Brad Wilson and Write About: Feedback, Authenticity & What to Leave Out

Earlier in the year, I was searching for picture prompts for my students. As so frequently happens on the web, one click led to another and I soon found myself signing up for a teacher account on Write About. A year or so ago, I had seen the iPad app, downloaded it, but never took much time to explore it.  Now, the Write About website grabbed my attention. Visuals prompts sorted by category, blogging capabilities, curation tools…I wanted to learn more about the minds behind this tool. Here I sit down with Brad Wilson, talk about his edtech startup journey and a tool inspiring students to write.

1) In 2014, you launched Write About for the web (after previously creating iOS apps). Walk us through this decision. What inspired you to build a new platform? Why do you feel Write About will succeed?

The Write About journey started at the intersection of what we had done with Write About This for the iPad and our new partnership with John Spencer, who had a similar vision for a publishing platform for classrooms. He had been creating inspiring visual writing starters (Ideas) with his middle school students and we were constantly hearing from teachers who wanted to share content and feedback with their students across devices. Beyond just the engaging content that was missing from other sites, classrooms really struggle to find an actual authentic audience when writing online, so we set out to solve that problem.

The success of Write About is grounded in the feedback that teachers and students have generously shared with us. We believe so strongly in the vision because we have constantly seen first hand how much FUN students have when writing on this platform. When engagement is that high, teachers are not only able to inspire their students to write, but are really able to help them grow and improve their craft. With the built-in audience and support for the entire writing process, we are excited to be launching ‘full steam ahead’ just as many classrooms and schools are making the transition to digital in their writing curriculum.

2) Since launching, what have you observed? How have you grown? What obstacles have you encountered?

It’s funny to think back to a little over a year ago when John and I were “sketching” the beginnings of the platform out with just our fingers on a brick wall at the back of a conference session. While it has gone through many revisions, the core concept and guiding principles of “Fun to Write, Easy to Share” have remained. Our understanding of what it takes to keep things simple and intuitive have definitely grown!

Often the hardest part is determining what to leave OUT. We have a list of over 100 features that we’ve thought of or had requested that are not yet in the platform…and we are very careful to prioritize those so that any additions will make the biggest impact on student writing and also be sustainable for us as a business.

Our biggest challenge has been educating teachers on the full scope of the platform, beyond just the “prompts,” which we are known for. Because Write About goes so much deeper than online documents and blogging tools (while offering aspects of both), we have to set new expectations for what digital writing can look like. It’s been really exciting as the school year has progressed (and we launched out of Beta) to see the growing number of teachers who are challenging their students to do things like share intentionally to Groups and curate their own Ideas. Teachers are also starting to take advantage of personalized audio feedback and other ‘hidden’ features now that we’ve improved the experience of getting started on the site.

3) Related to growth, how do you engage your community? How do you get educators to participate and contribute?

We try to be ridiculously generous with sharing quality writing content and extremely accessible to teacher/student feedback. There are hundreds (soon to be thousands) of visual writing Ideas accessible/searchable on the site and teachers always have free use of the unique toolset to create and share their own. In our Writing Center we constantly release free lesson plans/curricular resources and our social channels are updated daily with links to all this content. We also hear great feedback about the Write About video tutorials that help teachers with not simply using the platform, but also with the pedagogy and workflow transitions that happen when you shift writing lessons online.

4) You and your co-founders live miles apart. How do you successfully collaborate on a project as complex as Write About?

The most important work happened at the beginning when we narrowed the vision for what Write About was (and was NOT) and then determined how each of our roles would help us reach that vision. John is still a classroom teacher, for example, so early on we had to make sure the platform was working for his students during the day in Arizona while development was happening at other times.  Our CEO Bob Armbrister is great at helping us prioritize goals and push to get things out there so that we can get user feedback.

The toolset we rely on is pretty standard for collaboration- Google Docs, Hangouts, Trello, email, phone… really whatever tool helps us quickly and effectively make progress towards the vision. Voxer has played a pretty big role in holding asynchronous (but continuous) conversations amongst the team.

5) If an educator came to you and said, “I have a great idea for an edtech tool!”, what would advice would you offer?

It’s such an exciting time for this! Anything is possible, but there are of course risks.

It doesn’t take a huge amount of resources to at least get to a proof-of-concept, however, so if they are serious about making something become a reality.

I’d encourage them to get as much feedback about the idea/prototype as possible. If the idea really seems to stick…my advice would be to find partners who share your vision, have the capability to make it happen, and are willing to split the work. I’m happy to share more about the “edupreneur” journey if anyone would like to chat!


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putting ideas down

Peter Gault and Open Source, Open Content & Building with Community

A few months ago, after searching for a website which would provide quick yet meaningful grammar reinforcement for my students, I found Quill.  After trying their proofreading demo, I signed up.  I was content, because immediately I found that the platform well-designed and easy to use.  Within a few days of using it, I realized changes were happening.  It seemed that each time I logged in something was different, better. The design was sharper, more activities were added, functionality improved.

I created classes, assigned specific units to certain students and then had access to a straightforward progress dashboard to monitor how my student were doing.  After a few exchanges inside their customer feedback chat (Intercom mentioned below) and some emails back and forth, I headed out to Brooklyn to meet with the team for a lunch of spicy Indian food and talk about edtech, grammar, Common Core, open content, English Language Learners and more.  Proof that companies want educator feedback and that the development of great learning tools come from collaboration.  Here a some insights from Peter Gault, co-founder and executive director of Quill.

