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The new study tools

Edtech startups evolve through COVID-19 to reach students, teachers


Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Yen Verhoeven, CEO of the STEM learning startup Qi Learning Group, saw the workload increase overnight for teachers her company supports with professional development training.


It was not just that teachers had to redesign their curriculum in days and weeks from in-person learning to a virtual classroom, although that load was heavy enough for educators to bear. It was all the little cuts in the process — learning how to use Zoom, identifying which students didn’t have internet access, teaching students how to use their new digital tools, contacting students who kept missing classes, and anxiously watching local and state governments decide future policy for distance learning in classrooms. 


“You have teachers … who were both on Zoom teaching students online while they had kids in the classroom — and a handful of young kids in their classrooms physically,” Verhoeven said. “It’s not so much how do we teach, but now it’s about how do we last? … You’re asking teachers to expend their energy in three different ways and it’s almost like tripling their workload. It is tripling their workload.” 

Education startups in Iowa are evolving to help relieve some of that workload. 


Based at the University of Iowa Research Park, Higher Learning Technologies had launched in 2012 as a mobile study app for dentistry students. At the time, mobile study tools were “pretty much nonexistent” for medical students, said Adam Keune, co-founder and chief business development officer. 


When COVID-19 closed university classroom doors to medical students preparing for final exams in 2020, some of those students worried they’d lose their chance to take exams for the year. Other students risked losing in-person clinical round hours as hospitals tightened access to facilities while responding to rising coronavirus cases. 


“We saw a big confusion in the market when COVID first hit,” Keune said. “There was a little bit of confusion and some panic because these tests are extremely important to somebody — take a young dental student, who is over $100,000 in debt — and they have to take this test in order to start earning an income and finish dental school.” 


Working with universities and health care networks, HLT used its multimedia production team and medical partners to quickly boost remote classes — including a partnership with University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to create a course entirely around COVID-19 patient treatment. 


“We’ve had schools, universities, hospitals reaching out to us asking to help them figure out ways to better educate in a fully remote environment. That’s the kind of environment we’ve always been in,” Keune said. “Finding more ways to simulate that experience is going to be critical. It’s something we’ve heard from our users and something we’re working on daily to improve.” 


New market needs

University of Northern Iowa associate professor of education Sarah Bryans-Bongey, who taught an education technology course during the spring 2020 semester, knew her students would have an edge in adopting virtual classes, but even those students faced challenges familiar to schools statewide. Surveying her class in the thick of closures, Bryans-Bongey found some college students struggling with equipment issues like internet connectivity — but the struggle to retain social presence in virtual classes was a common challenge for most peers. 


After the initial burst in early 2020 to get students settled with devices and broadband access, Iowa school districts are now evaluating the training and infrastructure needs for educators who lead remote learning sessions. Students and teachers both need support from school districts to learn new classroom management systems such as Google Classroom, Bryans-Bongey said. 


“To support learners in this new instructional format, school systems also need to provide teachers with more training. Then there are the social-emotional and security aspects to take into consideration. It has been a challenge, a wake-up call and a catalyst all at the same time,” she added.


Before the pandemic, Qi Learning Group offered digital tools to educators trying to supplement STEM activities for their students inside and outside the classroom. But in a matter of weeks, Verhoeven’s company spun up new resources to teach the teachers how to use digital education tools, design curriculum for digital or hybrid learning, and take care of themselves as individuals during unrelenting stress. 


“Originally, our focus was through STEM education. But now I think we’ve evolved,” Verhoeven said. 


Teachers had decades of curriculum designed for students to learn by subject standards, a strategy that all parties couldn’t sustainably maintain over Zoom classrooms with noisy siblings, working parents and other distractions in the background. Qi Learning staff had to help educators identify transdisciplinary skills common across all the subjects they taught, Verhoeven said. 


“[The pandemic] has forced us to get rid of the nonessential things in education and focus on the essential things. One of those essential things is social/emotional health and well-being,” Verhoeven said. 


“Our school systems are still based on understanding facts and aligned to these standards, which on a regular school day were nearly impossible to teach. This year, it’s unimaginable how teachers are able to teach it. So what we work on now is saying rather than teaching seven different subjects, let’s focus on the essential skills that students need from all of the subjects.” 


