Annu: Hi everyone, this is Tech in EdTech. In this podcast, we discuss technology that powers education and improves learning for all. Welcome to today's episode, where we are going to be talking about beyond professional development in the current day to the future of tech-enabled professional learning. I'm your host, Annu Singh - Chief Product Officer at Magic EdTech. Our esteemed guest today is Amber Orenstein - Senior Vice President of Product at Better Lesson. Amber, thanks for joining today. Welcome.
Amber: Thanks so much for having me, I really appreciate the chance to talk to you today, Annu.
Annu: Great. So, to start us off, do share how you got into EdTech and joined your current company Better Lesson?
Amber: Sure. You know, I've worked in education for my whole career. So, I, you know, after graduating from my undergrad, I did a program called Teach for America and I taught in my hometown of Chicago. And, you know, I always thought that maybe this would be a two year stop. But I did not expect to fall in love with teaching the way that I did. So, I was a middle school math teacher for five years. And I actually was a user of Better Lessons. So Better Lesson was started in 2008 as a platform for teachers, master teachers, to share best practices and lesson plans. And as a teacher, I oftentimes visited the site to use the resources. And so, when I left the classroom, and in 2013, I, you know, I took a customer success role, which is a really common transition for a lot of teachers at an EdTech nonprofit called Mind Research where they make a wonderful product called ST Math. And while working in customer success, I had all these questions about what our product could and couldn't do and why and the things, the use cases that could accommodate the things that just didn't support. And it really brought me down a journey to learn more about product management, I was very lucky to have a wonderful mentor at the company that really helped me transition onto the product side of the house, and I never looked back. So, I've had the real fortune to chase something I'm so passionate about creating a more equitable world for, for our students, through technology, and through the craft of product management. So that's taken me from mind to the startup space. Most recently, before joining Better Lesson at imagine learning, a wonderful company where we built language literacy, and mathematics products. And, you know, really, for the most for most of my time at EdTech I worked on adaptive products for students. And over the last year, year and a half, during the pandemic, I really reconnected back to this idea that the magic that happens in schools, the amazing things that change the lives of students ultimately live with, with the success of their teachers, right and creating great outcomes for their students. And so, at Better Lesson, we build professional learning experiences for teachers that go well beyond the single days of professional development that you kind of dread when you're in the classroom. And so, it's a real honor to have come full circle back to a product that I used as a teacher, helping the company transform and scale into the next phase.
Annu: Such a positive journey. For me, the passion kind of comes through what teachers and also great to hear that you were actually using Better Lessons and kind of shows you the awesome job Better Lesson is doing right now. So, the next one, the last year and a half of pandemic, actually building upon what you just said, right? As an industry, we've been talking about the missed learnings, learning gaps for students, and how the teaching strategies need to evolve to meet those needs. So talk to us about teachers and their role in pandemic times and the support they need for their professional growth to meet these new challenges.
Amber: Oh, of course, yeah. I mean, being a teacher has always been wildly difficult, right? It's an incredibly difficult job. It goes so far beyond the hours of the school day and the planning you do on the weekends and the planning you do during the summer. You know it, it is such an emotional, an emotional and invested job, you know, our teachers do so much. And so, during the pandemic, I think what was what was really the “aha” moment is especially I would say coming from at the time working in digital adaptive learning products is like there's no replacement. For a high-quality teacher, there's just there's nothing like a teacher that is well prepared that can anticipate the needs of their students, and that can really look at the whole child. And so, I think when we think about the role of the teacher during the times of the pandemic, I think it's just really amplified. We think about teachers and their connections to communities, social and emotional learning, or their ability to understand, you know, the impact of trauma and, you know, challenges that students are facing in their personal lives and their ability to learn and so this idea that, yes, like students have missed learning. And yes, they may miss out on ELA and math, but students are also experiencing trauma, they're also experiencing a lot of challenges that make it really hard to engage in those topics at all. Teachers are really there to support through that. And that is incredibly tough work for teachers because teachers have to process their own trauma of the pandemic, right, teachers have to process all of the challenges that they're facing personally. So that way they can show up. So, I think that that for, you know, for, for better or worse, I hope that the pandemic has showed all of us on that teachers do so much more than teach reading and math, right, they do much more that is so pivotal, in supporting students as whole people. And to do that we have to support teachers in that same way.
