Ignite - Program

Early Learning Challenge – PreK-2nd Grade

In August 2017, NewSchools Venture Fund launched the NewSchools Ignite Early Learning Challenge – open to entrepreneurs developing technology-enabled learning experiences, instructional content, learning diagnostics, administrative tools, and other digital products that support students in pre-kindergarten through second grade.

Why Early Learning?

The importance of early learning

In their early years, children are playing, exploring, and beginning to make sense of their experiences in the world. During this stage of development, relationships with caring adults and peers are essential for academic and social growth. These relationships are also key as students transition to learning within a classroom. Although there are important differences between pre-kindergarten and early elementary, these phases of early learning are linked through their support for the development of literacy and numeracy – which set the foundation as students learn to read, write, and understand information – as well as other critical areas including “physical health, language skills, social and emotional development, motivation to learn, creativity, and general knowledge” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016).
Read more about the importance of early learning.

Critical student needs: How technology can support early learning

Before the launch of the Early Learning Challenge, we conducted market research – including conversations with educators and researchers across the country – to learn more about challenges and opportunities related to supporting students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Many said technology has the potential to support young students’ development, primarily by increasing access to high-quality early learning opportunities supported through authentic relationships with caring adults and peers. These experts also recognized the limitations of technology in isolation, and cautioned against overuse of student-facing technology. We expect that challenge winners’ products will span a variety of use cases designed for students, parents, and/or educators within a range of learning contexts, both at school and at home.
Read more about how technology can address critical needs for early learning.

Spurring innovation in early learning

Our virtual accelerator program offers an opportunity for the most promising companies and nonprofit organizations working in this space to learn, connect and grow together. In addition to grant funding, challenge winners receive feedback and hands-on support from best-in-class entrepreneurs, educators, researchers and other experts.
Read more about the NewSchools Ignite virtual accelerator program.

Selection Criteria

We are looking for companies and nonprofit organizations developing products that:

  • Address one or more of the critical student needs identified by educators;
  • Support teachers’ and/or parents’ roles in student learning;
  • Are accessible and usable by a wide range of children – especially students from underserved populations;
  • Support teachers’ delivery of tailored instruction;
  • Have potential for wide distribution and to generate sustainable revenue; and
  • Align with NewSchools’ diligence and investment criteria.

Timeline

  • Application open: Tuesday, August 1, 2017
  • Application due: Thursday, August 31, 2017 (APPLICATION CLOSED)
  • Semi-finalist interviews (virtual): Wednesday, September 13 – Friday, September 29, 2017
  • Challenge winners notified by: Monday, October 16, 2017
  • Opening convening (SF Bay Area): Wednesday, November 8 – Friday, November 10, 2017
  • Accelerator program (virtual): November 2017 – May 2018
  • Closing convening (SF Bay Area) + NewSchools Summit 2018: Monday, May 7 – Wednesday, May 9, 2018

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The importance of early learning

In their early years, children are playing, exploring, and beginning to make sense of their experiences in the world. During this stage of development, relationships with caring adults and peers are essential for academic and social growth. These relationships are also key as students transition to learning within a classroom. Although there are important differences between pre-kindergarten and early elementary, these phases of early learning are linked through their support for the development of literacy and numeracy – which set the foundation as students learn to read, write, and understand information – as well as other critical areas including “physical health, language skills, social and emotional development, motivation to learn, creativity, and general knowledge” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016).

Young children’s learning experiences at home and in pre-kindergarten are shaped by many factors, including race and income, and are inherently fragmented compared to kindergarten through second grade. For example, research shows there is an income-based language gap beginning in infancy and significant disparities in vocabulary exist by 18 months of age. Despite some recent progress in narrowing the school readiness gap, substantial challenges remain: According to one estimate, on average kindergarteners from low-income households “have heard 30 million fewer words than children from more-affluent families and have vocabularies that are half as extensive.” Similarly, by first grade there is “a full one-year reading gap” for English Language Learners compared to native English speakers, a gap which doubles by the end of elementary school (Ahmad & Hamm, 2013).

