July 20, 2020
By Joanna Smith
If anyone would have asked me, as a Black female founder of an education technology startup serving the K-12 market, whether I thought education would be conducted entirely remotely during my lifetime, my answer would have been a quick and solid no. As a former middle school math teacher in Boston, I might have even laughed! No one could have imagined what the shuttering of school doors amidst a pandemic would do to our education system, but it happened very quickly—nearly 1.6B students and teachers were forced online, worldwide. With that rapid disruption and instant transition, more than 90% of total enrolled educators and learners were thrown into the deep end of an online learning pool and told to sink or swim.
In many cases, we collectively swam: in the U.S., an analysis of district continuity of learning plans covered contingencies ranging from meal distribution, hot spot purchasing to bridge the digital divide, and the rapid uptake of curricular and instructional content applications to provide students with opportunities to ensure that, although schools had closed, learning kept going.
In other cases, however, we’ve sunk. Fewer than half of all students across the U.S. participated in online learning this spring, on average. Many districts leveraged police officers or human resource officers to personally visit parents, offering support, help, accountability, and reinforcement. Others turned to their teachers as a first line of support, having every educator call, Zoom, Google Hangout, letter, or carrier pigeon (ha!) each student and each family, every day.
In these times, it is clear that Coronavirus has provided an enormous catalyst to accelerate the opportunity of the future to today. At AllHere, for example, before Coronavirus, we focused on the implementation of human-intensive (often face-to-face) interventions through a single platform to ensure that the right student received the right intervention at the right time. Since, however, we’ve shifted our strategy to build and launch an AI virtual assistant (or chatbot) that will be the first fully automated conversational tool for K-12 education through the student lifecycle. Our solution will combine behavioral science–nudges and guided support–with artificial intelligence and natural language understanding to strengthen the connection between educators and students. The virtual assistants will not only respond to student questions automatically, but also proactively guide students and families through complex learning participation processes, gather student data, send reminders, conduct student surveys, and connect students with human advisors. This will increase rates of learning participation during the COVID-19 crisis (and beyond) and facilitate student attendance and reduction of student learning losses, whether students are online or in-person. Before Coronavirus, chronic absenteeism was a problem but since, it’s grown exponentially, and to solve new this new challenge, in this new way, in this still-new world.
Equity is absolutely at stake. When school returns this fall, there will likely be an increase in distance or remote learning, or blended in-class and remote learning, and with that, students of color and students whose families are facing economic challenges will need our collective support, more than ever.
To ensure that every student, every day has the opportunity to be on track for success, the future of education needs you to strongly support the scaling of effective tools, technologies, and resources to each and every student who needs them, today.
At AllHere, these technologies look like combining artificial intelligence, natural language processing, machine learning, and data analytics to create a new standard for supporting students at scale. The support looks like intentional deployment of intellectual and human capital–through mentoring, advisement, introductions to and engagement with critical distribution partners–to ensure that we, as a portfolio company, are generating both authentic impact and meaningful financial returns.
In your role, with the assets (intellectual, human, financial, and otherwise!) what does that look like for you?
Everyone can help. Look deep into your investment strategy and your thesis to find a way to participate–through mentoring, supporting, or otherwise directly supporting the growth of companies that resonate with what you think this new future of education will need to look like…and it’s more important than ever. If you haven’t heard already, the future of education is here. It needs you. And, it’s your duty, just as it is mine, to ensure that all students have a chance to participate in learning.
No pandemic can overpower a literal railroad of people like this community that is committed to doing good, and on behalf of entrepreneurs on the frontlines of this, and other social issues everywhere, we extend gratitude to you.