Q&A with Aaron Feuer, Co-founder and CEO of Panorama Education
EdTech Times was honored with the opportunity to speak to Aaron Feuer, CEO and co-founder of Panorama Education, a local, Boston-based edtech startup developing data analytics and survey tools for schools to analyze data collected from surveys.
Company at Glance:
Founders: Aaron Feuer, Xan Tanner, David Carel
Category: Teacher and principal coaching/data analytics/surveys
Product stage: Market
LinkedIn company page: http://facebook.com/panoramaed
Company Twitter: http://twitter.com/panoramaed
Founder Twitter: http://twitter.com/aaronfeuer
Other social media: http://blog.panoramaed.com
ETT: What is the market segment your company is in, and who are your core customers?
AF: Panorama Education helps schools gather feedback from students, parents and teachers through surveys. We then help teachers, principals, and superintendents use that feedback to improve. Our core clients are school districts, charter networks, and individual schools. They’re using Panorama to improve many aspects of education, from student learning in the classroom to teacher professional development to parent involvement.
ETT: Aaron, how did you come across the problem you’re addressing and how did you define it – what was your process in identifying it?
AF: As a high school student in Los Angeles, I began to realize how student feedback could shape improvements in my school. At the same time, I served as president of the state student council in California. A few of us on the council pushed for a new bill in the state legislature that would promote student feedback surveys in classrooms across the state. The bill passed, but unfortunately nothing changed. So years later, we decided that a better approach would be to work directly with educators on the ground, and we founded Panorama.
ETT: Could you please shed light on how did you go about coming up with a solution to address the identified problem while still a college student at Yale?
AF: We kept hearing from educators that student feedback was incredibly important (and we knew this from our own experience as students). However, there wasn’t a solution that schools could use to easily and securely collect feedback, and then actually make it useful for education. It can be challenging to design and administer surveys to hundreds or even thousands of students or parents or teachers, but it’s even more challenging to make sense of all the data once it’s finished. So we set off to create an easy and affordable solution for school districts that would help them measure what matters in their schools.
ETT: Everyone seems to be in the survey and analytics (e.g. “data” business) nowadays. But what it is that you’re doing differently than your competitors?
AF: I think there are two things that we’ve focused on and really make us stand out.
First, on the survey side, it’s all about asking the right questions. Dr. Hunter Gehlbach, who just joined our team from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is one of the leading researchers in survey methodology and education measurement. You also have to gather data in a way that gives everyone a voice, which is why we administered more than a million paper surveys last year. We’re incredibly focused on helping schools get the right data first and foremost.
Also, in terms of reporting and analytics, we’ve been focused on starting with the topic that matters – like great teaching, or having supportive adult relationships – and then working backwards to figure out what data you’d need to understand the issue, and what types of reports would be helpful for educators who are trying to make a difference there. That’s a totally different perspective than the traditional idea of starting with your data sources and then asking “What can I do with this?” It’s about making an impact, not just making pretty charts.
ETT: Please describe your product development strategy and product stage. What we should expect to see from your company in the next 12 months – i.e. describe your potential next milestones?
AF: I think you’ll see a greater focus on making our data analytics platform even more actionable and applicable at the classroom or school level. This is exciting because we’re now focused on taking the data one step further, which is a problem that hasn’t been solved before. Schools are already swimming in data, so we’re focused on simplifying and improving the process of knowing “what’s working?” and “what should I do next?” in schools.
ETT: How did you reach such a large number of schools – what factors would you attribute to your business development success? And how did you break the barriers to getting the schools and districts on your side of equation?
AF: In education, word of mouth is a huge factor. So it’s absolutely critical to make every interaction with schools a delightful and valuable experience. We really focused on making data and analytics easier and more useful for school districts, as opposed to adding another burden to their school day. It takes this kind of individual impact, one teacher or one administrator at a time, in order to break down the barriers that sometimes stop education companies from growing.
ETT: Do you believe you will remain as a disruptor in near foreseeable future or become a more mature company? Why is that so?
AF: Well, I don’t like the word disruptor, but if you mean “pushing for innovation,” then absolutely. I think too many education companies have become satisfied with having high sales driven by compliance mandates. We don’t want to become those companies. I think the core of what we do is serving as an innovative education company that works closely with school districts and teachers. That’s the core of our DNA and I hope we’ll always be trying new ideas, the kind of ideas that some people would say are crazy.
ETT: Did you or do you currently have a mentor who is/has been helping you through the startup stages of the company – who is that mentor?
AF: We’re fortunate to have fantastic mentors and advisors from Y Combinator, Yale, the Boston community, and many of our clients as well – probably too many to try to mention in just one sentence!
ETT: Why did you choose Cambridge/Boston to be the location for Panorama Education?
AF: We’re currently located in Boston’s Leather District. We’ve always admired Boston as a hub for both education and technology. I think it’s the perfect place to build a company, especially considering that the Boston edtech community is as strong and active as any.
ETT: How do you approach the ever present issue of data security – could you please explain a bit what is that you’re doing that’s beyond the requirements of FERPA, for example, while at the same time keeping the platform user friendly for the user?
AF: We care deeply about this issue, especially because I come at our work from a student activist perspective, rather than a corporate perspective. I think there are two parts to this question. The first is philosophical – we’ve made clear from the beginning, as a central part of our culture, that we only work to serve students (and their parents and educators). We don’t work for anybody else, and we’d never sell student data for marketing purposes or anything like that. The second is technical – we’ve made a commitment to protect the confidential information that we manage, and it’s top of mind for us.
ETT: Where is education technology market, especially the survey and analytics segment, going in the next few years?
AF: I think the world of education technology is going through some remarkable changes right now. School leaders understand the value of data, but in the education community we haven’t quite figured out how to make the most of data. So we find ourselves drowning in data (because data is good, right?) or focusing too much on things like test scores. There are so many other areas that schools aren’t measuring as effectively right now. For instance, how do you measure student engagement or sense of belonging in the classroom? These are two areas that really matter for student outcomes, but they’re difficult to measure, so they’re often under-discussed. We’re hoping to build new products that focus on these important areas in a way that makes an impact for schools and teachers.
ETT: Lastly, what advice, if any, do you have for someone thinking about launching a company in the education technology market?
AF: I’d say what’s most important is to focus from the beginning on the impact you want to make. Forget about the technology, forget about the tool, forget about the revenue – start by asking, “What do I want education to look like if we’re successful?” Especially in education, the other details are important but they only matter if you have a compelling, important answer to that question.
EdTech Times is grateful for the opportunity to speak with Aaron Feuer, and we suggest you learn more about Panorama Education at:
Yevgeny Ioffe, or as people call him, Yev, has been working in both the startup world and established companies. His career spans from joining Xplana Learning as it launched to Cengage Learning to MBS Direct when it acquired Xplana in 2009. Yevgeny brings to EdTech Times his passion for start-ups and technology, along with his interest in the ever evolving world of edtech. Yevgeny obtained his BSc and MA from Brandeis University and MBA from Boston College.