A PTA parent and mother of four takes on the world – one student at a time.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

SHARING THE LUV. Amy McCooe brings a wealth of business experience and her lifelong passion for education to Level Up Village (LUV), delivering pioneering global STEAM (STEM + arts) enrichment courses that promote design thinking and one-to-one collaboration between students from around the world. In this interview, the founder shares her backstory of how it came to be, her reaction to being named an EdTech Awards 2018 Winner, her thoughts on learning today, what keeps her going—and some advice to other edtech startups. 

While raising four children, Amy McCooe spent many years as a PTA parent volunteer running the After School program, cultivating and sourcing STEM-based enrichment opportunities.  

Her desire to help parents prepare their students for the 21st century and today’s global economy led her to many spirited discussions with fellow parent and PTA volunteer Neesha Rahim.

Together, they launched Level Up Village in 2012, a video exchange program for international, inter-classroom, student-to-student collaborative projects.

It didn’t hurt that Amy comes from a strong business background, too.

A graduate of Trinity College, Amy worked as a business finance analyst at SEI Corporation and then managed risk at CS First Boston as a credit analyst.

“And I wasn’t quite sure why that wasn’t happening—because, if anything, what technology should do is it should actually create connections amongst people.”

After receiving an MBA from the University of Texas in 1998, she worked as a business consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Motivated by an entrepreneurial spirit, Amy then served as VP of Operations and Marketing for a NYC-based media startup headed by the former CEO of Infoseek. While there, Amy helped create a cutting edge advertising platform and concept, while also running operations.

In her position as CEO of Level Up Village, Amy manages both operations and sales.

With the help of her team, she has designed and implemented a streamlined operations system to manage the setup and maintenance of all Level Up Village courses, including the video exchange and collaboration between LUV students from around the world.

Amy has also developed the market strategy for the LUV sales team and designed and managed the day-to-day sales and marketing process.

Right from the start, the company’s global STEAM courses were in demand.

Level Up Village courses now run at 300+ U.S. schools and at 40+ global partner organizations in 20+ countries.

I’m here with Amy McCooe, she’s the CEO and co-founder of LevelUP Village which recently won The EdTech Awards as a 21st century solution, Best 21st Century Skills solution in the Cool Tools category. Amy what is your reaction to that, did that surprise you, how is that going?

Just off the wall excitement, we were over the moon over here. It is no fun being first mover and forging the way in a new concept or a new idea and so, just to get any feedback and acknowledgment of what we’re trying to do is amazing for us. So we were so thrilled and pleased and just really thankful to get that award!

Very good, well you were called an inspiration.

This is what was said:

“An inspirational and pioneering company, lighting up the faces of students from all corners of the globe with the exhilaration of working together, with their peers in other countries toward common STEAM goals.”

Would you say that that captures pretty well what you’re doing and how would you describe it?

I think that’s a wonderful way to say what we’re doing and I do think even in this age of technology, we very much are providing something in the classroom that directly spearheads engagement by the way that the students are still thrilled and pleasantly surprised that they are actually able to connect like this with someone from around the world because think about what’s going on in their world.

They’re growing up in an age where they’re getting a constant newsfeed into the classroom and yet no scaffolding around that newsfeed. I mean you or I were not getting daily news updates, Buzzfeed anything on our phones or in the computers, we weren’t getting that but they are.

And there’s no scaffolding for them.

And it’s hard for the teacher to add that into their daily schedule.

What we’re trying to do is pull back the curtain and say, ‘Okay, you may be hearing about so and so that’s happening in this country and issues around the world—but why don’t you actually meet someone from that country?’

And once they do, they’re just so overwhelmingly thrilled and pleased to be able to connect with that person.

More often than not, they appreciate the fact that that person while they do have so many similarities, it’s almost like the first time you sit next to someone for summer camp on the bus.

Like, yes okay the first thing you do is talk about how you like the same music—but then they begin to appreciate the differences.

That’s what’s so wonderful about what we’re trying to do.

And you have a really interesting story yourself on the origin of this particular solution. You actually call it a social—what’s the term you use to describe your company?

Social impact. What we’re trying to do is really what happened when my kids were in school was the touch screen, the Smartboard came into the classroom to replace the blackboard.

As soon as the Smartboard came into the classroom, I just thought okay well that’s it, that’s great. We’re going to start taking to a classroom in China, awesome that’ll be so fun for my kids, they’ll get to say hello to their friends.

But it didn’t happen like that.

And I wasn’t quite sure why that wasn’t happening—because, if anything, what technology should do is it should actually create connections amongst people.

