Friday, November 27, 2015

Empathetic Schools

We’ve spent the last few weeks interviewing educators of different types. We’ve talked to teachers, aides, and administrators, from both high-income districts and low-income urban schools. While these interviews are no substitute for classroom observation or the experience of teaching itself, we have begun to understand some of the challenges in today’s classroom.

One challenge in particular stood out to me. Repeatedly, educators from low-income areas mentioned the difficulty of keeping their students interested. Many of their students were being recruited by gangs outside of school and few went home to stable environments. There was such a contrast between a student’s curriculum and their life, that many just didn’t see the importance of the subjects being taught. These kids spent most of their school day asleep, secretly using their smartphone, or disrupting class.

All the educators we talked to agreed that these students aren’t inherently unmotivated. Every student cares about something. Everyone has something for which they will put in effort to achieve. For these students, however, that something was just not the curriculum the teachers were mandated to teach.

Now a brief anecdote: I grew up in a low-income area, where nearly 50% of students received free or reduced lunch. My middle income family discussed books and worked on science projects after school, so it made sense to me to pay attention during those subjects. However, some of my friends only had academic interactions during school hours. By high school, many of these friends no longer cared about algebra, US history or English literature. Fortunately, their apathy didn’t extend to extracurriculars. Our school, which had one of the worst average GPAs in the county, had the best track and soccer teams in the state. Many of my peers who wouldn’t spend a minute on homework, trained for hours everyday with our sports teams.

We now live in a world where the grit and determination demonstrated by these students in sports matter more in the long term than what they learn in class. Research increasingly shows that the most important predictors of modern job success are so called “21st century skills,” such as collaboration, motivation, and creativity. So students who don’t care about the traditional subjects aren’t doomed to boredom or failure if we teach these universal skills through subjects the students care about. To do this, we need more empathetic schools. We need schools which are built around an understanding of their students’ needs and motivations.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Build teams at Olin College in Spring 2016

When we share our mission with friends, acquaintances, and strangers, it's very easy for them to picture themselves as a contributor on a build team. They imagine observing and interacting with a classroom and bringing their own particular set of skills to the table with the teacher in order to co-design worthwhile solutions. For two teams of students at Olin College of Engineering, their interest has led them to take the next step. In the spring, they will be collaborating with a local school in the Greater Boston Area, working with members of the community there who have passion and vision, but not necessarily the time or the tools.

These teams will be the first to deploy in partner schools under the School Shaped banner, so we’re very eager to see what kinds of work they will achieve. We have a lot of confidence in Olin students, their ability to learn and adapt on the fly, and their capability of producing compelling work.

Their success is our success, so we’re providing them with as much guidance, support, and counsel as we can. Imagine how chaotic it would be to leap into a partner school community without careful coordination and planning! We want our teams to start off on the right foot and to continue strong throughout their partnerships, so our input comes partly in advance, partly Just In Time, to ensure they receive precisely the help they need. Socially, we provide our build teams with exhaustive guidelines on how to engage with partner schools, teachers, classrooms, etc. We share best practices with them, and schedule periodic check-ins to help them course-correct as they go along. On the product side, we arrange design reviews with professionals in the field to provide feedback and guidance on how to proceed. On the technical side, our teams receive tutorials, access to our distribution platform and app management service, and even debugging assistance. For enterprise viability, we are partnering with incubators around the country to provide our build teams with the best possible chance of receiving connections and funding - essentials for launching a business once one of their solutions captures their imaginations. Finally, everyone benefits as we document and share each team’s observations and lessons learned, and as we spread the message that our efforts are enough to bring about positive change, one classroom at a time!

Monday, November 9, 2015

It All Comes Down to Heart

The School Shaped team is a talented group with diverse skills and backgrounds, but not one of us qualifies as a logo designer. So when we set out to create a logo for School Shaped, we weren’t sure which direction would be best. We wanted it to be simple, memorable, and also act as a representation of our entire mission. You know, simple stuff.

We worked through several iterations as a team, and found that thinking about the logo pushed us to think more closely about our goals and our reasons for founding School Shaped.