Annu: Absolutely agree, you know, not just as a profession, and, you know, education is a passion for technology, too. But as a parent, right? For me, I've got two kids, one goes to elementary, one goes to middle school, and the impact, like you said, such an emotional investment from a teacher perspective. And that's what I can see in my kids, too, right, as students. So compelling to see them back they have and we must, like I said, must do what we can, what we should to ensure we're investing in the teachers. So, tell us a little bit more about Better Lesson.
Annu: The history.
Amber: Of course, I'm coming to you live from our home office or home base in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Better Lesson was founded in 2008, by Alex Rod, and Aaron Osborne. And the mission is simple and clear. It's to support every teacher in developing the next generation of resourceful, compassionate and resilient learners. And so, originally, we started as we continue to support nearly 700,000 monthly active users with a free platform to access experts, strategies, and lesson plans and resources to make teaching just a little bit easier. That was really the core foundation of what we do. And it's still a huge part of what we do here. About a decade ago, we also started to offer professional learning services. So, workshops, both in-person and online, as well as virtual coaching. In fact, and you know, I have no one to tell me otherwise, but we started virtual one on one coaching for educators, for teachers, principals, and district staff seven years ago, which I believe makes us the first to ever offer that type of executive-style coaching for educators. At the core of what we believe is that teachers are professionals, and they deserve to be treated that way. Oftentimes, professional learning, I look back on my own time teaching and you know, Chicago public schools, and you would have these disconnected professional learning experiences, maybe five to 10 days, every school year, where you would attend a workshop, and then you were supposed to do something, but it was never really clear, like what to do, or how to implement what we learned. And so what we do a Better Lesson that I think is really special and very different is we don't just sell one-off workshops, right? We don't just provide a one-day webinar, we really designed very intentionally pathways of learning that help teachers go from an awareness of something new to ownership of that, and how we connect that is through a series of workshops intersected with our digital asynchronous resources, as well as coaching one on one. So that way, teachers and administrators can get expert support, you know, one on one in a really safe, intentional space where they can safely try, measure, and learn the things they're learning in our initial workshops. And so that really helped the concept stick and go from abstract to practical in schools.
Annu: Yeah. So great, good view of the mission, as well as some of the unique things that the company is trying to do. If you want to just summarize for our listeners today, right? What problem is your company trying to solve, like, in general, specific to the proximal development of teachers, teacher development and growth, teacher retention? Those areas?
Amber: Yeah, of course. I think that this is a… I think our thesis is relatively simple. You improve teacher practice, you improve their ability to focus on student-centered learning outcomes, you're going to create stronger student outcomes. When we talk about teacher attrition, because you see it all over the news, it is not new. I think a lot of folks about the pandemic have learned that the pandemic just shined a brighter light on inequities and challenges in our education system that people had ignored for a long time. You know, today teacher attrition is looking like one in four. Right? So, if you can imagine your kiddos and their teachers, 25% of them are likely to leave their school buildings this year. Before the pandemic it was one in six but a decade ago, it was one in 8. 20 years ago it was more like one in 12. Right, so this pattern has been in play for quite some time. When you look at the data right, there's a 2020 study from the RAND Institute, they talk about the number one reason teachers leave by far and away is stress, right. Where does stress come from? Like, when I think about stress as a product leader stress as a teacher, it's when I feel like I'm not going to succeed, right. It's when I feel like I'm failing, and I can't seem to get out of that. And so, what we're doing it Better Lesson, in its most sincere in earnest terms is, is creating an environment where teachers can feel success and confidence in their work, where they can feel supported and ready for the next day, and maybe the next week and the next year. And so, we very much hope to be a part of the solution in helping teachers stay in the classroom, because we really need them more than ever.
Annu: I think this is so important for all of us. Individual, families, communities, right, as a society, what you're doing, I think so compelling. Going from one to 20, to one in four, nearly a lifetime increase. That's substantial, right for such a key role of shaping our future generations. So, pulling on that string a little bit, right. So again, summarize beyond just the problems, what makes these problems so crucial?
Amber: Yeah, I think the, there's just no substitute. You know, in I went through a coding boot camp, when I first transitioned into products, I could learn to be a better communicator with my engineers. And the first thing they always tell you is that computers aren't very smart. But people are, there's just no substitute for a confident, well-prepared teacher when it comes to transforming outcomes for students, right, there's no, there's no substitute for them. So, there are fantastic digital adaptive products out in the market, they are awesome. They are wonderful tools. In fact, the average school district uses over 1000 of them. But none of those tools, if they're not implemented well, if they're not used right, by a master teacher, as part of their craft, those tools can't really do anything. And so right that there is no greater lever that we can pull for our students than supporting their educator at that point, the teachers, the principals and the district staff that really shape the learning environment for those students, there's nothing more important, right, then improving their practice and helping them feel successful.
