Wireless Generation ushers in new wave of educational technology
A decade ago, Larry Berger and Gregory Gunn, two friends who met as Rhodes Scholars, were intrigued by how mobile technology might help Pre K-12 educators to overcome teaching and learning challenges. Their first "aha" moment came while observing elementary school teachers.
The teachers were sitting down with each of their students, one by one, making lots of notes and checks on a piece of paper. The teachers were doing observational assessment, a common research-based practice of watching students read, recording their errors and strategies, and doing copious paperwork to arrive at results. Because teachers are such busy professionals, the final assessment data was often stale and outdated. But teachers persisted in capturing what data they could to pinpoint learning needs.
Berger and Gunn founded Wireless Generation in a garret-like office, New York City's equivalent of the Silicon Valley garage. There they developed mCLASS software, which enables teachers to give such assessments accurately and easily with a mobile device, recording responses while students use paper materials.
The software delivers results instantly, with instructional recommendations for each child so that educators can quickly pivot and tweak teaching immediately. When the mobile device is synced, data is transferred to a secure website where teachers and administrators access different reports that help them to answer the critical questions that follow data collection and are central to great teaching: "I have the data. So What? Now What?"
The importance of kids mastering early reading and math skills is well settled. What's more, widely accepted evidence shows the most important factor in determining student performance often is the quality of his or her teacher. Yet, schools that serve low-income and minority students are twice as likely to field an inexperienced teacher and are 61 percent more likely to hire an uncertified teacher.
"Although there are no silver bullets in education, we believe that innovative technology can help teachers maximize their impact in the classroom," said Larry Berger, Wireless Generation's CEO and co-founder.
Wireless Generation's mission is to help educators teach with excellence. Its efforts have produced an array of tools, data systems, and services that support the use of data to improve teaching and learning, and personalize instruction.
Newer innovations have further tightened the link between assessment, data, and curriculum. The company invented what it calls "Burst:Reading," a curriculum embedded with patent-pending technology that assists teachers with arduous data analysis and lesson preparation, so that personalized instruction can happen in every classroom. A sophisticated algorithm analyzes a class' current and past assessment data, groups students with similar skill needs, and creates a customized 10-day sequence of lessons (a "burst") arranged at the right pace and intensity for each group. The teacher gives the lessons, enhancing the material with her own expertise, enthusiasm and energy. Then the cycle repeats through school year.
Wireless Generation is a key partner in the design and development of New York City's comprehensive data system called ARIS (for Achievement and Reporting Innovation System), and helped roll it out to more than 90,000 educators serving 1.1 million students and their parents. Wireless Generation is also the lead technology partner on NYC's School of One, a bold effort to re-think the traditional classroom model and customize the learning experience that has received national attention.
In addition to the products, the company's Professional Services staff works side-by-side with educators in their schools, helping them to use data analysis and problem-solving around their actual student data.
"From its earliest days, Wireless Generation has focused on what happens in classrooms and the right role for technology," said Berger.
Currently, some 200,000 teachers serving 3 million students in all 50 states use Wireless Generation's products and services. From Berger and co-founder Greg Gunn, the Brooklyn-based concern has grown to 400 employees.
The promise that Wireless Generation holds for helping teachers and kids become successful learners was a big reason the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's decided to invest in the company through its Mission Driven Investing (MDI) unit, said Sterling Speirn, Kellogg Foundation CEO. In May 2010 the Foundation invested $5 million in Wireless Generation in the form of a convertible loan.
"We call it double bottom line investing," Speirn said. "We're looking for companies that align with our mission and provide a market return." The Foundation's mission in part calls for it to strengthen and create "conditions that propel vulnerable children to achieve success."
(The assets that MDI invests come from the Kellogg Foundation's endowment, not from the pool of funds it uses to make grants. The grant making funds derive from dividends and investment gains of endowment assets.)
Birth to age 8
An example of the dual nature of the strategy is that Kellogg Foundation's grant making side has made a goal of dedicating half its annual grant-making to early child development (birth to age 8), which includes many of the children that Wireless Generation's products touch.
In addition to success in the education arena, the company has drawn attention from the business world. In November 2010, Wireless Generation said it had agreed to be acquired by News Corp. in a cash transaction exchanging 90 percent of the company for $360 million.
While the sale will conclude the Foundation's participation in Wireless Generation, both entities will continue their child-focused work.
"This successful exit underscores the impact investing goals of our Foundation's MDI program, and highlights the potential for direct investments in well-run, mission-driven companies," said Thomas Reis, director of Mission Driven Investments.
Wireless Generation will become an independent subsidiary of News Corp. and will be managed by Berger, President and COO Josh Reibel, and Executive Vice President and Chief Product Officer Laurence Holt, who will collectively retain a 10 percent interest. Greg Gunn, who founded Wireless Generation with Berger, left the company before the acquisition.
Without pause, Wireless Generation continues to pursue its mission. Its impact on millions of children is likely to be lasting.