We started out by building upon objects that are considered “traditional” school items, adding a twist to show that we are hoping to bring about change. For example, we experimented with the idea of an upside down book with a schoolhouse depicted on it, to represent how we were going to “turn schools on their heads” with our innovative ideas. The fire was supposed to symbolize inspiration, a “kindling of ideas” if you will, but it ended up looking like a book burning instead. So it was a no go on the first design.

Simultaneously, we explored color palettes with bright, primary colors that are reminiscent of elementary school classrooms. Tools like and were invaluable in this process.

Our next direction led us away from a simple logo towards a descriptive banner. We had a series of 3D shapes with symbols inside them, representing the mantra, “Inspire, Create, Grow.”
As a team, we liked the visuals and the idea of having different symbols for different aspects of our mission, but we started to wonder if these were the correct three words to summarize what we were trying to do. We were trying to focus more on collaboration, building communities and partnerships between developers and schools, and really creating an understanding around the key needs teachers have. The word “inspire” seemed lacking in conveying all of that. We also decided that it was too complex of a design to serve as a logo, so it was one more iteration on the shelf.

We started brainstorming more, simplifying the design and trying different things to see what would stick. We had plant imagery, we had rainbows, we had colorful shapes. We had a bunch of logos that seemed promising until we realized how similar they were to existing logos that we subconsciously copied - such as the Safeway logo or the Stack Overflow logo.

We worked on this for almost a full month before we put our collective feet down - we were going to decide on a logo by the end of the week. Doyung threw out a bunch of ideas surrounding a heart, and we all immediately warmed to the simple yet compelling sketches.
Graham put it really well when he said, “I think it demonstrates that we really value schools as they are, and our users and stakeholders will identify with it as well."

We care about schools, and we care about helping teachers enhance their students’ learning. We aren’t just a group of techies thinking we can do it better. We honor the amount of time and energy teachers put into their work, and we simply want to combine forces and do what we can to help create new tools and experiences for the classrooms that need it most.

All the color combinations!

We call ourselves School Shaped, because we hope to be exactly that. We want to create products that come from the hearts of schools, and we want to work together with the school communities to shape them. And that's how we got our logo.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Disruptive Technology and School Shaped

In 1976, Apple released its first personal computers. At the time, the only real competitors to personal computers were $200K microcomputers. Apple’s simpler, cheaper devices targeted a totally overlooked demographic: the average consumer. However, within 10 years this consumer market for computers had become the dominant market, with Apple as a dominant player.

Apple’s Computers are a great example of a disruptive innovation: one that overtakes the dominant players in a market by starting with a simpler product that targets a smaller, overlooked segment. Two weeks ago, Michael Horn stepped down as the executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute. Christensen originated the idea of disruptive technology and Horn, his pupil, has done much to promote such advances for education.

Education is a field ripe for disruption. There is a growing achievement gap between the nearly 50% of American children attending low income schools, and those in higher income areas. One of the key drivers of this gap is unequal access to quality technology. Affluent schools have large discretionary budgets to spend on unproven technology and, most importantly, the expensive training these technologies require. In low income schools only 50% of teachers feel they get enough training to incorporate tech into their lessons. These underserved schools are also more likely to have inexperienced or underqualified teachers, who find it difficult to incorporate tech into their lessons.

A new generation of disruptive technology could do much to shrink America’s achievement gap. Just as Apple made computers available to underserved consumers, disruptive edtech could provide quality education to our underserved students. However, most education technology today falls far short of being disruptive. This is certainly not for lack of effort - many products are based on years of research and, in the right setting, can produce astonishing results. The problem is that these product are missing a crucial ingredient for disruption: simplicity. They are designed and built by people who likely haven’t been into a K-12 classroom in 15 years. Apple was able to build simple computers because Jobs and Wozniak represented their target market. They knew what simple meant for PC users. On the other hand, what an edtech developer considers straightforward could become very complex in a real classroom. Thus we see “simple” edtech which requires weeks of training, and often increases a teacher’s workload.

