Streamlining Instructional Education

Kenna McHugh, Learning Counsel Writer

Co-founder and CEO Andrew Schlessinger and I talked about the hot weather, commuting to work, and our career paths before we got down to discussing his company, SAFARI Montage.

In 1985 he founded the Library Video Company, an educational company, and then ultimately acquired SAFARI Montage 14 years ago with his business partner Tim Beekman.  Schlessinger described the partnership as appealing. “The beauty of the merger was Tim is an engineer, and he's probably the most sought after ed-tech engineer in the industry for advice to CIOs and IT directors.”

Schlessinger’s background in media production of educational videos and distribution of videos brought the partnership full circle. “In those 14 years, I have become much more technically savvy, and I have inserted myself into product development. I am also very engaged in business development with educational vendors and often help design the interoperability with their platforms.”

Still, he doesn’t consider himself the technical expert. With eight developers out of a staff of 75, “I certainly am engaged heavily in developing the product,” explains Schlessinger.

The SAFARI Montage Learning Object Repository (LOR) allows K-12 students to search or access curated digital instructional resources from one location. The system assists their primary or remedial learning. Teachers and curriculum developers use SAFARI Montage to curate educational digital resources. They develop playlists and share them with students using their learning management system.

The company's most important organizational challenge is implementing professional development cost-effectively inside a school district. “The only way we believe to overcome this challenge is to make the user experience more and more intuitive.”

Effective professional development means training teachers efficiently at scale. “Now, face-to-face PD is rarely done, so we go through a whole sequence of ways to train people,” explains Schlessinger, “We've created a lot of short segmented videos, that train both teachers and students on what they need to do to effectively upload and tag their content properly in order to find it easily in the future. The bottom line is that a user just needs to be able to engage with the interface and have an experience that is intuitive enough that they know what they need to do or not do.”

Schlessinger also focuses on seamless integrations with third parties. This includes using the Thin Common Cartridge, which is the IMS standard used for porting educational content from one platform to another. “So, given the fact that our product is a Learning Object Repository, a place where school districts are storing educational digital resources for any desired use by any user, we need them to be able to perform true federated searches. And so that means that any content that the district has either created, curated, perhaps free, or procured needs to be accessible inside the LOR. Using the content they find, they can then create playlists and also link  it to any educational application they want, including Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams” explains Schlessinger.

Working thirty-plus years with educational resources, Schlessinger identifies educational technology as making significant improvements in education. “Ed-tech is complicated and school districts are ill-equipped to handle change. One of the issues in education is that superintendents don't stay for that long, there's turnover. And all of these plans take several years to implement. The next five years will be painful for many districts if they don’t have the well-informed and consistent leadership to design a digital learning ecosystem that is flexible and functional,” he cautions. “It can be painful if it's not executed well. It's a very complicated process to actually put all the components together to make whatever instructional approach they're trying to implement work.”

He further explained how the heads of curriculum instruction and CIOs need to work together with a plan and a roadmap making sure that all the parts work correctly together. "Departmental collaboration is getting better but it's by no means anywhere near what it needs to be in order for the districts to be successful. Otherwise, they end up with all kinds of problems.”

Gwinnett County Public Schools is an excellent example of a school district successfully implementing SAFARI Montage (click for story). Located in Georgia, for many years Gwinnett used a well-designed Information Management System. “In their words, ‘there was the pond, but there were no fish in the pond.’ They didn’t have a mechanism for managing all of their digital resources as individual resources. They needed SAFARI Montage “‘to put fish in the pond,’” explained Schlessinger. “It gave them a method of being able to create lessons from great content and then to supplement that in a lot of different ways. Their utilization of their IMS went from very, very low to extraordinarily high because, suddenly, teachers had a reason to go in and find stuff. Otherwise, there's just this great software that didn't have a purpose.”

Cases like Gwinnett Public Schools motivate SAFARI Montage staff. “Most of the people are working here because they love education. And I mean, it's just who they are. It's what they've done. We've hired a number of former educators and they're motivated by the ultimate goal which is helping school districts, teachers, and students effectively use technology to learn more.” explained Schlessinger. “I can’t give them that motivation, when we interview people, we want to know that people here are already motivated by education itself.”

He and Beekman make sure everybody in the company knows what everyone else is doing. “They're being recognized for their efforts in specific areas, and I think that, at the end of the day, that's the most important thing. People want to be recognized and respected for their contribution to the organization.”

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