It is an early August afternoon, and, though the school year is officially a month away, 160 teachers wait for Lucy Carter, head of the education division of the social podcasting platform company AudioBoo, and Matt Bergman, a teacher at the private and social-need based Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania, to lead a workshop titled “Changing Learning Through AudioBoo.”
The program that explains how audio recording can enhance learning starts promptly at 4 p.m., but, inevitably, late teachers, like late students, appear. But instead of being spotted as they unsuccessfully attempt to tip toe in, their arrival is announced by their names and E-mail addresses appearing on a computer screen. And while that may seem punitive, it’s not. They’re just joining the roster of online participants from all over the country who have already showed up by computer to attend this free webinar hosted by edWeb.net.
EdWeb — the Princeton-based online platform for educators and organizations with interests in education — is pioneering the use of online communications to enhance education and is becoming a regular web presence.
With an emphasis on building a social community for learning, edWeb, according to its promotional materials, provides “a place where educators who are looking for ways to improve teaching and learning can gather and share information and ideas with peers and thought leaders in the industry.”
Through its membership and partnership with MCH Strategic — a national data compiler based in Missouri — it has the power to reach an approximate 3.5 million educators to make that happen.
Belle Mead resident Lisa Schmucki — edWeb’s principal owner and CEO — founded the online company with fellow Princeton University graduates and long-time industry colleagues Michael Mantell and Alex Oss.
She says that a prime business goal is for edWeb to become the first online professional social and sustainable educational network.
To make that happen the company — which has its office in Montgomery Commons where five core team members interact with team members around the country and world — hosts a variety of online activities that spotlight best student engagement practices, share information and resources among peers and experts, explore current educational needs and challenges, and offer professional development programs with certificates. This August webinar is just one of its offerings.
Membership is free and open to people involved with or having a professional-level interest in education. That includes individuals involved with schools, libraries, nonprofit and research organizations, companies, associations, and government organizations. Students are not invited. For-profit organizations and companies wishing to be involved are charged a sponsorship or hosting fee.
Using a MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) approach, edWeb classes are topic and participant driven or as Schmucki calls them, “mini-MOOCs.”
Unlike Coursera, the promoted and funded online education platform that uses MOOCs to offer weekly and sequentially designed free and open courses from major league universities (U.S. 1, April 24), edWeb connects educators of like interests in online communication sites, or communities. There people with similar concerns can share information or discuss mutual interests on a monthly or irregular basis or via E-mail or postings on pages.
Since some websites — including those put together by academics and subject to administrator and panel reviews — can be overly complicated, I decided to put edWeb’s website to the test to determine the site’s ease of access, engagement, and content.
Upon entering edWeb.net, I easily spot the “join” link at the top right hand corner. A mouse click leads to a new page that contains a short informative video tour and a registration form that takes only moments to complete. I am then given a member home page to post information about myself and interests as well as the ability to start connecting with others through a “browse communities” link.
Right now there are 1,005 communities from which to choose, listed alphabetically, by the size of membership, or search of general topic (a search for the topic “reading” brought up 26 groups of various sizes). The most populated community (and number one on the choice list) is Game-Based Learning, with 5,169 members (of edWeb’s total membership of 57,050).
A click on a community’s name provides a description, information on who is “hosting” (or supporting) the site, and activities. For example, Game-Based Learning “provides educators, game developers, researchers, and industry executives with a place to learn, ask questions, discuss topics, and share information about games and learning.” The Software and Information Industry Association’s education division hosts and enters a sponsorship arrangement with edWeb. And there are monthly webinars, free access to edWeb’s Learning Games Database, and an opportunity to receive a certificate for attending the webinar. That document may be useful to satisfy the need for professional development hours in New Jersey or continuing education units in other states.
While some edWeb learning communities have small or even solo memberships (Francophone World has two and the Knoxville High School Book Club in Illinois has one), others deal with topics and issues and generate more involvement: Emerging Technologies has 4,481 members, Teaching Students With Autism has 3,423, and Implementing the Common Core State Standards (a plan for consistent and shared national learning accepted by 45 states) has 2,907.
Members looking for more information or kindred spirits can link onto another member’s website. They can also find other members by looking through the alphabetical list (a long process), call up part of a name (for example, Dan Aubrey did not work, but just using either Dan or Aubrey did), or by state (through trial and error: New Jersey brought no results but NJ or Jersey did).
Once topics of interests (participants may belong to multi-communities) are determined, members can then immediately view webinar archives or sign up for an upcoming one. My choice of two archives has connections to the Princeton area — “Growing School Gardens” (which included the Riverside Elementary School) and “Effective Strategies for Teaching Children with Autism” (conducted and hosted by Eden Institute). The download is fast and the viewing is easy, especially since I can stop the proceedings or go back from something that I wanted to hear again.
