Powering the Global Education Conversation: About EdCircuit

EdTech and the Adaptive Learning Process

A Platform Reshaping the Way the World Learns - One Chapter at a Time

By Dr. Rod Berger

“We love mistakes because mistakes give us insight into how a student is thinking.”

To say that Jessie Woolley-Wilson is a force to be reckoned with in the EdTech world would be an understatement. Jessie is President and CEO of DreamBox Learning, and formerly spent time at KaplanLeapFrog SchoolHouse and Blackboard.

Jessie has an intriguing way of looking at life and business in the form of chapters. The development of DreamBox can be described as a journey from one chapter to the next influenced by the adaptive learning process.

DreamBox has created a learning platform that is age and grade agnostic. It meets the learner where they are in the learning process and allows for simultaneous instruction to take place in real-time, regardless of the student’s level of achievement. The technology impacts learning at the point of instruction and therefore erases the elements of being held back or left behind.

The platform is based on solid research that is constantly being tested and modified by data collected through actual results in the field. The analysis or more specifically, mistake analysis, helps ascertain the “why” behind a student’s answer, improving overall learning and agency. It’s an important distinction when compared to many EdTech companies who choose to put technology ahead of strong academic research.

Jessie applies her chapter theory to the sensitive topic of minority representation in education and societal leadership. Life is full of chapters, and just because you came from a difficult beginning, it does not define your life. All of life is development through chapters of living. It’s important that minority youth see the successes of leadership from comparable beginnings.

The demographic change from city living to suburb has lessened the everyday encounters that once allowed young people to see successful minority adults in action. Jessie believes successful minorities owe it to themselves and future generations to engage technologically and reach out through social media and other means – demonstrating guidance and hope.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson is a visionary; education thought leader and a societal inspiration.

Rod Berger:  Jessie, it’s really nice to spend some time with you today. I was in the audience at South by Southwest EDU a few years ago when you were onstage with Bill Gates. It probably feels like a lifetime ago, I would imagine, in EdTech time, right?

Jessie Woolley-Wilson:  It was a lifetime ago.

RB:  DreamBox is in all 50 states. It’s a very recognizable brand and solution in the space of adaptive learning. Tell me a little bit about what’s changed since you were on the stage to where we are now in 2017.

JWW:  That’s an interesting question. I think about life and business in chapters, and I think that chapter that you saw me in with Bill Gates was a chapter that was at an inflection point between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of what I call this EdTech evolution.

Chapter 1 is really when we built applications that were essentially designed to improve productivity or efficiency in learning ─ an automated gradebook or a practice app. These were things that helped education efficiency but it really didn’t advance learning the way we defined it at DreamBox.

Chapter 2 is more where you use technology to impact learning at the point of instruction. What does that mean? It means that you’re going to leverage technology to do what technology does best, to empower new possibilities in the classroom ─ or at the kitchen table.

What that means is that you’re using data to ascertain not only if the student is answering the question right or wrong ─ that’s easy ─ but why the student is answering a question right or wrong ─ that’s hard.

What we do, with our Intelligent Adaptive Technology at DreamBox, is a lot of mistake analysis. We love mistakes because mistakes give us insight into how a student is thinking.

You probably remember me talking about this at South by Southwest. We want to know not only the “7+5 is 12.” We want to know why “7+5 is 12” and we want the student to understand that.

So this Chapter 2 of the learning technology evolution gives us insight into how students are thinking, how they’re structuring problems, what hypotheses and assumptions they’re making and, therefore, what they truly understand. It’s not “What did they get right or wrong in multiple choice?” but “How did they construct their answer? What do they really understand?”

And this adaptive age in learning allows us to modify our instructional approach based on where the student is.

This may be a little crazy but imagine a learning environment that is age- and grade-agnostic. It doesn’t matter if I’m advanced as a 4th grader and I’m ready for six-grade content, if I’m chronologically in 4th grade, maybe I’d still get 6th-grade content.

