This is the tenth article in the Education Technology Innovation series, and it is fair to say that Nic Borg’s background is unlike any of the other entrepreneurs featured in the series. Like others, he comes from academe, but rather than being a former Stanford professor like Sebastian Thrun or Daphne Koller, or an MIT professor like Anant Agarwal, Borg spent seven years at Kaneland High School in Maple Park, Illinois building web-based tools and learning management solutions. The small-scale innovation that he introduced proved to be a pilot for something bigger to come.
Armed with his practical experience at a Kaneland High School, Borg co-founded Edmodo five and a half years ago. Edmodo is the largest K-12 social learning network, which provides teachers and students a safe and easy way to connect and collaborate; it has been called “the Facebook of education.” It is used heavily in the classroom, but also extends that classroom environment. The mission of the organization is to help all learners reach their full potential, and he believes that by connecting them to the resources and concepts they need, they achieve that goal. It has already had profound implications on students, teachers, parents, and content providers, as he explains herein. He was recently honored by this publication as “30 Under 30” winner.
(To listen to an unabridged audio interview with Nic Borg, please visit this link. To read the prior nine articles in this series including interviews with the heads of Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera, and edX, please visit this link. To read future articles in the series, please click the “Follow” link above.)
Peter High: Nic, what was the original inspiration for the founding of Edmodo?
Nic Borg: My background was actually working for school and districts building web applications and tools in the IT department, so seeing what was working, what was being used by teachers, and hearing what problems teachers face directly from them. As I attempted to translate what I heard to help solve the problems, it became more readily apparent that there was a transition from analog to digital in the classroom realm. This was a powerful change.
One of the keys to that is building products that people want to use. From the student perspective, they were connected on these social networking features outside of the classroom, but when you got into the classroom you either really didn’t have tools anywhere close to meeting those needs or driving that engagement.
Edmodo began with the desire to build products that solved real problems for teachers; problems as simple as getting a digital resource that they discovered in the hands of their students. At the same time, we had to build a tool that students would have an intuitive sense about how to use and to be able to communicate with their classmates and teachers.
PH: Why was there a need for more of a digital platform and a means of communication with students in new ways? Was there something there saw as lacking in the traditional means of educating their students that was particularly stark to you?
NB: New ideas developed so rapidly outside the classroom that to really capture students’ attention, teachers had to be just as dynamic and even have to do a bit of a catch-up. Without those tools, without simple ways to get their classrooms online, it just wasn’t possible to get the attention needed from their students to drive that learning process.
PH: How have you established the web of partnerships with those who provide the content to be used through Edmodo?
NB: We started off with teachers at the center and had to figure out what kinds of products we could build for teachers that they woudl adopt in their classrooms and bring them online. Quickly, teachers began to connect with one another and began sharing resources and finding many other teachers teaching the same thing that they had that day. This offered them the ability to leverage a network in a way that they had never done before.
Additionally, a number of top publishers came to us with some key insights. First, so often, we are disconnected from our end use. Things built for classrooms are usually made with administrative audiences in mind and that disconnect between the purchaser and the actual end user creates odd results. Publishers came to us saying “How do we connect and find out how our content is being leveraged in classrooms, determining what is working and what isn’t?”
Another struggle was means of distribution, and this has always been a key of why we think the growth of Edmodo is so important. We think we can revolutionize the distribution model for this content. We have been seen as a new way to get content directly into classrooms at a much faster rate, and that’s really important for there to be innovation in the space. Stagnation in K-12 content in many respects goes back to the fact that decision making cycles are so long, and when decision making cycles are so long, there’s really no feedback in place to tell you what’s actually driving results at a granular level, and the incentive for innovation on the content dwindles greatly.
PH: As I think about the students who interact with Edmodo, the range of ages that you include are vastly different in their ability to use technology, their familiarity with it, their ability to speak and learn and read, and so forth, varies tremendously. This is in stark contrast with the MOOCs, which focus on university level curricula. How have you thought about the use of technology for such a vast array of ages and abilities to learn?