1) What led you to create Quill? What was your inspiration?  

Quill was inspired by Laura Gibbs, an English professor at the University of Oklahoma. At the beginning of each semester, Laura gives each of her students a two-page essay containing eighty grammatical errors. Her students proofread the essay, and, based upon the errors they catch, she is able to determine each student’s grammatical strengths and weaknesses. She finds this assignment to be extremely valuable; the only downside is that the grading process is time intensive, and it takes multiple days to grade.

I met Laura through an online course. At the time I was building an interactive textbook that focused on learning by writing. I saw that her assignment would make for a great digital tool. At the same time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had announced the Literacy Courseware Challenge, which provided grant funding for literacy tools. I partnered with Laura to develop the first version of Quill, and Quill was awarded a grant. This funding enabled us to incorporate as a non-profit organization and launch Quill.

2) What does it mean that Quill is Open Source and Open Content? How has opening your product up to the community helped its development? Does opening up the content and code accelerate development? Are there downsides?

Being open source means that anyone can copy, re-use, and contribute to our code. If you have a great idea, you can fork our code and build your own idea on top of it. Open content means that all of the materials are made freely available under a Creative Commons license. Like the open source code, you can take the materials and modify them and re-use them to your heart’s content.

There are thousands of teachers who have fantastic ideas about how to improve educational resources. There are also thousands of developers who want to contribute to open source and build their open source portfolios.

As a nonprofit organization, our goal is to bring these communities together to create fantastic tools that can be freely accessed by the entire world.  Together, we will build a massive library of Open Educational Resources and Open Source tools.

We have had over 100 people contribute to Quill so far. Many of these contributors have contributed as a one time event, and one of our major goals now is to create a vibrant community of contributors. This is a difficult challenge, as each new contributor needs to be brought up to speed on our goals, challenges, and workflow. Right now we are building our community page,, to provide all of the information a contributor needs to get started. The community page also highlights all of the contributions we have received so far.

3) What are ways that you connect with educators and engage them in the feedback process?  How can educators be better involved in the process of developing new tools?  How can companies better invite teachers to participate?

For app developers, we highly recommend Intercom. It enables you to have conversations with teachers in your app, and through this communication channel we have received tons of great feedback.

However, the best feedback will always come from conversations you have in person. While we were in San Francisco for the Silicon Valley EdSurge Summit, we were able to meet with teachers in Oakland who were using Quill. While we often speak with our most active users, the teachers in Oakland had recently stopped using Quill, and they provided us with a ton of critical feedback. We were able to use that feedback to re-align our product roadmap and solve these concerns as quickly as possible. It wouldn’t have been possible to obtain this feedback over the phone or by email — you really have to sit down and meet face to face to create these conversations.

For educators and developers, the single best thing we can do to to create effective learning tools is sit down and speak together for 20-30 minutes a time.

For developers, we need to get out of the office and make it to the schools. For educators, we know that you are super busy, and giving us 20 minutes of your time is extremely helpful. Through these conversations we are able to stay focused on what’s most important for our students and teachers.

4) You mentioned not having a great amount of experience coding or in the classroom?  What suggestions would you have for someone who has an idea for an edtech product or company?

Every founder has some unique insight which is going to be the initial basis of that company’s competitive advantage. My background is in designing educational games, and my unique insight is that I understand the mechanics involved in game design. I have been able to use this knowledge to created engaging learning experiences. For example, a video game is fun because it instiller too easy nor too challenging. Educational products need to strike that same balance, and we have been fine tuning the difficulty of our activities to find that balance.

If you want to create an EdTech product, you should think about what your unique insight is and how you can leverage it to succeed.

If you have taught in classrooms for a while, your advantage will be understanding the logistics of a classroom and the needs of students. If you are a coder, your advantage will be in creating a product quickly and creating a strong technical team. By leveraging your unique insight you can create successful products.

5) What are the goals for Quill over the next year?  What do you envision for the company one year from today?

Our vision is to create a series of educational apps, tools, and games that teach a range of subjects. All of these tools will be built by an open source community and connected together onto a single platform. For the next 2-3 years we will be focused on literacy tools. In the next year expect tools that help students provide peer feedback, develop their typing skills, and expand their vocabulary. Our next tool, Quill Writer, is currently in public beta testing, and educators can use it with their students now by going to In the next 5 years we will open up our platform for all types of educational apps, with a focus on learning by writing and constructing your own ideas.

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distance across

How We Work Across Four Time Zones

map made at:
map made at:

The members of June Labs are sprinkled across the U.S, in Arizona, California, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington D.C.  Beyond email and text messaging, we have adopted a set of valuable tools to keep us connected and productive.  Some allow us to collaborate asynchronously, because when I am getting ready for bed, my teammates in California are just getting started with their evening tasks.  Others, offers us an easy way to chat, share ideas and get things done.

Whether we are sitting down at our computers or on the run between baseball games and dance photos, these tools provide the glue, thread and duct tape that keep us functioning.  Some tools were chosen with no debate, no-brainers like Google Docs.  Others, like our task/project management tool, took more experimentation and discussion.

