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Rethinking Education: 5 Founders & Their Influential Companies

By LaunchX Team

November 07, 2018

Education has seen a lot of shake-ups in the last few decades. Apps and online courses have changed how we access education, allowing us to find, support, and empower educators and students in new ways. We’ll take a look at some of the most influential companies and founders who are rethinking education.

Wendy Kopp – Teach for America & Teach for All

“I felt the whole world was open to me because of the privilege of my own education. But I knew that this wasn’t true for everyone.” Wendy Kopp first came up with the idea of a Peace Corps-like organization focused solely on teaching in 1989, during her senior year of undergrad, where she began to understand the problem of educational inequity. Students from underfunded schools in poor rural and urban areas — which often couldn’t attract the best teaching talent — had significantly greater academic challenges than those from affluent, well-funded school districts. As part of her senior thesis, she developed the concept of a two-year program that put the best and brightest recent college graduates and young professionals into underfunded and underserved schools in rural and urban areas. Her vision was that her own generation, often derided as selfish and self-centered, could in fact be the change she wanted to see in a broken educational system. Though she met with some resistance at first, she took the advice of her champions over her detractors. Instead of taking a safe job on Wall Street, she spent the last months of her undergraduate career meeting with potential donors and investors who would help make her social good dream a reality. Since its official launch in 1990, Teach for America has had 53,000 corps members who’ve touched the lives of millions of students nationwide. Some statewide studies have even found that teachers coming out of Teach for America have been equally or better prepared, and have sometimes delivered better results, than teachers from traditional teaching programs. A study also found positive impacts on the attitudes, outlook and social engagement of corps members themselves, including in areas of racial tolerance, and belief and involvement in education, long after their two years of service were over.

Daphne Koller – Coursera

“I would like to make it so that education was a right, and not a privilege.” Daphne Koller was already a respected academic researcher when she and fellow computer science professor Andrew Ng co-founded Coursera in 2012. Her passion for learning, however, extended to a desire to make education more accessible to everyone, not just the fortunate. After observing Ng’s success with offering an online class to 100,000 students, she joined forces with him to create a system bigger than their university’s platform. Coursera was born as a place where top universities like Stanford, MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley and many others could offer courses that large numbers of people could take for free online. Millions of learners across the globe gained access to the kind of education that only a very small, privileged, percentage of the world’s population could previously access.   Since then, Coursera has expanded to offer specializations and even degrees, in areas ranging from computer science to business to the humanities. It has over 24 million monthly users and 2000 unique courses. Koller’s work is helping to truly make education a great equalizer, both within our own society and in the world at large, by removing some of the financial and geographical barriers to learning.  The platform seemed most beneficial to learners from less affluent and less educated backgrounds, who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to take those classes at the often costly institutions that offer them in-person.

Rashmi Sinha – SlideShare

I’d rather we make a mistake, realize we did, and try something else instead of spending a lot of time thinking and not acting.” SlideShare, the online Powerpoint presentation (aka: slide deck) sharing platform, has over 70 million users, and an average of 400,000 slide decks uploaded monthly, across 40 different categories. Industry leaders and educators in everything from marketing to chemistry can easily upload and share presentations and infographics, with business associates, collaborators, and the world. SlideShare is the brainchild in part of Rashmi Sinha. Her first career was in academia, where she studied psychology and cognitive science. Along the way, computer science classes helped shape her understanding of the world and different ways in which problems could be solved. However, she grew bored of the theoretical problem-solving that framed a life in academia, and wanted instead to work hands-on with real-world problems. In 2006, with the help of her brother and husband, she founded SlideShare to end the problem of presentation sharing. “The process of sharing slides is broken,” she wrote in a blog post announcing the launch of SlideShare. “It goes from my hard drive to yours via email. Or if I put it online, it’s in a clunky format like PDF or Powerpoint that you need to download.” The vision behind Slideshare was to “webify” slides, making the process of sharing them easier and smoother, whether the original format was PowerPoint or OpenOffice. SlideShare has been called the “YouTube of Powerpoint presentations”, which is fitting given the similarities in the range and extent of instructional and educational content on both. While SlideShare is most often used in the context of business, it’s a treasure trove of knowledge for any intrepid learner. It has millions of publicly available presentations, so anyone can learn about broad and specific topics — from big data to automobiles — without needing more than an internet connection. LinkedIn acquired SlideShare in 2012, giving the knowledge-sharing platform a larger audience and creator base than ever before.

Reshma Saujani – Girls Who Code

“When we teach girls to be brave and we have a supportive network cheering them on, they will build incredible things…” Lawyer, activist, and former politician Reshma Saujani identified a big and ever-growing problem in the tech industry: a lack of female representation and a shrinking percentage of women seeking computer science degrees. She saw a dismal forecast for the role of women in tech within the next decade. She also realized that girls were losing interest in coding between the ages of 13 and 17, a time when many students hone skills and start thinking about college. Part of that, she noted, is social pressure. “Most girls are taught to avoid failure and risk,” she said in a 2016 TED talk. “To smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then jump off head first.” In 2012, she launched Girls Who Code to change that. Today, Girls Who Code is made up of over 150 after-school clubs, along with summer intensive programs that teach girls mobile development, robotics, and website design. Middle and high school girls are building apps, designing games, solving problems, and all the while developing the foundations of an interest in the field of computer science. The program sees many of its over 10,000 alumnae who intend to pursue computer science in college. It also has the backing and partnership of some giant tech players, such as Facebook, Twitter and AT&T.

Jennifer Pahlka – Code for America

“Our ability to do great things with data will make a real difference in every aspect of our lives.” Former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Jennifer Pahlka has helped make a difference in a kind of education we don’t often think about. Her nonprofit, Code for America — founded in 2009 — helps local governments better serve the public, with the help of civically minded tech industry professionals. Pahlka described it as “a little bit like a Peace Corps for geeks.” Tech professionals become fellows who work with city governments to bridge the gap between community needs and government initiatives. They accomplish their goals using rigorous research guidelines, user-centered design, and education. But a fellow’s impact doesn’t just stay within the city they serve. All Code for America projects are open source and available on GitHub, helping to educate and instruct others. That means governments across the US, and potentially beyond our own borders, can learn from tried and tested methodologies that solve real-world problems.

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