For those of us who have finished school but don’t yet have children of our own going to school, what goes on in modern schools is a mystery. Do blackboards even exist anymore? Do kids know how to use pens or is everything just done on laptops and iPads? They’ve surely never had to wait patiently for fifteen minutes for a teacher to figure out how to turn on the VHS machine and rewind a tape. Technology is changing in schools, and Australian EduTech is at the forefront. The space was a high achiever in 2015, with local startups creating a wide range of platforms to help parents, students, and teachers alike get through the school year, and 2016 looks to be no different.
The first cab off the rank is Ella, a startup focused on teachers. Its platform allows primary and high school teachers to track their professional development, whether it’s an official course they attend or a milestone they achieve with students in the classroom, Ella gives them the ability to share resources with colleagues.
Cofounder Atul Pandey explained, “Professional development is something that is done to teachers; teachers go to this class or they go to a workshop where someone just in front of the room tells them what to do. But we see that as a old model, that’s not what professional development should be. Teachers have been telling us that they need something that is owned by them, that is personalised for them. The focus should be on the impact and the evidence of learning rather than what you’ve been told.”
The platform allows teachers to set up their goals for a period of time, whether it be a term or a year. These can be their own personal goals, their faculty goals, or school-wide goals. They can then track activities that contribute to the achievement of those goals, such as classroom teaching, the creating and sharing of a teaching resource, or a discussion with other teachers. Teachers can choose to keep their goals and activities private or share them with others, making it almost like a teacher-specific social media platform of sorts.
The creation of Ella came through years of work in the education space. Before Ella, Pandey ran another edutech company and the Sydney Educational Technology Group, while cofounder Matt Esterman is a history teacher and eLearning coordinator at a Sydney school, and third cofounder of Wai Yat Wong works in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, at the University of Sydney. The group first began working on an app which Pandey described as “a TripAdvisor for professional learning for teachers” in July, but shifted the idea after taking part in a trip to China with the NSW Trade Commission.
“We pitched to almost 500 education providers in China in four different cities. It just completely opened up our eyes to the market there, because the schools are just huge, and there are 100,000 teachers in one city like Beijing and 100,000 in Shanghai. There was a school which had 35,000 teachers, and they wanted to use our platform we were building just for their teachers. So we thought there might be a market just for a school-based teacher professional development platform and that’s when we came home and again started brainstorming around that idea and validating it with the schools in Australia. That has now become Ella,” Pandey explained.
The Ella team regularly holds informal meet ups with teachers to show them new updates to the platform and get their feedback.
“We go back and we rethink it and start filling those features into the versions. We try to release a version every week or two and we have to make sure that teachers get their feedback through that process all over again,” Pandey said.
Their users so far are mixed in terms of ages; as one would expect, Pandey said there are a lot of eager young teachers using the platform, but more experienced teachers are also keen to get on board and share their learnings and resources with others. Because Ella is focused on both personal achievement and collaboration. It may feel less like yet another task a teacher has to complete and more something they actually want to do.
Ella was one of ten startups chosen to take part in SYD3, the third intake of the muru-D accelerator program, after an intense boot camp weekend in December. It was making the cut that pushed Pandey and his cofounders to actually register the company.
Speaking to Pandey the week before Christmas, he laughed, “Yesterday at 6 o’clock we went to the accountant and actually got it registered. Today I opened the bank account so that we can get the money from the accelerator in the company. We’d been working just informally as a team, and to make sure that we gel together really well, we didn’t want to hurry into anything.”
The cofounders had been bootstrapping prior to receiving the program funding, putting in $10,000 each to develop the platform. Pandey said they are keen to focus on revenue from now on; he believes the team’s contact with teachers and schools has shown their revenue model, having schools pay $15 per teacher per year for a subscription, will work.
As for the accelerator, Pandey said the Ella team is keen to be pushed outside of its comfort zones over the next six months. They’re hoping to launch the platform into schools when term one starts later this month, with four schools already lined up.
“By the time we come out of Muru-D, we want to be a self sustaining company with revenue, with a product that teachers love to use…our big vision is to inspire teachers, to reinvent the teaching practice so that they can get better student outcomes.”
Image: Wai Yat Wong, Atul Pandey, and Matt Esterman.