Two months into the 2020 fall term, schoolteachers reported stress, burnout, and thoughts of early retirement, according to a recent CBC survey of nearly 10,000 schoolboard staff in eastern Ontario and Atlantic Canada. Part of the problem is the additional demands placed on teachers by COVID-19.
Coteacher can help with that. The Montreal-based startup has developed an online AI-powered platform to enable schoolteacher collaboration, sharing of learning resources as well as social connection at a time of when hanging out at the water cooler isn’t an option.
“Teachers are overworked and spend many hours a day researching and developing instructional materials and grading papers, often duplicating their work with other teachers in their community,” says Coteacher CEO Daniel Fountenberry. “You’d think they would collaborate more to make teaching easier.”
Some teachers try to do just that by joining professional learning communities (PLCs). PLCs provide a connection to other teachers for sharing best practices, brainstorming innovative ways to improve learning, and improving teacher and student outcomes.
But the problem with PLCs is finding the right teacher to pair up with. A good match in personality and pedagogical outlook is an essential foundation for the mutual trust that leads to new efficiencies.
The Power of AI
Using the latest developments in AI recommender algorithms, Coteacher optimizes teacher matching across a wider network. This first-of-its-kind technology for asynchronous collaboration also offers a searchable repository for shared teaching materials and professional-development resources. A social connection to peers is also important.
“Teachers can be very isolated, so they need someone they can share with, a body of similar people who are outside their immediate school to talk with and for feedback and advice. So they’re saving time, growing in their craft, and they feel more connected,” says Fountenberry, whose first job out of college was teaching middle school language arts and social studies in East Palo Alto, California.
“I loved teaching. All my students were gifted, but they hadn’t all discovered their reading gifts. So I struggled with addressing the needs of students with various reading abilities in the same class,” he says of the teaching challenge that led Fountenberry to launch his first startup, Books That Grow.
Launched in 2014, Books that Grow provides adaptive reading texts to meet students at their individual reading level. It has helped over 1,000 students in 30-plus schools become better readers and, along the way, picked up several national and international awards, including “Most Innovative Company” by the International Society for Technology in Education in 2016.
While living in New York (Fountenberry is American), he “fell in love with Canada and Montreal,” specifically the innovation community in Montreal, which is a global hub for artificial intelligence.
“AI would be critical to what I wanted to do next,” he says.
A Quebec immigration visa brought Fountenberry to Montreal, where he launched Coteacher. When COVID-19 hit, he saw how overwhelmingly busy teachers suddenly became (developing online curricula, overseeing class safety requirements for students, supporting parents in homeschooling, etc.) and accelerated the development of Coteacher.
With early buy-in of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, representing over 230 schools across Minnesota, and a state-wide rollout of Coteacher is in the works, Fountenberry was running at a “Silicon Valley pace” and burning through capital to create a platform that wows its users.
“Ultimately we’ll need to make money, but the first thing to do is to delight our users and create a large user base,” Fountenberry says.
ICTC’s WIL Digital played a key role in this company growth phase. Wage-subsidized WIL students help ease the financial strain. More importantly, they provide the right skills for the job.
“WIL Digital has helped us bring extraordinary young talent into our organization,” Fountenberry says. “Being digital natives [people who grew up in the digital age], they bring a unique perspective and energy to this project, which has been incredibly useful in building a revolutionary product.”
To date, Coteacher onboarded three WIL Digital students, and Fountenberry expects to add more to the company’s current staff of 11.
The team currently works remotely and enjoys a “fantastic working culture,” Fountenberry notes. He is generous in his praise of WIL Digital, including its structured reporting requirements.
“When you’re growing a company really fast, you don’t always think about employee development. But by giving us this framework [of formal check-ins], WIL Digital made it easier for us to think about how to best to cultivate these interns.
“That’s allowed us to groom them to become the talent we need to supercharge this company. We hired one of the Will Digital students full-time, and we expect and hope that we will be able to hire the other two interns as well. So this is our talent pipeline.”
WIL Digital provides employers a 75 percent wage subsidy, up to $7,500 dollar, and now includes five in-demand micro-learning specializations to further help employers up their technology game. Learn more about ICTC’s WIL Digital here.