Or if I’m sitting next to somebody who is in 4th grade, too, but is struggling for a lot of different reasons and is only ready for 2nd-grade content, I can be with my cohort chronologically; they can get what they need at 2nd-grade level and I can get what I need at 6th-grade level.

We are met where we are by the technology. And, as a result, the experience is more engaging; it’s more personalized; it’s more relevant; and it builds agency because it allows the learner to drive more of their learning based on what they’re doing, click by click or touch by touch.

RB:  It is very exciting. And part of that agency is having a better understanding on how to chalk the field for the educator that is there within proximity of the students in their classroom or learning environment, because now we extend beyond the physical classroom? Have we made the improvements that you would have hoped since you were onstage that day in Austin with regards to our support and our understanding of the ways in which adaptive technology needs to be integrated into the actual facilitation of learning from the teacher side of it?

JWW:  You have just talked about Chapter 3. It’s great because a lot of people don’t think about Chapter 3. They think we’ve hit the mark because we’ve done all the sexy stuff with adaptive technologies in Chapter 2. But that’s not the end; that’s the beginning. And you get that.

I’m excited about Chapter 3 even though it’s the hardest chapter because, in Chapter 3, we move beyond just impacting learning at the point of instruction with technology and we actually have a chance for transformation. We can actually shape and reshape the way the world learns. And that’s our mission here at DreamBox.

So what’s different about that? What’s different about Chapter 3 is that the technological innovation doesn’t happen to the learning guardian, it happens in partnership with the learning guardian.

So it’s time for DreamBox to be in however many classrooms that we’re in, but if the teacher doesn’t feel that they are also served, that their agency is not also enhanced, if they feel like this is happening to them and they’re on the defensive, it is not going to take hold in schools. You and I both know that.

If teachers are fearful of technology and they feel that technology is designed to replace them, they will thwart its implementation and adoption. It’s a rational response to a threat.

So Chapter 3 is about transformation because it is using data to give the learning guardian unique insights about individual learners, about cohorts of learners, or about learners across the whole learning ecosystem so that the learning guardians can modify their instructional practice live.

I’ve been in this industry for 20 years and we’ve always been talking about our desire to have job-embedded, dynamic, relevant professional learning, and we’ve never delivered it.

We still put all teachers in a classroom in the beginning of August and we say we’re going to teach everything you need to know in the beginning of August and we hope that they use it for the course of the year.

And that’s just not how learning happens. Learning is adaptive and dynamic.

Now, because we have these nimble solutions like DreamBox, we can actually give them insights about what a child is doing.

Imagine you’re a teacher and you have 25 kids. Five of those kids are well-advanced. They’re 4th-grade kids but they’re ready for 6th-grade learning. How great would it be for you not only to know that they’re advanced in 6th-grade learning but that they’ve already encountered parabolas in DreamBox, and what aspects of figuring out parabolas they’re excelling in or struggling in.

And what if the technology gives you insights about what specific lessons they were working on so that you could say “Wow! I have Mary, Johnny, and Sally dealing with parabolas already. I haven’t touched parabolas in I don’t know how long. I can click on this button and see the lessons that they’re working on, and I can click on another button to get a refresher in parabolas so that when I see them in my classroom, I can be a better learning guardian. When I see them in my classroom, I can understand what they’re struggling with and where they’re excelling. When I see them in the classroom, I’m not going to be defensive. I’m going to be ready.”

So the third stage of the technological evolution gives us opportunity for transformation because it develops teacher agency and, at the same time, it develops student agency. And two plus two is five or six or seven.

RB:  Jessie, I will feel much better not only as somebody who works in education but as a parent of young children if the answer to my following question is “yes” which is “Are teacher-preparation programs in colleges seeking out the DreamBox learning companies in global EdTech to help support the next generation of teachers?”

JWW:  Maybe.

RB:  I was afraid you were going to say that.

JWW:  Let me just say this. DreamBox and companies like DreamBox have an obligation to pull the practice forward. We have to partner with institutions and organizations that are focused on developing teachers. The way we’ve developed teachers in the past is not going to be sufficient for the classrooms that these teachers are going to inherit.

