Big growth and a big vision are powering start-up educational software firm
MIDDLEBURY — A little more than a year ago, the SchoolHack Solutions had just one official employee and it was beta testing its personalized learning software with three schools in Vermont.
Today the Middlebury company boasts nine employees and its “LiFT” software has been adopted by 20 Vermont schools and a growing number nationwide.
And just recently the Vermont Economic Development Authority awarded the startup $350,000 in working capital through a low-interest loan.
For founders Josie Jordan and David Lipkin, SchoolHack is far more than a business. The husband and wife team — a former educator and former school-based clinician — envisions their product as a means to revolutionize education.
“Our mission is to help make learning an uplifting experience for all kids,” said Lipkin. “We know by understanding kids’ interests and needs and goals and the whole person that learning becomes relevant and their experience is more enjoyable. Therefore they learn better and faster, and there’s more motivation.”
SchoolHack began with Jordan’s 20-some-odd years as an educator at Mount Abraham Union High School. An English teacher by training, Jordan helped design MAUHS’s first personalized learning opportunity (the Futures Academy), which eventually lead to the school’s innovative Pathways program. As she became increasingly engaged in and excited by her work with Pathways and its precursor, Jordan also became one of the movers and shakers behind the state’s official adoption of and shift towards personalized learning, flexible graduation pathways and proficiency-based graduation requirements.
The idea for SchoolHack came in 2013, when Jordan and Lipkin wondered if there was a way to bring the Pathways idea of personalized learning to a wider audience and connect it to a software platform.
“This is where education is heading,” said Lipkin. “Virtually every other segment of our lives is highly personalized, connected with technology. And education is undergoing that same process.”
The name “SchoolHack” itself comes from hacker culture and “the ability to find creative solutions with the tools you have at your disposal right now.”
In 2014, the couple began working with Burlington’s GameTheory on initial software designs and then turned to the Brattleboro-based Green River for core development of the LiFT software.
LiFT, Jordan and Lipkin explained, brings together on one software platform a way for schools, teachers and students to collaborate on personalized learning and proficiency-based curriculum. Lipkin and Jordan described it as the only educational technology they know of that brings under one big tent such functions as student portfolios, personalized learning planning and career and post-secondary planning, as well as teacher functions like tracking grades and tracking assignments. LiFT can also be used school- or district-wide to implement proficiency-based grading or graduation systems.
Lipkin calls it “a learning biosphere.” [deleted Google cf]
Schools have responded positively to the product, said Jordan, in part become it’s customizable. Schools can use LiFT to implement one small part or all of its capabilities.
“It’s like a big box of Legos,” Jordan said.
Schools have also appreciated, said Jordan, the ways that SchoolHack works with each school, step by step, to customize implementation. And both explained how the software is designed to make personalization manageable for teachers and take away the “overwhelm” factor of personalizing for hundreds of individual students.
“We noticed that there was an appetite for this across the country, yet a lot of concern and confusion about how to do it,” Lipkin said. “We knew with personalized learning we needed to show people that it’s possible to transform learner-centered education and that it doesn’t need to be a scary proposition and it doesn’t need to take forever. So our goal is to encourage people, ‘Yes we can do this; we can put the learners at the center.’ And we’re providing the tools to catalyze that process.”
And Jordan’s years in the classroom together with Lipkin’s years counseling kids one-on-one in school settings means that the product is grounded in what works for kids.
Jordan reported that a teacher in California said to them, “I love that you understand my world and I don’t have to explain it to you.”
When asked if a software-based classroom could drive a wedge between the kinds of student-teacher relationships that research has shown are foundational for educational success, Lipkin and Jordan say no, just the opposite, the software is designed to deepen, not short circuit student-teacher interactions.
“The design of LiFT is inherently collaborative and supportive of relationship building — teacher, student, family, community,” said Lipkin. “It’s one of the things that’s recognized about LiFT: it’s a technology that facilitates relationship not replaces relationship.”
LiFT also helps schools implement personalized learning in a way that supports rigor, Lipkin and Jordan said, and is meant to work as one component in an educational system that could include flexible pathways and traditional classrooms.
Above all, of course, the two envision LiFT as a way to support students over the long term.
The idea behind LiFT, said Jordan is “not the gimmick, the gizmo of technology. It’s utilizing technology as a tool to truly allow the student to be an active director of his or her learning. We’re regularly hearing about the need for students to be prepared for a changing world, a changing economy, changing career opportunities.
“We’re empowering learners to have the skills they need to succeed in any situation.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].
The Fresh Air Fund, initiated in 1877 to give kids from New York City the opportunity to e … (read more)
BRISTOL — A memorial service for Mark A. Nelson of Bristol will be held 1 p.m. on Saturday … (read more)
See when your favorite high school team is competing in the fall sports playoffs.