So once I began running the after school program at the school, I started to put together with my co-founder, classes that would actually be focused both on STEM— because STEM is the universal language and is something that all of our students and kids need to be focused on because that’s where the jobs of the future are—and combine it with this kind of global education.

I mean, at the end of the day, global education provides a path to a peaceful and productive world.

All of the corporations today are beating the drum saying (I can send you article after article), “We are not getting really well-trained global employees and we face global issues.”

Think of any company out there: they must solve global problems.

Their suppliers, distributors, they have to solve global issues.

So unless they have global employees that can think on that level and problem solve around these global issues, and have been trained in global competency—then they’re out of luck.

And that’s exactly the kind of employee that they’re looking for today.

Some of the highlights that I’ve seen on some of the different videos promoting your work and what you’re doing are pretty incredible.

There’s kids working together on say, water resource type of projects, and they’re getting a real feel for a completely, like you said, they’re pulling back the curtain or they’re looking over the fence and they’re seeing what’s over there and the unique problems that the other kids are facing, whether the other kids, whatever ‘side of the screen’ I should say, you’re looking from.

It leaves for real learning I think and so what are some of the highlights that you have seen that really illustrate this?

That’s interesting I was actually just watching a video this morning from a boy in Jordan. I don’t know, he was about 12 years old and he was saying in his video, “This is an amazing program for me, I loved it.”

He was partnered with a girl in a charter school in LA, Los Angeles and he was so intrigued by her life and the things that they had in common but he was also so incredibly touched that she tried to learn Arabic so she could say hello to him and his English is of course very good and he really appreciated that he had this English language practice through the program.

So that really touched me because that’s really what we’re trying to do.

The four domains of global competency are:

  1. Investigate the world,
  2. Recognize perspectives,
  3. Communicate ideas and
  4. Take action.

That’s really going, if we can begin teaching that in the classroom, that’s really going to create the global citizens that you and I want for tomorrow.

So any time when you see that interaction between the students.

The really hard part about it of course is you can’t really measure it yet, you can’t really measure that you’ve built this pathway in a child’s brain that will continue to build upon year after year after year after year.

I think that’s hard about being a pioneer in innovation, is that you often are doing something that there’s nothing really in place to measure it.

But we’re out there for sure trying.

I think it was Will Richardson who said or quoted that ‘If we’re not talking to each other, or if we can’t talk to each other—then we’re in trouble.’

This program seems to break that down and put communication lines there between students directly.

Is this going to lead to world peace, could you win a Nobel Peace Prize with this sort of thing?

No gosh, no. But if we’re not doing this, what are we really doing.

This is the most important thing, there’s really nothing else to do and I think that we’ve got a generation that’s ready for it, I mean look at the kids from Parkland.

They went out there and they did really, we didn’t pass them the baton, they took it from us and that’s something that Arne Duncan said at ASU and GSB.

He said, “Our democracy absolutely depends on the ability for our students today to communicate with students outside of their community.”

And that’s one hundred percent what we believe in, I think that the other Parkland students began communicating with the students in Chicago and they all organized buses together.

That’s really where education is going.

Technology is just sitting there waiting patiently for us to get our head around that but that for sure is where we need to be with education, we need to allow these students to go ahead and jump on the communication that they’re ready to have.

We know they’re ready to have it, they’re doing it already through YouTube and Instagram and SnapChat but they’re still doing I within the silos that they live in.

It’s the ability to break down those walls and connect those silos and get them to communicate with each other that we’re trying to do.

Level Up Village is an interesting model but it’s certainly not the very first and I’m not going to claim what is but there are such things already out there such as Mystery Skype or just Skype in the classroom-

I love Mystery Skype yeah.

So how is Level Up Village differentiating itself for its offerings and the solutions that you bring to the table, how would you address that?

That’s a great question. I grew up in education, my father was a principal, my brothers both taught and I kind of grew up after school every day and hanging out with teachers.

One of the things that I’ve always been really understanding of and focused on is really giving this tool to the teachers and letting them be really supported.

So I think one of the things about Mystery Skype or some other players in the market is they very much believe in connecting but once they connect they kind of walk away.

They don’t really provide the scaffolding and the support and that’s what we’re all about, we connect you to the other school but we also lead you on your journey.

We provide the support of a scaffolding.

What we’re always called out for is the excellent customer service because I know what it’s like to be in a classroom, you know you don’t know something, you’re not sure how to do something—we’re there.

And that’s really important in this relationship building, you want to connect with students but again if you just walk away, the kids wouldn’t keep talking to each other.

They may say something once and they may go home that night and say, “Oh I talked to someone from Pakistan,” but to really begin to develop that pathways to get them to think about this, you need to keep supporting and building the scaffolding throughout the process.

And that’s what we do.

