2016 – The Story of StudyForge

Richard Bitgood, StudyForge

How does a teacher’s off-the-side-of-the-desk project turn into a potentially global curriculum brand? This is a question I consider as I reflect on our journey developing the StudyForge Math and Science curriculaware. A few key points in the story stand out: A passion for connecting with students; a frustration with the status quo of online learning; a predisposition for solving problems using software; an incredible team-approach; and a willingness to listen to educators and their needs.

What is surprising is how much has happened “by accident” and was unplanned. Through solving different problems that we faced, we discovered who we are, what problems we had the skillset to solve and eventually how to define ourselves as a company. Did we become a curriculum company that also builds software? Or a software company that happens to write curriculum? As we grew from being teachers and animators at a school into becoming a truly viable educational technology company, we came to believe the answer is that the two should never be separated… and thus we call our product curriculaware. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning.

Small Beginnings

My wife and I were team teaching high school math at a growing online school, and our story begins with lots of mistakes and dismal math scores. We had been designing math curriculum for students in our online school for a few years, and those courses involved students logging into the learning management system, clicking on a lesson page, and reading some text we had written trying to explain the mathematics. This text would often refer to a textbook that we had shipped to the student, where they would read some more text trying to explain mathematics. After that, they would read the assignment instructions, and then the students would try to type out work into assignment documents, using the word equation editor of a decade ago. That’s a lot of reading about math we were putting students through. Amazingly a few succeeded, but many more simply gave up. We as a math team sighed collectively: “There must be a better way!”

So, we began the search for how others were teaching math online and discovered a format of videos we really liked and thought had potential. After a failed attempt to partner with another provider, we asked, “Could we build something like this on our own suited to our needs and those of our students?” Some of our students showed promise in animation so we hired one student as an animator. The process of teachers collaborating with designers is an important theme of this story, and is a key aspect of why StudyForge exists today. We collaborated on each video and through the summer and fall our Math 12 course had begun to transform. It was a tremendous amount of work, but we were able to keep ahead of the students that first semester and the result was a completely transformed course.

Now students could watch math unfold while listening to a voice-over explain what they were seeing, and fill in the blanks on a printable note-package as they went. We licensed some workbook questions created by another teacher and the textbook disappeared. This saved our school money in shipping, and student engagement increased while the course drop rate plummeted. Students were no longer leaving the course after the first weeks, and that first year we saw an increase in enrollments from about 50 students to 130. Just as importantly, the student’s understanding was also increasing. Now, their questions were from much deeper in the lesson as they wrestled with applying what they had learned… because they were actually learning!

We knew we were on to something and proceeded to commission a few more of our courses to be upgraded to this video format. Now we had two courses for 11th grade math and 12th grade math, which presented us with a problem: The 12th grade students had their videos on html pages in their Moodle course, and the 11th grade students had different videos on html pages in their separate course. Why should the 12th graders be walled off from content that could possibly be quite helpful for them? We believed they shouldn’t, so how do we get them access?

Software as a Problem-Solving Solution

This brings us to another theme in the story of the StudyForge’s development: solving existing problems through software development. After consulting with our two full time programmers on staff their suggestion was that the best approach would be to put the videos in a database. Then we could write a plugin for Moodle that would put a search box into the math courses and StudyForge was born! The birthplace of StudyForge was a few thousand lines of code written to support the ethos that students shouldn’t be pigeonholed into courses. Rather, they should be free to access any resource that is going to be helpful to them. That ethos remains in StudyForge seven years later as every student from 7th grade Math to AP Calculus can access any video or lesson they choose. They are in the driver’s seat of owning their own learning which is why, “Construct your learning” is StudyForge’s tagline!

Another key in creating something of value is that we were designing a product that we as teachers wanted to use. As online teachers, we had questions like, “Did the student actually watch the videos in the course?”, “Are they merely just checking the answers right away and moving on?” and even practical things such as “How can I keep my content up to date across different class sections?” The exciting thing about teaching using a tool we were building is that we could create software to answer these questions. We wrote tools into the software to track student’s progress through the videos, and then display that in graphical ways so that we could tell very quickly the answers to those questions.