Annu: So right, also looking at listening to another podcast, that was about you know, what motivates people essentially is, you know, motivation is within. But essentially, it's a combination of purpose, right, mastery, and autonomy, right? So, and if you have that combination, you can really be motivated, and the conference kind of comes from that. So, I can definitely see the impact you're having. So, moving on to the next part of our agenda, looking at pandemic and associated disruption in Edtech. So, in that context, how has the pandemic disrupted professional development for teachers? What are the changes that you had to make? And how is it playing out?
Amber: Yeah, well, I think in many ways, we were very well prepared as an organization, because we had already been offering virtual coaching, for several years before the pandemic, and virtual workshops. So, as you can imagine, during 2019, or 2020, you know, we went fully virtual. And luckily, we had the infrastructure to really support that pivot and that shift. I think one of the things that we've always done that we continue to do is, is talk directly to our users, right is talking to our teachers, talking to leaders, talking to our users, and seeking their input about the topics that they really want to get better in that they need to succeed. So, we really invested heavily in social and emotional learning and trauma-informed practice, because that's what our educators need support with, right? How do they… How do they, you know, support students through this like unprecedented, scary time. So, I think that's been really huge. As far as the virtual aspect of professional development, definitely, we've seen more and more teachers become comfortable with professional learning delivered virtually. And what's been super cool. And I think this is, this is a sort of bright spot is that, you know, teachers are professionals, and they're also lifelong learners just like their students, right? You don't just become a teacher and suddenly stop learning, right? We're always learning all of us as people. And so, what's been really cool is that even as in you know, this year, as schools have returned to in-person, a lot of our school partners have actually invested in continuing to use virtual events as one way to provide more differentiation for their staff. So, this over the summer, you know, we had districts that in the past would have done two or three different in person workshops with us due to space constraints. But this year, the same district offered 20 different virtual options. And teachers were able to opt into things that were of interest or value to them as professionals and so really leaning into that comfort with technology has allowed districts to provide more tailored differentiation, we've seen a huge increase in the number of educators engaging in our one-on-one virtual coaching because folks are just more comfortable with technology now. And so, we're able to provide significantly more tailored attention using technology to the needs of so many educators across the country.
Annu: And very timely, I think you mentioned that over 1000 tools, right? That's a lot of learning curve over there, as well as the social-emotional learning. And, and if you look at even from the social changes, that we have the focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, right, the law, which is the boss can keep on evolving for educators. And what you're doing for me is so extremely important, more than ever, and continue to be doing that. So, thanks again, for what you and Better Lesson are doing.
Amber: Of course. Yeah, it's, it's definitely important, you know, important work to think about, that's over 1000 tools, transitioning from virtual to in-person to hybrid, like there's been so many changes, right, that the more that we can support teachers and feeling a little bit grounded, focused, supported and successful really helps them navigate like the the changing waters, I think with a bit more confidence.
Annu: Right. So, we've heard and spoken a lot about learning when teachers have to adapt as well. Right? And they've definitely going beyond like you mentioned above and beyond they do when it comes to helping the students, right? How can we all help support them with that, right. And we can also encounter some Better Lesson. And if you want to talk about the industry, too, right?
Amber: Yeah, I think that this is something that, you know, I think is really unique about Better Lessons, something that when I joined the company, I was really excited about is that we focus our professional learning in two different areas. One is, and really a lot of our work is focused on learner-centered practice. So, things like social and emotional learning, our student-centered mathematics. But we also partner with highly Ed reports, green-rated curriculum partners, and high-quality curriculum providers to actually support their products with implementation support, right. So, we build professional learning pathways, you know, series of workshops, and coaching, and digital asynchronously access strategies. We build all of that to support high-quality curriculum partners. So that way the teachers can actually succeed in implementing these programs, you know, something that you hear a lot in schools, you'll hear from teachers at a training for new software tool, you know, the, “oh, you know, another program.” And so, I think one of the things that we can all think about is the ecosystem and the schedule, right? How do all the tools and, and learnings kind of fit together in the day of the teacher, because when those things make sense is when they feel coherent and supportive of one another, the teacher is able to get the most out of the tools they're using the professional learning they're attending, that ultimately allows their students to experience that same level of cohesion and support. So, I think, you know, regardless of what part of the EdTech space you work in, really having a great understanding about how what you're doing fits alongside those other tools, right? Surely some of us are competitors with one another. But ultimately, we are all in this together to provide exceptional support and experiences for students and educators. And so, understanding the dynamics, right, the full scope of the day, and that's something I'm really proud of that we do at Better Lesson through our work in learner-centered practice and curriculum support is really considering how do all professional learning experiences fit together? How does the curriculum right fit with best practice? How does the math curriculum fit with the English language arts curriculum, right? Thinking about all of those pieces together, you know that is really critical to helping teachers experience cohesion and consistency in their professional learning, which in turn allows students to experience that as well.
