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Evan Burfield

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What the Future Looks Like

Posted: 09/05/2012 8:45 am

I'd like to share a portrait with you of what the future of our country looks like.

In this blog, I've argued repeatedly that we need to unleash our entrepreneurs to reinvent America. Technology is making us radically more empowered as individuals, while the institutions that define our country aren't changing with us. To me, these assertions are obvious truths about what hope looks like for America, but I'm certainly aware of the response that they are merely platitudes without any specifics.

Therefore, before I continue forward with my broader argument, I'm going to give a very specific example of a team of entrepreneurs reinventing an institution, namely high school.

Yesterday, as students across America returned from Labor Day to their first day of school, a new startup launched a platform called Hallway. Hallway is a social learning network, which enables students to post questions and receive answers from other students -- in their class or around the globe. Students can also post notes to share, organize their own notes and assignments, and search for content. Hallway is simple, social, and global.

The secret sauce behind Hallway is an algorithm that determines each student's learning graph, a collection of inferences about the topics in which that student struggles or excels, the types of learning content that work best for that student, and how that student compares in each topic to their peers. In other words, Hallway develops a tremendously personalized understanding of how each student is doing and what is most effective in helping them learn.

Hallway uses each student's learning graph to filter content submitted by peers from across the street and around the globe. The learning graph is also used to determine each student's Hallway Score. A Hallway Score represents a student's facility in that subject and is determined purely by how a student compares to his or her peers in their ability to produce valuable content in that subject. To earn the highest echelon of Hallway Score in a subject, a student has to create original content that their peers find particularly valuable.

Hallway is free to students everywhere, global in its scope and personalized in its experience for each student. If Hallway takes off and becomes widely adopted by students, then it becomes a force for the radical democratization of education. Any student can join Hallway and learn as a peer with any other student, regardless of the tax base underlying their local high school or the quality of parental instruction they have received at home. Hallway is purely meritocratic learning, for better or worse.

Hallway is another experiment, in the spirit of Khan Academy, in which private citizens and entrepreneurs are completely re-imagining education. By providing stunningly high quality lecture content of the entire American core curriculum for free on YouTube, the non-profit Khan Academy immediately makes you question the role of the teacher as a lecturer at the front of the classroom. As a complement, by enabling students to collaborate in real time, in their own words, as they learn, Hallway makes you question the very idea of a high school as a physical place. Experiments like Khan Academy and Hallway are doing more to reinvent education in America than decades of "school reform" that begins with a pre-conceived idea of what the institution of high school must look like.

And yet Hallway represents an even more radical window into what the future of America looks like. The co-founder and CEO of Hallway is Sean McElrath, a 17-year-old rising senior at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the school I graduated from in 1995. Sean's team consists of five other 17-year-old rising seniors. Cyrus Malekpour, Dennis Lysenko, and Darren Baldoc are the hackers. Michael Chan is the designer. And Allison Chou is the social marketing genius. Their seed funding has come from Fortify.vc and they've worked all summer at The Fort, an Accelerator two blocks from the White House.

As for me, mentoring Sean and the team as they tackle one of the really big challenges facing our country has been the biggest thrill of my entrepreneurial career. I first met Sean at the beginning of last school year. Will Fuentes, CEO of Lemur, and I, both Thomas Jefferson graduates and entrepreneurs, along with Jonathon Perrelli, Founder and General Partner at Fortify.vc, approached the school about mentoring students interested in startups. Simultaneously, Sean and his classmate Alex Sands had recently pitched the school on the idea of launching a startup club and needed mentors. The result was InvenTeam, which generated regular interest from more than 60 Thomas Jefferson students. The students benefited from speakers ranging CEOs like Blake Hall from TroopSwap and Frank Gruber from TechCocktail to venture capitalists like Don Rainey from Grotech and Kevin Greene from Valhalla. A few months into InvenTeam, Sean really captured my imagination when I asked what his big idea was after one club meeting. His response was the seeds of Hallway.

2012-09-05-TheHallwayTeam.jpg

The Hallway team is stunningly capable, without any qualifier for their age. For every pundit who talks about apathetic youth who lack rigor in their thinking, I would challenge them to spend thirty minutes with the Hallway team. How do they know how to build massively scalable web architectures? They learned some in school, but mostly they figured it out from reading blogs. How did they build the sophisticated functionality in Hallway in less than three months? They pulled together various open source components and invented the rest, working 18 hour days for ten weeks straight. How do they know how to use a shoestring budget to virally grow a community of students across the country? They grew up on Facebook and Twitter and watched The Social Network, of course.

In my last blog post, I made three claims as to why it must be entrepreneurs who reinvent this country. Hallway serves as a powerful example of each of these three claims.

First, the Hallway team gets it. They've been using Facebook groups for years to collaborate with their peers to noodle through difficult concepts, work on homework assignments, and prepare for tests. To them it's obvious that the most powerful channel for learning is peer-to-peer and online. They see classrooms as the quaint anachronism. They designed Hallway from the ground up around the way they actually learn and what they desperately need, rather than from constraints imposed by the way things have always been done.

Second, the Hallway team has a vested interest in change rather than accommodation. While the team owes a huge debt to the teachers at Thomas Jefferson who have mentored them over the past few years, they have no vested interest in the perpetuation of high school as an institution. The team's win is revolutionizing education, making it more democratic and empowering each student as an individual. They're chasing the startup dream: change the world and be rewarded for it.

Third, the Hallway team is crazy enough to even try this. While the rewards for success are great, the odds for Hallway are still long, at least right away. You'd have to be crazy to believe that a group of 17-year-olds could change the way students learn around the world, right? But then again, how crazy is it that a group of 17-year-olds has made it as far as the Hallway team has? They've already overcome incredible obstacles to develop their idea, raise capital from credible investors, build a working product, and generate buzz. They've shown the idealism and perseverance central to any great entrepreneurial team.

Hallway is what the future looks like. If we want to reinvent this country to face the major crises in front of us, then we'll need many more Hallways. Their journey already shows what many of the necessary pieces of reinvention look like. They benefited from inspiration and mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs and investors as they formed the seed of their idea. They had the technical skills necessary to turn their idea into a product. They were able to access seed capital from well-connected angel investors in a timely manner. And they were able to build their company at an accelerator that surrounded them with further mentorship and support.

The challenge for America is providing these kinds of resources to future Hallways on a much greater scale.

 

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