It’s really important what you’re saying. And, honestly, at the start of DreamBox, I haven’t prioritized that as much as we will going forward.

We had to develop a stable business and we had to have validated research to say that our hypothesis and our philosophy and approaches were validated with research. It’s just within a year or a year and a half that we’ve gotten that validation from the Harvard study.

Now, we can legitimately go forth to institutes of higher education and say, “You should take a look at under the hood at this because you’re not going to be martyring your teachers, you’re not going to be martyring your kids if you incorporate innovative nuanced technologies like DreamBox in your teacher prep.” Parents are going to demand it. It’s no longer a choice. And we have to help them make informed choices about what’s going to work for the next generation of teachers.

I’ve said the there are three chapters. Rod, maybe you’re educating me and maybe there are four chapters. Maybe the fourth chapter is where we’re actually intentionally redesigning the teacher preparation protocols and approaches to make sure that they’re aware of, that they leverage, and they actually help advance, technologies like DreamBox Learning.

I will tell you here immodestly that the way DreamBox looks today has hundreds ─ maybe thousands ─ of thumbprints of educators on it. It has evolved to complement their practice and their aspirations for what they wanted to do with learning technologies.

I don’t believe that we would be where we are today if we hadn’t had a lot of constructive feedback. There’s been a lot of benevolent friction in the development of DreamBox Learning, and it’s because teachers believed that we’re on to something. Even if it was imperfect, they believed that we cared about all learners; they believed that we were honoring teachers; and they believed that we were going to help usher in a new paradigm of learning.

RB:  As we go on with this and say that we’re adding chapters to the overall book, my hope is that, not as a CEO and a founder of a company who is, trying to survive a very challenging and competitive EdTech landscape globally, that these colleges of education are seeking out leaders like you. The one thing that we don’t do very well is market education to those who are in our classrooms even at the youngest ages.

I have two little kids. If they’re experiencing DreamBox and they grow up understanding what adaptive learning is and that it’s just a part of their daily life, they may want to go into education at any level and give back and learn and grow. That means that colleges of education may be bringing in different skill sets from high school students wanting to go to college.

We just don’t know what that’s going to look like. I think, sometimes, we’re shortsighted and we don’t take the long view which is that we have to also populate our classrooms with fantastic leaders ─ guardians, as you put it. I don’t think we’re doing a lot of that. We cross our fingers and hope that really thoughtful companies are out there and that young people will see beyond the challenges of education. They will still enter to the benefit of kids like mine.

JWW:  Now, we’re in Chapter 5 and maybe you and I are going to have to write a book.

RB:  Deal.

JWW:  I will tell you that if we achieve that, I will be so excited because, honestly, on many different levels, I see kids who don’t even think about the future the way they could think about their future. They literally don’t see people whom they want to aspire to be like in their classroom.

I would love to see more people of color, more women, and more people who were in the industry for a while being boomeranged back in the classroom. I think we have to be more creative about the rubric that we use to cultivate and to attract learning guardians.

And I don’t think it has to only be in the classroom. Deliberately at DreamBox we say they are “learning guardians” because there are tutors; there are coaches; there are parents; there are paraprofessionals; there are math specialists; there are math teachers; and there are generalists.

All of us have to wrap our arms around kids to make sure we can unlock the learning potential of every child. If we do that, maybe we’ll inspire those kids to take up the baton of being a teacher because it’s an honorable, dynamic, exciting profession.

RB:  It is. And I appreciate you going down that bit of a rabbit hole. One area of engagement that we continue to see is around gamification. I’m moderating an event with DeVry Education in the San Francisco area later this week around gamification. I’m fascinated by it. When we think about adaptive learning, we think about bringing children in understanding where they are, then literally adapting the course that they take; and in the level of control that they have, gamification plays a role in that.

There’s a very large district on the East Coast that told me off the record that they’re not even utilizing the word “gamification.” It’s something that’s been excommunicated from their district. That concerns me because that means that people are getting the wrong information and the wrong context.

