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Israel's Time To Know Aims To Revolutionize The Classroom

This is the story of Time To Know, an enigmatic Israeli startup that has somehow managed to remain under the radar of Israel’s tightly knit startup scene. What makes this feat wondrous is not only because of the daunting challenge the company has chosen to meet, but that it has quietly ramped to 350 employees and no less than $60M in funding—all without attracting attention.

Time To Know is the realization of a single man’s vision to un-root teaching methodologies from their 19th century origins and thrust them into the 21st century. The entrepreneur is Shmuel Meitar, co-founder of Israeli hi-tech posterchild Amdocs. To appreciate Meitar’s commitment, consider this: He is TimeToKnow’s sole investor. That’s right, the $60M the company has taken in funding all came out of his pocket.

The basic thesis Time To Know is operating under is that today’s current classroom is following a teaching paradigm designed in the industrial age, i.e., a teacher standing in front of a class, a blackboard on the wall and students at their desks. Think of it this way… Imagine time warping a teacher from the 1800’s and implanting her in a classroom in 2010. She could basically hit the ground running with little to no adjustment in teaching style. Quite scary when you think about it.

Time To Know believes there are three main reasons why today’s classroom is ineffective: First, relevancy—or rather, irrelevancy. Kids are living in a digital world with a tremendous amount of stimulus. Expecting them to happily and effectively embrace ‘passive learning’ that requires them to just sit, listen and provide output in exams is simply unrealistic. Second, variance. There no such thing as a homogeneous level of learning and comprehension in a classroom of students. Third, assessment—aka, the feedback loop. In today’s classroom a student could have gotten lost with the material three weeks back, but the teacher would be oblivious to it.

Contrary to partial solutions such as computerized tutorials, or digital whiteboards, Time To Know set out to create a holistic solution designed to migrate from instructional to Constructivist Learning in which learning and knowledge are experience driven.

Due to the nature of the work environment (the classroom), and the content (curriculum), Time To Know has set certain infrastructure and operational prerequisites schools must commit to. These are:

Infrastructure: Every student must be allotted a laptop or netbook with a headset. No more than one student per machine. Every classroom must also be equipped with a laptop for the teacher that is connected to a projector. A WiFi Internet connection is another prerequisite. Ethernet will not do as it restricts inner-class mobility.

Support & Professional Services: Schools committing to Time To Know’s curriculum must be able to provide on-premises technical support. This means that if a student’s netbook experiences technical problems, it will dealt with immediately, rather than having to wait for an IT support professional to make a call days after.

Schools must also commit to provide their teachers with training and support. This sounds obvious, but if mis-handled it could be the Achilles heal of the entire initiative. These services can be provided by Time To Know itself or by a third party.

For all intent and purpose, Time To Know is a software company whose management application, applets and content, all reside on the cloud and are accessible via web browser. There are two main components to the system:

Learning Management System: This is the teacher’s command center, a management application that allows the teacher to review each student’s progress, view trends in the class’ performance, as well as plan for the next day’s lessons.

It also allows teachers to customize learning sequences, assign assessments to students, and create reports of student progress. As each student uses a laptop during class, the teacher can monitor individual progress and communicate with each student unobtrusively.

The application is quite robust, so here are just a few of its many features:

* Alert Management: Real-time notifications of student progress that alerts teachers on students that require extra attention and assistance.
* Content Preview & Simulation: Teachers are able to run through lessons at home, allowing them to review lesson plans ahead of class time.

Once the teacher runs through the lesson in the classroom, the system begins to record data such as what learning activities were used, student achievement, etc.
* Gallery: Students can submit their work to the shared Gallery area for peer review and class discussion. Teachers can divide students into groups with unique assignments, and then have the groups share and discuss their work in the Gallery. They can also promote collaboration and peer review by encouraging students to write comments on peer and group projects in the Gallery. These can be performed as part of the lesson, or afterward.
* Administration: Teachers, principals and superintendents can generate various reports to monitor class progress (standard coverage for instance) and achievements (grades). The system allows data analysis, graphing and reporting. The system also comes with an administration component for control of all the technical elements.

The Curriculum: Time To Know designs and produces what it calls ‘full digital curriculum coverage,’ which is a complete year’s worth of lesson plans, learning activities, and homework assignments. To grasp just what an immense undertaking this is, multiply these by the four subjects matters Time To Know targets—math, science, language arts and social studies—and now multiply that by 13 year’s worth of education (kindergarten plus 12 formal years of schooling). To put this into perspective, in a single year Time To Know produces animation with a combined length of one and a half feature films.

