Educating Schools on Tech

17 Feb 2015 | 01:14

Upper East Side CEO Kathy Walter bridges the technology gap for teachers and students

The days of back-to-school purchases being simple supplies like pencils and notebooks is shifting as schools embrace the technology age.

Now, there is the added component of computers in the classroom, and educators must prepare accordingly. That's where Kathy Walter comes in as the CEO of Nsoma, a company she started to assist with the daunting process of putting educational technology into place.

The Upper East Sider comes from a long lineage of teachers, and entered into the profession as an ESL educator. She also did a stint at the Board of Education, where she helped New York City public schools get acclimated to their operating systems.

Her newest partnership is with Open School Project, a company that created an ePortfolio system for students and teachers to virtually log their work. Its director called upon Walter to help seamlessly integrate the program into schools.

How did your company, Nsoma, come about?

I created the company in the beginning of this year. I had worked for a number of different companies doing product management and product development for a number of years, and was also in technology. And those two things, when it comes to education, really come together because there's a ton of technology out there. And what I realized is that there's a lot of technology, but not a lot of organization. So what ends up happening in the schools is that they just keep getting more and more technology thrown in. What I do is work with companies that create technology for education and help them fit better into the school environment.

Can all schools afford this technology?

They absolutely can. What ends up happening is oftentimes schools make purchases and realize once they get something, that it's only part of the battle. The best example I have is 20 years ago -- my parents are both teachers -- they bought a bunch of top-of-the-line Apple laptops. And they wanted all the kids to use them in the classroom but didn't spend any money on the internet, which, at the time, was cutting-edge stuff. They didn't even have an internet cable into the school. And the sad part is that 20 years later, the same thing is reoccurring.

What about teachers who are older and didn't grow up using computers?

You have teachers at a lot of different levels of technology. A very good friend of mine is a retired teacher and she was consulting with us at the Department of Education. It's not so much the age, but just that people have different levels of understanding technology. So when you're putting a technology product together, you have to take that into account.

How can you explain the concept of an ePortfolio?

You can think of it as when an artist or an architect carried around that big, black, flat, folder. You're trekking it all over New York because you want to show people what you've done. That is simply what an ePortflio is. It's taking a big, bulky thing, and allowing you to put it online. What we do with the product that's a little different than some other ePortfolios is, we actually also attach all of those work products to a project. So when you're seeing what a student has done, you're seeing it in the context of the project they worked on.

Who's putting the work into the portfolio, teachers or students?

It's interesting because there are actually two parts to it. Teachers can go in and create their projects; they can turn all of their curriculum into assignments. There's also a second half that is student-directed. So if I'm a student and get really excited about a particular area that I'm working on, or go on vacation and take a lot of pictures, there's a side where students can submit things to the teacher that aren't associated with a project at all.

You were an ESL teacher. How easy is this program for students whose first language isn't English?

What's great about the interface is that there's not a lot of words. And as an ESL teacher, when I'm speaking to my students, I can upload that project to be in whatever language or level of English it needs to be. It works on the other end of the spectrum too. If I have a bunch of students in my class who are really far ahead and I need to work more with those who are a little further down, I can put projects in for those higher-level students.

What is your teaching background?

My parents were both teachers and when you grow up and start expanding into your own world, you say, 'The last thing I'm going to be is a teacher.' What ends up happening is the reality sets in that there's always going to be a part of you that's going to want to be an educator. [Laughs] And I have great-grandparents who were teachers as well and started a teachers' training college in India that's still there. And so, at a certain point I realized there was no fighting it and that I really did like teaching. So a few years ago, I was living up in Boston and there was a great program at Northeastern that I took to get a graduate certificate in teaching English as a second language. I focus more on adults, but the reality of teaching in a classroom is the same. I then taught business and social science as an adjunct professor at Northeastern for students who were coming in at the master's level and hadn't gotten a high enough TOEFL score.

Why did you choose to teach ESL?

Because I really love to travel and meet people from other places and see how the world works beyond the U.S.

I read that you worked with schools in Uganda.

I've traveled to Uganda now twice. My mom and I went together both times, she's a retired school teacher. We got a chance to meet with a number of these schools that had been started. And then the next year, I actually ended up talking to these communities about business concepts. Their main language has a very interesting connotation with business. It's actually a phrase, not a word, and it has a very negative connation, like someone is trying to take advantage of you. So you have to first change how you're talking about it and get people to realize if you start a school and people are paying to be there, that's a business.

What did your job at the NYC Board of Education entail?

The group was rather unique. We were a product management group in the Department of Education. So the way that worked was you had these large program teams that were launching things like online assessments for 1.3 million students and 90,000 staff. What would happen is, you have folks in the Department of Education who have great experience and ideas, but don't know about the heavy technology. So our goal was helping them manage the products that were in the system.