Annu: You’re So Right, this ecosystem has to work together, right? And the tools and the curriculums and the programs, they all need to be one cohesive solution for the teachers, right. So, very well said on that front. Any unique notable lessons that it looks like your production, and the teams are kind of responded well, any other notable lessons that you want to share with us?
Amber: You know, we are currently in the process of, of working on a new product for self-directed professional learning. And, you know, we've done a lot of research, we've talked to a lot of teachers, a lot of leaders about what they like and what they don't like about these. I think that oftentimes, it can be really easy to post a recording of a webinar and call that self-directed professional learning. And so, one of I think the biggest learnings that we've had and we're continuing to dive into, is like, what is best Practice for adult learning look like apply to teachers. And I think it's, it's frankly, a lot more than recording a webinar and throwing it online, right, there's a lot more to it. So our team is always looking to learn, you know, more and more kind of about those needs by talking directly to our teachers, and just and hearing from them and making, you know, and really building experiences that reflect back the things that they need, in just in time to support the technology really lets us do a great job of anticipating needs, evaluating patterns and making decisions that help, you know, not just address what people say that they want, but also addressing the things that they don't even know they want yet.
Annu: Absolutely. This is where the power comes in when you're talking to, doing the one on ones with a lot of teachers, you can actually bring that in as experts, right? So, one looking at the just kind of looking at the next part of the discussion, right, the future of professional development and the technology's role within, so education of the industry, we've been kind of laggards when it comes to technology transformation, you know, the pandemic change that. What direction do you see technology moving in? How are you and your teams kind of preparing for it?
Amber: Yeah, I think that's a that's a really powerful question. You know, I look back to about seven or eight years ago, you know, I was delivering professional development, and we had our first wave, the previous company of self-directed professional learning, and teachers weren't super keen on adopting it. Like, it just wasn't, it wasn't something that they were really into. And I think that the force that sort of the forced push to go digital has really increased teachers’ comfort with, with working online and really applying the same practices of personalized and blended learning to their own learning, which has been really powerful. So, as I mentioned, you know, we are in the process of developing and scaling a self-directed professional learning experience for our teachers. And we are doing this with really a lens of creating a coherent ecosystem, where our self-directed option isn't intended to replace the power of one-on-one coaching, right? The way that we're imagining what we're doing the way, the way we're rolling this out is the same way we've always rolled it out, which is to go beyond a single touchpoint, going beyond that single PD Day. For most teachers, professional development is like a random one day, then another thing three months later, and it's disjointed and disconnected. So, we've always, you know, thought about professional learning a Better Lesson as a connected experience, where you start with a workshop, you follow it up with coaching. And so, we're folding in self-directed professional learning to increase differentiation between workshops between coaching sessions. So, teachers can get can really follow, you know, their passion, what they want to learn about, they can share with their peers, right, they can bring new ideas into their schools. And so, you know, we are preparing in that way. And then the other thing we're doing, and I think this is really critical is we're underpinning with a backbone of data, right and portfolios so that teachers can measure their own learning and progress through our platform. So, they can see their learning and administrators can see, you know, a summary of learning activities that are both through self-directed professional learning, as well as notes from coaches, right? Notes from workshops, and so really kind of bring that together with a backbone of a strong data architecture is really key. It's been very, frankly, very awesome to see the rigor of a data-centered lens come to the education space because we have to be, you know, we deal in the business of other people's kids. And it's so critical that we are always thinking and evaluating and measuring what is working, so we can always get better. And so, I think that's also a big change that's happened with tech transformation, and I am excited to see that continue.
Annu: Keeping outcomes in mind, right, like you said, data-informed, data-centric, especially when it comes to kids. Right. I think those are key things to see that we actually moving the needle. Right. So, great, great process on that too. And the great strategy behind that, too. How are you making the solution scalable?