The other interesting aspect of starting to solve these problems is we realized that the software we were developing needed to inform the way the curriculum was designed as well. With new features came new possibilities in how we designed our curriculum, and we found that our curriculum designers weren’t just telling the software team what they wanted, but once they saw what was possible they adjusted their curriculum design!

We decided to put our content out in the marketplace to see if anyone else could benefit from it. Here again, it started slow and we made lots of mistakes but worked hard to learn from those mistakes. A key breakthrough came when we found ourselves empathizing with the other teachers we were asking to use our curriculum. Why should we expect them to log into our system if that was something we weren’t willing to do? So, we went back to the code, re-developed and started distributing through a standard called “Learning Tools Interoperability” that enabled us to plug StudyForge into their current learning management systems, which was a tipping point in starting to gain a significant client base.

As the number of teachers using our StudyForge curriculaware grew we were eager to invite users into the development process. This creates all kinds of exciting challenges to solve because our teacher-clients are taking StudyForge into new contexts we had never imagined it being used. I remember giving a demo once and the campus teacher said, “Couldn’t you put the progress bar I see on questions on this page, on this other report here as well?” Of course we could! And we should… because the software should serve the teacher’s vision and not the other way around.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Teamwork has been another key theme in StudyForge’s story, and we have somehow managed to maintain a geographically diverse team with very complimentary skills. We have content matter specialists from other jurisdictions and have also had the privilege to partner with other math companies such as Geogebra and Absolute Value Publications. This team has made it possible to proliferate content so that we have almost 4,000 animated videos, well over 11,000 interactive practice questions and over 5,000 assessment items. Not to mention the assignments and projects we have correlated to many courses across different jurisdictions.

It is important to mention that this content creation was funded by a school that prioritized course development in its budget. At the start we were simply the school’s math team trying to serve our students in better ways. We kept looking to software and systems to solve problems we encountered in our unique context of teaching students at a distance, and we were supported by a school that passionately encouraged innovation. StudyForge would never have grown without a school’s mentality that said yes to new ideas and was willing to put its weight behind the creativity of its staff.

A Focused Effort

But how did we take the leap from being the math team at a school to having a viable product in the marketplace? It didn’t happen overnight. We had been putting StudyForge out there for a few years as a potential digital curriculum for other online schools, and even campus schools that were forward thinking with their technology. We were running a little bit of client support off the side of our desks as we continued to manage our teaching load. But as we began signing up more and more schools, it got to the point where we could no longer manage it in our ‘spare time’. This lead to the beginning of discussions about what it would take for StudyForge to grow into a company. It was clear that to reach that next level, this project was going to need our full focus and attention.

After a year and a half of conversations and contracts being written up we left our comfortable teaching jobs and jumped ship into the marketing and development world. We are now almost halfway into our second year running StudyForge as our full-time jobs and the growth is exciting. We have entire private and public brick and mortar schools, online schools, campus schools and now even entire districts across Canada and the USA coming to us and licensing our software and content. There is no way this could have happened without us taking the risk of leaving our teaching jobs, and our organization taking the risk to fund us in these startup years.

The Future of StudyForge

Now as we move forward as a company, content is constantly being upgraded and reviewed. Recent changes in British Columbia have led us to reach for another standard: using inquiry-based and project based learning. We are holding all our course writers to it! The recent launch of our revamped middle school courses has resulted in amazing feedback.

But not only is the content being revamped, we are constantly improving the StudyForge software platform with the goal of helping teachers engage with their students in a meaningful way, and in a timely fashion. Our passion here is to provide other teachers with the tools and resources so they can do what they do best: support students. We love resourcing teachers well, so we are exploring partnerships that will accelerate StudyForge’s feature set for teachers and students, adding more capabilities and interactivity that we are so excited to announce.

In addition, we are working on the next major release of StudyForge which is going to open up the flexibility to offer different subject areas as well. Our team is hard at work writing StudyForge science courses. We will have a 5th through 9th grade middle school science curriculum ready for the 2017-18 school year.

The best part is, we have already gone through the process of discovering who we are and so we can move into the next phases knowing who we are. We have teachers partnering with developers and designers in a synergistic creative process: The curriculum informs and impacts the software design and the software informs and impacts the curriculum design. This process is continually shaping StudyForge into a product that we believe is not only ready for the technological shift in our schools, but a product that is empowering it.