Some people discover what they’re passionate about not by following simple or straightforward path, but by navigating the winding roads of life experience. That’s the case for John Cammack, who has developed a deep interest in the tech-education space after spending years at an investment firm because of his own concrete life experience. Cammack is a Citelighter investor who has studied innovation and education. Below, he explains how his life experience has informed his outlook and shares his insights in the field, including thoughts on individualized learning, brain fitness, and school reform.
You spent 18 years at T. Rowe Price, a global investment management firm, serving as president of a large business division. Now you’re passionately interested in the tech-education space. What prompted the transition?
My wife and I have two sons who were diagnosed with learning differences at an early age. In advocating for them, I began to study the neuroscience of learning and came to the conclusion that the best education for all children allows for an individualized learning path. With the emergence of technology that supports effective blended learning platforms, complemented by a growing body of research supporting neuroplasticity, I decided to devote myself to accelerating the adoption of technologies that empower the learner. I also recovered from a serious illness in my late 50s, which made me realize my time on earth is short and prompted my commitment to education reform.
Do you see a certain intersection or overlap between your work at T. Rowe Price and what you’re passionate about now?
While at T. Rowe Price, I studied adoption curves and the diffusion of innovation. When I applied these models to education, I concluded we are entering a period of great promise and disruption that intrigued me. I also observed how difficult it was for T. Rowe Price to recruit young adults who were well prepared as global knowledge workers. Finally, I observed through my board work how broken the Baltimore public school system was. I wanted to do something to fix it.
As someone who spends so much time studying the ed-tech space, coming to it essentially as an outsider, what would you say were the biggest surprises that you came across in your initial research?
First, I observed how poor the return on investment is for K-12 education in the United State. I began to dig for root causes and reached the following conclusions:
A high-performing educational system can’t operate without talent. In Finland, Singapore and other countries, the top college graduates become teachers and are paid as professionals. In the United States, TFA has begun to attract top college talent into our public school classrooms. Better teacher and principal quality is part of the solution.
We need to reform schools of education to produce 21st century teachers whose pedagogical skills incorporate technology. Teacher certification should include a competency model and just not credit hours.
All successful technology creates an extraordinary user experience. Too many ed tech start ups are being managed or advised by teams that do not include the wisdom of master teachers, which removes them from the user. Most will fail for this reason.
Finally, insightful forward thinking policy reform is as important as introducing disruptive technologies. We need reforms in charter school formations, teacher tenure and in higher education – assessment and accreditation.
What are some of the biggest “hidden” trends in the field—great ideas that you think are willing to be discovered and executed, or ideas that are out there but currently under appreciated or underutilized?
Our growing understanding of neural plasticity will benefit students through a new generation of tools that include brain-strengthening online games and a variation in biofeedback for the brain called neurofeedback. I happen to think brain fitness is one of the missing links in educational attainment, with a very high return on investment for a cohort of students including those with ADD.
Real time assessment will become imbedded in digital devices attuned to the natural learning style of each student. Learning avatars will operate as a student’s private tutor.
These assessment tools will also provide teachers deeper insights into the learning process of students in their class.
Digital learning platforms will evolve to include gamification, open source content, learning communities and certification.
Finally, MOOCs are in early adoption. In time, they will change the business and instructional framework of higher education. Assessment and certification need to be resolved as well as rationalization of price to value for this to happen.
You’re also an investor and actively involved with Curiosityville, an individualized learning environment for children ages 3 to 8. Are there certain aspects of, or lessons related to, teaching kids at such a young age that also resonate and apply to older students, and perhaps even researchers in professional and academic contexts?
Curiosityville is a very eloquent learning platform. No single component is innovative, but the combination of features is disruptive. We use a narrative approach to learning that engages young children, games and activities that strengthen the developing brain while also teaching to common core, personalization of the learning experience based on a child’s proficiencies and areas of engagement, and feedback linking on and off line learning to empower parents to be their child’s first great teacher. Curiosityville is for young children, but the design principles work for all learners.
Broadly speaking, how would you describe the investment landscape in the tech-ed space? And how do you envision your own strategic role within it, in terms of what you hope to help spur and accomplish?
Ed-tech has several concurrent trends. First there is growing interest from private equity and venture firms. Money is pouring into the space. I worry about a bubble.
Secondly the capital structure doesn’t recognize unique challenges faced by ed tech start ups. For example, their product development cycles are long because of the need to validate learning outcomes through school pilots. Seed funding needs to recognize this.
My interest is in investing in platforms that empower the learner. I measure success by ROL – return on learning as well as the more traditional ROI. A ROL is measured through a combination of three variables: better learning outcomes, lower cost and impact.
I’m also interested in creating resources to improve the ed tech start up ecosystem. This includes a consortium of Maryland schools that will agree to sponsor pilots and a summer institute that will match master teachers with developers and designers. Think of it as the “graduate course” for StartUp Ed Weekend and then The best products and services get vetted by members of the research consortium to accelerate product adoption.