A Q&A with Frank Bonsal III and Nicole Tucker-Smith
By Henry Mortimer, Editor-at-Large
How do you improve America’s schools? Practice, practice, practice.
Or at least, offer the teachers a tool that will allow them to practice doing their jobs in a more effective and meaningful way. That’s the idea behind Lessoncast, a Baltimore-based edtech startup co-founded by its CEO, Nicole Tucker-Smith.
The problem, says Tucker-Smith, is that US schools spend $8 billion annually on teacher training and development -- and have very little to show how such spending benefits teachers or students. Lessoncast, which is housed in the TU Incubator, Towson University’s business and entrepreneurial resource center, is seeking to solve that conundrum. The company, which is in the process of raising a $1.5 million seed round, has created a learning platform that not only provides professional development but also allows schools to measure impact and award credentials. And it does so by putting the teachers in the catbird seat.
“It’s all about recognizing teachers as the number one factor in improving student outcome, and thinking through strategically how can we improve teacher quality in a meaningful way,” says Tucker-Smith, a former teacher and school administrator who also coordinated systemwide professional development for Baltimore County Public Schools. “Lessoncast provides software and services that capture, show, and share teacher learning.”
Lessoncast uses audio-video technology to record in-classroom teaching for analysis and instruction. Although there are similar solutions on the market, admits Tucker-Smith, what makes Lessoncast different from say, Bloomboard, Edthena, and Taskstream, is technology that records the "behind the scenes thinking" required for effective teaching. With Lessoncast, in other words, schools can show how the tools impact individual teacher effectiveness, and build their own customized credentialing systems based on what is important to their teachers and students.
Recently, Tucker-Smith sat down with Frank Bonsai III, Director of Entrepreneurship at Towson University, to share the story of Lessoncast, debate the future of edtech, and discuss why, as she she says, “This is an ideal time for a system like Lessoncast [which] is becoming a must-have for schools.”
The following is a verbatim transcript of Part II:
FRANK BONSAL: You’ve been bootstrapping this business. You started in what year?
NICOLE TUCKER-SMITH: We founded Lessoncast in 2011. We launched our first software as a service in 2013. We did research through 2014, and then we made it available to sell more broadly the following year.
Q. What’s been the greatest challenge—and maybe that’s a strategic question—for Lessoncast, since inception?
A. There have been many challenges. I would say the greatest challenge is being able to communicate “this is what we do” in a way that is receptive because it’s challenging to think about “How am I going to improve teacher quality?” and then link that to student learning. Some folks will actually say, “that’s not possible,” but then when they sit down and use our tools they’re like, “this is amazing,” but it requires a shift. We’re at the place now where educators, schools—we’re all making that shift to be more evidence-based. You’ll hear talk about a “culture of evidence” and so now everyone’s moving into the space. I’ll tell you, four years ago, when we were talking about professional development, everyone thought that was a waste of time, and now everyone is moving into this space. There’s been a shift in the atmosphere and so now we’re ready to pounce on it. The other challenge I would say is that, if you’re bootstrapping you have to think carefully about who your best customers are in the beginning, and so we pick our customers carefully so that we’re able to maintain quality of service and also be able to show examples of “look at what’s working.”
Q. Thinking about the flip side—the positives, the surprises—what's been the greatest sort of positive surprise that has come out of customers, of your team—anywhere?
A. The greatest positive that has come out for me has been to see the reaction from our customers, and to see their willingness. This year, our customers have started presenting about Lessoncast—not asking us—but they’ll go out and they’ll do presentations. They’ve gotten teacher testimonials, because they want to showcase: “look at what we’ve been able to do with this software, and you can do it, too.” I think that building this culture of partners who are also able to showcase “here’s the benefit” and to articulate it—and honestly they articulate it better than we do in many cases, because they are able to make it relevant to their context, they can speak to real results—and their enthusiasm has been so exciting to watch.
Q. The goal is to increase teacher effectiveness, roughly?
A. Well, the goal is always about student learning, but the number one way to do that is to improve teacher effectiveness. If you need 3.6 billion teachers, you’re going to have to do some development in order to make sure they’re all effective.
Q. How do you do that? Can you sum up maybe a case study where you have increased teacher or student effectiveness?
A. We’ve been working with our different customers to capture case studies, capture data, being able to showcase that. What's nice about the Lessoncast format is that it produces video evidence that's easy to share. It’s easy for teachers to be able to have a voice—it's literally their voice in a lessoncast saying, “here’s what we did in the classroom and here’s the impact on student learning,” and our customers build galleries of those resources that they are able to share with their stakeholders.
Q. I know you have been evolving your product and you have been thinking about how you approach the market. Tell me how that has evolved and what you have seen as you have been bootstrapping and testing—how has the market sort of allowed you to shift into what is now a tailwind?
A. I think what has shifted is what the schools have in terms of expectations. Being able to justify what they’re spending or the shift in being able to say, “yes, we’re spending money on this and now we need to show you what works.” I think that has been the biggest shift in terms of the marketplace. Also, because I’ve been in this space, I know what money is out there for professional development, and I know what money has to be spent every year, and so having that that insider knowledge has helped. I think other companies are now recognizing that and that’s why they’re moving into this space.
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