Chalkup founder Justin Chando talks growth, struggle, success – and students.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Justin Chando of Chalkup.jpgThey do everything a Learning Management System does, but “we hate learning management systems” says Justin Chando, Chalkup founder and CEO (pictured, left). “We don’t think education is something that should be ‘managed’ and that’s not how we designed Chalkup.” Instead, they call themselves a class collaboration platform— “because that’s what we’re all about: connecting classrooms, sparking collaboration, and finding new and innovative ways to work together,” says Justin, who founded the company less than five years ago out of a college dorm room.

From those heady days, it was there that the young company stayed grounded and practical with a simple, basic frustration over the lack of collaboration functionality in their own school’s technology. Assembling a small team, Justin and his friends made their own system. They focused on what was important to them: class discussion, resource sharing, and connecting students.

Something is broken in teaching today if teachers are coming up with ideas alone and consistently reinventing the wheel over and over again.

Two years went by and EdTech Digest interviewed Justin—that was in 2015. Now, another couple years, time flies, and even more has changed, as you’ll read in this what’s-happening-now interview.

A lot has happened since we last chatted back in September 2015. So, two years later—what’s the update?! You were working on making the best mobile learning experience, and featuring innovative teachers. Now what is up?

Justin: It’s great to chat again, Victor. So much has happened since we last caught up!

We started Chalkup with the thesis that learning needs to be more social and collaborative in order to better engage students.

Back then, there weren’t many Learning Management Systems (or LMS) that had any sort of rich communication space for courses. We saw this as a big gap in the market. So, we designed our whole platform to enable safe, rich in class and out of class discussions. It had to be simple, beautiful, and incredibly functional. We see Chalkup today as the easiest way for teachers to send messages and assignments.

Back in that dorm room in 2013, when we were frustrated by the lack of collaboration functionality in our school’s technology—we got a team together and made our own system, which focused on class discussion, resource sharing, and connecting students. Bam. Chalkup was born.

Fast-forward to today and we now have millions of class discussions taking place on our platform. Early on, we made a big bet that classrooms around the world would want a space to communicate and chat with each other about their course work. We’re able to give students a voice in their classes. We’re happy this bet has paid off.

What new challenges came up during that time? How did you overcome them?

Justin: Building something new is always hard. I’d be lying if I said everything came easily for us. We’ve dealt with school challenges, implementation issues, frustrated teammates and teachers, etc.

For example, early on we gave a school beta access to something new we were building—they insisted they had to have it to move forward. We knew it really wasn’t ready for that kind of use. Unfortunately, it spoiled the relationship with that school afterwards because the teachers there continued to treat Chalkup as an early beta, when the product actually evolved so much since then.

However, even with the challenges that always arise there’s something unique about working in edtech. What keeps us going with such strong conviction is the potential for our work to have a profound impact on millions more students and teachers around the world. It’s still so exciting to walk into a classroom and have every student using your product and hear the feedback and compliments that come along with that. The best experience I ever had with Chalkup—seriously almost cried—was when I walked into a school in San Francisco and the students in the 8th grade Spanish class gave me a standing ovation thanking me for building Chalkup. I’ll never forget that. Building a company comes with extreme highs and lows.

How is the funding world, the business end of things?

Justin: I think edtech funding is quite different than other markets and is certainly still changing and figuring itself out. There have been companies before us that have raised a lot more capital that are doing well, and there are some who have raised a lot and haven’t been able to figure out a path to monetization; are dealing with layoffs, downsizing, etc. There has also been investment from older large education companies into their own home-grown digital products that have failed miserably. In the past year or so, it’s been interesting to see a disproportionate amount of venture capital in education go to companies working on ancillary products outside of the classroom. That’s not great.

That being said, we’re proud of how efficiently we’ve been able to build this company. We’ve raised a small amount of funding from some incredibly passionate investors/advisors that are actually actively involved and help me make strategic decisions. This has allowed us to stay focused on solving for the student and teacher long term and build the best product possible while having a solid business model.

How has your company grown?

