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The Otus Story

Author: David Specht | Blog |

A group of teachers sat around a table at Elm Place Middle School in Chicago trying to work out why their student wasn’t succeeding, triangulating student data that lived in just as many platforms and gradebooks as there were people in the room. One of those teachers was Chris Hull – and he knew there had to be a better way.

Chris and his colleague, Pete Helfers, had spent much of 2010 working to secure funding to bring iPads into their classroom and assign one to every student in the class. Their plan was to use these devices in tandem with a collection of online tools and resources to offer students a more personalized curriculum with a menu of items for learning. While the effort ultimately grew into a successful grant proposal that brought iPads into every middle school social studies classroom in the district, introducing devices and a suite of new apps to teachers and students created more issues than it solved. Files were scattered across a dozen apps, many students couldn’t remember all of their passwords, and Chris and Pete were spending entirely too much time training and troubleshooting with both students and teachers. It became clear that what Chris and Pete needed was a single, easy-to-use tool that could paint a clear picture of a student by synthesizing all of the student data that they were already gathering.

Soon after, Chris and Pete were introduced to Andy Bluhm, a passionate advocate for improving education through strategic data and analytics, who saw the importance of continuing to improve technology in the classroom. The three quickly came to the conclusion that the holistic student-performance platform for which they were looking did not exist and took it upon themselves to try to fill that void. Chris and Pete knew they were onto something when they first conceptualized their solution, but until they met Andy, they simply didn’t think it was feasible. In 2013, Chris and Pete’s dream came to life when the first prototype of Otus was born. Naturally, Chris and Pete first put the tool into action in their own classroom.

There is a phrase that Chris often quotes when discussing educational technology: “To learn is an action that requires effort.” The idea is that even if you remove all obstacles, learning is still difficult. And while Chris and Pete originally set out to reduce obstacles with technology, technology can often create more obstacles than it removes. But during their first year piloting Otus, there were times when the obstacles – from access to information to assessments to personalized learning – were eliminated by the platform, allowing Chris and Pete to focus on teaching and learning. They saw that by using Otus they were able to increase student learning and, as a result, saw more aha moments – the magical moment when something switches on in a learner’s mind – than ever before. At that point, they thought: “If we could do this for more people, that would be a game-changer.” That was their energizing moment.

Today, Otus is used in over 2,500 schools across the country and partners with numerous assessment providers by integrating their curated, aligned assessments into the Otus platform. Otus has identified a problem that resonates with educators and they believe in the impact that the platform has on learning.

Going forward, it’s our hope that Otus will become even easier to use and make an even greater impact on student learning in more schools and for more kids. It will help educators become more efficient, give students and families more insight and provide administrators more actionable information to make decisions to drive policy and inform curriculum.

To Andy, Chris, Pete, and the growing team of passionate people at Otus, there is nothing more rewarding than helping kids learn. To do that on such a large scale truly is a privilege.

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