Also, we take great inspiration from amazing companies with a geographically distributed staff.

A few of our mentors:

“Location agnostic” – Automattic, WordPress parent company”
“No office required” – Basecamp, formerly 37 Signals.”
“Social media gurus” Buffer.

How do we get things done across four time zones while juggling jobs, family responsibilities, and more?

Here are the tools we use:

  1. Google Hangouts: Easy to use, simple to plan as events, snorkel masks if needed.
  2. Morning hats: If it’s early for you, don’t worry about combing your hair.  Sorry Pacific Time, this is always you guys.  We won’t judge you, but if you’re self conscious, feel free to throw on a baseball cap.
  3. Doodle: Easily figure out when everyone can get together.
  4. Google Docs: do I need to explain? All of our materials from logos to agendas to our learning reference shelf are in Docs, our resource hub.
  5. Trello: The boards in Trello mirror the channels in Slack, minus the Random category. Although on each board there is a backburner list for those great, intriguing ideas that just don’t push our current objectives forward at the moment.  I tried Google Keep, Wunderlist, Freedcamp and a few others, Trello beat them all out. It is visual, colorful, customizable, has good mobile apps, easy to share, it’s like digital Post Its.
  6. The Weekly Newsletter: Three or four paragraphs summarizing the week’s events, successes and failures with learning links and personal accomplishments outside of the company.
  7. Slack: great tool for communicating with team members. In most cases, it replaces email and text messaging.  It is where we share our learning, connect as a team and gain momentum from the work others are completing.  Discussions happen in various channels related to specific subjects.  Currently we run four channels:
    1. General: Check out the Doodle to arrange this week’s Hangout.
    2. Random: I just watched “The Artist is Present” and it was amazing. It’s on Netflix.
    3. Community Engagement: Idea for the question of the week: How can teachers involve students in the process of giving feedback to edtech companies?
    4. Customer Development: Spoke with a company this morning that needs world language teachers to help develop an online tool to save student speech for a portfolio.

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The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry is an outline, a plan, a system for maximizing your productivity as a creative person.  The book explores the dynamics of independent and team work, the “assassins” of creativity and provides concrete hints to developing a creative rhythm.  Henry summarizes his philosophy in the introduction: “If you want to deliver the right idea at the right moment, you must begin the process far upstream from when you need that idea.”

Here are some of our favorite quotes:

The most significant dissonance within organizations exists when the “why” of our work isn’t lining up with the “what” we are doing daily.  This makes it difficult for us to know how to engage in our work.


Unnecessary complexity is an unfortunate, but natural, result of organizational growth.


Paranoia undoes greatness.


Your mind has developed patters which enables it to predict what comes next, but this can leave us stuck in mental ruts and prevent us from seeing opportunities.


Use these questions to determine a project strategy:

  • Why?: Are we doing this work? What purpose does it serve?
  • Who?: Whose approval is required? Who needs to be involved? Who are we reaching?
  • What?: What are we trying to accomplish?
  • When?: When are the hard and soft deadlines?
  • Where?: Where will the results appear?
  • How?: How will we accomplish those objectives? What is the most appropriate way to solve these problems?


Look for redzone activities:

  • Activities that you can uniquely do or add value to because of your position or expertise and that move a project forward.
  • Activities that increase your personal capacity to generate ideas, such as study, ideation or information gathering.
  • Activities that provide cohesion or creative traction for your team.
  • Activities that feed your energy.

Further listening and viewing:

Accidental Creative podcast

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Ingenius by Tina Seelig

Stanford University professor Tina Seelig brings the reader through a “Crash Course on Creativity” and in the process gives us guidelines for brainstorming, ideas about creative spaces and much more.  As the preface states, “With enhanced creativity, instead of problems you see potential, instead of obstacles you see opportunities, and instead of challenges you see a chance to create breakthrough solutions.”

Here are some of our favorite quotes:

Mastering the ability to reframe problems is an important tool because it unlocks a vast array of solutions.


Acute observation is a key skill for gaining knowledge that’s valuable.


Being able to connect and combines non-obvious ideas and objects is essential for innovation and a key part of the creative process. Along with your ability to reframe problems, it engages your imagination. Essentially you need to be able to reorganize and rearrange the things you know and the resources you have in order to come up with brand new ideas.


Successful innovation results from trying lots of approaches to solving a particular problem and keeping what works. If you aren’t throwing away a large percent of your ideas, then you aren’t trying enough options.


The longer you work on an idea, the more attached you become. Therefore you should share your work when it is still raw and get comments.


Experimentation should be coupled with the ability to turn on a dime when it’s clear that your current strategy isn’t working. Move fast-break things.


Further reading and viewing:

Tina’s Insights on Creativity (Interview)

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Rita Chesterton, a Startup Journey and Just Plain Old Hard Work

Everybody has an idea for an app, but Rita Chesterton put in the time and hard work to make it happen.  June Labs sits down with Rita to explore her journey as an educator, entrepreneur and co-founder of Skaffl.

1)  Talk about the transition from working in a school to being a founder of your company.  How did you decide to take the leap?