Where are you with gamification and understanding where it sits at the dinner table of DreamBox Learning and adaptive learning largely?

JWW:  I think what you’re talking about is very important. One of the challenges that we had early in the days of DreamBox was that people used the term “adaptive” and they meant different things.

And we’ve gone out of our way to try to bring meaning to what we mean by “adaptive” and we’ve changed it at DreamBox. We call it “intelligent adaptive learning” because we want to suggest that there’s something happening at the micro objective level that helps us gain insights at the macro level.

If someone is failing at fractions, is it because they don’t know fraction or is it because they really don’t understand proportionality?

So we really want to make sure that they understand what we mean by “intelligent adaptive instructional experiences.”

I think the same applies in gamification. When one person says “gamification,” they might think, oh, well, it’s a game. We’re hiding, in our case, the mathematics from the students. They’re playing and they’re having a good time and, therefore, they’re spending more time in the application so they’re learning. That’s one end of the spectrum.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have much more nuances about what goes into motivation for students. Intrinsic rewards are important. There are some students who are very motivated by competition. There are some very talented students who eschew competition; they like collaboration.

I think that gamification can allow us to further personalize the experience so that we understand what motivates the behavior that we want. We want kids to persist their challenge toward mastery. We want kids to revisit things that we think they’ve mastered in the past ─ after a hiatus ─ to make sure that it’s actually sunk in.

We know that there are behaviors that we want to inspire. I think we can pull kids to that practice through gamification instead of boring them with things that don’t matter.

Not to pinpoint any one app but you can spend a lot of hours on Angry Birds and learn something. But I’m not sure that it’s going to advance student agency and progression the way some of the intentionally instructional technologies do.

So when people would ask, “Would you say DreamBox is a game?” I’d say, “We’re not looking for hits in a game.” I will say that we study the gaming industry because we want to understand rewards. We want to understand behaviors. We want to understand what we need to do to encourage tenacity and persistence because we know that the more time kids spend on DreamBox, the more they progress. The more they progress, the more confident they are.

We are in the business of creating confident competent learners and making the learning experience highly engaging and highly personalized. Leveraging some of the best practices of the gaming industry is a big part of what we do, even though we wouldn’t say we are a “game.”

RB: I recently interviewed a number of superintendents at their national conference in New Orleans. One of the topics of discussion ─ especially off-camera ─ was in the lack of diversity of leadership in both building and district positions around the U.S. In fact, it’s hovering around two percent. “Depressing” is the first word that comes to my mind because I don’t think it’s representative of the various students in our communities.

But if we take that and we apply that to being a CEO, taking the plunge and launching a company in EdTech, it does mirror school leadership in the lack of diversity and opportunity for women and women of color.

I’m just curious as to your thoughts on how we can promote minorities to say, “Look, there is an opportunity. This is not out of reach.”

We can have more diverse opinions. I think more innovation will come from that. I don’t think the old guard is needed in a world where we’re talking about using the terms “intelligent” and “guardian.”

What can we do to better support young people of minority who we would have to love in the EdTech world?

JWW:  Thank you for that question. This is something that, frankly, keeps me up at night. I think there are things that we should do at the micro level and things that we should do at the macro level.

I’ll start with the easiest.

The macro level: People like me have to take calls like this. People like me have to go to another conference even if you’re tired and you have to be in the public forum. People like me have to share our unexpected career path to where we are now so that young people don’t believe that you have to have it all figured out when you’re a sophomore in high school.

I started out in banking, for crying out loud. Here I am running a software company in education. And so, again, getting back to my chapters, what we do in our lives is merely a chapter. It doesn’t define us. Where we start off in the past ─ just like where you start off in DreamBox ─ doesn’t define our learning path. Where we start off in life doesn’t define our professional path.

People need to know that they can adapt throughout their whole careers and embrace challenges and opportunities like those present in EdTech. And everybody is welcome.

So ─ macro ─ people like me have to be visible so that people will stretch their thinking about their own personal possibilities. That’s the easy part.