Level Up Village courses now run at over 300 US schools and 40 global partner organizations in more then 20 countries. Do I have the numbers right? Is that even further now?

No.

We’re now in over 400, we’ve been at over 400 schools and over 90 partner organizations.

And that’s growing really fast, I would say that one of the things that’s been so wonderful and amazing is to see how many global partner schools are really eager and jumping into this and very excited to get the training and to be connected to schools in the United States.

That’s been very great to see.

You launched this in 2012, that’s kind of like a lifetime ago in internet time but things have been rapidly growing and changing in what, just the last year or less?

I would actually say we really launched it as an after school program just in this area in 2013.

We didn’t actually become incorporated and get really going till 2015.

So it’s been now two and a half, three years.

You are so right, it is a lifetime.

I look back and correct you there, it’s a lifetime and I think the market probably and what’s going on in the world has turned in our direction which is why you’ve seen so much growth in the past year because obviously it’s becoming very clear to people how we’ve started to get ourselves in a situation where we’re seeing disagreement as a stop sign and of course that’s not going to help us as a society.

We need to start teaching people how to have different perspectives and to move past those different perspectives.

Proximity leads to empathy and any way that technology can help us create proximity and empathy, we would be a better society as well.

Were you on an Amelia Earhart style plane and then suddenly you looked underneath yourself and you were on a Tesla type of rocket ship?

I wish!

No. I mean, I don’t think it’s an unfamiliar feel to go that way, do you?

I mean, you’re constantly building as you go.

One of the things about what we’re doing and the mission that we have is that we’re learning all the time.

These kids are teaching us I want to have a group chat, I want to do a live chat, I want to be able to share these things and that things so we’re actually continuing to improve the process as we go, and we very much feel that the teachers are one hundred percent our partners on this mission.

Teachers have been so wonderful in telling us ways that we can tweak it, improve it and help them in the classroom more.

I notice that you have given a teacher’s lounge on your website. What’s that all about and what’s the purpose for that?

Well, I’m actually working on an email that I’m just about to send out to all the teachers called my hearts and minds campaign.

Finding out what can we do better, maybe you love the class but tell us what we can do, how can we make it easier, better, more impactful for your students and that’s kind of what the teacher’s lounge is about.

It’s like, be around other teachers who have done this, what are some tricks of the trade. I mean this is isn’t easy you’re trying to take two classrooms, one in Tulsa Oklahoma, one in Harare Zimbabwe and create an asynchronous course between the two of them.

Think about that for a second.

Taking an apples and oranges experience and trying to make it apples to apples.

So there are definitely bumps in the road, but we’re committed to learning and improving as we go.

We just have so many amazing teachers who are so supportive as I always knew that they would be, helping us do that and that’s what the teacher’s lounge is all about.

I think it’s a brilliant name. You also have, I’m actually looking at the site right now and you have a grants and funding page and I was thinking to myself. A while back I myself had done some work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation but that seems like it would be a natural fit.

Are there other type of arrangements like that that you’re considering and tell me a little bit more about your model, business model, if you’re a non-profit?

That’s a great question.

We are a for-profit, we are not a non-profit.

I come from a business and banking background.

I knew much more about business than I knew about non-profit and so that is how we built the business.

And I’m glad we made that decision because we’ve put down a strong foundation and we’re building to break even and of course once you reach that kind of cash flow profitability, you’re able to make decisions on your own.

I’m proud of the way we built the business and I’m also proud of the way it works currently where we charge schools a per student rate and then we take a portion of that per student rate and we actually give it as a grant to students around the world in schools that cannot pay for the program.

So it actually is a nice way to really spread education around the globe and it truly works that way.

I’m often stunned and shocked when I see a video coming out of certain areas of the world where the teachers are telling us that their children never would have learned programming or they never would have done these science experiments if the village program hadn’t brought it to them.

And I think that’s just nice and that’s kind of cool but the idea is that we’re connecting these kids through STEM.

And so, no matter what situation they’re in, they are learning to work together is really what is critically important.

I know we do have teachers out there right now who have applied for a Gates Foundation grant which would be wonderful because in those situations it actually allows our program to be at schools that can’t afford the rate that we have to charge in order to cover the grant on the other side.

So there are grants available and we do have a grants page, we definitely have one person here who is specifically focused on helping schools get grants—so if the schools are interested they can reach out to us and we can lead them in the right direction.

There’s the Margaret Mead quote that comes to mind:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world—indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Level Up Village has a team of about a dozen people now, is that right?

Actually we’re about in the office we’re about six or seven people and then outside in the other countries we tend to have a operations manager that works with us and works with our ops team as well as an agent that helps facilitate our transition into schools around the world.