Justin: Today, we’re excited to announce that we’ve passed a major milestone at Chalkup. Over 1 million educational resources have been built on and shared by teachers on our platform. That’s over a million assignments, rubrics, lesson plans, lecture recordings, and educational videos on Chalkup that now reach students around the world. Chalkup is already in use by educators at 1 in 3 universities, 1 in 5 high schools. Many of our growth has come in just the past year. We’re super excited by how fast we’re moving.

A CEO/Founder running a startup with a couple people has a different job than one that runs dozens or a hundred people – how has this gone for you?

Justin: Absolutely, it’s a different role completely. Today, I am still hands on with everything from product design and development to marketing/sales and customer support. When we get hundreds more people working with us, I’ll have to report back to you to let you know how it’s different!

How is it working in the San Francisco Bay Area? How has this colored your approach versus if you were somewhere else like Boston, Austin, or even abroad somewhere?  

Justin: We’ve been able to experience a lot of different cities and their subsequent “edtech ecosystems”. We were based in Boston for a while and got to know most of the education startups there. Boston actually has a pretty vibrant culture in education both with the surrounding colleges and entrepreneurship ecosystem. We then spent some time in New York City. But since moving to San Francisco about 8 months ago, it’s been different. I think I’ve benefitted most from being able to meet other founders from over 20+ education companies and it’s been helpful to share experiences and help each other. I’ve found the Bay Area to have a greater openness to share and connect than anywhere else I’ve been. Even though the edtech meetup groups are larger in New York City and Boston, I feels like there are more companies actually building education startups here in San Francisco.

After two more years now, what new or amended advice would you provide to those in the edtech sector who have a startup – any advice? What words of wisdom might you have for others?

Justin: To build an edtech startup, you must do the things that many of your larger, more established competitors are too big to do. This means going to classrooms, talking to individual educators/students, allowing schools who believe in your vision to help guide your product design, and yes, doing things that “don’t scale”. You also need to do it quickly and competently enough to stand out among newer, more nimble competitors.

To build an edtech startup, you must do the things that many of your larger, more established competitors are too big to do.

I love Chalkup, the product I imagined in college and launched shortly thereafter. As far as learning management systems go, I truly believe we’re doing something different—in a way that’s better—not just different. And I think we’re positioned to move faster than the big guys. We’re not bogged down with clunky interfaces and unnecessary features, and we’ve logged a lot of time in classrooms, differentiating us from the plethora of new edtech companies that still have much to figure out. Education is a super challenging market but is also the most rewarding one in my opinion.

Your thoughts on the state of education today?

Justin: With everything going on in our country and the world it makes me think that we wouldn’t have many of the problems we’re facing today if everyone had access to an incredible education. As it turns out, everything can actually be traced back to education. Education has never been more important.

This should be incredibly empowering to both educators and people working in education to continue to do the meaningful work everyday. Remember to focus on what actually matters: giving the next generation the knowledge needed to build a better world. Planting the seeds today that will give the world shade later. We have a lot of work to do, but there has never been a greater need for everyone to obtain a great education.

More than anything, we need educators to teach students how to learn. The world is moving rapidly, technology is advancing at astronomical speeds. We can’t learn things today and expect them to remain relevant forever. Teach someone to love learning and they’ll be set for life.

What are your thoughts on technology’s role in education?

Justin: One question I like to ask educators is—can your students make the same learning gains with paper as they can with your current classroom technology? If the answer is yes, your digital setup is failing you.

The world is moving rapidly, technology is advancing at astronomical speeds. We can’t learn things today and expect them to remain relevant forever. Teach someone to love learning and they’ll be set for life.

We shouldn’t add technology to the classroom for the sake of adding technology, but rather to achieve new learning gains. Planning for technology in classrooms too often centers on how quickly a school can purchase devices. After working with thousands of schools with Chalkup, I’ve learned just how many classrooms have accessed new technology without a plan for implementation. Answer: too many. These classrooms are using their shiny new devices, but instruction has been left mainly unchanged.

