Andrew Patterson talks to Hapara's Jan Zawadzki and how they won the 2013 NYC Schools Gap App Challenge with innovative classroom tools

Andrew Patterson talks to Hapara's Jan Zawadzki and how they won the 2013 NYC Schools Gap App Challenge with innovative classroom tools

By Andrew Patterson

School used to be pretty straightforward. The teachers told you what you needed to know, you looked up books in the library when you wanted more information on a particular subject and your work was written in exercise books or on refill pads and submitted for marking.

These days, schools are caught up in a digital revolution that has some doing better than others depending on their willingness to adapt to a new world order.

Increasingly schools have become no different to the modern office with an abundence of technology allowing teaching and learning to become not only more efficient but significantly more productive.

Gone are the blackboards and overhead projectors. These days its a mix of smartboards, data projectors, ipads and increasingly bring your own devices. 

However, the problem facing educators is how you track learning effectively when each student is progressing at different rates on digital devices and the learning itself is fast becoming more individualised.

Letting technology do the work in the classroom

Hapara is an innovative education technology company that helps educators use cloud-based, open tools to positively impact student learning.

Co-founded in Auckland in 2009 by Jan Zawadzki, and now with offices in Palo Alto California, Hapara optimises Google apps for schools by structuring them around classes and students making them both easier to use and more effective learning tools.

According to Hapara, teachers get the visibility they need to improve student outcomes, students get the benefit of a safe, collaborative, digital learning environment and schools, importantly, get to save money.

The company’s flagship product, Teacher Dashboard, was in fact inspired by a group of visionary teachers at Pt England School, a decile one primary school located in one of Auckland’s poorest suburbs where the annual household income is less than $20,000 per annum.

The school had achieved enormous success improving student outcomes in writing and literacy using a programme called Blogger which had engaged students in their writing by giving them authentic, global public audiences around the world. Today, students at Pt England do all their work on netbooks making them one of the very few primary schools in the country to be fully digital.

But the challenge they faced was safeguarding students in this environment.

Then there was the issue of managing the constant flow of content being produced, shared and commented on by students.

Together with the Hapara team they created an innovative solution to address these issues and the resulting Teacher Dashboard has proven to be a winning tool not only for educators but also for the company itself after it was named earlier this year as the winner of the annual New York City Schools Gap App Challenge.

Pt England School principal Russell Burt is one very satified lead customer.

"Teacher Dashboard was the first educational IT project I had commissioned where the developers said yes to every request we made, delivered the final product ahead of time and came in under budget. The system makes learning visible to both teachers and students and has contributed significantly to the success of our digital learning strategy."

Changing direction

CEO and co-founder Jan Zawadzki admits that the approach from Pt England School ended up changing the whole direction of his company.

“They were one of the early schools to really embrace Google Apps which has gone on to become one of the fastest growing technologies within education.”

“Essentially, their feedback was that they loved what it was doing for them, the impact it was having and the way it was engaging students. They were really pleased with all of those learning outcomes. The problem they had was that it had become very difficult to manage the whole process.

“The analogy was akin to a corporate setting with a shared drive where 30 employees are literally dropping everything they write and produce every day into that one drive. Of course it would very quickly become unmanageable which was exactly what they were finding in the classroom.”

“What we soon realised was that teachers have an information management issue that really doesn’t have an equivalent in the corporate world in terms of the sheer volume of content they have to deal with on a daily basis. The numbers are actually quite staggering. We discovered an average secondary school teacher will usually touch between 30-50 thousand separate pieces of content annually.

Managing the volume of content more efficiently

Hapara identified that the information management systems schools were using were typically geared towards corporate users who generally don’t have anywhere near that volume of information to deal with.

“We ended up spending a lot of time in front of a whiteboard at Pt England School sitting on those little chairs developing a range of options that led us to create a hack which turned out to be very powerful.”

“It didn’t take long before we started receiving requests from other teachers around the world who also wanted to be able to use the software. That really allowed us to jump on the Google education wave which is growing at around 80% per annum.”

“We quickly developed customers in around half a dozen countries and we started to see some real growth. One private school we visited in India gave us a purchase order for the system when we were only half way through the presentation pitch.”

It was then that Hapara realised the potential scale of its offering.

“When you think about it, education is really a front runner in the technology space because it’s always being pushed, mainly by the changing needs of the students themselves, but also by innovative teachers who are always looking for new ways to engage kids in their learning.”

A lucky break

But the real game changer for Hapara was the opportunity to be accepted into Imagine K12 a specialist incubator in Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley, and one of the first incubators in the world designed specifically for educational innovation.

“Despite having only 24 hours to submit our application ahead of the closing date, we ended up being one of the stronger entries and the whole experience completely changed the make-up of our business.”

There is little doubt that education is currently undergoing a revolution where technology is allowing the pedagogy to shift from a one to many transfer of knowledge – a relic of the industrial revolution - to one where it’s now about self-directed or what is sometimes referred to as blended learning.

Hapara have embraced this opportunity by creating a highly effective platform that allows teachers to manage the student learning process more directly.

“Essentially what we do is make it easier for teachers to see what’s going on in the classroom when students are working on individual devices. So we make sure folders are created easily, that information can be shared seamlessly and that teachers know what’s going on in their classrooms.

“Our goal therefore is to have a significant impact in terms of the operational efficiency for a teacher in a classroom, because what you realize fairly quickly, when you spend some time with teachers, is that their working life is in many ways death by a thousand paper cuts. They have a whole lot of tasks that are repeated every class, every day, that are just not made any easier by the existing technology.”

Gaining acceptance and trust

Making teachers more comfortable with the technology has also been vital in the process of getting early adopters on board.

“For a lot of teachers the hesitation many of them have around technology is quite understandable because if you’ve had a history over your working life of being told: hey here's the next solution that's going to make a big difference for you, go try it. And so you go invest the time, you go learn about it - because as a teacher you don't get a lot of professional development time - and it may work for three months, and then one day you come into class and you find it's not working anymore or the company folded, or your distributor is not paying for it anymore. Then suddenly, a massive amount of effort just goes out the window and you get frustrated.”

“Google in many ways is fundamentally different. Why? The one experience people consistently have with Google is it actually works. So having technology that's robust, having technology that's reliable makes a huge difference.

Interfacing with Google

So how does Hapara, with its 20 plus staff, interface with a company the size of Google?

“I think our relationship with Google can best be summed up as: it’s complicated.”

“We put very significant loads on Google's servers. We're certainly in their top three largest global users of their APIs (application programme interfacers). We work very closely with their engineering teams around certainly anything that's not working well, features that are needed in the organizational sets, because many of the things that we generate or we deal with are equally important in the organizational context. They're not always specific just to education.”

The take up of Hapara’s product globally has surprised its founders but delighted its investors with the company having already completed a successful funding round.

“The take up was actually quite astounding. What we had underestimated, coming into education, is the global nature of the sector and the degree of connectivity between teachers, which is profound. Up until very, very recently we had not made a single outbound call to sell our product. The entirety of our customer base came to us, largely through word of mouth, through references and through conferences. And it is a truly global community in every sense of the word. We now have customers in over 30 countries. It's quite fascinating to watch these networks of influence, where we pick up a school or a group of teachers and then it spreads, and you can almost directly trace that lineage.”

From a conversation with the staff at Pt England School over a glass of wine in a St Heliers restaurant spawned a business that was truly born global.

“It was hugely beyond what we expected. At every step of the way, and every quarter we continue to be astounded by the inroads we are making.”

One suspects Hapara might only just be getting started.

 

KEY FACTS

Sector: Technology / Software
Founded: 2009
Staff: 25
Offices Auckland (R&D) Palo Alto, California (Sales & Marketing)
Global footprint: Sold in 30 countries
Fastest growing market: United States
Ownership: Private
Turnover: Not disclosed
Website: www.hapara.com

 

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