At the same time, children and their families are navigating a learning ecosystem increasingly influenced by technology. Most children have access to technology from a young age, yet the quality and quantity of children’s technology use varies widely. With these challenges in mind, we believe there is a profound opportunity to build community and share knowledge among technology developers working to create a positive impact for young learners. According to a joint position statement from the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center,

There has never been a more important time to apply principles of development and learning when considering the use of cutting-edge technologies and new media. When the integration of technology and interactive media in early childhood programs is built upon solid developmental foundations, and early childhood professionals are aware of both the challenges and the opportunities, educators are positioned to improve program quality by intentionally leveraging the potential of technology and media for the benefit of every child. (NAEYC & Fred Rogers Center, 2012)

Researchers Lisa Guernsey (New America) and Michael Levine (Sesame Workshop) agree that thoughtful consideration of the role of technology during early childhood is critical, especially given the reality that most “research-based tools that promote success” are not currently being accessed at scale by students from low-income households. Indeed, addressing such gaps in the early learning education technology market “is ultimately a matter of equity” (Guernsey & Levine, 2015). Given the near ubiquitous presence of technology and its potentially profound effects on early learning, we believe it is important to support increased alignment among product developers, researchers, developmental psychologists, and educators on best practices related to key issues including product design, implementation and outcome measurement.

The Early Learning Challenge is open to entrepreneurs building technology-enabled learning experiences, instructional content, learning diagnostics, administrative tools, and other digital products that support student learning in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Special consideration will be given to tools that are accessible and usable by students from low-income households, Black and Latino students, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and students from rural areas – as well as products aligned with relevant research on learning and advances in mobile and social technologies.

* * *

Critical student needs: How technology can support early learning

Before the launch of the Early Learning Challenge, we conducted market research – including conversations with educators and researchers across the country – to learn more about challenges and opportunities related to supporting students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Below we share some of our insights from this research.

Many educators and researchers agreed technology has the potential to support young students’ development, primarily by increasing access to high-quality early learning opportunities supported through authentic relationships with caring adults and peers. These experts also recognized the limitations of technology in isolation, and cautioned against overuse of student-facing technology. We expect that challenge winners’ products will span a variety of use cases designed for students, parents, and/or educators within a range of learning contexts, both at school and at home. Based on market research, we believe technology is especially well positioned to support young learners by:

  • Enhancing interactions between students, parents, and teachers;
  • Enabling engaging, interactive experiences that support academic development while reinforcing essential mindsets, skills and habits for success in college, career and life;
  • Optimizing students’ limited screen time while providing teachers and parents with helpful information to guide learning; and
  • Expanding opportunities for families to discover and take advantage of developmentally appropriate early learning experiences.

We provide additional information on each of the critical student needs in the sections below.

Enhancing interactions between students, parents, and teachers

Especially in early childhood, nurturing learning environments must be cultivated through authentic human relationships. High-quality interactions with caring adults and peers are essential for supporting young learners’ academic and social development. According to educators and researchers, there are opportunities for technology to build teacher and parent skillsets so children can experience even more high-quality interactions every day. For example, technology may be able to better connect adults with evidence-based ideas and best practices that can be used with children during face-to-face learning experiences. In addition, technology can support new types of communication, help guide parents’ engagement in their child’s education, and facilitate the sharing of resources that span across the school and home learning environments.

Enabling engaging, interactive experiences that support academic development while reinforcing essential mindsets, skills and habits for success in college, career and life

In light of the latest recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatricians on children’s media use, educators and researchers are eager to explore high-quality, technology-enabled learning opportunities that support young learners’ development of literacy and numeracy skills, which are critical for school readiness and also provide the “necessary building blocks for knowledge in other areas” (Hojnoski, 2014). Many also emphasize the importance of executive functioning, which encompasses skills including “paying attention, organizing and planning, initiating tasks and staying focused on them, regulating emotions, and self-monitoring” (Understood.org, 2017). We also seek to support technologies that facilitate opportunities to develop other skills, like growth mindset and agency, that are correlated with long-term success.