Through a partnership with UI Hospitals and Clinics, HLT’s multimedia production team began developing a training program to teach new nurses how to safely interact and treat patients diagnosed with or showing symptoms of COVID-19. University medical professionals provided the curriculum, which was packaged into a digital course by HLT for medical students. Although originally created for UI hospitals, the course is distributed to nurses and medical professionals across the country through the HLT platform, Keune said. 


Over the years HLT grew as a subscription service for students across medical fields, and is developing lifelong professional development courses for medical professionals — a “Netflix of education” model for health care, Keune said. The startup has more than 10 million module downloads, and its largest market reach is in dental and nursing — “85% of all graduating dentists [in the U.S.] are going to use our products,” Keune said. 


The company has 50 full-time staff members and between 30 and 50 partners in medical fields to develop new courses for the user base — mostly in the U.S., but with a growing segment of medical students signing up from abroad who hope to study or practice in the U.S. at some point. HLT is developing what Keune calls “choose-your-own-adventure-style” modules, where a student can digitally respond to a sample medical care scenario and make decisions on the patient’s care. As the student continues through the scene, the module will announce whether the student correctly treated a patient, or what the consequences of incorrect care choices for the patient are. 


“In a time like that, every ounce of training and education is helpful in high-stress, high-demand environments,” Keune said. 

In late January, Qi Learning Research Group launched a course designed to help teachers examine their own social/emotional health and well-being. It’s a departure from Qi Learning’s STEM education focus in previous years; yet, despite the avalanche of “self-care” articles on the internet, Qi Learning’s resources are designed for the reality that teachers have to work under today, Verhoeven said.


“I wouldn’t say that our course is about finding normalcy. I would say our course is about providing teachers with a realistic lens for what’s going on right now, and to give them strategies to help them cope with the anxiety, the stress and the overwhelm that they’re feeling,” Verhoeven said. 


Beginning in July, the group will also offer a yearlong “Fierce and Fearless STEAM Teacher’s Program” that will offer mentorship and support for cross-platform teaching. Verhoeven’s team is working with the Iowa EdTech Collaborative to connect with school districts looking for professional development, but the majority of teachers who connect with Qi Learning currently do so through individual support groups and programs, Verhoeven said. 


“You can’t expect to have the same level of learning happen in this situation with a pandemic. … There is this expectation that we have to open schools, we have to teach in person because if we don’t, we’ve got this whole workforce that has to have their kids at home and we’re not going to be productive,” she said. “The other piece of that says when they’re in school, they won’t be behind and they should learn like any other year. That’s the toxic part that we have to speak to. … You can’t be an online instructional expert in a matter of weeks. You can’t teach in three different places and expect kids to excel, and your situation right now is really bad.”  

The future of school

Will classes return to normal? 


Teachers and school districts feel the pressure to regain the old environment for students — but it would be a disservice to the teachers, Verhoeven warns. 


“In the fall, I think there’s going to be a big struggle for schools to return to what’s normal again,” Verhoeven said. “That assumption is really faulty, because we haven’t accounted for the emotional distress that our society has experienced, let alone our students and our teachers. 


“‘Normal’ requires the least amount of effort. But there’s the other side … it’s inviting teachers, districts, parents, our society to envision an innovative way of teaching to heal the damage that has been caused by 2020-21. But not only that, to go beyond that to heal the damage that our broken school system has caused to everyone in society. That’s what I would like to see,” she added.


Expanded tutoring and summer enrichment programs could help K-12 students rebuild skills to grade-level expectations, but the challenge in 2021 will continue to be high as long as the country is still battling COVID-19, Bryans-Bongey said. 


For her education students, Bryans-Bongey has set up textbook authors as featured guests in virtual class time, a technique she said could be easily adapted to different grade levels by inviting children’s book authors or other subject experts to speak via videoconferencing. School districts could elevate library/media specialists or technology coordinators as a resource for teachers navigating new strategies; Iowa’s Area Education Agencies released a series of webinars through 2020 to help educators adjust.


“We’ve opened up these networks now, and teaching and learning won’t be the same. I think people’s imaginations have now been opened up to some of the possibilities that are provided through remote instruction,” Bryans-Bongey said. 


For medical students, HLT is examining offering micro certification courses that train in specific surgery or procedures, Keune said. COVID-19 demonstrated how quickly medical studies and best practices can change, and medical professionals will need lifelong support to stay up to date. 


“I think there [are] drastic changes coming. I couldn’t tell you what all those are yet, but I think in an industry that is not used to being adaptable and ready to handle rapid change, it’s going to be interesting to watch,” Keune said. 

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