Despite the breakneck pace of growth, John Eckhart, CTO, is very at ease with edtech, and comfortable in his new role. Here’s why.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Less than a year ago, he joined a passionate group of educators and entrepreneurs. Things have changed. Rapidly. And they continue to change. For the better.
The talented team John Eckhart joined (John is pictured, above) was the one found at Nearpod, a leading edtech company based just outside Miami, Florida that has experienced steady and rapid growth for the past several years.
In good company
In addition to their now 50+ employees, the company is richer through their trusted extended team, an endless slew of educational advisors and advocates.
They’ve also attracted tens of millions in funding.
Ready-to-teach, interactive and even VR lesson sets for all K-12 grades and subjects is what they provide.
“There is new information, new technology, all of these new opportunities—places where technology could make a difference and empower teachers and students. I wanted to be much more actively involved in that.”
Their lessons leverage research-based instructional best practices created by their expert educators and educational partners. They’re available instantly in your digital library, if you’re signed up.
Their focus: increased engagement in 1-to-1 (student/device) classrooms.
Teachers synchronize their lessons across all student devices, provide real-time feedback and generate post-session reports on student comprehension.
Lesson creation is easy, and accomplished in minutes.
But perhaps the biggest draw:
Teachers have access to more than 6,000 ready-to-teach lessons.
An enticing extra: students can use VR headsets with over 500 of their lessons being all set up for VR.
Beyond the surface
Like anything workable, aesthetic and attractive on one side—there’s some major sophistication and work that goes into that unseen (technology) side.
And there’s a lot of technology behind Nearpod.
John Eckhart is the Chief Technology Officer.
In this interview, he talks more about his own background and purpose in education, joining a successful team, what fuels their mission, and where they’re headed next.
Here’s our fast-paced and in-depth interview. Enjoy!
Alright, thanks for joining us! I have John Eckhart, he is the CTO of Nearpod.
He’s been an advisory software engineer for IBM for nine years and he was at J.P. Morgan, he was at Yodle as the CTO in the New York City area.
And now at Nearpod he’s been there for about nine months as their chief technology officer.
Nearpod is a company in the Miami, Fort Lauderdale area, it’s a leading edtech company and John is going to have a lot more to say about what Nearpod does.
So John thanks for being here and it’s a pleasure to be talking with you today.
Thanks for having me it’s a pleasure on my side as well.
Alright. Well good, so you were a V.P. at JP Morgan?
Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
It seems like a lifetime ago now!
I—yeah, I did.
I joined finance shortly after the 2007 financial collapse.
I spent a long time with IBM in the innovation and technology space and coming to finance I had a bit of a personal mission to use what I knew about technology to committing that system to be safer for everyone else involved.
So I knew there were things that as we had learned sort of in some the, I guess you could call “post mortems” you know, a lack of information across different parts of the financial systems.
Then there were things that we could do with current technology to make that system understood by everyone, to make it safer for everyone.
And that was what I was really looking to do with JP Morgan, and what we’d accomplished.
And these days you’re playing a vital role as the CTO for this leading edtech company.
How did this come about?
I had become interested in edtech through my interest in education in general.
My daughters had both started school.
And I was starting to see them go through their early years of school.
Both my wife and I got very into volunteering both at their schools, but also just in schools in general.
Joy had also started doing some volunteer teaching for computer science in a high school to teach both students and teachers computer science.
And through all of that, it just created this area where I had realized that we were learning and teaching something in the same way that I feel like I had learned when I was in school.
But there is new information, new technology, all of these new opportunities—places where technology could make a difference and empower teachers and students.
I wanted to be much more actively involved in that.
And I started looking for what sort of opportunities existed in the tech space.
No matter how you look at it Nearpod has a pretty active, fun, and smart bunch of people already if they hired a cum laude, Watson Scholar, crew captain.
What drew you into accepting?
And how did you initially get involved and want to get busy for Nearpod?
I’m in really good company here, actually.
As with a lot of great companies, there are a lot of great people that are around you supporting you and then helping.
And at Nearpod, we’ve got veterans both in the education and in the entrepreneurial area—and that team was a team that I really, actively, wanted to work with.
I knew I could bring my experience from innovation and for technology, as well as growing product and technology teams, to Nearpod.
And I had a real opportunity to help—so it just felt like a really, really good match between all of us.
And what purposes do you have in education?
You had mentioned your kids, your volunteer work; from where or who do you draw your inspiration in this field—a mentor, parent, teacher; a book?
I feel like I’ve had a lot of really great mentors in this space.
I mean, my father was a professional educator, he worked for IBM educating IBMers for 25 years and so I always had in the background him as a teacher, and as somebody who was bringing that education in technology to a lot of people.
But even in school, starting at an early age, I had these great opportunities with fantastic teachers.
My preschool teacher got me started off on a really great foot.
