It is April 2020 and Eileen Murphy Buckley, Founder and Chief Learning Officer of ThinkCERCA, is in quarantine at home in Chicago. Across the world, most countries are in varying stages of lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shops, workplaces and schools are closed, and across the globe, millions of children are home-schooled. The role of technology in education has never been more significant, as teachers host virtual classrooms on Zoom and parents search for interactive, educational games online.
The global pandemic was unexpected but the demand for ThinkCERCA has accelerated massively as a result; with 500 new educational districts in the US showing interest in the digital learning resource. ThinkCERCA is an online literacy-based framework suitable for groups and individuals.
The system helps students develop their reading and writing skills as well as critical thinking. The lessons take users through the process of analysing texts and multi-media and requires them to construct cohesive arguments and informative or narrative writings.
Although the pandemic highlighted the benefits of ThinkCERCA as a tool for remote learning, Eileen still believes that its primary application is within the classroom. Program lessons are tailored to the different needs and varying abilities within a class. Lessons are supplemented by peer-to-peer discussion, debate and teacher presentations, all of which are built-in along the way.
Learning another way
Eileen previously spent 15 years teaching English. She talks passionately about the role education plays in helping individuals to escape the cycle of poverty and positively impact their families and communities.
This is the reality for Eileen and her family. She is a second-generation migrant whose parents moved from Ireland to the USA in the 1950s. Although her mother finished high school her father only achieved primary level education. Her parents moved with the hope of providing a better life for their children and that is exactly what happened. All of Eileen's six siblings went to college achieving higher levels of education than their parents.
My experience was that irrespective of the commitment of teachers, they simply did not have the resources to meet the needs of the students in front of them.
In 2012, while Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Chicago Public Schools, she struck upon the idea for ThinkCERCA. The role required Eileen to look after the needs of 115 schools in the city, providing her first-hand experience of the failure of available educational resources to meet the diverse needs of the students.
"We had kids from countries across the world, many of whom spoke little or no English. Teachers would often only speak one language, while all were expected to use the same learning materials". Only those students diagnosed with learning disabilities had individual learning plans.
In an attempt to clarify expectations, the US rolled out the 'Common Core State Standard', an educational initiative that set out expected standards at the end of each school grade. The initiative often required in-depth knowledge by the teacher on subjects for which they had not received training.
Eileen describes coming across a class in 2011 that was being taught using a textbook that she had edited herself, 22 years earlier in 1999.
"My experience was that irrespective of the commitment of teachers, they simply did not have the resources to meet the needs of the students in front of them," she adds.
Making the change
At this time, new technologies in education were starting to be implemented and new alternatives were being trialled in classrooms. Television was used as a replacement for the teacher, learning was computer-based and kids were being placed in cubicles. Many of these solutions had been tried unsuccessfully before and Eileen felt sure that they would not work.
Students in Chicago were routinely walking through the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the city, simply to get to school. Eileen did not believe that they undertook this daily ordeal in order to sit in a cubicle, staring at a screen and answering multiple-choice questions. To Eileen, technology was taking away the all-important interaction with the teacher and with other students.
With regards to literacy technology in particular, Eileen felt that the new offerings were resulting in lower expectations and failing to challenge pupils. The new solutions would not help children to read and understand complex information, or provide them with fundamental writing skills.
"They were bringing the standard of reading down to the student as opposed to bringing the standard of students up to the reading," she says.
Around this time, Eileen discovered that iPads were being distributed to schools to help teachers implement technological development in learning. It was a cognisant moment for Eileen, opening her eyes to the potential of properly executed technology to better education.
Armed with this new understanding, Eileen believed that the problem of resources in education was solvable. Without having developed technology and without the experience of investor fundraising, Eileen quit her job.
"I had no plan and no money; but I was determined to build something", she says. Designing the ThinkCERCA interface was done by drawing and redrawing with paper and Crayola markers and asking teachers and pupils for feedback.
Trialling and testing
ThinkCERCA needed to be a tool that would help students consume information, think about it critically and express their thoughts effectively. If done correctly, Eileen believed that this would prepare them; not just to pass exams and do well at school, but also for college, careers and life in general.
The resulting platform uses five steps to help students construct an essay, making up the acronym CERCA: Claim, Evidence, Reasoning, Counterargument and Audience.
While attending an educational conference in Maryland, Eileen used the opportunity to canvas positive feedback from outside her network and this empowered her to take her idea forwards.
Impact Engine is a social impact accelerator started by professors from the University of Chicago. The accelerator is attractive to those with the capital to become initial investors and also the knowledge of technology development. It offers a winning combination in advising founders like Eileen in helping them establish and grow their businesses.
When I think about the life-changing impact that this has on students that might not otherwise have graduated from high school or college, that is what makes me most proud.
Through a large investor pitch in 2012, ThinkCERCA raised more than $600,000. Until that point, the idea had been funded by her personal savings. The capital allowed Eileen to hire a firm to develop a digital prototype for real-world testing in Chicago classrooms. This digital prototype was the basis on which Eileen built the initial product.
ThinkCERCA has evolved over the past eight years in response to feedback from teachers, user research and classroom observation. At its core, the product ethos remains the same: to motivate students, equip teachers and boost literacy.
The software is now used in schools across the US as well as internationally. In China, it is used to support students hoping to attend university in English-speaking countries. Adult learning and English for non-native speakers offer great opportunities and are being considered as areas of growth.
In 2013, ThinkCERCA was a winner of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Literacy Courseware Challenge. Eileen spent a day teaching the Microsoft co-founder about argumentation on his web series 'Inside Bill's Brain'.
Despite the high-level recognition, it is the student outcomes that matter the most. Studies show that students of all levels and all backgrounds typically achieve two years of reading for every year using ThinkCERCA.
"When I think about the life-changing impact that this has on students that might not otherwise have graduated from high school or college, that is what makes me most proud."
ThinkCERCA is now considering more traditional financing options. Eileen is grateful for the impact investment that has driven the company's growth and recognises the significance of venture capital.
"I think the role that impact investors play in the ecosystem of social enterprise is vital."
Eileen has some words of advice to these investors and accelerator programmes, "Be sensitive to the fact that the solutions to these big, intractable problems do take more time." The expectations of rapid growth in education can be problematic; the sales process to government entities can involve 12 months of deal-making.
The take-home message from Eileen: "It can take longer than you think, but the results will certainly be worth it".
Eileen is the founder and Chief Learning Officer of ThinkCERCA. You can find out more about their educational programme on their website.