I came up with the idea for Skaffl while I was the technology specialist at my district about two years ago. My first co-founder, Mike, is the director of technology for the school district that I used to work at. At first we started creating the wireframes and the working on the business plan on nights, weekends, and during our lunch break. I juggled my full time job at the district and what was fast becoming a full time job with Skaffl for as long as I could. This past January we received some funding from Ben Franklin Technology Partners and were accepted as a part of the LearnLaunchX accelerator in Boston. I knew that it was time to take the leap. There was way more to be done than I could do just being part time. My technical co-founder, Matt and I both left our jobs and started working full time at bringing Skaffl to market.

2) Related question: What was the timeline like?  Take us from idea to company. 

As I mentioned I had the idea about 2 years ago. At first it was just Mike and I, we didn’t have the skills to build the product or the resources to hire anyone. We spoke with some investors and other successful entrepreneurs and just about everyone told us that we needed a technical co-founder, someone who could build the product. For about six months we went to just about every tech MeetUp we could find in a 60 mile radius and asked everyone we knew if they knew anyone that might be interested. We had a couple of early leads that didn’t work out. Finally, though a local tech MeetUp we learned about a StartupWeekend here in the Lehigh Valley. We decided that it was a great opportunity and took it. That’s where we met Matt, now the CTO. He joined our team at SUW, and along with the other team members helped bring the team to victory.

That first place win went a long way to establishing credibility with some local investors. It also helped us to bring Matt on board. At first he was like the rest of us working nights and weekends to get the product working.  We were all part time when we were accepted to be a part of the Tech Crunch Battlefield in San Francisco in Sept 2013, at this point we had 4 founders. We brought in Angie to help with design and marketing shortly after Matt. The week before our on stage presentation the four of us spent a week working together in an Air B&B apartment in San Francisco 24/7. It was the first time we were all together for an extended period of time, and it’s when we knew that we had the right team. It was four more months before Matt and I could start working full time together as a team. We’ve since hired our first full time employee, our iOS developer, Floyd.

3)  What have been the major challenges along the way?

There are always a million things to do, and you never have enough time or money to do them all. Balancing fundraising, marketing, product development is difficult when you are a small team like we are. But we have a strong group of advisors and they really help.

4)  Why do you think we see more educators becoming entrepreneurs?  Is this helpful?  What advice would you give educators interested in learning about entrepreneurship?

I think teachers are tired of being forced to use products that don’t work in the classroom.

It’s easy for people to think that they know what schools need, after all, most of us have been to school. But having gone to school, having a child in school, and being an educator are different things.

I am excited about all the “teacherpreneurs” that I see entering the edtech space these days. We’re bringing change and disruption to the space from the inside, and that’s what education technology needs.

I would say that if you are a teacher and have a solution to a problem that you see in the classroom, go for it. It’s not going to be an easy journey, but teachers are used to jobs that aren’t easy. If you don’t know anything about business you need to make sure to get good advisors, and to educate yourself as much as possible. This is especially important if you are going to be raising outside capital. I was lucky enough to win the opportunity, through Startup Weekend, to obtain a certificate from Lehigh University in Entrepreneurship. What I learned in those classes was invaluable to me as I’ve moved forward with this business. Also, LearnLaunchX had great classes about the edtech marketplace, I’ve made sure to always keep learning.

5) What observations have you made about the world of edtech from various angles, that of a teacher, entrepreneur?

Edtech is exploding right now. There are so many new tools for teachers to select from. There was a time that you had almost no choices as a teacher, and now you have so many. As a teacher it’s almost overwhelming. I’m always telling teachers to just find the few tools that work for them and then add a new one if something stops working or once they have mastered what they are using. The key word in EdTech is Education. Technology has to fit the situation and provide a meaningful benefit, otherwise there is no need for it in your classroom.  I think the next 5 years are going to see technology becoming more and more ubiquitous in classrooms as we see improvements in broadband and expansions in 1:1 and BYOD programs. I also think that we are going to hear less talk about the tools and more about the pedagogy…. or at least I hope so.

6) What inspires you? What has to change in education as it related to technology? Or vice versa, how does the tech world have to change to better serve education?

I loved teaching, and I miss it every day. I miss watching students learn something new, that aha moment, that moment when they are totally engaged in what they are learning. It’s that love of teaching that inspires me to make sure that I make Skaffl a tool that really helps teachers teach and students learn.

I think that we need to stop thinking about the technology and start thinking more about what we want it to do for us. The difference between a school with a successful 1:1 implementation and a failed one is that the successful school had a vision for what they were going to do with the tools, what they wanted to achieve. All too often I see excitement about the tool and not about the learning. What matters most is whether or not our students are learning what they need to learn to be successful later in life. The tech world can do that by taking more time to learn about what teachers and students really need in the classroom. That way we can avoid spending so much money on devices and programs that are sometimes barely touched.


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Reshan Richards, Explain Everything and the Edtech Frontier

Recently, I asked Reshan Richards if he would be open to doing an interview with June Labs for this blog.  He happily agreed. Not only was he interested in an interview, he also invited the Explain Everything team into the conversation, eventually sending over 6 pages of insights to us.  Get ready to learn from someone who has spent the last 13 years walking the frontier where education and technology meet.  Here we go:

1) Reshan, Bartosz, and Piotr – first, tell us a little bit about you and your experiences with the world of education and edtech.

