Posts from hacking education

Bearing Witness

Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple hours sitting on the stage at the high school graduation ceremony for the Academy For Software Engineering.

This evening I will spend another couple hours sitting on the stage at the high school graduation ceremony for the Bronx Academy For Software Engineering.

Both yesterday and today are busy days with lots of work obligations, board meetings, decisions, and family time.

But these four hours are the most important hours I will spend this week.

About two hundred young adults will graduate from these two NYC public high schools over this two day period.

These are young adults who made the decision four years ago to take a risk on two brand new high schools with no track record and no reputation.

But this week they are walking off the stage with a high school diploma and a set of skills in extremely high demand in today’s economy.

They also know how to talk to machines, tell them what to do, and make them work for them.

I am proud of these roughly two hundred young adults and I am pleased to bear witness to their accomplishments and the very bright futures that they all have in front of them.

Fun Friday: The Digital Dance

Last week at the Annual NYC Computer Science Fair, I got to judge a student coding project showcase. The team that won was 50 young women from the Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria Queens.

These young women choreographed a dance routine using software and hardware engineering. The used LED lighting strips and Sphero robots to animate their dance routine and they wrote the software code that synchronized the music and dance routine with the hardware.

Here is the dance performance:

And here is how they made it happen:

I love this for so many reasons, but here are a few of them:

  1. Young women have not been as interested in software and hardware engineering because we have not made it relevant to their interests. This is an example of how to do that.
  2. The Digital Dance has now become an annual event at this school, the next one is coming up this spring, so another 50 or so young women will be exposed to hardware and software engineering each year.
  3. This is something that other schools can and should do. It could become a “thing” and I hope it will.
  4. It’s awesome.

Scratch’s 10th Anniversary

The Scratch programming language and community is ten years old and we celebrated that last night at a gala in NYC where the Scratch Foundation raised funds to support their work and they chose to honor me for our K12 CS Ed work in NYC.

Here’s what I said to those who were there, I thought it would be nice to share it with the world.


If you want to be filled with joy, take off the morning, head off to one of hundreds of middle school or high school buildings in NYC, and check out an introduction to software engineering class. Or go visit an elementary school home room where the teacher is doing a computing module in a history or science lesson.

Here is what you will see. Roughly thirty young students, slightly more than half girls, and a rainbow of race, religion, and means. You will see girls in hijabs, boys with afros, kids who speak Spanish or some other language at home, all sitting together working on some sort of creative project, often in teams, solving problems, getting excited, and doing something that challenges them and interests them.

And there’s a good chance that the software they are running on their computers will be Scratch, a visual programming language that makes building software as easy as building a Lego project. But Scratch is way more than a programming language. It is a community, free for everyone to use, now more than 70mm large, where the software creators share what they made with others and let others reuse and remake what they made. It is remix culture for making stuff on a computer.

Scratch is also a gateway drug to serious software engineering. I know many young adults who started on Scratch and now work on some of the most serious programming challenges in computer science at big tech companies, startups, and the top research labs and universities.

Scratch is a gift to the world from Mitch Resnick and his team of colleagues at the MIT Media Lab. You all know the saying, “don’t give someone a fish, teach them to fish”? Well that is what Mitch and his colleagues are doing with Scratch and they are doing it for tens of millions of people all around the world. I suspect the magnitude of this gift they have given the world is on the order of things like the personal computer, the smartphone, and the web. It’s that big.

When I got interested in making sure every young person in the NYC public school system could learn to instruct a machine about seven or eight years ago, I didn’t really know how we were going to make that happen. Like most things I do, our organization, called CSNYC, just threw ourselves at the problem, listened and learned from those, like Mitch, who had been working on the problem for a long time, and we tried lots of things.

One of the things we tried early on at The Academy For Software Engineering was Scratch. AFSE is a new public high school we started five years ago where students learn computer science and which has a few students in attendance tonight. And it has become an essential tool in our CS4All curriculum all over NYC. I see it in elementary school classrooms, I see it in middle schools, and I see it in high schools. I don’t know of a better way to get a student programming a computer than firing up the browser and pointing it to scratch.mit.edu.

There are certainly other tools that are used to teach programming in K12 classrooms across NYC and across the country and the world. Scratch can’t teach everything. But it can get the student going, excited, productive, and hooked. And that is the biggest step.

So while I am honored to be recognized this evening for the work we are doing in NYC and around the country, I want to make sure that everyone knows that our work would be impossible without the fundamental building blocks that have been put in place over the last 15-20 years, and Scratch is right up there at the top of that list.

So thank you to the Scratch Foundation for this honor but mostly thank you for doing what you do and let us all help them keep doing that.

PS – Michael Preston, who runs CSNYC, sent me this photo of the students who sat with us at our table last night and Sean Stern who left a good paying job writing software for Amazon to teach them. A picture tells the entire story.

Feature Friday: Learn Mode

Our portfolio company Quizlet, which is the world’s most popular studying tool, launched learn mode yesterday.

Here’s how it works:

The team at Quizlet has built a way to go from cramming to studying, delivered via technology that’s in our pockets. Well done.

Learn mode is available on Quizlet’s iOS app and it is in closed beta on Android and coming soon to the web.

Code To Success

Five years ago this month, we were recruiting the first class of students to enter The Academy For Software Engineering (AFSE), NYC’s first public high school dedicated to studying software engineering. A lot has happened in those five years; AFSE opened, AFSE attracted a great faculty and student body, AFSE built a modern curriculum to teach software engineering to a diverse student body, AFSE became one of the best performing high schools in NYC, AFSE inspired NYC to do CS4All, and, last spring, AFSE graduated its first class.

To say that AFSE has been a success would be an understatement. It is one of the finest high schools in NYC, often competing for students with the likes of Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science.

The initial funding for AFSE came from the Gotham Gal and me. Then, when we started CSNYC, it took over supporting AFSE. Last year, AFSE took over the responsibility of raising funds for itself and did its first fundraiser.

It’s second annual fundraiser, called Code To Success, will be held on Thursday, March 16 from 7-10pm at Yext’s NYC Offices. I am hoping some of you would like to attend and support this incredible high school.

The school has set a goal of raising $100,000 which will allow AFSE to continue to provide the following resources which are not funded by the NYC Department of Education to its students:

  • Each student is matched with a professional, college-educated mentor from iMentor for all 4 years of high school. This means an email each week, an in-person meeting each month,  and a go-to person for each phase of high school. In the past, mentors have been a key resource for assisting AFSE students with SAT preparation, completing college applications, and applying for financial aid, which many of our students are the first in their families to apply for.
  • Each student receives personalized college counseling through junior and senior year, as well as financial support for SAT/ACT exams, public and private college application fees, college visits and college deposits.
  • Each student who is on track for high school graduation but not on track for college graduation is invited to participate in an intensive OneGoal course for the last two years of high school and first year of college.
  • Each student has access to job shadowing, internships, and other work-based learning experiences to build their personal resumes and apply their learning in a real world context.

The Gotham Gal and I are supporting this fundraiser and we hope some of you will choose to do the same. Visit fundAFSE.splashthat.com to buy your tickets or donate and help AFSE continue to succeed.

Top Hat and Toronto

We announced an investment in Toronto based Top Hat yesterday. I RT’d my partner Albert‘s post on the investment with this bit:

Toronto is a great place for startups. In addition to five investments of ours that are HQ’d there, I know of at least one other USV portfolio company that has much of their engineering team in Toronto. The talent, mindset, and quality of the people in the Toronto/Waterloo tech/startup community is really top notch and we love investing there.

Top Hat is an interesting investment. It’s a bet that interactive learning tools for college classes can be a platform to re-imagine how the college textbook market should work. Here’s is Albert’s post in full about all of that.


Top Hat

Even back when I was in graduate school, I found the price of textbooks to be high and their quality to vary widely. Now that I have children taking college courses, I was shocked to find textbooks that cost over $200 and are still large physical objects that have to be lugged around! The high prices and lack of innovation are the result of a market structure which has become highly concentrated among just a few textbook publishers. That’s why I am excited to announce that USV has led a new round of financing for Toronto-based Top Hat, which last year launched a content marketplace for higher education.

I first met Mike, the founder & CEO of Top Hat, shortly after he had started the company. He told me about his exciting vision for bringing innovation to the higher education market. But then he said he was getting going by replacing Clickers. For starters I didn’t know what those were as they had come after my time in college. Once I figured out what a Clicker was, I admittedly thought going after those was, well, boring. But Mike was right and I was wrong. Starting with classroom engagement turned out to be the perfect basis for establishing a large footprint in higher education. We stayed in touch as Top Hat grew and then last year the team successfully used their user base to launch a content marketplace.