If we want truly disruptive education technology, we need to make it simple. Without free market forces, this is quite difficult - teachers and students can’t vote for the simplest solution with their dollar. Instead we need to have direct partnerships between developers and school communities, to understand what is intuitive in a school environment. This is our mission at School Shaped. We produce teams of edtech creators who know what simple means for teachers, students and administrators. We are working towards an edtech marketplace full of disruptive technology for every school community.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

What School Shaped Offers Partner Schools

When School Shaped began the process of finding schools to partner with, we assumed that our biggest selling point would be the custom tools that would be produced and used in classrooms. When contacting schools, we talked about the benefits of the user-designed software that would be created in collaboration with the schools. However, it soon became clear that what schools cared about the most was the benefit to the community from the design process itself.

Research from the Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL) at the University of Maryland shows that children who are involved in a cooperative-design process experience social and cognitive enhancements. These enhancements include increased collaboration, communication, and confidence, among other things. This research also reflects what other thought-leaders in the education field are discovering: “design thinking” is critical to building a solid foundation for future learning and problem solving.

The benefits of design thinking also extend beyond K-12 students. There are many organizations focused on developing design thinking for adults, promising similar results. Readers may already be aware that the at Stanford has an online crash course that takes learners through the design thinking cycle.

School Shaped’s long term goal is to build great teams who will build great edtech. In the short term however, we will provide more to our partner schools than just quality software: We will empower the community through collaborative design.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

In Admiration of User Centered Design

In today's increasingly connected world, it's very easy for companies to learn everything about us, from our demographics to our location data to our shopping habits. But when it comes time to actually design a custom product for us, how much does that information serve them? For all that they know about us, how well do they actually know us?

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Even companies doing market research aren't able to capture a person's essence. More and more, scientists are realizing that they can't get authentic results by asking participants to describe what they need. Under observation, people are likely to try to give the answer they think the interviewer wants, even when they actually want to hear the straightforward, unadulterated truth! When asked if they approve of a new concept X, customers are liable to give a 'soft yes' which means: "Sure, I see the value there," but which conceals "but I wouldn't pay a cent more to have i,t" or, "but I'd rather see more of concept Y." Subjects are also far more liberal with theoretical money/energy/time than actual quantities of the same - their initial enthusiasm often doesn't transfer to sales.

This leaves us with a glut of products, services, and programs in the world that just don't quite hit the mark. Companies with the best of intentions, learning as much as they know how to learn, produce solutions that they expect to be beloved by their users, but which fall flat. This is where user centered design comes in.

Essentially, during this process, designers spend a lot of time engaging with the people they are designing for, developing an empathetic understanding of who they are and how they think. They create physical displays of their observed information called representations and frameworks, iterating as they discover new perspectives. Eventually, they learn to be able to answer questions for their users, like, "What would Jodie do if her class projector malfunctioned?" or, "How would she feel if all of her students were buried in their personal screens?" Designers use their deep understanding of their users as leaping-off points for ideation (e.g. brainstorming), and engage their users in idea co-design to learn about the step-by-step decisions they would make. Finally, they spec out, build, and distribute a product!

Sticky notes are a great visual and tactile tool for displaying information

User centered design is a key part of our mission to elevate the quality of technology in the education space. Our build teams focus on developing software that the members of their partner school communities can love. They dive deep in order to keenly understand the needs and values of their users and stakeholders. They let that knowledge inform their work, and come up with solutions that not only meet an established area of opportunity, but do so in a way that users will actually want to employ.

Realistically, the results of this process are customized to one specific community, so subsequent design work is required to scale the product up. This could certainly be profitable and worthwhile. But furthermore, for our build teams, the experience of designing alongside and creating something for their community is an inspirational blend of beneficial, educational, and transformational. We at School Shaped hope that many future edtech leaders will have this experience.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Thoughts from the Close It Summit

Two weeks ago I attended the second annual Close It Summit, in the cool capital city of DC. The “it” in Close It refers to the skills gap - the difference between the skills and credentials that employers want, and the skills and credentials that job seekers actually have. In particular the conference focused on the many unemployed who don’t have college or even high school degrees, but are still motivated to have a successful career.