And I just grew to appreciate the work and the challenges that they had.
And with every new teacher, and new mentor, that I experienced—that just cemented it in my mind.
One, this is really a hard job—and as a parent I know we send our kids to school every day with an immense amount of trust for the education they’re getting.
And looking at what we can do—for me, in terms of what I can do to help improve the teachers’ lives and improve students’ lives, is:
Give them more tools and make them more successful.
It’s a very worthwhile calling.
Nearpod is going through some amazing changes in the last few years—$20 million dollars recently—some highlights from your perspective?
It’s great to see!
And, I’m coming in as a relative newcomer compared to a lot of the people that are here.
I get to hear about some of those highlights first-hand, and from other perspectives as well.
Nearpod went ahead and started with this great idea of how to bring content to teachers.
But it started off as really an idea of a “suitcase with iPads” in it. And it lets—or a couple lessons load it up.
To see it go from that idea through to where were at today—there are 6,000 highly curated lessons in the market place—the steps that it took to get there were really exciting for me as I was even talking with the team.
The ability to go from, what was at one point, a device-specific idea—to something that could work in multiple platforms—that’s exciting.
Now you can see teachers using Nearpod.
And when I visit schools, I see in many cases teachers using Nearpods, where some students are on a laptops—other students may be on Pads, other students are on their phone.
Teachers are able to take these devices—that at one point were potentially and sometimes still are considered distractions in the classroom.
And use those set of tools to help further education—was, I think, a big leap for us.
Then, what is exciting on the content side:
As we continued to invest in and grow what we have in terms of content offerings, it was very exciting hitting certain milestones:
– the first hundred,
– then, the first thousand.
And now were up to over six thousand.
Those are really exciting things, and to see them continue to grow.
Congratulations on that success—and congratulations on your recent honors: how does it feel to win the 2018 Ed Tech awards for your work in education?
And what does this do to validate the efforts of your team?
It’s really great.
We’re all so focused on this goal to transform learning.
You know we’re working exceedingly hard.
And it’s an honor to be nominated in multiple categories.
To win the Cool Tool Award for Best Content Provider Solution in education as part of The EdTech Awards validates those late nights, that extra travel time to visit I mean just one more district.
It’s more fuel and energy to the team to keep pushing ahead on a mission.
You’ve now been CTO for about as long as it takes to gestate a human child.
What are some vital aspects of your mission and what challenges do you wrestle with and how do you over come them?
And, what have you seen, what projects have you already been on, and what sort of accomplishments are you already proud to own?
Nine months seems like both such a sometimes a very short amount of time and a very long amount of time in that.
I look back and, wow it’s only been nine months!
And yet, going through it—there’s a lot that we can be proud of and a lot of challenges that we go through.
We’re really excited in terms of accomplishments over the last nine months.
We’re really excited with the partnership that we announced with Apple to be part of the launch partners for schoolwork and class kit.
I was with that; I think it’s really exciting.
It’s a new way for teachers to bring Nearpod lessons to students and very aligned with our mission.
It makes it easier and it gives them a tool that should be reducing the amount of time over head instead of adding to it.
I think that’s really exciting.
Similarly, we brought Nearpod recently to Microsoft Team with some idea of how do we make it easier for teachers to use Nearpod.
And how do we make it easier for teachers to find and use content in a classroom that’s really well chip bated.
Other challenges are more like some of the challenges as any team is growing and scaling the same as any technology product is growing and scaling.
So were always really focused on what does it take to keep Nearpod up and running.
I think that the speed of the platform matters a lot to our users.
And so how do we continue to grow that?
How do we continue to hire out a team that can really pull in and understand the culture that were trying to create and take that and carry that forward as well?
It’s been a lot of fun over the last nine months.
And we just try to keep going.
Any lessons imported from your time at Yodle?
That’s an interesting company.
Yodle is a really great company, and was a lot of fun.
I mentioned the challenges with getting a scaling technology product.
One of the early lessons I had at Yodle:
We had just acquired this company that had a product in the dental stage, and it started to grow and structure very, very quickly—and as we started talking to customers and hearing about customers who were experienced with it during that days of growth.
It was used by dentists at the start of and throughout their workday.
But at the start of their day, they would meet with their team and review:
“Here’s what today encompasses for us. And use our product to look at the day. And if there was ever a hiccup, if the product ever went down, if there was any sort of trouble at all—well, dentists would call and say,
“We relied on this.
“And now, we don’t have that thing we can read every morning.”
And it was a really valuable lesson to understand the importance of everything as it’s scaling.
But throughout the entire scaling life cycle, the customer experience, and the customer needs—the customer—must remain the top focus.
Same thing applies here at Nearpod.
If you’re a teacher and you’re in front of a classroom, and you’ve prepared a lesson—you’re about to teach it and there’s a hiccup in that technology that you’re using?