The challenge is daunting not only because of the sheer amount of content that requires to be designed and produced, but also because the curriculum has to fulfill alignment to state and country standards. This means that curriculum which received approval in Texas will require tweaking for approval in New York. This explains why Time To Know employees a team of 350 consisting of 120 pedagogy and instructional designers (aka teachers), 60 graphics artists, illustrators and animators and 80 technologists.

To date, Time To Know has produced yearly curriculums for Israeli schools in the subjects of Hebrew, English and math for 4th, 5th and 6th grades. For American schools, it’s produced yearly curriculums for 4th and 5th grades in the subjects of math and language arts. By July 2011, curriculums will be expanded to include grades 3 and 6, with curriculums for science added across all four grades.

The curriculum combines ‘blended learning’ materials, from movies, to on-screen tutorials, to on-paper exercises. Take for example, 4th grade math aligned to Texas state standards. There are 81 lesson segments, each 120 minutes long. The lesson segments provide a complete coverage and preparation for standardized testing. Lesson segments include:

* Learning activities based on interactions with Rich Exploration Applets (more on these below). These activities include group, teacher-led, and individual work.
* Instructional games that directly relate to the concepts taught in the segments.
* Guided discussions to help teachers motivate and summarize lesson segment concepts.
* Instructional video clips used to introduce, elaborate, or reinforce lesson segment concepts.
* Review activities that help prepare students for benchmarks and standardize testing.

Teachers do have flexibility and can mix and match lesson plan modules and exercises. There’s also the ability to add external items such as videos from YouTube for example, or links to sites on the Web. Time To Know discovered from its pilots that American teachers stuck to the structured curriculum, while Israeli teachers took advantage of the flexibility at their disposal and enriched the curriculum with external materials.

The curriculum is presented to and interacted with by the students through ‘Rich Exploration Applets’. These provide guided learning sequences intended to facilitate the development of cognitive learning skills in a sequential and spiraled manner. The purpose of the applets is to motivate students to explore, experiment, discover, and discuss the concepts presented under each subject. Doing so allows students to form deeper understandings of these concepts and how they can be extended and adapted to new situations.

The Geoboard Applet for example (thumbnail on right) is designed to encourage students perform constructive problem solving. It has four areas: The first is the Work Grid in which the student can manipulate different objects, draw lines and polygons, write text, and measure objects. The second area is the Toolbox, which contains different tools for mathematical expressions, drawing, coloring, measuring and entering text. The third area is a collection of visual objects to be placed on the grid. The fourth area is the External Atoms Zone where the student receives instructions and answers different questions regarding his/her conclusions. The atoms, containing the questions and directions, are gradually exposed to coincide with progresses.

If this isn’t compelling enough, the system is also adaptive. A component called PAL, which stands for ‘Practice and Learning’, maps each student’s knowledge in response to answers given in the subjects of math and language arts. As a result, a practice path is then built on the fly to address the student’s specific strengths and weaknesses.

Students also have home remote access so they can go over materials that were taught in the classroom, do homework, or review and comment on items in the Galleries.

Time To Know has been running pilots in four schools in Texas and ten schools in Israel. The expectation for the 2010/2011 school year is for fifteen pilots in the US and around 50 in Israel.

The feedback collected from teachers is quite interesting: 86% reported an increase in instructional time. There was also a decrease in discipline and an increase in individual assistance during class time. Teachers also reported an increased sense of empowerment to guide and support the learning process.

Feedback collected from students showed that they perceived the new learning methodologies as fun and relevant. There was also an increase in motivation and positive attitude to subjects taught. Put differently, the kids started enjoying math(!)

Another dimension was brought from Israel’s Ministry of Finance and Bank of Israel, which both see TimeToKnow’s approach as being able to ultimately increase the GDP.

“LaAsot Kavod LaMedina” is an Israeli expression that sums-up Time To Know’s story. It translates roughly to “to bring national pride” and it’s used to express “bravo, I’m proud to be an Israeli because of ________”. Rarely, if at all, is it used in the context of a startup. In the case of Time To Know though, it fits hand to glove. Respect.


Where to next? Pick one!

Posted in: News on February 4, 2010 @ 2:29 PM

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