West Michigan 'ed tech' startup co-founder: 'We can change the world of education'

Working in partnership with Kent ISD, Grand Rapids-based Kickstand Systems say they’ve developed an individualized, student-centric learning management software platform unlike any other competitor on the market. Rapid Growth writer Steven Thomas Kent delves in to find out how this local software company is poised to change education as we know it.
Kickstand Systems currently operates out of fairly humble offices at the Kent ISD Campus at 2930 Knapp St, but their stated goals are anything but modest: Co-founder and principal Tom Bienewicz makes no bones about the fact that their Edify software is intended to change the world of education as we know it.

Edify is an “individualized learning management system” (iMLS) according to Kickstand, and it’s originally the brainchild of Kent ISD assistant superintendent for instructional services Dr. Bill Smith.

Although learning management systems (LMSs) comprise a large area in today’s education technology market, Smith had an idea last year for a system that would offer a degree of individualization and customization unlike anything currently on the market.

Zyra Castill, education consultant.“One of the things we really believe in at Kent ISD is student voice,” says Smith, “and we wanted to build a system that was responsive to student voice. Most of the systems [like this] are built to benefit how the teacher wants to instruct.”

“The difference with [Edify] is that it’s designed for the user,” he continues. “It’s designed for the student perspective first and foremost, but also the user as teacher, as well.”

Edify offers many of the features that current LMSs provide students, like online lessons, learning resources and tests that are available for a variety of digital devices, from smartphones to desktop computers. But Edify goes deeper than competing LMSs, Kickstand says, with features that allow teachers to rearrange and customize lessons, track student performance on individual learning standards, and identify areas where students may need additional help.

And the real crux of Edify is a feature that its founders call “the magic piece,” a live, user-driven library of resources that recommends relevant materials — video lessons, text articles and any other available digital content — based on a student’s area of need, then allows them to “like” or “dislike” the material, continually pushing the best-reviewed resources to the top of the pile in a social media-like fashion.

Bill Smith contacted Tom Bienewicz with his idea for a user-driven, individualized LMS in 2013. Bienewicz, a sometime partner of Kent ISD with a background in business development and technology, got in touch with another associate, CPA Scott Goldberg, who had recently worked with a private education company in Grand Rapids. The two came together to found Kickstand Systems with the intent to develop Smith’s idea, calling it Edify, and to provide the business arm of Kent ISD’s experiment in the LMS market.

“A lot of ISDs were coming up and being innovators based on our research,” Bienewicz says, “but they needed a business partner to deliver and keep sustainability, and that’s what Kickstand was. The ISD is not a business, so our job is to maintain the product and spread the word outside of Kent County and outside of Michigan, if applicable.”

Although Kent ISD provided most of the funding to develop Edify, Bienewicz and Goldberg later purchased the final product from ISD, and continue to fine-tune the software with their in-house development team; the two co-founders say they are still evaluating whether and when to bring in other investors.

Kickstand launched Edify in March, and since then, they’ve enrolled students into their system in 12 schools statewide, with three more schools committed to roll-outs in the near future. Perhaps even more impressively, they say they’ve had discussions with 42 other schools, most in Michigan but some in Kentucky, Tennessee, South Dakota and Texas, all of which have decided to take the next step in exploring an Edify roll-out.

Patrick Brown, business development.For Bill Smith, who now serves as an advisor to Kickstand on behalf of Kent ISD, each step in Edify’s development and growth has provided validation for his original idea, and a bracing opportunity to watch students and teachers interact with the technology and shape its resource library. He says that Edify already has users enrolled in every one of Kent ISD’s 12 districts; at Kent Innovation High in Grand Rapids, the software platform has already rolled out to every subject area and grade level, replacing textbooks almost completely.

“What this tool does, when I make a mistake [as a student], I don’t have to wait for someone else to help me,” Smith says. “This tool’s gonna help me by pulling from our library, any [resource] aligned to the standard that I missed, and provide that assistance to me right away.”

“It really reinvents the classroom for the digital learner,” he adds. “Kids lugging home backpacks, those are the days of the past. They’ll whip out a tablet or smartphone and they’re off to the races.”

Smith refers to Edify as a “Swiss Army knife,” which is both a compliment and a challenge at the same time — ”if you give it to someone with the corkscrew out, they tend to think it’s a corkscrew,” he notes of the old-school multi-purpose device. One of the biggest hurdles Kent ISD and Kickstand face is getting parents and teachers to explore and understand all of the software’s capabilities, he says.

“We constantly get calls from teachers — ‘I didn’t know it could do this! Did you know it could do this?’” Smith says, “Well, yeah, usually we did.”

