Posts from hacking education

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:


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.

Host a ScriptEd Advanced Class This School Year

Here’s something great your company can do to help inner city kids, engage your employees in rewarding volunteer work, and do all of this inside the four walls of your office.

ScriptEd is a non-profit working to help youth from low-income high schools access careers in the tech industry. They recruit developers to volunteer to teach a foundational course in front-end web development in high schools around the city. After completing this course, students move on to the Advanced Class, a project-based course that focuses on advanced JavaScript skills.

These classes are held once a week throughout the school year in the offices of ScriptEd’s company partners. Classes typically last for 2 hours and are held in the late afternoon (usually 4-6pm). Volunteers teach in teams of four, supported by a ScriptEd Program Manager. Training and curriculum is also provided.

This year, classes will take place at Etsy, Salesforce, and HBC Digital, amongst others. ScriptEd is still looking for a couple more companies to host classes. This is a great opportunity to do skills-based volunteering without having to leave the office. It’s also a way for your company to create opportunity for a group of students, and to make a meaningful contribution to diversity in tech.

If you think your company might be a good fit for a ScriptEd Advanced Class, please contact Corporate Partnerships Manager Kate Holzman at [email protected].

The CS For All Consortium

Over the past couple years, it has become apparent to school districts across the country, particularly in inner city schools, that teaching computer science to ALL students (CS4All or CS For All) is a good idea and must be done. I am proud to have been one of the people pushing this idea for the last decade and I am even more proud of how far we have come in NYC highlighted by Mayor de Blasio’s announcement of NYC’s CS4All effort a year ago this month.

Earlier this year the White House realized that getting all of these CS For All efforts around the country connected and communicating was a good idea and the President announced a national CS For All in January of this year.

The thing that is so great about this CS For All movement it has been “bottom up” instead of “top down.” The elected officials are getting on the bandwagon and providing funding and other resources for it (not anywhere near enough yet) but CS For All has emerged from the classrooms, from the students and teachers, aided by a bunch of computer science and education researchers in higher education. There are literally hundreds of organizations, almost all non-profits, that have built the curriculum, professional development, and other tools and resources that together make up the CS For All movement around the country. There have been some unsung heroes, many of them women interestingly, like Jane Margolis, who started working in the LA public schools a decade ago and wrote a book about that which woke a lot of people up, including me, and Jan Cuny at the NSF who has funded a lot of the curriculum development work over the past decade, and many others who have been working for a long time to make this happen.

But happen it has. CS For All is expanding all over the country at a very rapid pace.

And yesterday, at the White House Summit on Computer Science Education, the CS For All Consortium was announced. The CS For All Consortium will serve as a hub for families, schools, and districts looking for resources that match their needs, including content by grade level and target audience. The consortium website at will help connect members of the national CS education community, provide an avenue for disseminating their work, and track our collective progress toward the goal of providing every student with the opportunity to learn CS.

For now, our CS For All organization in NYC, CSNYC, that I co-founded a few years ago will be leading this effort. A lot of our work in NYC has influenced the national movement. We believe in a bottom up approach where there is not one standard curriculum or one standard pathway for a student to study CS. We have fostered an approach in NYC where literally dozens of computer science education organizations are active helping the NYC school system get CS in every school in the city (>1700 of them). We have built a big tent that allows all schools, all students, all teachers, all parents, all curriculums, all approaches, and all volunteers to participate. Literally CS for All.

And we are excited to bring that approach to the national effort. Michael Preston and Leigh Ann Delyser of CSNYC have been leading this work and I am very appreciative of their efforts to make this a reality. If you are a teacher, a student, a parent, a principal, or anyone else who wants help getting CS for all of your students, you can visit the CS For All consortium website and find resources that can help you do that. I encourage you to do that.

Back To School

Many children are heading back to school today.

It is the top trending hashtag on Twitter right now (in my feed).

At USV, we have been investing in education for a while now and three of our portfolio companies have top apps for K-12 students:

top education apps

Those would be:

Duolingo – if you or your child is taking a foreign language, Duolingo can make the work of mastering a foreign language easier and a lot more fun.

Quizlet – the best study tool on the web and mobile. study anything. create your own study sets or use one you find on Quizlet.

Edmodo – the best way for teachers and students to stay connected and collaborate

So put these three apps on your phone or your child’s phone and be ready for the exciting year ahead.

Trapped In A System 

A book that has really stayed with me since I read it is The Prize, the story of the attempt to reform the Newark public school system.

And there is a particular scene in that book that really sums it up for me.

The author is at an anti-charter school protest and meets a woman who had spent that morning trying to get her son into a new charter school that had opened in Newark. The author asks the woman how it is possible that on the same day she would spend the morning trying to get her son into a charter school and the afternoon at an anti-charter protest.

The woman explains that most of her family are employed in good paying union jobs in the district schools and that the growth of charters is a threat to those jobs.

As I read that story I was struck by how rational the woman was acting. She was helping to preserve a system that provided an economic foundation for her family and at the same time opting her son out of it. 

In some ways that story is a microcosm of what is happening in the economy right now. Many people in the US (and around the world) are employed by (and trapped in) a system that no longer works very well. And although they realize the system is broken, they fight to support it because it underpins their economic security.

My partner Albert argues for a universal basic income to replace the old and broken system so we as a society can free ourselves from outdated approaches that don’t work anymore and move to adopt new and better systems. 

I think it is worth a shot to be honest.

Please Consider Volunteering For ScriptEd This Coming School Year

ScriptEd is a non-profit organization that equips students in under-resourced schools in NYC with the fundamental coding skills and professional experiences that together create access to careers in technology.  It brings its tuition free program directly to schools, where classes are taught by software developers on a volunteer basis. Classroom volunteers commit to teach for the entire school year (late September through late May) two times a week. Each volunteer is part of a four-person team, and is supported by ScriptEd’s staff members.

As the end of summer approaches, ScriptEd is gearing up for the 2016-2017 school year. The organization is looking for software developers in NYC to help to serve 900 students in 37 under-resourced high schools.

Volunteering with ScriptEd is a great way to meet like-minded people while increasing inclusionary access to the tech work force in NYC.

If this is interesting to you, you can apply to volunteer at this link:

A ScriptEd staff member will reach out and schedule a time to discuss the volunteer commitment further once an application is submitted.

AFSE Commencement Speech

Four and a half years ago, in January 2012, I announced on this blog that New York City was opening a new high school called the Academy For Software Engineering (AFSE).

Yesterday, AFSE graduated its first class. 110 of the 120 students who enrolled four years ago made it to graduation. And each and every one of these students took four years of computer sciences classes on their way from enrollment to graduation. It was a proud day for me as it was for them and their families.

Seung Yu, AFSE’s founding and current school principal, asked me to give the commencement speech. That was an instant yes.

So I stood in front of the graduates yesterday and talked about three things that have helped me in my professional life.

Here is the draft I wrote. As I got into it, I ad libbed a fair bit, but this is certainly the gist of what I said to the graduates yesterday:

Now for some parting advice for all of you graduating seniors. Listen up, I am going to tell you my secrets of success in business. This speech isn’t really about your family life. I could go on and on about that too but I would just say that you need a balance between your work life and your family life. You need to focus on both and they support each other. A healthy home life makes for a healthy work life. You need both.

So with that, I am here to tell you that the secret to success in your career comes down to three things, take risks, work hard, and get lucky.

You are all risk takers. You chose AFSE as eighth graders when the school literally did not exist. I remember what it was like back then. Parents would tell me “I can’t send my child to a school that doesn’t exist”. Guidance counselors would say “I can’t recommend that school to my students” I would hear people say things like “girls can’t go to a school like that” or “you can’t teach coding skills to every student”. And I am sure you heard the same things. But you came anyway. And standing here today, I will tell you that you attended and graduated from one of the top 25 high schools in NYC. I don’t know if there are actual rankings, but it is my belief that if you measure high schools on things like attendance, graduation rate, regents scores, AP scores, SAT scores, colleges attended, and reputation, AFSE would be an elite high school. One of the very best. And you went there and graduated from there. You took a big risk and it paid off for you. Keep doing that.

I have taken a bunch of risks in my life. I grew up in an army family and I broke ranks and decided not to go to West Point where my dad and his dad went. Instead I went to MIT, even though my parents could not afford to send me there. I worked in a research lab and sold donuts and coffee every morning to pay my way through MIT. I followed my wife Joanne and moved to NYC after college when my dad told me it was too expensive to live here. I went to business school and paid my way by teaching computers to my classmates. I took at job in venture capital when nobody knew what that was instead of going to work on wall street with the rest of my classmates. When the Internet emerged in the mid 90s, I left my safe job and started a new venture capital firm after my wife Joanne had quit her job to raise our three kids. When the Internet blew up and we lost most of our money, I started another venture capital firm and spent almost two years flying around the country spending money we really didn’t have trying to convince people to give me money again to invest in the Internet. I invested in social media when people said you could never make money in it. I invested in crowdfunding when people said that nobody would do that. I invested in Etsy when people said you could not compete with eBay. All of those risks paid off. Every single one of them. Thankfully my wife Joanne backed me every single time when I wanted to take those risks. She believed in me and believed in those bets. She hung in there when times were tough and made it possible for me to take these chances. We are an example of what happens when you hang together and take risks together.

I am not suggesting you take silly risks. I am suggesting you take calculated risks. Each and every time I took a risk there were people telling me not to do it. I listened to them. I did not disregard their advice lightly. I thought about it. And many times I have decided not to take a risk. But when, after listening and carefully considering the risks, my gut tells me to take a risk, i do it.

And then once you do that you have to work your ass off. I get up every morning at 5am. I have worked half a day by the time I get to the office at 9am. I still do that at age 55 when I have no need to anymore. It is what I do. I work hard. Because if you are going to take these risks, you have to work hard to make them pay off. This is not the lottery. You don’t just buy a ticket and sit back and see what happens. You take a risk and you work every day to make sure it comes through for you.

You all have worked hard. You have studied for the regents, the AP exams, the SATs, you have learned hard things like writing software. You have seen that hard work pays off. Keep working hard. It’s the only way to get somewhere.

But taking risks and working hard is not enough. You have to get lucky too. Luck is not just catching a lucky break. You have to be able to recognize it as such. You have to prepare your mind to recognize the lucky break when it comes your way. The Internet emerging as a massive financial opportunity in the mid 90s was my biggest lucky break. But I had put myself in a position to take advantage of that lucky break by deciding to work in venture capital ten years before that, by working hard to get better at my craft, and by paying close attention to the emerging areas of technology. I saw the Internet for what it was long before most people did. That was my luckiest break but I also knew it and jumped on it.

Everyone gets lucky breaks in their life. I can’t tell you when your lucky breaks will come. But I can tell you that they will come. You must be able to see them for what they are, you must be in a position to act on them, and you must not miss them. Pay attention, look carefully, and be prepared for your lucky breaks.

So that’s it. That’s my secret for a happy and productive career. Take risks, work hard, and get lucky. You have already done all three. Keep doing it.

A Nice Way To Celebrate Memorial Day

In addition to remembering those who gave their lives serving our country today, it’s also a nice thing to assist those who made it home and are transitioning to civilian life.

I just backed a Kickstarter project which is attempting to rase the funds to build a “digital library” of educational videos to assist veterans in obtaining the necessary skills to transition to a job in the high growth tech sector.

Here’s the project video. Check it out and if you like the idea as much as I do, hopefully you can support it.

Feature Friday: Learn To Code on an iPhone

Hopscotch is a visual programming environment, like Scratch or Blockly, that runs on an iPhone.

If your kids like to grab your phone and watch videos or play games on it, put Hopscotch on your phone and encourage them to make games instead of just playing them.

Here’s a piece from Wired that explains how it works (with some screen shots) and why it is so cool.

You might ask, why should my kids learn to code? And there are many great answers to that but I always like to answer that question by reminding people that instructing machines what to do is becoming an important life skill. And it will only get more important in the coming years. So getting your kids comfortable doing that at a young age is a great thing and Hopscotch is a great way to do that.