A Teach for America strategist designs a tech platform to improve new teacher training.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
As a first-year science teacher, Adam Geller wanted to be a great science teacher. “And yet,” recalls Adam, “not one single person with science coaching expertise ever walked through my classroom doors.” Turns out he wasn’t alone in feeling under-supported. In national surveys, nearly eight out of ten teachers say they believe more professional development could lead to better outcomes with their students. “And the reason they’re not getting the coaching and support they need is because today’s in-person coaching process is too expensive,” Adam says. He developed Edthena to help deliver what he believes to be the gold standard of professional development: classroom observation and coaching — in a way that makes it more scalable and sustainable for the organization. “We think it’s possible to change how teachers access professional development across the entire country,” he says. Hot off winning a coveted Cool Tool Award for best professional development learning solution in the 2016 EdTech Digest Awards Recognition Program, in this interview, Adam explains the how and why.
What’s something interesting about its development history?
Adam: Folks often ask about the “moment of inspiration” for the solution. For me it was clicking a link that said “Listen to this Justin Bieber Song Slowed Down 800%.”
While it sounds like I’m about to credit the Biebs for everything, in fact the article was the first time seeing the music player SoundCloud. They enable users to leave comments at specific moments in time on audio.
Just like athletes review game tape footage, we help teachers analyze their teaching practice.
I remember hovering over one of the comments that said something like “It sounds like four violins coming in in harmony here.” That description, even without hearing the audio, created such a clear picture in my mind about what was happening. I thought, “What if we could do this time-stamped comment thing with video with the right tools to solve for needing to have a coach in the classroom to do an observation.” And the rest, they say, is history.
Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?
Adam: During my time as a classroom teacher, I ended up teaching in two dramatically different school settings. Different students, different culture, different staff, different leadership, and different resource management. Having these two data point helps me avoid the “I know because I was a teacher myself” blinders that happens in many education companies. We constantly ask our users for feedback on what we’re building, and we’re constantly planning our roadmap based on the actual needs we’re hearing.
The other thing that helped broaden my perspective was designing a technology system that would be used across the country as part of my time on the Teach For America strategy team. This opened me up to the complexity of serving the needs of the whole education organization and the person in charge of the software implementation. We have to make it easy and high-benefit for someone to be the Edthena administrator in addition to designing software that was easy and high benefit for teachers. Honestly, the experience of implementing most software within an organization is terrible. We’re trying to make it delightful.
Did you make some adjustments due to student or teacher feedback?
Adam: Our design process helps us get close to actual user needs, but it doesn’t account for all the ways that real users think or use the platform. As a result, we’re constantly adjusting our features based on feedback.
A great early example of this was how a teaching framework was picked for use as part of a video conversation. At first, we set it so that the teachers could pick because we thought, “Teachers probably know which framework is used by their coach, so they’ll select it correctly.” It turns out that teachers might pick “Teaching as Leadership” when they should be using “High Leverage Practices” because it sounded interesting. Allowing the coaches to adjust this easily reduced a lot of headache for users and our support team.
What’s your 60 second pitch to someone on what exactly it is?
Adam: Edthena helps teachers get better at teaching through video self-reflection and online collaboration. The teachers upload videos of their teaching, and people on the other end provide feedback at specific moments in time. Just like athletes review game tape footage, we help teachers analyze their teaching practice.
What other companies would you describe as direct or indirect competition?
Adam: There are certainly other who have entered the space since Edthena was launched in 2011. And if you were to describe us in one or two sentences, the platforms likely sound similar. I think the difference with Edthena is that we do a lot more than just put videos online and let people leave comments.
I think the first important difference is that we fully deliver on the promise of making it easy for any teacher to get video from any device uploaded successfully — this is an extremely hard technical feat. We also have a patented system related to the commenting process that helps surface meaning from within the comments to make it fast and easy for the teachers to interpret. And we offer a set of tools that help the organization design a video-learning process, and connect it to specific learning outcomes against which they can track progress.
Any highlights about test marketing it /starting out; any interesting feedback, reaction to it?
Adam: The most memorable demo I’ve ever done included a gasp of delight. The person truly couldn’t believe her eyes related to a particular feature set that we built to support edTPA readiness for teachers in training. This was particularly satisfying to know we’d “gotten it right” after investing nearly six months developing things.
What else can you say about the value and benefit of Edthena?
Adam: We’re fortunate to be building upon decades of research in three key areas: (1) teachers get better when they watch themselves on video, (2) teachers get better when they watch others on video, (3) teachers get better when they collaborate in online communities. The research basis for our work combined with our technology is part of why we count prominent researchers of video learning as users of our platform.
What makes Edthena special is that we’ve made the traditionally complex technology of video seem easy for all users. We’re constantly hearing from our users that they think Edthena is easy, helpful, and useful. One of our advisors, Deborah Ball, even said she had been waiting more than two decades for a technology platform to deliver on the full promise of how video could be used to drive teacher learning.
We try to understand the impact we’re having by listening carefully to what we hear from our partner organizations — they’re the ones working day-to-day with teachers who are, in turn, working with students.
What we hear is very encouraging and indicates that we’re on the right path to helping video be a useful tool for teacher development. One of our partners is George Mason University, and the researchers there even published a book chapter about their experience and success implementing Edthena.
Your thoughts on education sector in general these days?
Adam: Working in education has always been important, but, for a long time, the need to invest in the education system was not a national priority and not part of the national conversation. I think it’s an exciting time because this has changed and education is a now “real issue” worth talking about in the eyes of the media, politicians, and the average person I know. I think it’s a great sign that people now have an opinion about a pretty in-the-weeds topic such as which set of standards we should be using to guide instruction.
Your thoughts on technology’s role in education?
Adam: I think that the exciting thing about technology is that it can help scale-up innovations that are working.
The other thing that’s quite exciting when I think about developing technology for education is that there is the ability to have a positive impact on the global education system. We can develop something there that’s useful to teachers in other countries. That’s an amazing opportunity that wasn’t really possible fifteen years ago.
Any guidance or advice to educators these days?
Adam: As it relates generally to technology in the classroom, I think my only advice is the same that I learned from my time in the classroom: make sure the tech you’re using plays a meaningful role in student learning.
Any comments specifically on the usual gripes about poor professional development? Any thoughts on calling it “professional development” versus, say, “professional learning”? Or even a reason why on your site at least you refer to it as “teacher learning”? Any strong opinions behind this?
Adam: I think the flexible terminology I use reflects my belief about the work we are doing: (1) teachers want to keep developing themselves to increase outcomes with students, and (2) this is a career-long process. Everyone should be working to continually increase effectiveness.
I also believe that teachers should play an active role in their own development over time. Professional development is not something that should be “done” to teachers. This self-ownership plays out for us in many ways, including how we give teachers control over who sees their content inside our platform.
I think that, as educators, we’re ready to admit that planning another sit-and-get workshop is unlikely to help teachers change their practice. Combine this with the fact that, as we’re holding teachers more accountable in the way of evaluation, high-quality professional development will be more actively demanded by the teachers.
This leaves the education system with an urgent problem — districts need to provide better and more professional development with the same budget. In good news, I’d like to think we have an answer for that challenge by making coaching in the classroom, the gold-standard for impacting teacher practice, a more cost affordable option.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org