Schooling is rife today with intriguing ed tech ventures. Thing is, it can be tough to tell these guys apart without a scorecard. What are they all doing? How do you sort the wheat from the chaff? Today, I chat with Dan Carroll, chief operating officer of Clever, about some of the crucial but largely invisible stuff they're tackling. A former middle school science teacher, Dan got into this work when he was running technology for a charter school network in Colorado. He recalls being struck by the data obstacles his schools faced and was prompted to found Clever to help solve this problem.
Rick Hess: What exactly does Clever do? Who actually uses Clever?
Dan Carroll: K-12 schools are on the cusp of transforming their use of classroom software. But implementing technology today requires hundreds of hours of school work to set up - it's ridiculous. When I was a Director of Technology, I noticed that as my schools used more and more software, the problem was spiraling out of control. In fact I often saw districts purchase software that students and teachers never got to use, simply because implementation got stuck in a data integration black hole. To solve this, software companies are turning to Clever to make their applications incredibly easy to set up. With Clever, a school can get students accounts set up and ready for learning with just a few minutes of work. Clever makes sure that updates to critical data in district student information systems - student enrollment status, class rosters, teacher schedules - are updated within the learning applications as soon as they happen. That means that when a student switches schools or changes classes, her online learning data instantly moves with her. And new students get set up in the right programs automatically, before their first day of school. Clever is the sync technology behind-the-scenes, making sure the student experience is always up to date.
RH: How did you guys get the idea for Clever, and when did you start it?
DC: Clever started a year and a half ago. I was in charge of technology for a school network in Colorado, where I had previously taught science. As a devoted EdSurge reader, I was blown away by the great tech tools being released every week that addressed the challenges my students and teachers were facing. But when we tried to use these tools in the classroom, teachers kept telling me - this is creating more work for me, not less. The sheer number of spreadsheets we were asked to export, import, and reformat became impossible to deal with. Two friends from college - an engineer and a startup guy - convinced me that if we teamed up, we could build a better solution. Since then, Clever has grown to become a team of twelve, mostly software engineers.
RH: How many schools or systems are you working with? What do you do for them?
DC: The growth of Clever among schools has really blown me away. When Clever launched in June 2012, I hoped 100 schools might give it a try by the end of the summer. As it turned out, over 1,000 schools adopted Clever that summer, and today that number has grown to over 6,000 schools. These include rural districts, charter networks, and 5 of the 10 largest districts in the United States. Schools use Clever to pilot, deploy, and manage Clever's partner applications. There are over 100 of these Clever-powered applications today, including devices like Amplify Access, diagnostic assessments like i-Ready, curriculum like Learning.com, assessments like onTRAC, adaptive math like DreamBox and ThinkThroughMath, and e-reading like myON.
RH: Why is this stuff interesting to folks other than IT directors and tech geeks? What does this mean for a teacher or school leader?
DC: Last year in NYC, 139,000 students transferred schools during the school year. Without Clever, their principals, secretaries, and teachers spent tens of thousands of hours out of the classroom updating school software to keep up with these changes. What a waste. Clever changes that. With Clever, a new application can be set up in minutes. We've seen schools using Clever piloting new programs in a way that wasn't possible before Clever existed, and we've partnered with EdSurge to make this even easier with the "Clear & Simple Trials" program.
RH: What's an example of where this is helping schools or systems make a big difference for kids?
DC: The Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) operates the schools for all of the county students in juvenile detention. LACOE relies on great online learning tools like Think Through Math, Achieve 3000, and NWEA to personalize instruction for these students who would otherwise present teachers with nearly impossible differentiation challenges. Before Clever, LACOE teachers spent a tremendous amount of instructional time updating student accounts in these various systems. Now they can finally just focus on instruction.
RH: What's your biggest frustration in practice? What's the one thing that clients tend to do wrong, the one policy that creates complications, or what have you?
DC: Traditionally, procurement has been a high-risk area for districts, with large contracts and lots of accompanying scrutiny. As a result, boards and districts built slow decision-making processes, driven by RFPs and requiring the approval of many stakeholders. These processes were not only costly at the front end of a district's adoption cycle by adding years before technology hit the classroom, but also costly at the back end. Since districts had invested so much energy in their initial selection, they were unlikely to revisit those purchases when they weren't improving student learning, or even measure their impact on learning at all. The healthy growth of the ed tech ecosystem requires that districts try innovative software, measure its impact, and scale it appropriately. For too long, it's been impossible to test and measure new solutions efficiently. This is changing for a few reasons. First, funding (Gates NGLC grants, DOE Race to the Top District) is supporting innovation and risk-taking in procurement. Second, school districts that have taken risks and invested in innovation like Mooresville in North Carolina and Summit Schools in California are gaining national recognition and inspiring hundreds of other districts to follow their lead. Third, organizations like IDEO and the League of Innovative Schools are supporting small groups of innovative districts in running trials and testing new programs and broadcasting the best practices. Finally, Clever is enabling "one click" setup of new software, reducing the technical barrier for experimentation. We were particularly encouraged by New York City's Gap App Challenge, which went outside the normal procurement channels to solicit hundreds of innovative learning tools with a plan for piloting the most promising ones.
RH: What was the toughest thing about getting started?
DC: As an integration platform, I knew we'd face a chicken-and-egg problem. Clever wasn't an appealing solution for applications until it had been tested in schools. But schools had no use for Clever's sync technology until vendors supported it! There were a few things that helped. First, we found people had been frustrated by this problem for over a decade and there was a lot of willingness to try something new. Second, Clever is free to schools, so there was a low barrier to adoption. Finally, as a former tech director, I understood the problem intimately and was able to make Clever easy for schools to deploy. But all of that aside, we owe a lot to the first schools - STRIVE Prep in Colorado, Aspire Public Schools in California, and FirstLine Schools in New Orleans - who helped us prototype, and our first partners - MasteryConnect and Goalbook - who were willing to make a bet on a new approach.
RH: Are you guys organized as a non-profit or a for-profit venture? Why?
DC: Clever has a social mission - to enable learning by making great software easy for schools to use. We're organized as a for-profit, which has allowed us to access startup capital and attract incredible talent. Quite frankly, if we weren't able to offer employees an equity stake in Clever, it would be harder to attract the best talent in Silicon Valley. Another reason Clever is for-profit is that when we started Clever, we observed that historical attempts to solve the data integration problem had produced "pie in the sky" solutions that were never broadly implemented. We knew that the best way to avoid that fate was to hold ourselves accountable to continuous growth in the number of schools actually using Clever. We raised money from traditional Silicon Valley investors - folks like Google Ventures, SV Angel, and Mike Maples. These investors love our mission, and when they examine our progress, they compare us to their previous investments in Twitter, AirBNB, and Facebook. This accountability has helped Clever grow its social mission at a Silicon Valley growth trajectory.
RH: What's the one thing you guys have gotten most wrong along the way -- the one thing you'd love to go back and do differently?
DC: Looking back, we kept our team too small for too long. As Clever's growth continues to exceed expectations, I find it tough to step away from the day to day to recruit and hire excellent people. Thankfully, our mission has led to some great folks knocking on our door, including engineers from companies like Google, Facebook, and Zynga.
RH: What's next?
DC: Today, Clever helps thousands of schools, but we won't rest until implementing ed tech is a snap for every district in the country. That means growing in scale across the country, bringing on new partner applications, and deepening the integration Clever is able to provide. As your readers know well, technology in isolation does not solve educational problems. Changes in expectations, practices, mindsets accompany all successful technological innovations.