Optimizing students’ limited screen time while providing teachers and parents with helpful information to guide learning

Educators and researchers also emphasize the importance of considering creative uses of data to close gaps in student development. For example, technology-enabled formative assessments, especially when embedded into high-quality learning activities, can help to create increased understanding about areas of growth as well as offer educators and parents actionable insights and recommendations, setting the stage for personalized face-to-face instruction. Technology may also play a role in increasing interoperability between instructional and operational systems, streamlining data collection and analysis while maintaining high standards in student privacy and security.

Expanding opportunities for families to discover and take advantage of developmentally appropriate early learning experiences

Educators and researchers also agreed that there are opportunities for technology to expand access to high-quality, developmentally appropriate early learning opportunities. Currently, approximately 50 percent of U.S. children are enrolled in full-time preschool programs. Lack of access to early learning experiences is perpetuated by interrelated challenges at the federal, state, and district levels – including operational inefficiency as well as insufficient budgets, transportation, and facilities – and is even more pronounced for children in rural areas. Technology holds the promise of expanding early learning opportunities so that more children can benefit from these experiences prior to reaching kindergarten, as well as supporting students as they successfully transition into learning within early elementary classrooms. Technology can also play a role in streamlining documentation and compliance processes within government-funded programs, helping to increase access, especially among low-income families.

Join the Conversation

Do you have ideas about how technology can support learning? Tweet (@nsvf) using the hashtag #NewSchoolsIgnite, or sign up to be notified about new resources or opportunities to engage.

FAQ EXPAND ALL SHRINK ALL

What is the focus of NewSchools Ignite?

NewSchools Ignite is an initiative of NewSchools’ Tools & Services team, focused on accelerating innovation in K-12 edtech market gaps. We select investment areas based on market research including input from a diverse group of educators and edtech decision-makers, then create opportunities for companies and nonprofits working in these areas to apply for funding as well as other support.

Who can apply? What are the criteria?

The NewSchools Ignite program is open to entrepreneurs working to develop engaging, technology-enabled learning experiences, assessments and other digital tools that support students’ academic and social development. To be eligible for funding, applicants must be working on projects that are aligned with NewSchools’ charitable purpose of transforming public education so that all children – especially those in underserved communities – have the opportunity to succeed.

We are looking for companies and nonprofits developing products that:

  • ignite students’ curiosity and facilitate deeper learning;
  • address one or more of the critical student needs identified by educators;
  • are accessible and usable by a wide range of children – especially underserved student populations;
  • are designed to help students take ownership of their own learning;
  • support teachers’ delivery of tailored instruction;
  • have potential to achieve wide distribution and generate sustainable revenue; and
  • align with the NewSchools’ diligence and investment criteria.
What company/product stage is this program designed to support?

The NewSchools Ignite virtual accelerator program is designed to support companies and organizations creating products across a wide developmental spectrum, ranging from early- to growth-stage. To be considered for funding, applicants must submit at least one product as part of their application (prototypes are accepted).

What is a “virtual accelerator program”?

While our program includes two in-person convenings, challenge winners do not need to re-locate to participate in other program elements. Our virtual accelerator program will last for approximately six months, featuring targeted content and feedback delivered via phone/video meetings, web-based presentations, and opportunities for online collaboration. Read more about our program.

What type of financial support will selected applicants receive?

In addition to participation in two in-person convenings and a six-month virtual accelerator program, challenge winners will receive grants ranging from $50,000 to $150,000 (depending on product stage).

Does NewSchools receive equity from participants?

All funds distributed to participants will take the form of grants. NewSchools will NOT request equity in exchange for participation.