Even if you didn’t see the TODAY show last Wednesday, you’ve probably heard a good bit about the winners of the Innovation Challenge, the contest NewSchools ran last week in partnership with Citi and NBC News as part of the three-day Education Nation programming. You may have heard less about the two runners-up, and that’s too bad, because their ideas are important and, dare we say it, beautiful.
As you know if you follow this blog, the NewSchools Twitter feed, or NBC programming, NoRedInk won first prize in this year’s Innovation Challenge, walking away with a big check (literally) from Citi and membership in the NewSchools edtech Seed Fund portfolio.
This is the second year that we at NewSchools partnered with NBC and Citi to put a face on technological innovation in education. And if last year’s experience is any guide, as the top winner, NoRedInk should be off and running. Last year’s winner, Class Dojo, was only a few weeks old when the Challenge took place; today, they have millions of users in 31 countries.
Yet, after spending the better part of five days with the founders of all three companies this year, I can say with conviction that the choice was an incredibly hard one, because all three are very much worth the public attention. All three companies rose to the top in a tough selection process at NewSchools, and all are worthy of your attention. Here’s a little of what you might want to know about the two you have heard less about so far– Pathbrite and readImagine.
Pathbrite is among those apps that I wish had existed when I was a teacher. (Okay, in honesty, there was no such thing as apps when I was a teacher.) The education reform spaces full of discussion about the need for smarter, more flexible, more comprehensive ways of assessing student learning. Often, the conversation turns to the idea of portfolios – collections of work that students amass over multiple courses and years. What Pathbrite does is to allow schools, teachers and students to create portfolios that are both comprehensive and beautiful, in ways that are flexible enough to include lots of different types of work. (Designed to spark student creativity and engagement, Pathbrite provides a forum for content that goes well beyond the classroom, providing paths for everything from artistic expression to college and work applications.) I had the opportunity to observe as Heather Hiles–the intimidatingly accomplished “social innovation rock star” who founded of this new company–demonstrated it, first for a group of teachers, and later for group of students at a high school in Queens. The teachers ranked it as their favorite of the three products, mostly because they saw it as the one that could change schools for the better and have the greatest impact on their work in the classroom, across grade levels and subject areas. Likewise, the students engaged deeply and, endorsing Pathbrite with an A- grade so far and excitedly describing all the ways in which they could imagine using it. Take a look (and build a portfolio) at https://pathbrite.com/.
As Jennifer Carolan notes in her post introducing the challenge, readImagine represents a marriage of some very different and extraordinary talents. Recognizing one of the most frequently and urgently expressed needs of educators – to increase interest in reading among students in the early grades – readImagine brings together technology savvy and artistic design genius. Chiara McPhee leads the team, her media, animation and business skills complementing the talents of co-founder Phat Phuong, who brings a decade of experience at Pixar, working on Academy award-nominated movies including Finding Nemo. Mikhail Kushnikov rounds out the team with graphics and coding chops. The result is a platform for animated books of striking beauty and charm, which seems certain to entrance adults as well as children. Students read out loud, and voice recognition software allows the tablet-based system to adjust the reading level based on the students fluency. It’s all built around a “virtual treehouse” that students, parents and teachers can visit to share updates on progress. It’s hardly surprising that the fourth grade students who reviewed it as part of the Innovation Challenge gave it the highest grade of any of the competitors – an A+. Likewise, educators remarked enthusiastically on its capacity to serve its chief goal, of increasing interest among early readers. You can visit the reimagined website to learn more about how it works, and sign up to be among the first to hear when it officially launches.