Feature Story

How Big Data and Mobile Technology Startups Are Changing Education

by Anne Field

A new generation of companies is joining educational tech accelerators.

Recently, there's been a notable increase in startup accelerators aimed at incubating educational tech companies. The first, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Imagine K12, opened for business in 2011. Now a handful of others have appeared, from Kaplan EdTech Accelerator powered by TechStars, a three-month program located in New York City, to Pearson Catalyst, started by the U.K.-based educational publishing powerhouse. "There's a realization that technology can dramatically affect educational outcomes," say Tim Brady, founder and partner of Imagine K12.

The startups, themselves, are focused on a wide array of problems facing not just teachers, but administrators, parents and students, as well, using big data, mobile technology, and a number of other innovations. Here's a look at three:

Data Mining As Easy as A,B,C

Five years ago, when he was the San Francisco Unified School District's first director of knowledge management, Ben Glazer had a bird's eye view of just how well--or badly—teachers, superintendents and others were using data to inform educational decisions. And what he saw wasn't pretty. With a variety of fragmented data repositories throughout the district storing everything from demographic information to records of unexcused absences, "The systems were not in place to support strategic goals," he says.

Glazer, along with Stuart Frye, a former Harvard Business School classmate, decided to create a system with which teachers could use classroom data to become better educators and founded a company in San Francisco called Eduvant to sell it. Three years ago, a year after starting the company, they were accepted into Imagine K12's first three-month class.

Developing the product involved two steps. The first was finding a way to integrate all those disparate systems. Then, they added statistical techniques allowing educators to analyze and mine the data, collected in real-time, looking for relevant patterns.  That involved creating models able to predict student performance and notice when individuals deviated from anticipated outcomes. The bottom line: A middle school teacher with perhaps 200 students might be too over-loaded to notice when a child's grades started to drop. But, using these tools and conducting data reviews weekly, or even daily, could change that.

Although the tools are designed to be intuitive and easy to learn, Eduvant recently introduced a free, online training system that takes 15 minutes a day for 15 days to complete.

Thwarting Cheaters through Data Analysis

As online schools and courses become more popular, there remains a thorny question: How do you, say, make sure the people who take an exam really are the students they purport to be? Or, at a more traditional school, in a room packed with test-takers monitored by a remote proctor, how do you stop cheating?

About three –and-a-half years ago, Tim Dutta, a management consultant and serial entrepreneur, and Rajnish Kumar, a researcher at Georgia Tech, who had worked on a computer visioning and video analytics project for the TSA, came up with a plan to address the problem. Relying on facial recognition, real-time big data analysis and other technologies, they would create a way to monitor cheating without the use of a human proctor. Trouble was, they were a bit ahead of the technology available at the time.

Then, earlier this year, they founded a company, Verificient Technologies in New York City and, last spring, were accepted into Kaplan EdTech's first class. The basic idea works like this: Each school specifies certain parameters to be monitored—say, whether someone gets up from a chair or looks at a cell phone. Then, when students log into the system, it conducts a facial and knuckle scan to verify their identity (finger-printing is too expensive, according to Dutta). As soon as students start taking the test, the system swings into action, videotaping them and monitoring their computers. Then, through an algorithm allowing for real-time video analytics, taking 30 impressions per second, it provides a report flagging possible cheaters in red and suspicious activity in yellow. Officials can click on any questionable section and see a recording of what happened.

"We don't make the final determination if there was cheating," says Dutta. "The institution does."

The partners now have about seven pilots in the works, including at Kaplan itself. They're also in talks with potential customers such as corporations, which would use the system for employment verification.

Engaging Parents Through Mobile Technology

When Catheryne Nicholson's oldest child enrolled in kindergarten five years ago, "I was shocked that nothing had changed since I'd gone to elementary school," she says.  Nicholson, who had spent many years building large-scale systems for the Defense Department, among other places, couldn't believe that something as seemingly straightforward as the school directory would be produced only in a paper version and would take six weeks to produce.

Last year, when her daughter entered kindergarten and nothing had changed, Nicholson decided it was time to act. She and a former colleague figured they could create an app aimed at the Holy Grail of education: parental involvement. "It's the single most powerful lever you can pull to change educational outcomes," she says.

The basic idea was to combine the power of mobile app technology and the influence of parents in their children's education. They founded a San Carlos, Calif-based company called MommaZoo, applied to Imagine K12 and were accepted into a three-month-session earlier this year.

The app provides a centralized location from which parents, teachers and students can get access to all school-related material, from homework assignments  to requests for supplies (i.e., empty soda bottles for next week's science project). So, instead of having notes from the teacher buried at the bottom of a child's backpack, they can be sent to the appropriate section of the app. Another advantage: Updates can be made without involving schools' over-extended, under-staffed IT departments.

The central component is the app's contact management function. MommaZoo's software not only hosts each school's mobile directory online, but helps to create it, along with links for texting. Plus, there are such extras as the ability for teachers to share videos if, say, there's a concept the students seem to be having trouble grasping. Schools also can use the app to  make money by selling mobile ads to local vendors that appear on the directory. The app is in over 100 classrooms and two school districts.


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