunity for Edtech startups?

I would see it turning education into something (from our traditional way of teaching) that I would call binary education. Not binary in terms of digital but binary in terms of: does the student know the material or not? Can they apply it? Rather than taking a course and saying you’re going to get 80%, it’s going to be binary. Can you do these pieces or not? The result would be a clear understanding of what a student does or does not understand, which would help the teacher construct a plan for improving their education.



1. What makes DruMeBa unique?

I would say the biggest thing is the collaboration aspect. We developed it for the kids and the users playing on the system to really want to collaborate together and to foster an environment where it’s fun for them. That’s where the magic happens with the system.

When we were looking at different things that were out there in schools for special needs audiences, a lot of them were devices that only one person would use at a time. We’ve developed something that people are actually playing and interacting together, rather than for just one person. Especially with our audience who finds communication challenging, we really wanted to build something that would give them something to communicate about or want to discuss and though collaboration they’re able to do that.

Also, although we built this for kids with autism, we find the game is really inclusive outside to the general population as well, especially if you look at studies where the incidence of autism is going up so there could be a lot of kids that are on the [autism] spectrum that have not been diagnosed.

2. How does the eLearning component of DruMeBa integrate into the often low-tech reality of the classroom?

We’re really drawn to doing something that has a physical form, so that it is easy to use, so we use real drums as part of our experience and we’re turning that into a digital form. Most schools will have any kind of percussion instruments, whether it’s a drum, whether it’s a tambourine or something like that.

This is something that teachers can really gravitate to and they don’t have to be computer literate, they just have to have a bit of percussion in them. We find that drumming is very universal and very innate so for everyone that comes in contact with it, it’s very natural, it’s very low-tech to start.

3. Where do you see the next big areas of opportunity for Edtech startups?

The opportunity is being able to bring learning outside of the classroom into more of a mobile space. And a mobile space could be out in a field or just in your home, to take advantage of using curriculum in a learning experience outside of the classroom. If you look at a normal workforce where people were used to going to an office and working at their desk 9 to 5, that’s really been blown up with the Blackberry. People have become more mobile and able to do things away from their physical space. Education does not have to happen in the physical classroom.

Dreamcatcher Mentoring

Dreamcatcher Mentoring
Dreamcatcher Mentoring

1. What makes Dreamcatcher Mentoring unique?

We are the first organization in Canada to offer a high-quality e-mentoring program to students and we’re now in 19 communities across Canada and offer a one-on-one e-mentoring experience to 1,000 students. We’re uniquely designed to integrate into classrooms, whether they’re urban or rural. We bring our career and leadership development program into the school using our tried-and-tested, proprietary platform technology.

We have a mobile, smartphone-friendly application so our mentors and mentees can communicate using our e-mentoring platform on their smartphones. This Fall, we’re launching a video mentoring feature adding another dimension to DCM’s programming. DCM also has an algorithm that we created that not only identifies the appropriate match between a mentor and the mentee but allows us to monitor what’s going on and being communicated.

2. How does the eLearning component of Dreamcatcher Mentoring integrate into the often low-tech reality of the classroom?

If we can successfully operate within remote fly-in only communities in the North, then I know that we can integrate into any classroom. All we need are computers with a decent internet connection.

We have mentors from around the world. They’re Orders of Canada, they’re professors, they’re carpenters or busy physicians, and I’ve heard too often a mentor say, “Josh, I can’t participate this semester, I’m going away on business to Ghana,” or, “I’m really busy these days and I just can’t find the time to speak to my student.” Well, now there’s no excuse; wherever you are in the world, you can talk from your smartphone and you don’t need to find a computer to login to type a quick message.

3. Where do you see the next big areas of opportunity for Edtech startups?

The big opportunities are in any technology that makes integration and delivery by the teacher easier. Teachers are inundated all the time with new ideas, products, services and unless you’re helping them achieve what they need to do in their job which is to just check off their learning objectives for the day, then they’re not going to have time to implement it.

Also, any successful edtech startup will need to tailor their technology to the uniqueness of the demographics, culture and academics of the students. A classroom in Whitehorse is very different than a classroom in Toronto and you have to understand what those differences are to be successful.

One Plant Per Classroom

One Plant Per Classroom
One Plant Per Classroom

1. What makes One Plant unique?

One Plant enables students and office spaces to engage in greening the world and their classroom on a local and global scale in a way that appeals to everyone. Whether you have a green thumb or not, you can work towards engaging with other students and people to green the world.

We send people push notifications—when they need to water their plants we remind them—and that’s who we really built it for: people who kill their plants all the time. The app works as a photo journal so you take pictures of your plants every day and each time you take a picture you get points. You’ll take a picture and update the progress so then eventually you can track your growth over time.

2. How does the eLearning component of One Plant integrate into the often low-tech reality of the classroom?

One Plant takes something that traditionally doesn’t have a tech component to it (gardening) and make it into an app, so it appeals to people who typically aren’t into gardening. It also allows them to share their findings and observations with other students on the platform and it allows them to track and measure their difference over time with something simple like a ruler and a watering can.

3. Where do you see the next big areas of opportunity for Edtech startups?

Edtech startups that utilize technology to provide a unique experience, instead of just replicating traditional experiences will have the largest impact on students. For example, a digital textbook that allows students to interact with the cell structure and view it in 3D, or an online learning platform where students can view opinions of students across the world. Technology is allowing us to push the boundaries and explore so many more possibilities and with learning we need to remember not to just port the physical to digital but rather reinvent it.