But it’s really about six or seven people now.

We’re trying.

We’re doing our best.

Do you do much travel?

I don’t, I have four kids and they are, I have a 16 year old, a 14 year old, a 12 year old and a 10 year old.

So I do the least amount of travel I can.

But our team definitely does.

And I try to send people out wherever they want to go and to get around.

We have a group going to Dubai in the next couple of weeks.

One of our investors is going to Nigeria for us next week.

We’re working with whatever we can to help build our program around the world.

If you haven’t been to the Global Education and Skills Forum by the Varkey Foundation, it’s a pretty amazing conference that you would probably feel very much at home at.

That’s GEMS right, I know that one. That would be great, I would love that.

The next question I have is about advice. And I know that you’re coming from the financial world, you’re also very in tune with building a sustainable model and to make that be the thing that moves you forward.

What would you say, for words of wisdom to other edtech startups if I might call them that, that are looking to make an impact on the world.

A lot of times these folks come in, sure, people like to make money in business but when it’s in the field of edtech or education and they’re doing a business, there’s a lot of people that want to do it for a purpose and they’re more mission-driven.

So would you agree with that and then what words of wisdom would you tell them?

Absolutely.

I grew up in education, I think it’s the only true religion and vision so I would say one hundred percent [you’re] in the right place.

If you’re trying to do something to improve the world, [then] you should be in education.

I would say make the longest runway you possibly can.

Whatever funding you have, your eyes should be on cash every single second of the day and you just need to really give yourself a long runway.

Because, we’re in a wonderful time in education.

It’s definitely the fourth revolution but it still takes a while to acquire a beachhead and so focus on the region you’re in, try to get a beachhead in that region and then move slowly from there.

But really understand that it’s not because teachers don’t want to bring you in, it’s not because principals or superintendents don’t believe in what you’re doing, it’s just the budget’s really, really not there.

So you kind of have to help, like you were suggesting with grants, think of ways that you can help and the future will bring your program.

But I would definitely say, be really patient and make sure you have the cash flow to be as patient as possible and then slowly but surely you’ll get there.

Amy I really appreciate the time, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today. I have a few really quick questions. Maybe a little lightning round here if you want to play.

Hmm, okay.

A few names that you follow in education?

Lucy Gray definitely on global education and David Ross for sure.

What makes you say that?

Because David Ross is the CEO of P21 and P21, the partnership for 21st century skills is really out there in the forefront pushing 21st century education in policy and government and so I need to keep my eye on that at all times to see what they’re doing to help some of these schools fund this 21st century skill.

Lucy Gray I think is always on the pulse of what’s going on with global education—she just ran a global education forum this week, which we were tweeting about and so she’s really got some great ideas for how to bring global competency and global education into schools both free ways to do it and other options as well.

A current book that you’re reading?

I just finished Pachinko last night and I’m so upset! I hate it, I’m like a 7-year old with transitions, I hate finishing a good book and it was so good!

But it’s interesting, they were talking about this Korean family and the growth throughout colonial Korea and Japan and it’s just such a well-written book.

And it really is interesting how it’s just really so much of what’s happening today in terms of all the different classes and how, no matter what class you’re in, you’re still so often dealing with the same issues. And just how important education is.

So I loved it, and I think everyone should read it, for sure.

Got a favorite tech tool?

Yes!

Do you know what I’m in love with—and it’s secret, so please tell all of your listeners.

It’s called Sendible and it allows us to really stay on top of our social media so I can find a great article, I just found a great one—and I just post it on Sendible, I click it and I can post it to everything at once, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook.

It’s so nice to be able to stay on top of everything.

It’s a great tool.

Any inspiring quote that you live by?

Gosh my inspiring quote that I live by, can I say the first one that-?

Sure.

It came into my head and it’s a funny one.

No you shouldn’t put this in there but it’s a funny quote, I’ll probably botch it but it’s actually a needlepoint pillow:

“When her feet hit the floor, the devil says, ‘Damn, she’s awake!’”

Something along those lines!

But no, not really; just:

You’ve got to get up every morning and you have got to keep digging and keep trying— because there’s really nothing else as important to do.

Well I kind of like that mischievousness, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Anything else that you care to say?

We’ve been over quite a bit of territory here but I do want to say congratulations again on your EdTech Award in the 21st Century Learning solution category and the Cool Tool that it is!

Anything else you’d like to add, emphasize or something that we didn’t quite get to that you were hoping to mention?

Nope, nope this has been great.

I can’t thank you enough and really that Cool Tool Award and winning, that’s meant the world to us.

As you know, anything that can help spread our word and what we’re trying to do is huge so we just really appreciate it. I really thank you so much.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com