By checking the “Attend Webinar” link on the home page, I am taken to a calendar of upcoming events, make a choice (the next in line is the use of audio and video archives), register with a click, and instantly receive a notice via E-mail. By design — as Schmucki tells me later — no telephones or codes are needed (that way participation is simpler and costs are lower). At the scheduled time, I go to my E-mail, hit the link, and arrive online for the learning session.
The program used for the webinars is Instant Presenter, and session leaders log in from anywhere, as long as they have a computer that has connectivity to the web, a camera, and a microphone. The programs that I am viewing have presenters appearing at the top left corner of my computer screen.
When attendees connect to the “stage” or page, their names and even E-mail addresses appear below the presenters on the left. The rest of the screen carries content with a field for running texts (with chattering and questions evident before and during the session). The events started on time and generally ended neatly within the announced time limit.
As in the case of the webinar supported by AudioBoo, the product and its applications are included in the discussion, but there are no product pitches or special offers. And while the website lists or notes participating companies, there is no patchwork of banners or ads that jumble the searches for education related interviews, blogs, and articles.
When I mention to Schmucki that the site was easy to navigate, she is visibly pleased and says, “We worked hard to get that. We need the platform, so we have to be friendly.”
This mixing of a massive amount of educational data, the hosting of sponsors, the engagement of literally thousands of teachers, and utilization of new technologies is something that did not happen overnight. Instead it took a career. “I am using everything that I have been involved with up to this point,” says Schmucki of her background, experience, and connections.
On a recent afternoon in edWeb’s office suite, the Morristown-raised entrepreneur talks about her background and her career path, “I was in the second Princeton (University) class that accepted women as students.” She says her presence on campus helped to make her Princeton graduate father more accepting of the university’s decision to be coeducational. In fact, she says, he eventually left his corporate executive career — he served with Litton Industries, Dictaphone Inc., Hammond Atlas Inc., and Forbes Associates — to become a development officer at the university. Her mother was a homemaker who showed an entrepreneurial streak by opening her own high-end gift shop in Morristown.
Schmucki’s studies at Princeton University focused on history. Upon graduating in 1974, she says she had a realization, “I needed a skill,” and she took advantage of a 15-month New York University work graduate program, receiving an M.A. in accounting. Yet there was another realization. Since the program required that she visit various New York companies, she discovered that people in the advertising agencies seemed to be having the most fun and decided to follow that career path.
A position in marketing at Time-Life books was the opening to what has become a 30-year career as an education industry executive, one specializing in product and database development and marketing. Other positions followed at Macmillan Book Clubs and Peterson’s Guides. Eventually she joined Films Media Group (the former Princeton-based Films for the Humanities & Sciences) and served as vice president of marketing, vice president of marketing for Achieve3000 (the Lakewood, New Jersey, web-based provider addressing differentiated instruction), and a senior marketing officer at the Newtown, Pennsylvania, based MKTG Educational Services (an information service company that provides data to educational marketers).
She also founded and practices with Bridgepoint Marketing Services, a virtual consulting agency that uses industry networks and services to create customized project teams.
Except for a short time in Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington, DC, Schmucki has stayed in the Princeton area.
The idea of the education website came to Schmucki in 2007 when she observed how her daughter, Eleanor Oakes (another Princeton alumna), and her friends were using social networks to stay in touch. “(Eleanor) encouraged me to look at Facebook and said, ‘I’ll you show you what it’s all about.’” That is when Schmucki realized how such a network could be used to connect the education community and build sharing and collaboration.
In addition to developing marketing skills, Schmucki also developed friendships with like minded associates, including Mantell and Oss. Both have been — and continue to be — vital to the establishment of edWeb.
Mantell — a founding investor, member of the initial edWeb start-up team, and current advisor — was chief operating office for Films for the Humanities and Sciences, a company that was started in Princeton in 1959 by his family and eventually absorbed by Films Media Group in New York City. He additionally founded the e-commerce education website Edudex before launching School Leadership Briefing (a company that provides information to superintendents, district administrators, and principals) and Golden Peak Group (an LLC that provides consulting and capital for early stage web companies).
Oss, the third edWeb co-founder and edWeb’s chief technical officer, is the former director of enterprise applications at Films Media Group.
“I always stayed in touch with Michael and we’d have coffee at Small World. We were driving around and I talked about the idea, and Michael said, ‘I’m in!’”
But after some initial investment time passed, Schmucki says “I could tell that this was going to take time and work, and Michael dropped out ‘08.”
Although he and Oss have investments in the company, Schmucki is the primary owner and manager and has moved the organization to some new stages of development, seeded by her past experiences and familiarity with developers of education products and services.
