In the early 1990s, Tim Discipio and a business partner started one of the first digital design and online media companies, working directly with the original pioneers and founders of the Web—including the top 10 major search engines and portal sites. “It was an extremely exciting time and amazing experience to watch the Internet grow from a quirky and slow online medium to the central worldwide source of all digital information that it is today,” says Tim. “I can remember the first time checking out the Yahoo site—it only had about 900 web sites indexed on it—that’s how early it was.” Today, Tim’s web-based company, ePals (one of the Internet’s first social networks) reaches approximately 27 million teachers and students in 200 countries and territories. Each month, ePals receives 2,000 to 3,000 new classroom registration profiles. In addition, ePals recently merged with In2Books, a literacy penpal and project-based learning program that increases reading, writing and critical thinking skills. Needless to say, change happens, and for Tim Discipio, a musician and collector of vintage guitars, it’s been quite a trip. ePals is now one of the largest and fastest-growing online educational communities and offers schools email, blogs, e-mentoring tools, literacy skill building solutions and a collaborative virtual learning space for K-12.
Victor: Why did you create ePals?
Tim: We created ePals in 1996 to connect classrooms online in a safe, teacher-supervised collaborative environment. The idea was to provide a digital-era version of penpals. The site was started with ten classrooms in four countries who begin the community and started to tell other teachers and school technology directors about it. The teacher word-of-mouth went viral in online education circles and spread to other countries. That combined with schools getting connected and computers being a necessary school and home device, and usage increased significantly.
Victor: What does the name mean?
Tim: ePals means “electronic pen-pals”.
Victor: What is it?
Tim: ePals is the largest and fastest-growing social learning community and network of connected classrooms (reaching 27 million students and teachers in 200 countries). The company is also the recognized leading provider of safe collaborative technology for K-12. Those services include SchoolMail (e-mail) and LearningSpace (a virtual workspace and shared collaborative portfolio where e-mail, blogs, Web 2.0 tools, learning communities, documents/schoolwork, Microsoft productivity tools and authorized classroom users work with teachers all combined in one protected and on-task workplace). There’s no offering which provides a robust learning community and platform tools quite like this right now in K-12, and our recent district and partner wins are, I think, a pretty good indicator of this.
We recently won and were awarded by the New York City Department of Education a contract to provide 1.1 million New York City students our safe SchoolMail technology.
Also, International Baccalaureate has selected our LearningSpace platform to enable their 700,000 students and teachers worldwide a communications and collaborative learning resource to power their communication, schoolwork and projects.
ePals and Microsoft have also established a teaming relationship to integrate both ePals SchoolMail/LearningSpace and Microsoft’s Live @ Edu, enabling a seamless environment where communication tools, shared work spaces, documents and productivity tools all reside in a protected and policy-managed school platform in the cloud.
Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?
Tim: The most surprising thing teachers discovered is that students will write much more, spell-check more and critically think at deeper levels for their project peer—another student—then they will for their own teacher. That’s because they prefer to work collaboratively online with someone their age, and they want to impress that person or the entire class when they know their work will be seen and evaluated by peers.
Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?
Tim: It was basically Facebook for schools four years before Facebook, but we were specifically designed for the K-12 classroom user, not college students and the general market. That’s why it’s unique and respected so much in the K-12 education space. We were more interested in providing a safe, protected and teacher-managed experience for the classroom, where curriculum could be integrated and online learning could flourish.
Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?
Tim: Well, I might add that we were pioneers in social networking and social learning many years before the term was even created. In fact, it was during an era when many people—including media—discouraged an emphasis and importance of online communities, and the education industry was extremely distant from using technology as any kind of a learning tool. That has completely reversed. So, it’s a lesson to those who seek to innovate an industry niche: If something seems needed in a space, it probably is—and it’s just a matter of how you deliver it and enabling users a meaningful experience.
Victor: Where can you get it now?