Edify’s impressive range and scope of capabilities are, indeed, difficult to summarize. Besides its ability to offer customized lesson content, track student progress and provide assessments on any device, and the “magic piece” of its user-oriented and always-evolving resource library, Edify can interact with free web-based programs to cover subject areas like the creative arts; students might work with MIDI-based keyboard software, for example, to study music theory, or use an online drawing program to create digital works for an art class.

Josh VanderWeide, education consultant.Schools in the Zeeland area have already used Edify to teach software coding, videogame creation and fashion design, Kickstand says. And they note that the platform can even embed cross-disciplinary content to create more fluid lessons that reflect real-world overlap between fields of study.

As an example, Bill Smith mentions criminal justice courses, which might overlap into math and science content at times. Students performing a mock crime scene investigation, for example, may need to analyze vectors and measurements, or might measure a vehicle’s speed based on skid marks for a lesson on accident reports.

“All that applies to math and physics concepts, and when those things apply, we tag the criminal justice lesson with a co-tag of a science or math standard,” Smith says. “So if students have a difficulty with that, we can pull from the library of resources, so a criminal justice major teaching criminal justice courses to students doesn’t have to be a math or physics expert.”

Rolling out Edify in a school is far from a long-term process, Kickstand says. They recently helped Grand Rapids Christian enroll many of its students, and the entire training process for the teaching staff took only four days. Kickstand works with teacher consultants and tech support staff to provide face-to-face training and video lessons for educators, as well as in-classroom support during the first days of an Edify rollout. The software is designed to easily and quickly adapt to work with any set of state or national standards, including the Common Core and others, and also works with students’ Google accounts, so Google-compatible schools don’t even have to create new usernames or passwords.

“What we’ve found is that from the school’s perspective, the tech department doesn’t really have to do anything,” Scott Goldberg says. “It’s all cloud-based and hosted at the Kent ISD data center, so really they need the internet and their school. That’s it.”

Even though there are over 500 LMSs on the market to compete with Edify, Bienewicz says their conversations with schools in Michigan and elsewhere have only confirmed the uniqueness of their software in the crowded LMS marketplace.

“LMSs out there now, oftentimes they tie you to their content,” he says, “so you have to purchase that and it’s not flexible. Other ones give you the delivery mechanism without the content. The difference we have is ours is full of content, and you can go ahead and manipulate it, use it as is, don’t use it — it’s really in the spirit of collaboration. If there’s a teacher down in Texas who’s got a spot-on lesson on polynomials, we’re gonna go ahead and use that one if they’ve chosen to share it.”

“We have not come across another LMS that has these features or this kind of approach,” adds Kickstand co-founder Scott Golberg, “and it gets validated every time we talk to customers: ‘Have you ever seen anything like this?’ ‘No, and I looked at 10 LMSs.’”

Besides its array of resources and features for both students and teachers, Bill Smith notes, Edify offers educators the opportunity to move away from a triage-like model of remediation, where only the most underperforming students receive follow-up attention.

Since Edify tracks student performance down to individual subject standards and recommends resources, even high-performing students can advance more quickly by honing in on the few concepts they missed in a lesson or testing out of mastered subject areas with pre-tests, while struggling students and their parents can receive precise information about which standards they need help in and what resources they can use. And teachers, principals and superintendents can use the data on a more “macro” level, too, identifying what concepts their students as a whole aren’t mastering well and re-evaluating schoolwide lesson material and teaching methods accordingly.

Kickstand isn’t finished fine-tuning Edify, either, Bienewicz and Goldberg say. In the near future, for example, they hope to offer the ability to categorize and recommend resources based on different learning styles, so users who prefer reading their lessons might return PDF documents more often, while visual learners tend to get illustrations and videos.

“You’re no longer teaching everyone to that mythical ‘middle learner,’ where everyone has the same pace, the same knowledge level,” Bill Smith says. “By using this tool, everyone is individualized, and [educators] can build courses around what those students need.”

For their part, Bienewicz and Goldberg are constantly busy meeting with schools and assisting with new Edify roll-outs. They may have to add additional Kickstand staff to their team of about 10 employees soon, they say, and might even consider new branches of the company in other states to help deal with the accelerating demand.

“We definitely have needs as this thing continues to take off,” Goldberg says. “The last few months, the interest has just skyrocketed.”

“We’ve been talking to a big school district down in Texas,” Bienewicz adds, “and our connection down there is ready to open up the [Kickstand] Texas branch. The sky’s the limit here, absolutely.”

Steven Thomas Kent is the editor at Roadbelly magazine and a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. Stalk him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird