The past, present and future of EdTech: an interview with ClassDojo co-founder, Liam Don

By: Ahmed Siddiqui, Startup Weekend Bay Area organizer; founder of Go Go Mongo!

Fresh on the heels of Startup Weekend EDU, and after 54 hours of non-stop brainstorming, building, and ultimately, bonding between 120 thrill-seeking, hack-loving innovators, I sat down with ClassDojo co-founder Liam Don to get his insights on the EdTech space and how events like EDU can help shape the discourse around the future of education.

Liam, who was bitten by the entrepreneur bug while attending a Startup Weekend in 2011, subsequently met his future business partner during the event, then “up and quit” his education technology PhD to pursue an idea that ultimately bore ClassDojo, is now seeing first hand the shifts in education made possible by technology.

P.S. and standard disclaimer:  what happened to Liam Don and his partner Sam Chaudhary is the stuff made of entrepreneur fairytales.  After submitting their idea to ImagineK12, an incubator focused on education technology innovation, the two were literally accepted within days and told they had two weeks to get to Palo Alto, California (from the UK) to start the program.  That was in June 2011.  Nine months later ClassDojo is being used globally by tens of thousands of teachers, and has raised substantial funding from investors including Paul Graham, SV Angel, Learn Capital and Softech VC.

Before you turn that nice shade of green, or completely attribute their success to the fact that British accented-males have a distinct advantage in the business world (this claim is not data-driven but we all know it’s true!), I can assure you Liam is still stunned at their meteoric rise to fame (did I mention they were whisked off to New York to be part of an NBC reality show after landing in Palo Alto?).  Or maybe he wasn’t stunned; he’s just trying to make the rest of us feel better. Either way, he does know quite a bit about EdTech and was kind enough to share his thoughts as he reflected his mentoring experience during Startup Weekend EDU:

AS: In 40 words or less, what is ClassDojo?

LD: It’s an easy way for teachers to manage students’ behavior in the classroom, using real time feedback and rewards that can also be shared with parents.

AS: What inspires you about entrepreneurship/innovation?

LD: For me, it’s about the impact that innovative startups can have on a large scale. The entrepreneurship ecosystem rewards those with the passion, drive, and courage to take a big idea and turn it into a reality. Within the confines of a big company, you don’t always have the freedom to do innovative things; but being an entrepreneur allows me to continually explore new things, apply those learnings to my company, and ultimately serve the end-user better and without waiting years for approval and/or improvement.

AS: What excites you about working in Education Technology?

LD: The most exciting thing is the prospect of having a real and lasting impact on children’s learning and achievement. Historically, the education sector has been “ruled” by a few large companies making it hard for startups to get a foothold. That’s changed a lot recently, so startup companies are gaining marketshare in places like textbook publishing (Kno, Inc.) and assessment (Mastery Connect). It’s a really exciting time.

What we are beginning to see is a huge shift in attitudes to education technology, which includes the openness of teachers and school administrators to embrace technology as well as the investment world seeing the value and profitability of EdTech.  Additionally, as organizations like Khan Academy have made clear, there is a demand for independent learning outside the traditional classroom setting. Technology is the driver behind this, and this “individualized” approach to education will only continue to expand and grow in the coming years.

AS: What is the biggest challenge for companies in the Education Technology space?

LD: With the current model, if you want to sell a product to a school it can take at least a year to go through the cycle, because of how school budgets.  A lean startup cannot wait for this long sales cycle, let alone navigate through the bureaucracy. The good news is that new models are being developed to address and work around these issues.

AS: What are some of your favorite companies or startups in EdTech?

LD: I really like what Educreations is doing with self-published educational videos; Launchpad Toys continues to amaze me with its educational iPad games for kids; and of course ImagineK12 because they are an important part of the EdTech ecosystem, responsible for providing the tools and resources to launch twenty exciting education startups every year.

AS: With regard to Startup Weekend EDU, did you see any trends or themes?

LD: Over the weekend I saw three distinct themes emerge:

  1. Solutions around career aspiration and goal setting; basically platforms to support students throughout the college application and selection process as well as find a career path.
  2. With the popularity of data visualization, there seemed to be quite a few teams focused on utilizing data viz to create a better classroom experience, help teachers make sense of data, and also allow parents to better understand their child’s performance metrics.
  3. In general, there was a theme around creating classroom technologies that make teachers’ lives easier, giving them more time to focus on the relational aspects of teaching instead of paperwork.

 

AS: And of course we have to ask, what are your tech devices of choice?

 

LD: Right now I’m staying fairly connected and on top of it with my iPhone and Macbook Air. Also, an essential tool for any late-night coding sessions is a really good pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

 

To learn more about Liam Don and ClassDojo visit: www.ClassDojo.com

Follow Liam @liamdon

Follow ClassDojo @classdojo



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