NB: When we started out, we saw that fifth grade was when teachers began to bring their students to Edmodo; K-5 teachers were on the platform for professional development, but they hadn’t yet brought their students on. We’re now seeing that starting point in the third grade, and that seems to be tied to when keyboarding classes start.
The reason we focused on K-12 is we really believe that’s where you can have a profound impact on the society, through the learning that happens those years. As we look towards the future, exploring more ways to reach pre-K to third grade audience before they’re typing on keyboards is definitely something of interest to us and with the prevalence of mobile devices and touch interface, we believe there’s a lot of opportunity there.
PH: What role does analytics play—to what extent is there technology that can help derive conclusions or help a teacher make better decisions as a result of using Edmodo?
NB: It is the creative use of analytics that allows us to connect teachers with each other to develop better outcomes for students. Let me illustrate this with an example. Let’s say a teacher shares supplemental materials with a group of students and less than half of the students open it. The teacher can network with other teachers who have thought about comparable topics, find better supplemental materials, better means of communicating with them, and the like.
The power of network is real, and analytics help suggest to teachers what sort of network will benefit them most, and it helps us understand what is being used to the greatest effectiveness by teachers and students, as well. If we can find ways to leverage that data and service it to the teacher in a way that’s useful, that’s really been the key. There is no shortage of talk about data in education, but for it to have an impact and be useful, then it’s really about how are you building things, the experiences on top of that that work in the classroom, and that teachers will use.
PH: What data do you focus on to gauge progress?
NB: We monitor what content is accessed when in order to gauge the effectiveness of different activities that teachers provide their students. We try to think from a teacher’s perspective about whether there was a correlation between the students who actually engaged with content shared, and how they did on that quiz I sent out. Insights like these can increase the efficiency and improve the day-to-day work for teachers so they’re spending their time in the right places and not necessarily being lost in the swarm of information
PH: Naturally you have a lot of sensitive data about students and teachers. How have you thought about security as the business is predicated on keeping and maintaining the sanctity of the data of the people using it?
NB: That is an incredibly important issue and one that’s always at the top of our minds. It’s not a conversation that will go away soon, and I think that’s a really good thing. We always take the utmost care of student data. One of the main differences in what Edmodo provides has always been that our solution was built for the classroom, so that the types of communications are strictly controlled, and that is of the utmost importance.
It’s also important that Edmodo put the teacher at the center, and the teacher is controlling the classroom interactions. They become important controls on our behalf. Lastly, with the ability for parents to sign up on the platform, they’re able to have a great deal of control over their children’s experience and information
PH: Aside from ensuring that it is a productive and safe environment for students, what roles do you see parents playing using Edmodo in helping their child advance appropriately?
NB: We believe there are two important roles that parents play. First, being up to date on what is going on in the student classroom. Edmodo provides a way for parents to remain connected to what’s going on in the classroom. Second, we provide parents with data and insights into how their children are doing, and suggest paths to improve their experiences. Those may be tutors, iPad apps, other supplemental learning, and the like. Bridging the divide between school and home is an important value proposition that we provide.
PH: How do you envision monetizing what you have put together? What is the path to revenue for Edmodo, and do you see that evolving over time?
NB: We are focused on growth of the number of students and teachers leveraging the platform first and foremost. Thankfully, we have put together a set of investors who truly believe in network effects, and know that building the network is absolutely the first step before focusing on monetization.
That said, in the Edmodo store we sell premium content, and we take a share of the revenue that is generated there. we see growth opportunity in premium content like that.
PH: To what extent were you an entrepreneur in search of an idea versus someone who found an idea that made you into an entrepreneur?
NB: In some ways, I feel as though I’m working on the same project I was working on all those years ago at a school district. I was fortunate that I found an idea, and saw out it worked in a real world application. That has been an advantage from the start. Therefore, I think it is a little of each.
Peter High is the President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.