How 4 Chicago tech companies are working to overcome challenges in education

February 4, 2016

One of the biggest challenges in education is adapting teaching strategies and course materials to suit the learning styles and skill levels of the learner.

Whether in a classroom setting or in professional or ongoing education, educators need to reach learners from a variety of backgrounds, with differing levels of prior knowledge, engagement and rates of learning. Doing this in one-on-one settings can hard enough, but how do you meet the educational needs of 10, 15, or 30 people at once?

Advances in machine learning and human-centered design hold great promise as tools for meeting learners where they are. Although certainly no substitute for the mentorship of a skilled instructor, education technology can bridge the gap between what learners can figure out on their own and what’s best learned through interacting with others.

Some of the most exciting innovation in education technology is happening right here in Chicago. We spoke with some leaders in the space to find out what they’re working on, what the biggest challenges they’re facing are, and where they think the field is headed over the next few years.


Based out of 1871, LEAP Innovations is a nonprofit organization that connects companies in the education space and educators with the goal of reinventing America’s one-size-fits-all education system and transforming how kids learn.

“We approach education from both the supply and demand side of the problem,” said CEO Phyllis Lockett (pictured right). “We work with educators to pilot and scale the best new tools and strategies, and we work with edtech innovators to bring the most promising products into schools, and feed back information to them on what is really working.”

Lockett’s desire to reform Chicago education comes from growing up on the South Side with both parents working as public school teachers. This opened her eyes to the challenges faced by the educators of high-need kids. Her organization is already seeing results with its initiatives, which include using data to adapt education to individual students and placing students in classrooms based on skill level, rather than age.

Where is the edtech sector headed over the next few years?

“At LEAP Innovations, we’re laser-focused on personalized learning, which we define as learning that is focused on, paced for, and led with each learner,” said Lockett. “Tools that help teachers better personalize the learning experience for their students — high-quality adaptive tools; tools that provide real-time access to data on student strengths, interests and needs; and tools that provide students with anytime, anywhere access to state-of-the-art learning experiences will be real game-changers.”

What are the biggest challenges to working in the sector?

“We need to know what good personalized learning looks like, and what edtech products best support these practices. To do this, we need standards for edtech products, so that we can differentiate those that truly personalize learning from those that just say they do. We also need better measures to determine what’s working best for learners —  real-time measures that provide useful data to educators, rather than yearly high-stakes tests that measure one moment in time," said Lockett. 

ThinkCERCA provides schools with standards-aligned, adapted lessons and assessments that help learners with a diversity of backgrounds and skill levels become ready to read and write in college and their future careers.

“We are a whole school solution, versus an app for students or teachers alone,” said CEO Eileen Murphy (pictured above with co-founder Abby Ross on her left at the 2015 Moxie Awards). “Instructional leaders at the district and school level can gain insight into student performance on standards across the school — unlike most applications which were designed for independent practice by students or for a single teacher.”

The advantage of this approach is that the impact of differentiated learning can be measured across subjects, from English to science, math and social studies.

Murphy was a teacher and a district administrator when teaching apps started flooding the marketplace. Seeing lots of solutions to individual problems, she saw a need for a coherent platform that would bring those solutions together in a way that made sense to both students and teachers.

Where is the edtech sector headed over the next few years?

“We will be a results driven sector,” said Murphy. “That might sound like ‘well, no duh’ but weirdly, for a long time schools have not tied purchases to outcomes. I think in the digital age, that is unavoidable. It will simply be too easy to see what is working and what isn't.”

What are the biggest challenges to working the sector?

“The biggest challenge is reaching busy leaders and teachers and helping them make sense of everything they are being asked to do,” Murphy said. “Just like any industry, it is getting attention. That's why we're so focused on results. At the end of the day, the student outcomes will be the measure of return on investment, so the dollars will only flow in the direction of what works for students.”


LearnCore is a learning technology used to enhance the performance of sales teams by assessing what information individual team members need and delivering that information to them when they need it. The company got its start in professional education, working with companies like Kaplan and Pearson to make their learning programs more engaging.

As a company, it emphasises learning by doing, and believes learning should be continuous, rather than a thing people do for a week every six months.

“Let’s say you’re learning how to play basketball,” said co-founder and CEO Vishal Shah (pictured right). “You can watch Michael Jordan shoot all day long, but if you haven’t actually practiced it or shot the ball, you’re not going to be good.”

To that end, the platform utilizes roleplaying components to help sales teams practice delivering new pitches and messages. It also ties into and other platforms on which salespeople spend their time.

Where is the edtech sector headed in the next few years?

“To set up adaptive learning to work right requires a lot of work, and if it’s not set up properly, it doesn’t really add any value from a learning standpoint. So things are going to get simpler and happen more on an automated basis,” said Shah. “Step two is that edtech and learning is going to become more integrated in connecting not only virtual but live learning. There’s been this whole shift into online learning, but what I think really matters is tying it in with a live experience and making sure that the online piece bridges the gap to that. If you look at the data, people who learn strictly online don’t retain as much as people who learn in person. So I think there’s going to be a mesh of the two sides working better together.”

What are the biggest challenges to working the sector?

“Learning just has to get much more engaging. You have to capture people’s minds,” said Shah. “In this day and age everyone is ADD, and you have a 10–15 minute attention span, so it’s got to be high impact learning. The way we do it at LearnCore, it actually throws a challenge at the learners where they need to talk, or they need to do some sort of action, and I think that’s how you get people engaged. You have to really think differently instead of just sending content and answering test questions.”

Founded in 2005, WyzAnt is the nation’s largest tutoring marketplace, connecting more than 85,000 tutors with students for both in-person and online tutoring sessions. Through its platform, parents and students can compare reviews and prices for tutors in more than 200 subjects from elementary school classes to adult learning.

“I was an independent tutor while in college and saw firsthand the impact a tutor can have on  student’s overall attitude towards education,” said CEO Andrew Geant. “In addition to helping improve grades, my one­-on­-one interaction with students greatly increased their confidence and eagerness to learn.”

However, Geant found the traditional ways that people connect with tutors — message boards, ads and word of mouth — inefficient, labor intensive and inadequate. Geant joined forces with a classmate, co-founder and CTO Michael Weishuhn, to create new ways for tutors, parents, and students to connect.

Where is the edtech sector headed over the next few years?

“In the next few years, ed­tech will continue to drive the personalization of education for millions of students,” said Geant. “Using self­-directed and adaptive learning technologies, along with improved data and analytics, the industry will be able to tailor curriculum and instruction to the individual student better than ever before. But even as technology continues to play a larger role in education, nothing can replace the impact of individualized, person to person learning.”

What are the biggest challenges to working the sector?

“The opportunity within the ed­tech sector has become increasingly visible in the past few years, resulting in a glut of new companies entering the space,” Geant said. “However, in this rush to push out new products and capture market share, consumers of ed­tech ­­whether they are the district, school, teacher, parent or student ­are now overwhelmed by choice.”

Images via LEAP Innovations, ThinkCERCA, LearnCore and Wyzant.

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