The hard part is at the micro level. One of the things that we have to do is realize that, frankly, as a result of the desegregation of schools, many brown and black kids in this country live in environments where they have less diversity of professional representation than they did during the Harlem Renaissance.

There was a time when bus drivers lived next door to doctors and dentists and scientists and teachers, and they were all in the same community. But it was a segregated community.

Little Johnny saw a teacher. He saw a doctor. He saw a dentist. He saw a scientist. He saw a bus driver. He saw everybody, and he could think about his world and his future in different layers ─ perhaps, in different chapters.

As people like me had better access to better education, we left those environments and we went into the suburbs. And so, now, we’re not as concentrated in our representation, and that’s hard.

So what we have to do is leverage social media and make a large world feel small. We have to generate proximity ─ literally cultivate proximity ─ by leveraging social media so that that thing which seems distant can feel close.

When I think about what it looks like, there are programs like Black Girls Code. This is somebody you should talk to ─ Kimberly Bryant. She is changing the world. She is focused on young African-American women and she is helping them learn how to code. Because of that, she’s changing their world view about what they do. They still might want to go into music but they’re going to understand coding.

When I talk to students and they ask what kind of languages they should learn in their education, I say, “Learn Spanish; learn Mandarin ─ one of those two ─ and learn how to code.” Think of coding as a language. The future is going to be heavily influenced by people who understand the vernacular, the language of coding.

At the micro level, we have to do a lot of things to try to encourage non-traditional students to explore non-traditional but emerging areas of professional opportunity.

There’s another thing that we’re doing at the micro level. The Aspen Institute’s Reed Hastings has invested in a group that’s called the Pahara Fellows. I’m a moderator for them. And what we try to do is bring, typically, people of color into a fellowship so that they can support each other. When they have inflection points in their career and they might be thinking of leaving the teaching profession, they have a fellowship that anchors them and reminds them why they went into the teaching profession in the beginning.

And, over time, this fellowship is going to grow and grow and grow. There are going to be more people who can actually participate at the macro level that I was talking about, so that I’m not an anomaly. I’m just one of a group of people who are trying to chip away at this very important work that we’re doing.”

I feel that if we can unlock the learning potential of every child, then we will make that child’s life better, the child’s family’s life better, the child’s community’s life better, and this nation better.

We’re all in this together and we have to do what you say. We have to make sure that the best minds and the best hearts pick teaching in the future.

RB:  We are lucky here in the U.S. to have visionaries like you. It’s obvious why DreamBox is successful and leading the pack. I appreciate your thought leadership because I think that’s the other important lesson here. Yes, you can be successful as a business owner and drive, basically, sales and customers, but do you have the vision? Do you have the voice to be able to inspire and bring people to the table so they can, then, realize their dreams and further impact kids like mine and those all around ─ not just the U.S. but the world?

About Jessie Woolley-Wilson

Jessie is president and CEO of DreamBox Learning. Prior to joining DreamBox, Jessie held several executive positions in leading EdTech companies including, Kaplan, LeapFrog SchoolHouse, and Blackboard’s K-12 Group.

Jessie supports the broader K12 industry by serving on the boards of several educational organizations including the International Association for K12 Online Learning (iNACOL), the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and Islandwood. Jessie has been a featured speaker at international events including TEDx Rainier, SXSWedu, and DENT.

Jessie is a two-time recipient of EdTech Digest’s EdTech Leadership Award for her work in transformative innovation in education. Seattle Business Magazine awarded Jessie the 2015 Executive Excellence Award in the CEO of the Year category and Forbes placed her on its “Impact 15” list for being a disruptor in education. The Puget Sound Business Journal honored Jessie as a “Woman of Influence” and 425 Magazine named her as one of eight “Unstoppable Eastside Women” for having a clear focus on the greater good. Additionally, The New York Times has profiled Jessie and her leadership style.

Jessie holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from the University of Virginia.

Follow Jessie Woolley-Wilson on Twitter

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