Small tech companies can get early recognition on their way to stardom. That’s what happened recently when Entrepreneur Magazine put a young Colorado company called Stackup on its annual listing of the best entrepreneurial companies in America.
Stackup has developed a Chrome browser extension that is helping turn at-risk students into lifelong learners. The app tracks, measures, and reports online reading to provide schools with a core solution to improve reading competency. It automatically captures time spent reading and is smart enough to know when students are actually reading.
Nicholas Garvin is the founder of Stackup. As Garvin sees it, when you’re young, you’re either playing or learning, and the division between the two often blurs. He sees Stackup being used in classrooms to track and reward students for informal learning that they do on the Internet.
Q: What was your initial inspiration to create Stackup?
Nick Garvin: When I was still in college, I was looking to apply for a job at Tesla Motors. I had good grades and a business degree, but growing up, I had spent thousands of hours reading and learning about the automotive industry, the latest car technology, and the latest car trends. This was one of the things that really made me a potential employee for Tesla. But I couldn’t just write on my resume, “I love cars, I know a ton about cars, trust me.” That’s how Stackup was born. When I was growing up, I never was very into learning and I was never a good student at first. Part of the problem was that the school system doesn’t award all this informal learning.
Q: Measuring “informal learning” is at the core of what Stackup does. Can you share any use cases with us? For example, in the classroom?
NG: I was in a classroom recently, getting students going on Stackup, and I walked up to this fourth grader, who was kind of distracted; she wasn’t engaged. I said, “What do you like?” She was trying to think of something that fit within the formal categories of education, and finally she said she liked bridges. I said, “That’s great. That’s awesome. Let’s learn about bridges.” It was just so cool to get her engaged and reading about bridges online. All of a sudden she was plugged in. Everyone knows the best learning happens when it is personally meaningful.
Q: What are some of the challenges a young company like Stackup faces?
NG: One of the tricky things in the education market is the number of stakeholders. You have, most importantly, the students, but then you have teachers, you have parents, you have principals, you have district administrators. We like the top-down approach, which would be going to district administrators, because that gives us a lot of users fast, but it doesn’t get us the buy-in that we want. We want teachers to find out about this and be excited to use it. So, we are bottom up as well, reaching out to teachers, too.
Q: How are teachers using the app?
NG: Stackup was recently pushed out to 30,000 plus students [in a Colorado school district.] One thing that’s really cool in the classroom [with Stackup] is that students can see how they’re progressing. They can see if they are falling behind, relative to other students. It’s a little competitive … and students love that. Teachers like that they have control of their whole classroom and that everyone is engaged.
Q: What are some things a teacher can use Stackup for?
NG: We have a feature called Challenges. It’s a tool for teachers or professors to assign specific reading by category or by website, and to keep track of how students are doing relative to other students. A teacher can see that students have completed the reading, or have fallen behind, and those are great indicators to help a teacher.
Q: Some people feel technology is overtaking classrooms. Your thoughts?
NG: Technology is taking over everything or beginning to play a part in everything. It’s extremely valuable in the classroom, because at a younger age kids’ learning levels vary so much. It’s really hard for a teacher to speak to 30 students and be reaching every one of those students at the right level. The teacher is either speaking too fast for someone, or not fast enough for an individual student who’s ahead. That’s the greatest thing about technology, is it allows a more one-to-one customizable experience.
Q: Are there any uses for Stackup outside of the classroom?
NG: Branching out from the immediate use by teachers, there is a secondary value, which is allowing the students to profile all of their informal learning from kindergarten on. We’re really excited for the day a student applies to Harvard with great grades, and great extracurricular activities, but in addition, he has 500 hours of engineering study that Stackup has tracked and documented. We believe that [documentation] will help them get into a university, or get a job.
Q: Thanks, Nick.
NG: My pleasure.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.