Skooler is on a mission to make K-12 education better – for students, parents, teachers and administrators – with tools that encourage better communication, improve educational outcomes and prepare students for their professional lives.
We sat down with Skooler founder Tor Ove Henriksen to talk about his inspiration in starting Skooler, why he decided to bring his company to the US and his vision for how we can both simplify and strengthen the technology we use in our schools.
What was your inspiration for starting Skooler?
TOH: My inspiration came from my own experiences as a parent of school-aged children. I saw their schools struggling to navigate a cluttered and complex technology landscape that didn’t adequately support teacher-parent communication.
I was surprised to learn, for example, that teachers often need to work in seven or eight different software platforms to manage administrative functions, document attendance, develop and maintain learning plans, follow progress on student goals, do assessments, give and receive class assignments and communicate with administrators and parents. And somewhere in there they need to teach our children!
I was impressed by the wide range of platforms, apps and devices available for schools, but I also realized that these varied technologies create ongoing IT and administrative challenges in terms of integration, training, deployment and maintenance to keep everything working together. And my experience as a parent was frustrating, because even with all that great technology, the software wasn’t doing an adequate job of supporting better communication between schools and parents.
What drove you to take action, from being a concerned parent to developing a new learning management system for schools?
TOH: For most of my career I’ve worked in the technology sector, so I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of well-designed software that can streamline workloads and help people collaborate and communicate more effectively. I also understand the stress and the sense of overwhelm that can occur when people are asked to use too many different technologies just to get their jobs done each day. Technology shouldn’t get in the way of teaching our children, it should support and enhance it.
So I started talking with administrators, teachers, students and other parents about their technology experiences. In my home country of Norway, for example, every school has a Learning Management System (LMS). This is great, because it helps ensure consistency in how education is managed across different schools and municipalities.
The trouble comes when the LMS isn’t integrated with other systems or it doesn’t flow well with the apps and technologies people use every day, like email. When this happens, it adds a level of complexity and stress to daily work. And when the software systems used in schools are too complex and time-consuming, teachers don’t use them as effectively as they could. Information either doesn’t get entered into the system or it gets stuck there and isn’t communicated back to parents.
When I dove a little deeper into why this is the case, I heard over and over how the LMS and other education technologies schools are using just don’t operate like the software we use in everyday business and home life. This causes more tension and frustration because the tools don’t work in a familiar way. They take longer to learn, are harder to use and add to the already heavy workload of teachers and administrators. In many cases, the software that’s supposed to streamline processes is actually making them more complex, which leads to lack of use or lack of consistency.
The traditional LMS companies like Canvas, Schoology and Blackboard built their systems themselves, and they use their own proprietary tools for things like calendaring, documents and communications. These systems have project-based learning and workflows for managing things like assignments – and they have done a tremendous job with this – but unfortunately their systems are stuck in the 1990s and are not tied into the everyday collaboration tools we use today. Everything is either entirely contained within the LMS or they must use a manual process to integrate into outside tools like Microsoft Office or Google. Users have to download and upload documents and go outside the system for email because the functionality isn’t baked into the LMS natively. This interrupts the flow and results in a system where all the tools do not work together seamlessly.
I knew from my experience in the tech world that there are better, more integrated tools out there that could do the same thing with a lot less hassle.
So that’s when you decided to create a new kind of learning management system?
TOH: Yes, I saw the need for a more integrated, streamlined system that could handle the administrative aspects of learning management systems while better supporting the flow of how teachers, students and parents communicate and work together. I also felt strongly that the software students learn and use in school should better prepare them for their lives after school.
So I quit my job, put together a strong design and development team and, in 2016, we created Skooler.
Skooler is based on Microsoft Office 365 – why did you decide to go that route?
TOH: We evaluated the most popular office software, and we determined that Microsoft offered the best combination of applications, tools and a secure and robust Azure cloud infrastructure on which to build our LMS. Microsoft made it clear that it was investing big in education and enthusiastically engaged with us from the very start of our journey.
School leaders, like us, also understand that Microsoft Office 365 includes the most-used productivity software in the world, so teachers and parents are familiar with it and students learn software skills they will use after graduation.
When you started Skooler in Norway, did you expect to expand to other countries?
TOH: That was and is our goal. The school systems all across Scandinavia are very highly regarded globally for their quality of education, so we knew that starting close to home would provide us with an excellent proof of concept. Also, the schools there are accustomed to working with learning management systems and are facing a lot of the same technology complexity issues as schools in the US and elsewhere around the world. We knew that success in Scandinavia would reflect our ability to build a high-quality ed tech solution.
We successfully rolled out our Skooler Learning Management System in municipal school systems all over Norway, and we developed an English language version that we marketed to schools across the UK. Within just two years we had over 1 million users, and their input and feedback have helped us continue to expand and improve the product.
Why did you decide to bring Skooler to the US next?
TOH: The US is the biggest and most complex educational market in the world – so the problems we set out to solve are even more prevalent here than they are in Norway. Schools here utilize an even wider array of platforms, applications and devices, but, despite that, many schools haven’t yet implemented a learning management system.
Also, in addition to each of the 50 states having its own way of managing public education, there are a lot of private and charter schools with additional approaches and models. We knew if we could successfully adapt our product to meet the needs of the wide variety of schools across the US, we could adapt it to work anywhere in the world.
Because the Skooler Learning Management System is based on Office 365, being located near Microsoft’s headquarters in the Seattle area has been a huge help. We’re working closely with Microsoft Education to ensure that our software is taking advantage of the full range of Microsoft apps, tools and services to support education. Microsoft has also been a wonderful partner for us in terms of helping us strategize and implement our roll-out across the US.
What’s your favorite aspect of Skooler?
TOH: I love that it offers benefits across the entire school and system – for administrators, teachers, parents and students. Skooler helps schools smartly integrate technology into the teaching and learning environment, giving administrators and teachers a single platform with time-saving, accessible tools that work in a familiar way. It modernizes processes and daily tasks and supports collaboration within and beyond the classroom. It also greatly simplifies IT management because it’s built entirely on Office 365, so it’s just another function inside of an IT infrastructure most schools already have.
But I think my favorite aspect of Skooler is how it benefits students and their families. The tools in Skooler and its mobile-first platform make it easy for teachers and parents to engage, to follow a child’s progress and communicate successes and concerns throughout the year. Having engaged parents drives better schools. And, most important, Skooler empowers students – facilitating better education outcomes and preparing them for everyday life. And that’s what school is all about!