A Marketplace for Stronger Connections Between Neurons

NextLesson is a web app where teachers and parents can get access to pre-designed lesson plans or create their own. It wasn't created by a 20-year-old to jump on the next big trend. It was created by a couple of dads using the ideas and techniques of high tech to solve a real problem in education.
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A few months ago I was looking for advice about building a big data team. I contacted Parshu, one of the best search guys I've worked with. I was thinking in the back of my mind, if Parshu wasn't doing anything interesting, unlikely as that might be, perhaps I could talk him into working with HuffPost. After all we have tons of data, big and small!

Parshu surprised me by explaining that he wasn't doing "big data" at all. He was working on a startup, designing a new product, coding a web application, and talking to parents and teachers. For a guy with hardcore Yahoo! and eBay search gigs on his resume this was the equivalent of a major league player coaching little league.

Parshu Kulkarni and his co-founder Dion Lim, had discovered a more important game to play in and a much more important problem to solve than ranking keywords for search engines: Enabling teachers to grow stronger connections between the neurons in their young student's minds. Parshu and Dion had discovered project-based learning.

Kids are doing more projects than ever these days -- at least in schools like the Synapse School and High Tech High. At these two California schools students focus on learning by doing and evaluation of what was done. This project-based focused is the result of decades of research on the effectiveness of doing projects versus memorizing facts and taking tests. As a former 6th grader I can tell you the test taking approach did not work for me. It was not until I got into art school, which is all about projects, that I learned how to learn for real. As a parent I've seen my kids deal with the same issues through the years. Memorizing hard facts, state capitals, times tables, and the elements of the periodic table helps you get good grades on a test but not deal with the complex, subtle, and squishy problems that you encounter throughout life.

I've mostly forgotten everything I had to memorize in sixth grade. But I can't forget what I've learned in art school and what I've learned as a practicing programmer and CTO. I can talk your ear off about the minutia of the mobile software development or how to manage a team. Research shows that it's not that I'm rusty with my facts or that Google has made me lazy but rather that what students learn through doing a project creates a much larger footprint on their brains with stronger connections between neurons.

But with more project-based learning comes a new problem: Managing all those projects!

Parshu and Dion are both dads with school-aged children. Dion's kids had a tough time keeping track of their homework assignments. He devised a simple project management system on a whiteboard with magnets representing the progress his kids were making on each assignment. In the software development world we have many of these simplified project tracking tools using principles from agile, scrum, and kanban. But in education Parshu and Dion realized that both teachers and students were struggling without an easy to use and formalized tool to track lessons. Every teacher and student seemed to have their own ad-hoc approach to keeping up with their projects.

Parshu and Dion created NextLesson to solve the project tracking problem and a couple more problems along the way. NextLesson is a web app where teachers and parents can get access to pre-designed lesson plans or create their own. Each lesson plan can have the following elements: A driving question, a description, a set of resources (images, documents, videos) that only the teacher can see, milestones, notes, and resources that the students can utilize. NextLesson makes it simple to keep a lesson plan organized and easily tracked as each milestone is accomplished.


That's not all that NextLesson provides. It's also a place where teachers can sell lesson plans to each other (and to parents) or just give them away for free. Parshu and Dion talked to hundreds of teachers and designed the features of NextLesson to solve a broad range of issues around project-based learning: How are projects shared and discovered? How are projects paid for? How are projects licensed? How are projects used and reused?

For me a big problem with our educational system is how poorly K-12 teachers are paid and how much they pay out of their own pockets for school supplies. It's estimated that teachers spend $1.3 billion out of their own pockets to teach our children. That number makes teachers heroes and shines a light on the terrible job we're doing as parents and taxpayers in making sure the money spent on education is enough and going to the right places.

This is why NextLesson is a market place. Like an independent developer on Apple's App Store, an enterprising teacher can post a digital lesson plan for free or charge a fee. If the teacher decides to charge for her lesson plan she gets 70% of the fee. The pricing is up to the teacher. All of the lessons created in-house by NextLesson are free and teachers get a $5 credit for signing up. Hopefully, when buying lessons teachers will resist using their own money and ask the school to provide the funds. The fee for a lesson plan is usually between $5 to $10 and it's a lifetime purchase -- once a teacher purchases a lesson plan they can reuse it forever. That's the current strategy for NextLesson. It's not about getting rich on the backs of hard working teachers and parents but rather providing access to great content and rewarding teachers for their creativity.

This strategy puts NextLesson right at the center of Internet education, crowd funding, and a marketplace for digital goods. It's not a Zynga-get-rich-by-addicting-users-to-trivial-content strategy. There are no ads on NextLesson. There are no gamification features. There is no fee for creating an account or for storing data. NextLesson was not created by a 20-year-old to jump on the next big trend. It was created by a couple of dads using the ideas and techniques of high tech to solve a real problem in education.

I hope that NextLesson is part of a new wave in Internet education, like EdX and Skillshare, that offers unprecedented access to first class content without inflated brand-driven prices. And I can't wait until those kids with the strongly connected neurons start solving the real world problems that seem to be engulfing us.

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