Amber: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. How do you make it scale? I think that that's a huge part of why our self-directed courses are so important, is because teachers can access them anytime, anywhere in a way that is convenient to them. You know, incorporating single sign on focusing on would say we one of the things that we do that also is important on scale is that there are a lot of professional learning providers that offer very wide catalogs. They kind of go mile wide inch deep. One of the things that allows us to scale as we think very intentionally across the topics that we're going to cover, and we go deep on them. So, educators have an experience that is focused, and intentional, that really helps them stay with a progression of learning that helps them take ownership of very specific and important problems in their district. So right having not only, you know, self-directed courses, but self-directed courses that really follow an intentional learning progression, that are a part of our services catalog as well. So, we also are looking at things like microlearning experiences that are just in time. So instead of full-on courses, teachers can also engage in just five-minute kind of quick wins, right? It might be video, it might be podcast, maybe a quick card sorting activity, but just something that really helps teachers, just in time quickly, and we're always, of course, continuing to add to our backbone have 1000s of strategies and lesson plans as well.
Annu: So, the self-directed learning courses and microlearning experiences, to help the ever-evolving needs of educators kind of definitely maps to our current topic of beyond the PD Day to the future of technical professional learning. So how do you how do you see edtech companies, especially the tech and product teams within a tech be more prepared in the future? You seem to be definitely a thought leader there.
Amber: Sure, I think that there, I've been very lucky over the years to work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in a variety of capacities. And one of the biggest takeaways I've had from working with them is the importance of CO developing with your users. Right, not just interviewing your users, not just talking to them, but partnering with them as co-conspirators in developing your solutions. You know, our users have so much to share with us. Whether you're building products for students, or families, or administrators or teachers, right, they have so much to share about their authentic experiences, co-developing with them, you know, allowing them to lead, observing carefully asking questions. And I always tell new product managers to come work for me, your job is to break your assumptions, not to validate them are doing everything we can to break our biases, be aware of them, test against them. You know, there's so much data out there, qualitative and quantitative and acting with data is really everything. That's one of our core values here at Better Lesson is to act with data. And so, I think that you know, when we think about what EdTech companies can do, we have so much power in our space to create a more equitable world, but only if we act with data, co-develop with our users, and really think intentionally about, about, you know, the real core driving jobs to be done and the needs that folks have,
Annu: Great… to assumption, break your biases, quote a lot of the users, great principals got absolutely resonates with me too.
Amber: I'm sure, Yes.
Annu: Yeah. So last, but not the least, what advice would you have for your peers and customers?
Amber: Sure, um, you know, to create, we at Better Lesson, we are very squarely centered on a student centered, you know, student-centered model, right? So, students should be talking more than teachers. It's all about students. But I think that part of this is that taking a step further, we're really focused on human-centered work here at Better Lesson. And so, advice I have for peers and customers, especially as we are moving hopefully, through the other side of a very hard couple of years. You know, being a school leader, being a district leader is a really hard, not tense, very lonely job, because they've got to think about so many things. I think that taking a moment to give yourself some grace and acknowledge right, we talked about social and emotional learning or trauma-informed practice, acknowledging that all actors within the school community, right, not just students, but family members, community members, teachers, leaders, everyone is experiencing social and emotional challenges. Everyone is experiencing trauma right now. Right? So that means that we have to be ready and willing to listen to one another, right? We have to be ready and willing to think about tailoring the learning experiences the growth experiences, not just for students, but for teachers. Right? And that is really, really hard. But I hope that you know, whether you're a customer of Better Lesson and you're checking out our website, or you're another EdTech provider, I hope that one of the key takeaway is make it personal. Right. Make it personal, because this is personal work, and it's so important to keep the people at the centre of it, technology is always meant to enhance, never replace, right? And the more we can remember to make it personal, to give each other grace, you know, and to recognize the unique strengths that everyone brings. And then using technology, professional learning to amplify those strengths, right, coming from an assets-based perspective is key and all things in the space.
Annu: That’s great, student human-centered, and technology to amplify those trends. Right. Thank you so much, Amber. As we close out the tech in edtech, I do want to say how much I appreciate your insights, the clarity of the thought process and the passion you bring to the topic, right. I do want to thank you and Better Lesson for providing such a fundamentally important solution and the service for our teachers, educators, and the benefit to our students. Right and the society at large. Right, but Amber thank you so much for your time.
Amber: Annu, thank you. Thank you for having me very much. Appreciate your time.
Annu: Thank you, bye bye. Have a great day.