One of those important steps was edWeb’s partnering with MCH Strategic Data in 2009. Founded in 1928, MCH compiles detailed demographic, geographic, funding, and contact information on 1.1 million institutions and 8 million institutional decision makers, says promotional materials. The implications for marketing are obvious.
In following year edWeb founded Consortium for Online Communities of Practice to engage and expand online education communities. The initiative was a response to the U.S. Department of Education’s recently announced National Education Technology Plan. EdWeb’s efforts included a 2011 Roundtable on Online Communities of Practice in Washington, D.C., an activity helped to expand the organization’s presence, circle of engagement, and leadership.
In 2012 MCH announced that it had taken a 30 percent investment stake in edWeb, which, according to a press notice, tripled in 15 months the company’s membership to 34,000 people enrolled in 600 communities. “It’s an ideal partnership that has enabled us to grow quickly but with a very high quality membership. We’re building a data mine every day that helps us identify best practices so we can coach educators and our partners on how to create active engaged communities that provide the high quality PD (professional development) experiences teachers need,” Schmucki says in a statement released at the time.
Then this past July there was the announcement from Ohio that a state partnership between ilearnOhio — an e-learning platform funded by the Ohio General Assembly — and edWeb had been established to provide state educators with “free online professional development, education focused social networking resources and a community of more than 55,000 educators across the country.”
Schmucki says that the development in Ohio — the company’s first state-wide initiative — came through the process of engagement and the unfolding of new technology and new initiatives. “Brad Henry worked in Ohio State University and is involved with technical support. He found edWeb several years ago. He’s been a big fan for what we’re doing.” Henry was invited to participate in Ohio’s statewide e-learning project and recommended edWeb.
As with Coursera — with a mission to provide free education but satisfy investors — there is no model of success, yet investors are willing to put their money on the table on a platform that is attracting a high volume of membership and engagement. Of MCH’s participation, Schmucki says that one company executive said, “I don’t get it” (meaning the platform and electronic communication practices), “but I get it (meaning that it is an opportunity to connect with educators and provide services).
As edWeb moves forward and looks to balance service and sustainability, Schmucki says, “I don’t want to be driven by investors or by profit objectives. And I never felt we would be successful by just selling ads. This is more.”
As noted, companies that offer or have developed education-related products can participate as sponsors, such as AudioBoo. “We will rely on clients, not product focus. We’re focused on professional learning,” says Schmucki about the fine line between marketing and providing educational content.
There are two ways any company can support or “host” edWeb’s educational programming. “If a program already exists, we’ll (contract the host) for three months. If they want me to build a program, it will be six months. But once they start a program and invest in it, they don’t want to end them. It’s kind of like addiction when (the host organizers) are in a webinar and hear great things about their products,” says Schmucki.
The cost for hosting (or a type of sponsorship support), she says, is “pretty standard basic rates but more reasonable than using media company.” When asked for a price quote, she says “I would rather not have rates in print.”
Education organizations can also host programs, as in the case of Eden Institute. “They were doing webinars and were looking for a way to expand their own. They paid a monthly support fee.” After a few programs, Eden suspended its webinars. Monarch Teaching Technology will serve as a new special education provider.
Other initiatives in process or discussion include a new phase of internet communication that involves streaming programs, similar to Netflix. “We now have 375 programs that we have recorded and we’re ready to put that in a portal to make an edWeb TV Index and have subscription model,” says Schmucki.
Another important focus is the presentations of learning sessions that provide the documentation necessary for educators to get the professional development credits, units, or hours that states require for valid teaching certificates. Seeing such a convenient resource as a means to engage even the most reluctant educator to reach out to an online education platform, Schmucki says, “The certificates are a big carrot.”
As of yet, there is no national unified system for such credits and states can change the formula for awarding them. For example, while other states use CEUs (Continuing Education Units) the New Jersey Department of Education calls them Professional Development hours, requires that a teacher accumulate 20 per year, and links their viability to a professionally recognized provider and a plan used by a district, a school, and an individual instructor.
All of this takes a lot of gathering of information and will be worked out in time in the office that Schmucki shares with her “Princeton Team,” four other core staff members who invest in the project, have key focus areas, and take care of business while using exercise balls. (Schmucki notes, “I read an article about how bad it is for you to sit still all day long and exercise balls were one of the suggestions. I asked the team if they liked the idea and they did — and they really like it!”). Other team members are brought in on as needed basis.
Understanding that no one has the answers to where all this “brave new world” technology will take her and using all her experience, Schmucki says, “I figured there were not a lot of people who are doing (this) and we would take it one day at a time.”
In that sense, Schmucki is both providing and getting an education.
EdWeb.net, 714 Executive Drive, Montgomery Commons, Princeton 08540; 800-575-6015. Lisa Schmucki, founder and CEO. www.edWeb.net.