Panorama Education – the education startup funded by Google Ventures, Startup: Education (Mark Zuckerberg), and A-Grade Investments (Ashton Kutcher), joined forces with the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University on August 26. Panorama actually has worked with hundreds of educational systems at the state and district level to create the Panorama Student Survey, an open source survey intended to generate big data for analysis and problem-solving; but Harvard served as the most in-depth case study for development of the tool.
Panorama Education is also allowing schools and government educational officials to access the survey for free. It also provides analytics and report generation software related to the information derived from the survey. Through the hundreds of school administrations and departments that make up Panorama’s clientele, the organization was able to collect and study data for more than 1 ½ million students. The data gives educators statistics and refined knowledge of the four groups involved – students, teachers, parents, and administrators – so that they can initiate research-driven solutions, with the numbers to ground any actions taken.
Aaron Feuer, one of the co-founders of Panorama, came up with the idea for the company when he was a student. He was involved in his school’s student government and experienced firsthand the difficulty the four educational players had in collaborating – in part due to their different perceptions of school, their desired outcomes, and the ways in which perspectives were built. Feuer continued to work on his design for Panorama Education while attending Yale, eventually drumming up seed funding through Y Combinator.
Startup: Education Draws Attention to Open Source Project
Startup:Education has a huge name not just because Zuckerberg is involved but because of what the organization did after its initial formation in 2010: donate $100 million to the Newark public schools. In fact, the investment in Panorama is only the second action taken by the nonprofit. The obvious question, then, is what’s so special about this startup that all of these high-profile people and savvy business incubation groups are eager to help it grow?
Part of the reason Panorama has impressed so many major organizations and individuals is that it used the power of technology, but it wasn’t about the technology. Instead, the company is focused primarily on helping schools understand the data and implement changes. “Schools bring us in there to solve problems, such as to stop bullying,” Feuer explained to Ingrid Lunden of TechCrunch after announcing a successful $4-million-dollar round of funding last October.
Although Panorama does not consider itself first and foremost a survey company, it has been able to use the survey concept to generate buzz. Surveys are a great, simple way for schools to gather meaningful data, and – according to Feuer – what has been available is poorly designed and primarily proprietary.
The Story Behind Panorama
The startup has only been around for four years: Feuer and fellow Yale undergrad Xan Tanner formed it while at college. However, improving the way in which educators get feedback has been a point of focus for Feuer since his days in the Los Angeles public school system.
Feuer was the president of his school’s student council, and he started an effort to make California’s schools more conducive to feedback and change. His coalition was even successful in getting new legislation passed so that schools could effectively survey students, but implementing the law approved extraordinarily difficult. Realizing that mandating surveys was not enough because the quality of surveys and data analytical capabilities they wanted didn’t exist, Feuer eventually set out to create the absent tool.
Open Source in the Classroom
Lunden mentioned that the business model espoused by Panorama makes sense given the context: open source tools are commonplace in academia. However, the majority of open source educational tools are ones geared toward learning and teaching on a day-to-day basis, rather than toward figuring out systematically how to improve an overall school system.
Open source is a passionate issue for many organizations. A United Nations trade group determined in 2012 that government should use the open source model whenever possible to keep their systems free from contracts with large software publishers. Similarly, human rights group UNESCO campaigns for the development of open source educational depositories around the world.
Open source thought leader Terry Vessels has argued convincingly that the way proprietary software prevents access to data is a form of censorship and that educators should be in favor of open access to information. Beyond the philosophical problem, proprietary software can quickly become expensive: capturing data and refusing to release it without purchase of the new version effectively “[siphons] more of the school’s limited resources away from the school’s primary purpose.”
The value of listening
Panorama is a survey that will be used in education, but (as stated above) it’s not a survey company; and it’s not about education but hopes to improve it. What’s the real focus of the organization, then? Listening: getting as many perspectives as possible to better understand an environment and its participants so that meaningful change can occur. Listening is also how we developed our performance-based guarantee.
By Kent Roberts
Image Credit: Panorama Education