While it is still early there are many positive signs about the potential for the content marketplace that remind us of other successful marketplaces we have invested in over the years such as Etsy and Science Exchange. In addition to individual professors adding content by themselves there are also new behaviors emerging and we are particularly excited about collaboratively developed content. Much work remains to be done but the company is now well funded to execute on that.

Our investment comes from the USV Opportunity Fund, which we set up in part for this type of situation where we have developed a relationship with an entrepreneur over time. Also worth noting is that Toronto continues to impress us with its quality and diversity of companies. We now have five investments there, placing Toronto third as a location in the USV portfolio after New York and San Francisco.

Videos For The Hour Of Code

The Hour Of Code has become a big deal in K-12 schools around the US and around the world. It happens this year during the week of Dec 5th to Dec 11th, which is Computer Science Education Week. Schools find an hour during that week and offer students the ability to do coding exercises for an hour. Students love it.

Many schools ask parents who are software engineers to come to school and help out with the Hour Of Code. My friend Dan Malven is doing that in his children’s school this year. He sent me an email with a question for the AVC community. He wants suggestions for videos to show the students that will help them get excited about learning to code. Here is how Dan explains it:

My goal in the presentation is to show how software is affecting the things they care about. The message I’ll be giving is that not everyone will have the desire and skills to be a professional coder. But everyone does need to understand software because its affecting everything. I want to show how software is (and will) affect sports, music, entertainment, medicine, politics, etc. Basically whatever 8th graders care about. I want them to understand that software is affecting all the things they care about so if they want to have an impact on the things they care about they better learn software.

So, if you know of any videos, ideally publicly available on YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, etc that Dan can use, please share them in the comments.

And, of course, if you are going into a school in a couple weeks to help with the Hour Of Code, please feel free to use any of the suggested videos with the students in your school.

Chromebooks in K12

I started working actively on K12 education about five years ago when a few of us helped start The Academy For Software Engineering. Early on in that process, I made it a point to visit about a dozen high schools around NYC and talk to the Principals and teachers in those schools. I was curious about a lot of things, mostly how you make a good school (answer is hire a great Principal), but also what kind of tech infrastructure was in the schools.

On the latter point, I learned that most schools had broadband and wifi, but the implementation was often poor and in need of significant upgrade. The good news is that many K12 schools have seen significant investments in broadband and wifi in the past five years through a number of federal, state, and local programs. But there is more to do on this point.

In terms of computers, I saw a range of approaches. There were computer labs where an entire room was outfitted with desktops. Windows machines were quite common but so were desktop Macs. But most schools were using laptop carts. They look like this:

laptop_cart

The ones I saw in use in the NYC public schools generally hold thirty laptops and power cords.

Teachers would wheel one of these carts into their classroom and students would grab a laptop and use it for the entire class and then put it back.

Five years ago, most of the laptop carts I saw were filled with MacBooks. I was aghast when I saw that. I did the math and assumed that a laptop cart filled with Macs was costing these schools something on the order of $30k or more. And someone had to manage all of the downloaded software on these devices. It seemed like an expensive and painful solution.

It was around this time that Google launched its first Chromebook. I told everyone who would listen to me that putting inexpensive Chromebooks in these carts was going to be a better solution. An added benefit of using browser based software on these devices is that the student can grab any device in the cart, log in using their email address, and immediately be provisioned with their work and applications in the cloud. It seemed to me that this was going to be the way to go.

I read today that Chromebooks are now being used by 20mm students.  I have no idea what percent of those are in the US, but if we guess 50%, then that would be 10mm students in the US. There are somewhere around 50mm K12 students in the US, so that suggests that Chromebooks may have penetrated 20% of classrooms in the US. That is encouraging to me.

More and more software is coming to market that makes learning more fun in the classroom. A good example of this is our portfolio company’s Quizlet’s Live tool that allows teachers to create real time learning challenges in their classrooms. Much of this software is free to use with premium upgrades (freemium model!) and can drive down the cost of curriculum for the schools and teachers.

But you need computers in the classroom to make this stuff work and the Chromebook is a much more affordable and manageable solution than a laptop. I am thrilled to see the K12 system adopting them.