The best part of teaching is having the autonomy to create new learning experiences and show in your classroom as your authentic self. While, the education technology space has grown considerably over the last decade, the sector still largely operates with disintegrated tools and clunky user experiences. Most schools have been using a combination of Word documents, Google drive, and PDF curricula to piece together a lesson planning process for a while now. Unfortunately, none of those platforms and formats were designed with teachers and schools in mind, resulting in compliance-driven processes and resentment. However, given the importance of education and the challenges educators face, it is well past time to bring the 4th industrial revolution into teaching and learning.
The beginning of something wonderful
Ian Cohen realized a need to create a web-based instructional planning assistant and laid the foundation for TARA Technologies. Ian’s vision was to bring modern design and machine learning into teaching and learning to enhance the abilities of educators and schools. Today, TARA provides K-12 teachers and schools with an intuitive, fluid experience to create lessons and collaborating. TARA is an assistant that makes that possible, while providing the support resources and accountability features to keep coaches and administrators in the loop as well. “Perhaps our biggest innovation is around our “teacher stats” – or the data visualizations we are able to produce showing teachers information about their own teaching habits and their effectiveness. We believe TARA has the potential to disrupt both teacher planning and professional development at the same time, given the level of insights we have that no other platform can produce,” Ian shares.
Using TARA for professional training and development
TARA’s biggest partnership to date has been with Teach For America, helping them train 3,400 new teachers across the US entirely remotely. Originally, TARA was designed primarily to assist in a school-based environment. “We always knew that the number of embedded guides, tips, and links would be a huge help for teachers, especially new folks to the profession. However, the pandemic forced us to put considerably more thought into the experience using TARA for professional training and development. Our partnership with Teach For America tested educators ability to collaborate and review each other’s work to a much greater extent than we were initially prepared for.” But in the long run, Ian wants TARA to bring teachers together and make the collaborative aspect of the profession more fluid and productive. Therefore, TARA is definitely happy with being forced to make faster progress in that area. Ian believes those features will only grow in importance in the years to come.
A fair share of imperfections as well as perfections
TARA’s response since the inception has been great, but Ian has also been met with skepticism and has his fair share of imperfections like any new platform. However, TARA’s vision was to bring modern designed marked by simplicity and intuitiveness to the world of teacher products and the platform is on that path. One veteran teacher exclaimed “Where was this 23 years ago?!” – another instructional coach said that TARA was “the simplest teacher tool she has seen in 14 years.” “We are far from perfect. Like any technology, we experience bugs, glitches, realize flaws in our design, etc. But to get testimonials like that when we are really still on version 1.0 of TARA we hope means we are heading in the direction of our vision.”
Need for nuanced way to sort and select content for students
COVID is certainly shining a light on many issues that most educators were already aware of – lack of connectivity and technology, importance of school to parents and the workforce, social and emotional well-being, etc. “However, within education, I believe it is also showing us that we have an abundance of “content” but not enough tools that curates that content in a sophisticated way. We know how important local context, background, and individual styles plays in teaching and learning. Yet, our content sources are still all sorted by grade level and subject and nothing more. We need a much more nuanced way to sort and select content for our students and teachers that considers their styles and circumstances.”
Aside from the many obvious challenges teachers are experiencing due to COVID, Ian believes we should not lose sight of the fact that the profession (especially for teachers in lower socioeconomic areas) has become unsustainable. “Our culture and media tend to focus on teacher pay, retention, and general school funding levels – all of which are important issues. However, the reason these challenges are greatly exacerbated in education versus other professions is because of the day to day experience that teachers endure. We continue to overlook the toll that ineffective, compliance-driven processes take on a professional’s time and investment in their work. When I was a teacher, I worked essentially non-stop from 7am to 11pm every single day. Even young investment bankers, who might work similar hours and get paid 3x-4x as much, typically only do that job for 2 years. Much of this time is spent on administrative burdens or executing tasks manually because our society has not turned its technological and design prowess onto education. But we hope to lead the charge for that change,” he further adds.
The journey of discovering his passion and working towards it
Ian began my career as a high school teacher. After working in the classroom, he ended up co-founding an education non-profit and leading that organization for several years with some education policy worked sprinkled throughout that time as well. All of those experiences allowed him to see the education system and experience from a variety of different angles. This led him to the conclusion that the current system needs significantly better products from a design standpoint, but also that need some fundamental paradigm shifts when it comes to our views about the purpose of learning. With that in mind, “we know that every industry and sector will continue to be impacted by technology in the future so it seemed essential to get experience in technology by building a great product that could help us start seeing a different future for teaching and learning. The greatest challenges we have faced is simply developing a new set of skin to handle the anxiety comes with building a product that needs to work for someone completely and seamlessly while you are not in the room. I am personally used to being in front of people and working through things – not having that face to face experience has been an adjustment.”
William Arthur Ward said “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” Ian loves learning. He thinks the ability and drive to learn is truly what makes humans unique. “But I only discovered this insatiable intellectual curiosity after I graduated college – and many others end up with a similar story. Initially, my interests were in policy and government, as I believed those presented me with the best opportunities for leadership that affects positive change. However, I have discovered that what truly inspires me is imagining an entirely new vision for the world that revolves around self-learning and improvement.”
Ideal future of education to be elegant integration of all the sources, experiences and tools
Most people think that this pandemic experience will be the start of a larger shift towards personalized online learning in both K-12 and higher education, but Ian is not so sure. If anything, this crisis has laid bare the limitations and relatively monotonous nature of learning solely at a computer. “While I certainly know that online education will play a part in the future and will grow significantly due to COVID, I imagine we will likely see the limitations of its efficacy when we start getting back in front of students. Like anything – classroom learning very much included – online education is good in moderation. The ideal future of education will be a much more elegant integration of all the resources, experiences and tools we have at our disposal, and online education will most definitely be a part of that.”
Ian’s goal is to continue expanding throughout Atlanta and the US. This year will likely see TARA work with a dozen or so partners and perfect its school-based implementation. From there, Ian hopes to make a significant push for expansion in 2021-22 in both schools and for individual teachers as well, any of whom can get an account of TARA today. “But if this year has taught us anything, it is that no one really knows what the world will look in 12 months so the best we can do is stick to our vision, spend wisely, and adapt when necessary,” Ian concludes.