Timelines and funding structures are crafted, but not enough is put into professional development for the instructors who will actually use these tools. Too few ask how new platforms will enrich lesson and support knowledge gains; we are more likely to see conversations about roll-out dates and new tech policies. Most of all, I often don’t see how students are getting more out of these deals.

I absolutely believe technology in the classroom has an incredible opportunity and there are teachers doing amazing things today. However, I’d like to see the edtech community rally around an evolution in classroom culture that trends toward embracing digital learning as a vehicle to meaningful engagement – enabling things that you couldn’t do before.

Any conferences, meetings, visits, anything you’ve seen “out there” in the field – that has really put a pep in your step, inspired you, perked you up to a certain area of focus that inspires you to carry on with more intensity than ever?

Justin: I was recently able to see a talk in San Francisco discussing the book, Visible Learning, A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement by John Hattie. In the talk, he discussed various actions that have the highest predictor of student achievement. One of the top predictors was classroom discussions—something we’ve been working on forever at Chalkup.

However, the number one predictor of student achievement turned out to be “collective teacher efficacy”. Which is a staff’s shared belief that through their collective action, they can positively influence student outcomes, including those who are disengaged and/or disadvantaged. Teachers working together. When this happens, the results were absolutely off the charts – three times more powerful and predictive of student achievement than socioeconomic status, home environment, and parental involvement.

Teachers spend most of their time focused on their individual classes and students and rarely get the opportunity to work with another educator to build lessons together. How can teachers better share and work together with others around the world? What would it mean for the level of quality of both content and teaching methods if educators could truly collaborate with peers outside of their school? It’s been exciting to have begun to focus on helping solve this. We’ve already built a growing network educators and have the ability to invest in building tools that can make teacher collaboration happen better than ever before.

You serve both K-12 and Higher Ed, not many serve both – how is that? what lessons are there? is it very separate, or how does that go?

Justin: What’s worked for Chalkup won’t necessarily work for another company. For most, I probably would not recommend the strategy of going in both K-12 and Higher Education markets. It turns out, what’s been unique about Chalkup is that we provide simple tools that work in almost any learning group. The ability to communicate with a class and the necessity of assigning tasks and giving students grading feedback has transcended grade levels and abilities. We have classes successfully using Chalkup from Grade 5 all the way up to postgraduate, doctoral, and corporate training courses. It surprised us how flexible the platform is and how many incredible ways it has been used.

What’s on the horizon for you/Chalkup, as well as edtech generally? What trends do you see unfolding in the next couple years?

Justin: Never has there been more attention on technology’s role in education, especially from the largest of tech companies, like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. Edtech is exploding right now. We’re also finding more and more new companies that claim to be better and smarter and faster. I’m simultaneously watching Google claim it’s place in education, as well as Blackboard, Canvas, and older publishers scramble to reimagine their services and (re)-secure their corner of the market.

My take on all this? The little guys are generally ready to move faster but have a lot of kinks to work out. The big guys have more resources, but are often adjusting to new trends, weighed down by decades of feature creep.

We need educators and students to be leading the conversation of what technology is built next. We know it’s not just about buying devices.

At the end of the day it needs to be about the students. When implementing edtech, it’s easy to get caught up in the needs of administrators and teachers – who need to be heard and play a role in the process – but when their needs overshadow students’, it’s clear we’re forgetting why we’re doing this in the first place.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning ed, tech, Chalkup, learning, teachers, students or anything else for that matter?

Justin: Something is broken in teaching today if teachers are coming up with ideas alone and consistently reinventing the wheel over and over again.

A teacher coming up with a great teaching method is equivalent to a scientist discovering DNA and only sharing it with themselves. When one teacher has an engaging way to approach a subject it goes unshared with the rest of the world—it feels like a huge missed opportunity.

I know that we have genius teachers out there — but their genius is locked up in a single classroom, in a single school, benefiting very few.

We’re excited to be working hard to change this.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. He oversees the annual EdTech Awards recognition program, celebrating the best and brightest in edtech. The 2018 EdTech Awards entry window is still open, click here: 2018 Entry Form