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Leadership Stories

The rise of the digital classroom - a conversation with LearnZillion, Empatico and GoNoodle

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Illustration by Michele Rosenthal

Whether you’re 27 or 72, the K-12 classrooms of today are so to be drastically different than when you were in elementary school. Digital advances — from the internet to touch-screens and video-conferencing — is changing not only the way students learn, but what is being taught.

In this article, we explore companies working on the future of education, and how they’re tackling problems at the intersection of education and technology:

Creating global citizens

Empatico is one example of a company that’s looking towards the future. The CEO of KIND (yes, the same makers of the popular snack bars!) founded Empatico because he wanted to help the next generation of students break out of their bubbles. The team believes that the best way to do this is to expose students to different people and cultures at an early age, and they do this by digitally connecting classrooms. Teachers select a specific class activity, and two classes from across the globe are paired to collaborate on it via a live video feed

The activities have three stages:

  1. An entry exercise that encourages students to share their pre-conceptions of the topic and expectations of the planned activity.
  2. A live video interaction where students meet their partner classroom and discover new ideas and perspectives about the project at hand.
  3. A closing exercise called a “Reflection Circle,” in which students engage in honest dialogue about their experience.

Says James Turnbull, CTO at Empatico:

“Humans develop a perception of the Other at a very early age, and it’s formed largely out of the circle around them — their friends, family, local community, media they consume, and so on. Most of those sources have strong stereotypes. If you’re a rural kid growing up in Arkansas, you have a very specific (and potentially not very accurate) view of a kid growing up in urban environment like New York, and vice versa.”

Humans develop a perception of the Other at a very early age, and it’s formed largely out of the circle around them — their friends, family, local community, media they consume, and so on. Most of those sources have strong stereotypes. If you’re a rural kid growing up in Arkansas, you have a very specific (and potentially not very accurate) view of a kid growing up in urban environment like New York, and vice versa.James Turnbull, CTO at Empatico

What’s interesting to James and the rest of the Empatico team is that while these stereotypes get developed relatively early, there is significant research that shows if you influence 8–10 year olds and get them to meet other 8–10 year olds from different backgrounds, those stereotypes are less likely to develop.

Instead of thinking about a stereotype of someone from a rural or urban community, the children are more likely to think about the actual person they’ve met from that area and their current experiences. In turn, this tends to create a more empathetic, less discriminatory attitude in the student — something we can probably all agree is a good thing!

Content management for teachers

LearnZillion is the world’s first “Curriculum-as-a-Service” tool, combining digital curriculum and materials, an enterprise platform for creating and sharing materials, and consulting/support to empower districts and states to take ownership of their curricula and helping teachers engage their students better.

The app was created when co-founder Eric Westendorf (who was principal at a school in Washington, D.C. at the time) watched a sixth grade teacher in action and wondered, “Is it possible for powerful learning experiences to be captured so that teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they teach?”

He worked with that teacher, Andrea Smith, and a few others at his school to create a homemade website that featured screencasts of high-quality lessons. The website proved a success. Not only could teachers find examples of great lessons to use in their own classrooms, but parents and students also benefited from it.

Keeping students engaged in a classroom (and a world) with ever more distractions is a challenge that more and more teachers are facing, and LearnZillion is aiming to address that and more. Another issue they’re tackling is the discrepancies in engagement and quality learning material from district to district (and state to state). Oftentimes that discrepancy in material or engagement is no accident; schools in the poorest neighborhoods often get the least engaging curriculum.

It’s LearnZillion’s theory that approaching the curriculum first might be the best way to turn this around, and their theory is supported by the research. Numerous studies show that creating high-quality curriculum and then sharing that curriculum with teachers can have great results.

Engagement through movement

The GoNoodle team is also working on improving engagement in classrooms, but they’re approaching it from a different angle — by building a platform that enables teachers and their young students to take fun, quick movement breaks without leaving the classroom. Having breaks like this can improve focus over the long haul, and it gives the students an energy outlet and boosts their confidence.

“Research supports the value of tying movement directly to the things kids are learning, too,” says Christy Frink, product manager at GoNoodle. “For example, practicing spelling words on paper is great, but what about spelling those words out with your body?”

As a company, they’re also aware that not all classrooms have the same technology available to them. “Technology is becoming more prevalent in schools, but equipment often still runs a few years behind — so we optimize for classrooms that are using older computers with spotty internet connections.”

The team at GoNoodle realizes that in the 21st century, educators are trying to leverage the opportunities and benefits that technology can bring, but are still struggling with how to find balance with the distractions and sedentariness that tech often also brings. Schools want to prioritize digital literacy for their students, without just sitting them down in front of screens all day. Teachers are also often expected to help their students learn soft skills, like social-emotional learning — GoNoodle aims to help them do that.

In the next 3–5 years, Christy predicts that we’ll continue to see a shift towards mobile devices in classrooms and towards each child having access to their own device. “There’s some really fascinating applications of virtual and augmented reality starting to emerge, too, from taking virtual class field trips to letting kids experiment in VR science labs. Classrooms are using Skype to chat with other classrooms around the world.” (Sound familiar?)

Christy says that her biggest hope is “that we continue to see innovation around leveraging technology for active experiences. Much like we’ve seen fitness trackers and AR games like Pokemon Go get people up and moving, I think there’s a lot of room in the education space to do the same."

I hope that we continue to see innovation around leveraging technology for active experiences. Much like we’ve seen fitness trackers and AR games like Pokemon Go get people up and moving, I think there’s a lot of room in the education space to do the sameChristy Frink, Product manager at GoNoodle

Whether they’re connecting students across the globe, or just encouraging classrooms to get moving, countless companies are sharing the benefits of technology with future generations of innovators.

Do you know of other companies working to bring digital advancements to schools and young people? If so, we’d love to hear about them on Twitter. In the meantime, if you are innovating in the edtech space (or any other space), join amazing companies like LearnZillion, Empatico, and GoNoodle in using Clubhouse!