Panorama's Feuer: 'Education is the ends, and tech is one of the means'
The 25-year-old co-founder details barriers to helping schools improve and the role ed tech should play
At age 21, Aaron Feuer co-founded Panorama. He and his co-founders, Xan Tanner and David Carel, also 21 at the time, met at Yale. By 2013, the Boston-based startup became what’s widely reported as Mark Zuckerberg’s first big ed tech investment with $4 million of seed funding. Today, Panorama works with 6,500 schools across 40 states.
The idea initially stemmed from the now-25-year-old’s experience as a public high school student in Los Angeles, where he realized that student feedback could be something that powerfully shaped school improvements. Back then, Feuer was president of the California state student council, and helped get a new bill passed in the state legislature to promote student feedback surveys in the state's classrooms.
Education Dive recently caught up with Feuer to talk about his trajectory, the idea that became Panorama, and the role of tech in education.
EDUCATION DIVE: Are you more interested in tech, or in education?
AARON FEUER: For me, education is the ends, and technology is one of the means. I love technology and I’ve been coding since I was a little kid — but for me, technology is a tool. And it’s only as meaningful as the purpose we’re using it for.
Why ed tech, and why now?
FEUER: The education part is easy: Through public schools, we have an opportunity to help millions of children across the world live extraordinary lives, and we have a long way to go. Also, I sometimes reflect on the incredible pace of innovation that’s happening right now and then I ask myself, "What percentage of the world’s brain power are we actually capturing right now — 5%, 10%, 20%? What could we accomplish for humankind if, through education, we could harness 100% of the world’s brain power?"
We’ve seen that technology can be a tremendously powerful global force in many arenas, but I don’t think that’s happened in education yet. The possibilities are exciting.
How did the concept for Panorama start?
FEUER: California has this great youth activism culture, and in high school I was recruited as an organizer for the state’s student organization. We worked on a bunch of ideas for boosting student voice and for making school about more than NCLB test scores — love of learning, tenacity, social skills, that sort of thing. I hadn’t learned the phrase “social-emotional learning” yet. We asked ourselves, “How can we, as students, play a central role in making school better?”
It was a great learning experience, but to be honest, we weren’t terribly successful. So a few years ago, in college, I decided to try a different approach. We would partner closely with school districts who shared this vision. And going beyond just pitching ideas, we would provide schools with the tools they needed to execute this vision. Originally, that meant tools to survey students, parents, and teachers. And, later, to measure and improve social-emotional learning, plus other advanced data tools for education.
We started with a few districts in Connecticut and California. Now, Panorama works with 250 districts across the United States and around the world.
Why are the services offered by Panorama important, and how can they help school performance?
FEUER: I think Panorama’s work matters on two levels. First, Panorama helps teachers, principals, and superintendents significantly improve student outcomes by focusing on important issues like family engagement, school climate and culture, and teacher retention. There’s a ton of research highlighting how critical each of these areas is, but they’re fairly hard to improve. So Panorama helps educators gather data through surveys, analyze the data, and then find the best strategies they can use to get better. Thousands of schools use Panorama every year, so we’re now able to cross-pollinate the best ideas.
Also, Panorama gives a voice to every student, parent, and teacher, which is a big deal from an empowerment perspective. All of a sudden, every stakeholder has a real voice in school.
Do districts need to pay more attention to social-emotional learning? Why or why not?
FEUER: Most districts are paying attention to social-emotional learning. They may call it character, whole child, values or something else, but most districts and schools are focused on helping their students grow their self-awareness, social awareness, confidence and joy in learning.
District administrators know this is important, but they want to know what works. Panorama helps schools measure and improve social-emotional learning by giving districts a snapshot of where they are now, and ideas for how to grow. Today, more than 1,000 schools use Panorama for social-emotional learning. This fall, we actually open-sourced our SEL measures and posted them for free on our website.
What trends in K-12 are you currently paying attention to?
FEUER: Social-emotional learning is certainly one trend I’m paying attention to. We know that social-emotional learning is important to academic and life outcomes, and there’s so much more to learn and figure out — from interventions to virtual reality tools.
Technology in classrooms is another trend I’m following. I’m interested to see best practices emerge for 1:1 schools and classrooms, and using computers and other technology in new ways to support learning. There is something magical and important about the student-teacher relationship, and I am eager to see us figure out how we balance the power of technology with the importance of the teacher.
What's next on the horizon?
FEUER: Soon, you’ll be a seeing a lot more from Panorama around social-emotional learning. We see a ton of potential in using SEL to have a huge impact on education in America. Our districts love our current SEL work and it still feels like we are 0.01% of the way toward what is ultimately possible.
You’ll see the same from us on family engagement, too. We have thousands of schools using Panorama to get families more involved and we think we can meaningfully improve student outcomes by getting better at family engagement.
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