Reshan: My first job right out of college was 5th Grade Math Teacher and “Technology Assistant.” That latter title is a bit vague (both when I was hired and still today!) but basically I was in charge of unjamming printers, changing copier toner, connecting network cables, plugging thing in, and turning them off and on again. It was actually a great experience because I had no qualifications to do that kind of work (same with the teaching) but I learned so much by just jumping in and trying to figure things out. It was a nice organization with terrific mentors. Eventually, I went back to school and completed my Ed.M in Teaching and Learning at Harvard and started to focus on the intersection of technology and teaching — less IT and more ed tech. When I went back to working at a school, my job was centered around technology integration and leading ed tech-focused professional development.

Bartosz: I was lucky to be the son of a teacher so I was connected to educational experiences from the very beginning. These experiences resulted in a lifelong interest in understanding and achieving self-motivation and self-development. When I was seventeen, I blended my interest in technology with teaching and started translating books about computers from English to Polish (my main language) and then when I was nineteen, I started to publish my own books. Since then I have always found it fascinating to convey complex ideas or issues and make them understandable.

Piotr: My mother was an English teacher and I have experienced a blend of Polish, American and British education. I was a foreign exchange student in the US (Longview, WA for 12th grade) and my first computer was a BBC Model B — an educational 8-bit micro produced in the UK. I have been a business software consultant for more than 15 years, but this seems boring when compared to working in education. Thanks to Explain Everything, I feel like a meta-teacher, providing tools that are used by teachers around the world.

2) Explain Everything, the interactive whiteboard and screencasting app that you created for the iPad recently celebrated its 3 year anniversary.  Can you tell us about your journey from idea to app to today? What obstacles did you encounter? We love details.

Piotr:  For a number of years, Bart and I had a hobby of making funny (sometimes absurd) MP3 podcasts and we thought about filming them as well. The budget to make real movies with our ideas (space, aliens, large explosions, monsters destroying whole city quarters, destruction of Jupiter and other planets) would have been totally prohibitive so the only plausible way to capture our ideas was simple cartoons, similar to Terry Gilliam’s cut scenes between Monty Python sketches.

The concept of the app appeared in my head in June, 2008 when a colleague from my corporate job showed me a cartoon that he had made. The cartoon was 2 minutes long — it was a funny political satire. He told me that it took him 4 days to make the video. This was the spark that inspired me to finally try filming our podcasts as cartoons!  I downloaded a number of animation apps for the Mac and PC. But they were very difficult to use and everything took a long time to do.

So I decided to build my own animation app, one that could record movement as a “puppet show.” I did this on the Mac because I liked the Mac development studio Xcode very much. It was elegant and usable.  After a week I had a working proof of concept. It was a simple app that displayed a funny face that you could move around a checkered window and record its movement. It was quite cool, but a lot of work was needed to make a real working app out of this. Several months later, the project was barely progressing. Having a full time job. I did not have much time to work on it.

In September, 2009, Bart and I were driving to a concert and we talked about my animation app project. Bart said, “If you don’t have the time to do it yourself, hire a Computer Science student and let him finish the project for you.” This was a good idea! I hired a programmer and together worked long nights, establishing what needs to be done and how to do it. We were meeting every week in person and working every day, communicating on Skype. They were fantastic long hours and we regularly stayed up until 2 am.

Bart was always saying that our ideas — and we had many — lacked a business component. At that time, we formed a small company, a virtual assistant startup, together with his high school friend. I joined partially, so we were only meeting every now now and then and I was showing Bart the progress of the app.

At the end of 2009, there were rumors about Apple reinventing the tablet. It seemed like an ideal device for an animation app so we took the risk and ported the Mac app to iOS. We developed it further, testing it out only on an iPod Touch and waited for the iPad to appear.

The iPad appeared in April of 2010 and it was then that Bart increased his involvement with the app. The virtual assistant idea has not been progressing well but he saw another opportunity with the animation app. Bart designed the front screen and had a lot of creative ideas about the frame editor and the graphic design of the app. It took us another 5 months to polish up the app and prepare it for the submission to the App Store.

I remember my trembling hands when at the end of September 2010, I was uploading the first PhotoPuppet to the App Store. I could barely sleep the night it finally got accepted. I knew that it was impossible, but still dreamed about waking up a millionaire – or at least having thousands of downloads the first day.

This was really naïve. We flopped. We flopped miserably. We got about 50 downloads throughout the entire month of October. The app was too expensive ($7.99), too difficult to use, and looked too odd. We did not target it at any particular audience.

Bart was working three separate jobs to keep up with the company’s expenses and I was moonlighting for months, trying to promote Photopuppet while spending my savings. I was looking all over the Internet — Google, Yahoo, Bing, Twitter — for anyone who was interested in the app or was using it.

On one particular day, I found a single Tweet leading to a post by Reshan who had just downloaded PhotoPuppet and was musing about its many features. I immediately emailed Bart and noted, “This guy will kick ass, let’s give it some time.” This time I was right.

At that time, we started working on an improved version of PhotoPuppet. We wanted to get it right this time! We assembled a better team and hired a graphic designer to make cool graphics for us. We created a unique “paperlike” interface. We added new features (e.g., you could cut out a part of your mouth on a photo and make it move in a Southpark-like fashion).