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Tim: The SchoolMail (e-mail) and registering in the ePals Global Community to find a classroom to collaborate with is at no cost at all. ePals LearningSpace (our virtual workspace and collaboration platform) is $4 per student/teacher account and E-rate eligible for schools who seek funding subsidies and grants.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Tim: The technology director and teachers at a New York school district told us a great story recently about a classroom using our new ePals LearningSpace virtual workspace platform:
There was a snow day cancellation last winter and school was closed on a Friday. The tech director and teacher noticed one particular classroom of students working online to complete a Shakespeare project all morning and into the afternoon, even though they were home from school due to the snow day. They worked all day on it happily as a connected class team even though they weren’t required to, being that school was out.
That’s how technology and the web are changing learning and transforming it to a more self- or team-directed learning environment with the teacher as more of a facilitator and guide to letting students open up and perform.
You don’t get that with students sitting in seats just listening to someone talking at the front of a classroom; those days are numbered and this generation of students are driving the change. When you engage students using technology, and content and resources that are native to them, then you speak their language and enable them to become teachers, mentors and co-collaborators to each other. The curriculum and material is absorbed and learned in much more meaningful intervals versus listening to a teacher at the front of a classroom or simply reading out of a textbook without any meaningful engagement. It follows, then, that the 150-year old model is dead and will be extinct by 2020.
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it NOT for?
Tim: Any teacher or administrator who is looking to adopt a simple, safe and easy-to-use 21st-century technology model that provides home-to-school communication, content and collaborative access.
Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?
Tim: Education is in a major transition in all areas. There’s so much emphasis on improving test scores, but not enough dialogue and understanding on what it takes to engage this new 21st-century learner—who is completely stimulated and engaged by different methods than those that came before, due to modern technology, lifestyle and cultural surroundings. This is a worldwide phenomenon and we need to understand it. The one single thing that every student in the world will be doing 10-20 years from now is computing and collaborating on their school or work material—and they will be evaluated on well they do it.
Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education or career helped to inform your approach to creating ePals? What events in ePals history stand out?
Tim: Anyone can have the next great idea, or improve something that already exists, whether in the classroom as a teacher or even a person who is an inventor. That is proven every single day. Creating ePals just seemed like such a necessary and wonderful resource to provide global schools. When you’re faced with an opportunity to do good, enjoy the work and create an interesting business model which is affordable for schools and allows the company to grow and expand—that’s a project worth pursuing.
It’s been an interesting journey.
I would have to say that surviving the dot com crash of 2000-2003 was an incredibly difficult experience as thousands of fantastic Internet sites all went under. You learn how to focus and do everything possible to get through it. You’d be surprised how amazing an experience it can be when every employee ups their support and morale for the common good when a company and entire industry is faced with that kind of market correction. It was a time when Internet companies and firms with a lower case “e” in their name were not liked very much! Times have certainly changed, though.
Victor: How does ePals address some of your concerns about education?
Tim: Student collaboration in a safe, on-task and policy-managed environment is the key to making technology work in K-12 and prepares students for the 21st-century workforce and 21st-century life, as everything is being accessed online. Education needs to deliver the content and learning online now and to enable the home-to-school connection. ePals understands elements of the school technology usage requirements and logistical issues needed to enable school adoption. Big general market providers or newbies now racing into edu-tech have a five-year learning curve to figure it all out, so we have an edge there.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Tim: Education is entering a significant 21st-century technology and curriculum transformation which is needed to engage a new generation of tech-savvy, rich-media students not interested in learning solely from a teacher in the front of a room, nor a textbook to read at home, nor writing with pen and paper and taking an exam answering non-engaging questions. That sounds harsh or may insult those of us over 40, but it’s the new generation’s learning style and it’s not going away. Research shows that today’s student population demand 21st-century technology and online interaction to engage their learning styles, and that they score better when engaged with it.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of ePals? What makes you say that?
Tim: Students who are connected with other classrooms around the globe for collaborative learning and cross-cultural connections will have a better understanding and empathic attitude towards their careers, their relationships and working with or managing others. Those are the individuals who advance in their field and have the most rewarding human experiences. The ability to connect elementary and middle school classrooms now for global exchanges is priceless. Every teacher and school principal should implement at least one exchange during the school year. It’s the next best thing to actually studying abroad and physically being there.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com