I didn’t expect the conference to align exactly with School Shaped’s mission; the speakers focused more on adult education than K-12. However, as the schedule proceeded I realized that the skills gap was really just the continuation of the K-12 achievement gap. The hard working adults using the tools at the conference were once the underserved students graduating (or not) from our K-12 schools. Many of the products there proclaimed they could get an unemployed client job-ready in six months, after our K-12 system failed to do this in 13 years.

The good news is that there are some great schools and businesses with impressive solutions for both the skills and achievement gaps (see below for some from the conference). There is, however, an important difference between the adult and K-12 markets. For the K-12 market, it’s often not the users of a product that are purchasing, whether those users are students, teachers or administrators. Thus it’s possible for unintuitive and misinformed products to end up in schools. In contrast, market forces operate pretty effectively in an adult market. The users of the products are the ones paying, and thus capitalism prevails in all its Darwinian greatness.

This may be one of the reasons that edtech for adults imparts skills in six months that K-12 tech has trouble teaching in years. Noel Enyedy with the National Education Policy Center points out, “We cannot trust market forces alone to sort out which systems are effective” for K-12 edtech. Rather, he suggests direct partnerships between developers and school communities to help users who can’t vote with their dollar, vote with their words instead. By providing this kind of partnership, I think School Shaped is doing its part to help close the achievement gap, and ensure the skills gap doesn't exist for the next generation.

Some great products from the conference:

Mentored: Online mentoring for K-12. This is pretty hard space, due to safety concerns with student tutoring, and the difficulty of growing a product is associated with homework. However Mentored is totally nailing it by making the process of connecting with a mentor easy and fast.

Kuepa: Online courses for the underemployed. Kuepa courses get users ready for entry level jobs, and they charge only a low, monthly fee for all of them. They started in South America and had great success there. Now they are getting into the American market, focusing on spanish speaking english language learners.

Axonify: Platform for corporate learning. Axonify applies learning science to on the job training, using spaced repetition and gamification to making lessons effective and engaging. The results speak for themselves: Pep Boys used Axonify and saw a 45% reduction in incidents, with 95% of employees regularly using the system.

Andela: Pipeline for talented programmers in Africa to become remote employees for American companies. Andela trains talented African programmers, and then connects them with startups and Fortune 500 companies in America. The employees they provide are some of the best around, and help companies here rethink who and how they hire.

Friday, October 23, 2015

With Schools, For Schools

Hey there, and welcome to the School Shaped blog! Consider this our open invitation to you come join us on our adventure as we work to bring better edtech to schools everywhere.

We are a team of engineers, designers, and educators, passionate about addressing a crucial need that we see in the edtech space today. The National Education Policy Center describes the opportunity as a need for “more partnerships among developers, educational researchers, and teachers.” We need to increase communication and collaboration between the creators and users of edtech to make more empathetic products.

Our answer is School Shaped. We incubate teams of engineers and designers as they design, build, and distribute better edtech as partners in K12 school communities. School Shaped helps each team grow while they work with students, teachers, and staff to create apps that meet the needs of the community they are immersed in.

We call it a community and not a partnership because we don’t want to put the school and the Build Team on opposite sides of a contract. Every stakeholder is considered an equal, and everyone benefits. The school receives practical benefits from the new software, as well as the empowering experience of codesigning their own tools. In turn, each Build Team becomes an experienced design and software engineering team, ready to pursue any of their ideas as a startup. We want each of these teams to leave well-informed and eager to continue building upon the software they have created when their year is up.

We’re excited, but we’re just getting started. We’re busy setting up pilots, meeting allies in the education world, and forging partnerships of every type. We’re paving the way to make School Shaped a success and make a real difference to the schools that desperately need proven, intuitive edtech.

This blog is where we will share our learnings around creating School Shaped and discuss our findings in education, technology, and design. We welcome your thoughts and input – let’s build a community around improving education technology! Feel free to comment or reach out to

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.