We released PhotoPuppet HD in March 2011 and it was selling better as the original one, but nowhere near our expectations. At that time we’ve had spent most of our own money and we were really close to zero on our bank accounts. We tried to sell a third of MorrisCooke to our friends for $10K, but no-one was willing to buy. Everyone looked at us like we were crazy.

While all of this was going on, we were having conversations with Reshan. We talked over email and Skype. Reshan wanted to make a screencasting app whose animation and action-logic was just like PhotoPuppet, but redesigned for education with a different user interface, added tools like drawings and shapes, and a slide structure.

The three of us were working on similar concepts simultaneously but from different points of view. Initially, we considered creating a special version of PhotoPuppet for Reshan as subcontractors, but our innovative animation engine behind it had been very expensive to make, and Reshan could not afford to license it so Bart had a different idea. He proposed to form a partnership, as he figured out that in order to succeed, we have to set a shared goal. Reshan would be able to make the app he envisioned and we could further work on our unique animation engine, sharing expenses and revenues with him.

It was quite straightforward to partner with Reshan as we immediately understood each other.

He would also complete our team’s skillset by adding his abilities and background. Looking back, this turned out to be the perfect blend of hobbyist enthusiasm, technology and education.

We made a chart of features showing how many functions for the screencasting app we’d had already and how many still needed to be developed. Not a lot, it seemed. We thought that preparing a modified version of PhotoPuppet would take 3 months. And it did take about 3 months.

On August 19th, 2011, Explain Everything got approved by Apple. Reshan started sharing it out and got several influential educators and bloggers to tweet and write about it.

The app had a very good reception. We passed 10K downloads in 4 months. The we passed 100K downloads in a year. We have seen an increasing download pace ever since and currently the download rate is about 100K per month. At the time of writing, Explain Everything has been downloaded by almost 1.5 million people around the world.

We have been constantly updating and improving the app since the very beginning (and occasionally bringing back features from PhotoPuppet, such as the timeline), so this is also one of the reasons that iPad users have been choosing Explain Everything and using it daily.

3) What advice do you have for educators who have a great idea for an app or other tech tool for teaching and learning?

Bart: Always remember that the killer idea you have is not necessarily unique. It almost never is. Consider the invention of the light bulb or quasar research — there is always one or two individuals or teams who had similar concepts and are currently working on it. So, if you have a good idea the key is in the execution. Focus on bringing the right team together. In today’s complicated world, inventions and discoveries are never done by a single person. And also think economically — what value will the app or tool bring versus the costs to create a complete product out of your idea. If it is worth it, loosen your brakes and go for it!

Reshan: Do some research on what is already out there first. It might be possible to find something that is close to or almost like your idea but just needs some adjustments or pivots. The person or people who made that app or tool usually deeply care about it, if for no reason but the time and effort it took to make it available. Reach out to them and if there is a spark of interest, create some sort of mutual Non-Disclosure agreement so that both sides can have a more open dialogue.

I have had informal conversations with people who are very nervous about sharing their ideas out of fear of someone stealing the concept. Even if it is a good idea, it still takes a lot of work and time to do it well. And then even if it is done well it takes a lot of work and time (and luck) for it to catch on.

Piotr: You have to be patient and find someone that you feel a natural connection with. Don’t settle for a generic developer that would treat your app as “just another app”. This can prove difficult!

Do not treat the concept of “apps” as generic objects – all of them are original ideas, although it has been changing and somewhat degrading through the last 6-8 years. There is a belief that an app is something small and easy to make when in reality this could not be farther from the truth.

Just a few years ago, what we call an “app” today was called a “program” and cost $40 or more. Today, apps are sold for $0.99 but the amount of time and money needed to make them have not magically shrunk by a factor of 40. And there is another problem: there are a large number of “spam” (or just really low quality) apps on the market that make it difficult to discover the really valuable or well-designed ones in the app stores. This perpetuates the status degradation of the “app.”

An app that can thrive in this landscape must be innovative, and in education it must have features that students and educators need while being easy to use. It has to be so easy that it could be used everyday, just like a toothbrush!

4) Reshan, in your years as an educator and researcher, what changes have you seen in educational technology? What are you hopeful or excited about in the field? What are you skeptical about?

Reshan: One promising shift I am starting to see is the way that some school leaders are making the distinction between educational technology (tech in the day-to-day classrooms), information technology (technology infrastructure and support), and computer science (its own academic discipline). For a long time “technologists” in schools have been a kind of catch-all. They help other teachers use tech in their classrooms, they do technology support for hardware and systems, and they might teach a programming or robotics class. Today these strands still have a lot of synergy and interdependence, but there is now also a role for someone who has talents and interests in just one of the strand, even if he or she might have done the other two things in a past life.

I’m always skeptical about measuring the success of a learning intervention by only counting one variable: the technology. I think it is a broad statement to say that any technology by itself helps students learn better. Learn what? Learn how?

Sure, it is possible to say that without the technology being present the learning intervention would have been less successful, but that does not make it the only factor. I think its much more important to think about the contexts — people, relationships, institutional culture, resources, etc. — but it’s just hard to visualize and measure those things.

5) It seems that many apps and websites are merely digital versions of analog teaching tools. A game in which students destroy meteors to complete addition problems isn’t much different than flipping through math facts written on index cards.  Sure there is the engagement component but pedagogically, it’s really just rote memorization.  What are your thoughts on this? In your role as Director of Educational Technology, how do you evaluate educational technology to ensure that it is a valuable for classrooms? What criteria do you consider?

