Free Enterprise Staff  | June 24, 2014

Is Customization the Future of Education? Q&A with eduCanon Founder Ben Levy

It’s difficult enough to innovate in an industry that’s already forward thinking. But how do you bring change to a sector that’s known for entrenched bureaucracy and its resistance to reform? That’s a question that Ben Levy, the founder and chief executive of eduCanon, is uniquely qualified to answer.

Levy and his company hope to fundamentally transform teacher-student interactions in the classroom and beyond by using interactive video lessons. And where countless other businesses have tried and failed, eduCanon is finding success. Levy started building the technology platform while teaching students as a Teach for America (TFA) corps member in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Working as a teacher, Levy says, helped him identify what he saw as roadblocks to improving educational outcomes. What’s more, it gave him a firsthand perspective of why other educational tools and reform efforts had failed. What Levy and his fellow teachers often experienced, he says, was a top-down approach to both the development and the implementation of technologies that were designed to make their professional lives easier and help students.

For its part, eduCanon addresses many of these problems by working with teachers to identify their unique needs. This bottom-up approach, Levy stresses, not only gives eduCanon a leg-up over competitors, but also prevents mistrust from building among its clientele. By reassuring teachers that eduCanon is a tool designed for them and with their needs in mind, it helps remove a fear of being displaced by technology, he says.

As Levy charges a path forward for eduCanon, the education entrepreneur has won over a lot of former skeptics within the education community. Moreover, he’s garnered the attention of the business world, as eduCanon recently won the top education prize at 1776’s Challenge Cup festival—an honor that comes with $100,000 in funding.

Free Enterprise sat down with Levy to learn more about eduCanon and how it’s winning over teachers and improving student outcomes.

Free Enterprise sat down with Levy to learn more about eduCanon and how it’s winning over teachers and improving student outcomes.

FE: What’s eduCanon’s origin story?

“I was a Teach for America corps member and as a teacher, you have a lot of students in the classroom and it’s really hard to connect individually with 30+ students. After looking for a resource, I actually built eduCanon in my classroom so the first users of eduCanon were myself, other teachers at my school, other teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area, and our students. Following that teaching experience, I decided that it seemed like a tool that was very valuable not just to me but to many teachers across the country—and, potentially, the world. From there, I matriculated to MIT’s Sloan School for Management. I studied entrepreneurship and used it as a time to really work on rebuilding the platform. I also [honed] its value proposition and thought of it more as a company instead of as simply a tool.

That first year, I applied to an accelerator in Boston and we were accepted into their inaugural summer cohort. That’s when I pulled together a team of education enthusiasts, designers, and developers to really build out a platform in an accelerated way. In three months, we had a product and we launched it last September.”

FE: What’re the biggest challenges facing U.S. education?

“I think that one of the bigger challenges is now that there does seem to be this access to 1:1 technology … how do you effectively empower teachers with that technology as opposed to the way many teachers that I knew saw the technology that was coming to these schools, which was very much top-down, very much displacing them. As a result, there was this pushback because they felt like it was threatening their jobs and that it was threatening their way of teaching. Our question is  – how can we make it so that the education technology tools we’re building are really something that the teachers feel empowered by and feel in control of?”

FE: What has made eduCanon successful and popular with teachers?

“The reason we have been able to see pretty good growth in this area is that bottom-up approach. We’re constantly talking to teachers, going into classrooms, and working with individual teachers. This allows us to keep nimble and make sure that their products are fitting their use-cases. Being able to talk with teachers and work with them has done a lot to help us shape the product more toward a platform that is really empowering them to execute their current workflow more effectively, as opposed to saying this tool will only work this one way.”

FE: What are the similarities and differences between teaching and being an entrepreneur?

“I think they’re very similar and that the skillsets are very similar. In truth, you are the little CEO of your classroom and inside those walls you have complete control and responsibility. I think that a lot of the skills … that are required in teaching are fundamentally powerful in business.

I would also say that running a company is ten times easier than running a classroom. It’s a much harder job and a job that I’ll always have a huge amount of respect for. Regardless of which classroom, the stakes are high and the potential to have a great impact is so visible.”