Open to the Future

Zach Vander Veen of Abre reimagines software for education.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Zach Vander Veen is the co-founder and VP of Instruction at Abre Inc., which provides an education management platform that delivers connected apps designed for schools who use the web to manage information and to deliver instructional content. He’s worn many hats in education including history teacher, technology coach, administrator, and director of technology.

Prior to joining Abre, he served as the Director of Technology for the Hamilton City School District. The position was rooted in the instruction department and, in addition to leading various technology initiatives, Zach focused on helping students and staff grow.

Previously, Zach served at Oak Hills as an eLearning Coach and Course Developer. The position involved designing online courses as well as assisting teachers in developing an online presence for their classrooms. It also featured a good amount technical troubleshooting, programming, and design. Zach also taught American History in Oak Hills and the Houston Independent School District.

In addition to teaching students, Zach also held positions of leadership in schools. He has been the Social Studies Director (Chair) and school webmaster. During professional developments, he has held classes that assist teachers in integrating technology in their classrooms. He maintains an online portfolio and blog, and shares his presentations and workshops as well. You can also find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.  

In this interview, Zach talks tech, education, the taking of a different approach, helping educators and students, and some fascinating insights on the future of learning.

You have significant education background and been involved with many schools and districts. Why edtech? What prompted you to enter into the private sector?

Put simply, I entered the edtech space because I saw an opportunity to have a greater impact on growing the students and the community supporting the student.

We talk a good deal about innovation in education. Prudent education leaders ask “innovate to what end?” Most understand our central goal in education is to grow students. That means preparing them for life, career, and college.

In K-12, we have lots of opportunities to innovate with ideas and, somewhat, with practice. What we frequently lack is a means for higher level innovation and problem solving. Schools and school districts have limited resources and must make tradeoffs in deploying those resources.

For example, I could hire one software developer to solve and innovate a number of problems within the school. Or I could hire two entry level teachers. The central mission of schools is to educate kids, not, necessarily, run a dev shop.

Leaving education and going to the private sector allowed me and my cofounder the ability to leverage greater resources while having a larger impact on students, staff, parents, and the community.

It appears that Abre has a different approach to edtech in that it is somewhat open source and offers a community, if you will, in which edtech creators can participate and drive new ideas. Could you talk some about this and how this is a bit different from what’s out there?

Abre is open for collaboration in a number of ways. First, we actually offer an open-source community edition. We identify with many of the principles of the open source initiative and, as an education company, want to present a clear way for students and teachers to learn with our product. Releasing our source code to the community allows them to tinker, create, deconstruct, and grow. In short, the essence of learning.

Here at my company we also nurture learning experiences by supporting Abre Appathons. These are hosted events where students (and some adults) download the community edition and begin the process of creating an Abre App. In the future, we expect to see some of these apps work their way into an Abre marketplace.

Beyond releasing our source code, Abre embraces the community aspect of an open-source initiative. We have a very active community of teachers, parents, students, and others who regularly contribute to forums, events, and even certification programs. Educators never lack for ideas. What they struggle with is the ability to translate an idea into an actual framework or a product. As a company, we listen to our community and cultivate their ideas into the product based on the level of discussions.

‘Educators never lack for ideas. What they struggle with is the ability to translate an idea into an actual framework or a product. As a company, we listen to our community and cultivate their ideas into the product based on the level of discussions.’

From your point of view, what is tech’s role in education? Where is edtech headed?  Will it be very different 10 years from now and, if so, how?

Technology is a tool. Why have humans always developed tools? To make objectives easier to achieve.

Obviously objectives vary based on the circumstances. In education, the objective is to learn. Technology’s purpose in education is to help students learn. This can be rather expansive when considering a school district. It can mean everything from helping teachers target the right lessons toward students to helping the treasurer use an efficient payroll system so said teacher can be gainfully employed.

Currently, edtech is really good at helping students and teachers with low-level learning. In education terms, this means the bottom levels of Bloom’s taxonomy: Remembering and Understanding. Remembering and understanding are necessary to build up to higher levels of thinking like evaluation and creation. Edtech does lower level learning well. It automates the process (for example: online quizzes and flashcards), freeing teachers up to focus on the higher levels of learning. 

Peering into the future, I see mostly incremental changes (nothing radical). A few areas I suspect will grow:

  • The algorithms will get better. This means we will be better at finding best practices for individual learners.
  • Good teaching is always about good storytelling. The tools to create learning narratives will get easier for teachers to use. This will range from writing well (think “grammarly”) to creating augmented reality experiences.
  • The busy work of teaching and learning – the hoops – will be automated. Everyone will realize more time.

 

Do you feel both open source and commercial applications in edtech can co-exist or will one cannibalize the other?

Yes. Open source and commercial software can co-exist in learning because the school wants the safety and security of software as a service but the project-base learning opportunities and potential for customization of the open source.

Edtech application development is a very exciting field. How do companies get young people to want to be a part of it?

Everyone is or has been a student. The corollary: Everyone has experienced bad edtech. Quite a large community has ideas on how they would like to improve learning experiences for kids. Indeed, many have dual passions of helping schools and being part of a company that is growing and helping educators.

We’re a young company, but we’ve attracted a very talented team and continue to have incredible individuals ask about opportunities in the company.

Your thoughts on the state of education more generally these days?

This, as well, is an expansive and complicated question. Especially given the federalist system we have in the United States where each state defines what education should be (which allows for some interesting experimentation). Comparing the United States to other countries gets complicated because, essentially, we’re 50 different countries with a wide variety of outcomes.

In general, the United States does a pretty good job at educating everyone (not just certain segments of the population).

That said, I see a few trends that are fascinating and worth watching.

Assessment Weariness. We’ve gone nearly 20 years since No Child Left Behind which brought about consistent and never-ending high stakes tests. The results/data are not necessarily clear on if this has transitioned into student growth. It has frustrated many stakeholders: from teachers, to parents, to politicians. I’m seeing a number of legislatures recognize this frustration and see some starting to roll back all the testing.

Career Paths vs College Paths. The past two decades have really focused on getting as many kids to join the college path (perhaps without asking if that was prudent for the student). We’re seeing a greater trend to focus on skills training and growth through internships and vocational schools. (This is actually more of a pendulum swing back to how schools operated in the past).

Massive Teacher Shortages. It’s bad. Teachers have the biggest effect on student learning within the school setting. The quality of a teacher has an immense impact. And right now people are simply deciding to leave the profession or never enter it in the first place. The crisis is acute in some states.

The Existential: What is the Purpose of Education? Ask this question at any given decade or century and you’ll likely receive a different answer. I think we’re entering into a transitional time where this question will be heavily debated. 

Why is that?

Because of technology. Specifically, automation and the implications it has on the future of work, our economy, and our entire society. For quite some time the purpose of education was to prepare students for the world of work. What happens when work becomes radically redefined? What impact will/should that have on the purpose of education?

‘For quite some time the purpose of education was to prepare students for the world of work. What happens when work becomes radically redefined? What impact will/should that have on the purpose of education?’

I don’t have answers. But I do think it’s an important discussion. Education has evolved over the decades in this country to better address societal and economic change and there is no doubt it will continue to happen and technology will be a driving force as always.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize, anything you were hoping to touch on that we didn’t cover?

I’ve alluded to this in a number of responses, but the sheer number of hoops educators need to jump through are really quite astounding. Good technology should make lives easier. That’s one of the core reasons we developed Abre.

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

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been corrected from a previous version that mistakenly featured Abre CEO Damon Ragusa. 

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