Bart: Technology for technology’s sake doesn’t cut it. The evaluation of educational technology should examine the pros and cons in the process of learning. What is enriched with technology? What is taken away by it? There are many factors to be considered if you think of learning or understanding by using the notion of a hermeneutic circle. One’s understanding of a concept as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts, and one’s understanding of each individual part is established by reference to the whole.

I would want to see classroom technology help people improve their understanding of individual parts of what is to be learned and stimulating cross-referencing. This is drastically different from the foundational idea of computers — they were meant to reduce workload!  This is not something you necessarily want to do in education. Interactive Whiteboards are a good example —  it’s like digital paper. But paper itself does not allow you to capture process so you can spot the moment of error in one’s thinking. You cannot add a video to a paper — no glue or paper clip does it. With an interactive whiteboard you can. You can use it to “write an essay” explaining physical motion but using a time lapse video instead of just words.

Reshan: I think every learning activity (including math facts index cards and meteors) have to be examined in the context of the learning goal. If the memorization of the facts is the learning goal, then I am concerned. But maybe the memorization is part of a bigger goal to build short term recall in order to access a different and more meaningful cognitive channel that will turn those short term facts into long-term, transferable understanding. Please don’t confuse this for a pro-memorization argument; it’s just an example of how I try to understand what I observe.

In my role at my school we try to make all of our decisions that guide our leadership with the teachers and students with a similar mentality to what I describe above. Trace the choices back to the school’s mission or to the learning goals. Consider the value added. Weight the value added against the cost — and not just initial monetary costs. There are human costs, time costs, replacement and maintenance costs. Basically you have to balance the theoretical with the practical, all while factoring the contexts that I talked about before.

6) Reshan, on your website you describe one of your goals as: “uncovering how emerging technologies can be used to capture and mediate discourse that data-driven approaches are not capable of measuring.” Have you seen any shifts in the educational landscape that indicate a movement away from a strong emphasis on standardized testing and, a focus on numerical data for assessment?  What can educators do to counteract this trend and still evaluate students in meaningful ways?

Reshan: I tend to see evidence of this shift at the ground level in the work and projects made with apps like Explain Everything that are shared online. Working at an independent school I am shielded from the direct pressure of these external factors, but I sometimes worry that students and teachers are doing amazing things in spite of the top-down decision making that they are beholden to and not because of good leadership.

I think that the more people share what they are doing and how they are assessing learning in less quantitative ways — whether it’s online or at conferences or in publications or even at faculty meetings — the more likely there can a large-scale definition (or understanding) of assessment and evaluation. Sometimes it is difficult to explain things in (just) words, which is why I think Explain Everything has had such a positive reception since its launch.

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Three Easy Routines to Boost Your Creativity

We recently reached out to a number of educators in the June Labs cohort and asked them about creativity routines.  We wanted to share three great examples.

1) Creativity Circles

Here is an easy one that you can complete within a few minutes when you wake up or any time of day.  Jump to 9:50 in the following TED talk below to hear Tim Brown of IDEO describe the circle exercise.  We found a simple printable template that will help you get started.

If you struggle to come up with ideas for drawing in the circles, consider adding some constraints or variations.  Try printing different size circles or working with a specific challenge like:

  • redesign the alphabet
  • invent a new number system
  • use only three lines per circle
  • change the time limit
  • draw inside and outside of the circles

2) Morning Pages

A stream of conscious writing exercise recommended by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way.  Three pages every day.  It is a simple act with the power to slowly chip away at those thoughts that say, “I am not creative.”.

More about Morning Pages

3) Sketch a Haiku

Haiku poetry, known for its beauty and simplicity, is the springboard for this exercise.  Find a book of haiku or grab a list from the internet, add some scrap paper and try to sketch a poem a day.  Consider applying constraints just like with the circles above. Haikus are limited by syllables, how can you limit your sketches and still communicate the essence?



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Rework by Jason Fried

Rework by Jason Fried. A collection of essays, perhaps better described as a manifesto about building a business that you believe in and doing the best work possible.  These short yet powerful missives chip away at our ineffective habits, constrained thought patterns and often ill-conceived notions about work, business, productivity, and life.

Here are some of our favorite quotes:

“Give up on the guesswork. Decide what you are going to do this week, not this year. Figure out the next most important thing and do that. Make decisions right before you do something, not far in advance.”


“Ideas are cheap and plentiful…the real question is how well you execute.”


“Great businesses have a point of view not just a product or service.  You have to believe in something. You need to have a backbone. You need to know what you’re willing to fight for. And then you need to show the world.”


“Whenever you can, swap “let’s think about it” for “let’s decide on it.” Don’t wait for a perfect solution. Decide and move forward.”


“Embrace the idea of having less mass. The more massive an object, the more energy is needed to change its direction. Mass is increased by: long-term contracts, excess staff, permanent decisions, meetings, thick process, inventory (physical or mental), hardware, software or tech lock-ins, long term road maps and office politics.”


“Culture is the by-product of of consistent behavior. If you encourage people to share, then sharing will be built into you culture.”