Now you’re stuck in front of room full of kids and you have to really work through that.
For the lessons from Yodle, one of the big ones for us that I think applies well to Nearpod is:
How do we make sure Nearpod continues to be as reliable for teachers as it’s always been—even as we continue to bring on more users?
Alright, okay then, excellent. Next question: What is technology’s role in education?
I realize that maybe quite a loaded question—you could probably attack that from many different angles—but I love asking that and I’m very curious to hear your thoughts on that.
Absolutely, I mentioned I grew up in away with education and technology.
And my dad worked for IBM and as an educator.
So I had both of those in my life for a long time.
My perspective of technology and education is colored happily by that.
I view technology as something that provides new opportunities, it opens more doors.
And in this case, what I see is:
If I look back and think about large leaps forward in other parts of history, things like The Bronze Age and The Steel Age—where one new innovation led to a lot of forward progress—then, technology and education today really lends itself well to, ‘What kinds of things are we going to be capable of in the future?’
And with Nearpod, a teacher can—instead of talking about another part of the world like Carnegie Hall or the Canals of Venice—using VR, they can actually transport the students in their class there.
And see it as if you’re standing right there.
And really understand and investigate and feel like you’re there.
Those are some of the types of things that I think technology opens up.
Also, we’re still really early on in the phase of transformation with technology. There’s a lot more ‘learnings’ to be had.
And there’s a lot more places that we can go.
What’s the state of education today?
Similarly, it’s transforming.
It’s really an interesting mix of teachers today. They have some of the same problems and challenges in the classroom they’ve always had:
Lack of time.
And, you know, lack of resources.
Those challenges, in the classroom.
The goal of Nearpod is that—it’s a product. The content that we have, should be giving teachers more ‘super powers’ to do what they do every day.
And empower them to continue to do that.
And to help students through their transformation.
Let’s talk a little bit about workplace culture.
Nearpod is outside of Miami, outside of Silicon Valley, outside other tech corridors and in a very nice state.
Your thoughts about place and work—in this age of technology, that can have people working from anywhere?
And how about the Nearpod culture itself?
Where Nearpod is, in actual locality, is kind of cool.
It’s great to see this startup community that you’ve seen grow up in another part of the world, really starting to come into Miami.
And I think Nearpod is part of the first wave that’s providing some opportunity.
It’s not just technology: it’s product, and it’s our approach on customers and entrepreneurship.
Miami has always had a very, very strong entrepreneurial spirit.
And seeing that grow in the way that we’re growing is great.
I was quite active in New York in some of that community. There’s still a little bit more room for growth here in Miami. But it’s growing and I like to see it.
In terms of workplace culture:
We have a lot of educators that work for Nearpod—we get to work with a lot of educators.
We’re aligned on a mission of helping teachers and helping students.
And that’s a really positive mission. And it provides and helps a lot of focus.
And so, the culture stems from this very strong aspect of helping, of how we reach out and help. And how do we provide tools for that.
What lies ahead for Nearpod? For you?
What do you want to have accomplished when you stand another nine months into the future, and look back at the road behind you?
If I were to imagine the last nine months—and the pace of growth and change—compared to the next nine months, sometimes it’s unfathomable.
The next nine months and the next year ahead for us:
- We’re continuing to scale our mission.
- We’re scaling our team.
- We’re hiring people locally and around the country.
- We’re also going to continue growing our partnerships.
Like the one with the Apple.
Hopefully nine months or a year from now, I can sit back down and talk about some of the other really interesting opportunities we’ve brought to teachers.
That’s going to be really exciting.
Anything you were hoping to discuss with me this morning that we didn’t quite get to—but you really had top of mind and that you’d like to add or emphasize a few points about?
I think we’ve covered almost everything. Certainly, the things that I am excited talking about here at Nearpod are things that brought me here.
The Apple announcement—that was a really exciting. I mentioned it a few times. But we’re really excited to be working with Apple on their schoolwork app and their class kit trade market they have.
As I said, it brings a new way for teachers to interact with Nearpod students.
And provides teachers the ability to take an assignment, like a self-paced Nearpod, for example, and then time that out to students.
As students are progressing through it, it updates the teacher on that progress. So it lets the teacher see who started it, who may be ahead of the group—who’s already taken a quiz, for example—and how well they did. And then finally, who’s completed it.
It even lets teachers see how much time they spent on it—which gives them a lot more information to work with.
And being able to use that to turn things around on a certain classroom. And start the class with knowing that all of the students have gone through some of that material.
And they can really dig into some of the teaching education content that they want to start with.
It opens up more doors for the teachers.
And more doors for using Nearpod and making their lives easier.
Alright John, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. And I appreciate hearing all your insights and thoughts. I want to talk with you again in another nine months and see how it went.
Absolutely. It’s been a pleasure on my side as well. Thank you so much.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: email@example.com