Further reading and viewing:

Signals vs Noise (official blog of 37 Signals aka Basecamp)


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Julie Lindsay, Connectivism and Flat Classrooms

Does Julie Lindsay sleep?  I am skeptical. My bet is after you read this interview with her, you’ll be skeptical too.  Julie’s incredible collection of roles include educator, innovator, leader, conference organizer, consultant, speaker, lecturer, and more. Following her work around the globe with a map of push pins and string would result in a complicated multidirectional weave of many destinations and connection both in person and virtual: Beijing, Melbourne, Washington DC, Dhaka, among others. Weeks away from the Flat Connections Conference, June Labs sat down to talk with Julie to talk about her awesome work.

1) As you meet people around the world, what inspires you most about education and its future?  If you can share a specific story, perhaps from your recent travels in India or elsewhere.

What is inspiring about the future of education is the willingness of teachers and schools to use digital technologies to connect and collaborate. Uptake in the past 8 or so years has been slow generally, but now that more schools have access through mobile devices and wireless Internet learning ubiquitously with others beyond the immediate school environment is growing.

Of the many examples I could share is a school in India, Choithram International School, who have taken on global learning this year and embedded global collaborative projects across the curriculum. All teachers are designing new learning experiences and joining global projects to provide experiential learning for global competence.

2) Similarly, what worries you about education? What obstacles are most seriously preventing innovation to occur?  Are there barriers that seem common to education regardless of location or monetary resources?

Oh yes! Similarities across the world with barriers include two main obstacles: mandatory testing, and Internet filtering – both of which I believe are not needed or perhaps only in very small amounts. These imposed restrictions are stifling creativity and preventing true digital citizenship skills to develop. At younger age levels it may be more necessary to filter learning resources, but what we are seeing is blatant blocking of tools such as Skype or Google e.g. YouTube and therefore preventing rich resources from being used in the classroom.

3) Do you see technology as a levelling tool for those in the developing world? Or is there a widening gap between those with access and those without?

Well in many respects technology is a levelling tool and developing countries have the opportunity to leap-frog over what many of us in schools have been through in the past 20 years. Mobile technologies and access to resources through different ways of connecting have and will continue to broaden opportunities for learning. Focus must be on teacher education however – and the importance of this has been highlighted in the #TeacherTuesday blog posts I have written recently as part of a UNESCO initiative to highlight education needs in different countries and situations.

In many respects the developing world are so focused on basic literacy that technology does not come into the picture. Poverty is cruel, and too many young people are living in politically unstable situations across the world. I do not see the digital divide widening between developing and non-developing world as I see it widening between different systems across the world. For example, schools in Australia have spent much money on Smartboard installations without giving enough thought to how technology can support connected and collaborative learning that leads to co-creation with others at a distance. Maybe a modern classroom needs a SmartBoard….I am not convinced of course…..pedagogically money is wasted and therefore other technologies are not afforded, such as iPads and access to good Internet speeds.

4) At June Labs, our mission is to develop structures which allow educators and students to participate in the creation of tools that they will use in their classrooms.  We are building a bridge between the companies that develop the technologies and the people in schools. How can educators work to build more bridges across the many rivers that separate people?

What you are doing is admirable and forward thinking in many respects. Actually asking students what they think about learning, how they want to learn and with what tools is not common in my experience. Too many meetings and conferences around the world focus on what we all think the students need – without actually asking them – or in fact asking the teachers what they really need for learning. Building bridges is a major focus of the Flat Connections Conference ( that brings together both students and teachers at the same live event. A challenge-based process sees student teams and teacher teams develop action plans for future learning, while bouncing ideas off each other for feedback and improvement. Our Flat Connections global projects are also building bridges between classrooms by providing the support and infrastructure for students and teachers to work and learn together. This is beyond the casual global Skype call, learning how to contribute to an online community in a meaningful way is a skill everyone needs to learn – students especially will need this for future vocation.

Educators need to, what we call, ‘flatten’ the classroom walls and bring opportunities into the everyday learning of their classroom. Learning cannot be in isolation now – there are many great programs and initiatives that teachers can hook into that use connection technologies to support collaborative learning, and that give students a voice in their own pathway of learning. This is very important. We call teachers who are open to these new learning experiences ‘teacherpreneurs’. Each school must have at least one – and then build capacity within the rest of the staff.

5) Can you give us a top ten list of action items that educators could do to push our organizations towards the future?

1. Become connected –  this is the top of the list! Connect your self to the world as an educator and explore connectivism as a learning paradigm (George Siemens) and use digital technologies to share and curate resources.
2. Be open to alternatives – work within your system, but push the boundaries  -and NEVER take NO for an answer. There is always a way, even if websites are blocked etc, there are always alternative ways to reach the same goal.
3. Develop better leadership models – most are outdated within schools – develop a more distributed leadership model where teachers have some autonomy with curriculum and other choices for learning – promote the ‘teacherpreneur’.
4. Work with the technology you have – great things can be achieved with one computer in a class, so don’t put off connecting with the world because of a perceived lack of resources. Keep working on improved resources while leading the way in global learning – it just takes planning and determination.
5. Build communities – use your new-found connectedness and join and build communities that will support you, your school and your students. Professional development is often online now – we are flattening the learning by including alternative conferences where opportunities take place anywhere, anytime. It is through joining and participating in communities that new experiences build capacity as a teacher.

Learn more about Julie and her projects:

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