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Iowa City-based Pear Deck creates interactive tools for teachers

Creators say engaging students can improve test scores

A demonstration screen of Pear Deck’s online education application is shown in Iowa City on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
A demonstration screen of Pear Deck’s online education application is shown in Iowa City on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Education technology company Pear Deck started almost by accident.

The company’s creators were in the process of selling their previous venture, a gradebook tool called Active Grade, to Haiku Learning Inc.

“We were making a presentation for them and programmed a custom presentation that was all interactive,” recalled Riley Eynon-Lynch, Pear Deck’s chief executive officer.

Eventually, however, the group — including two former high-school teachers — realized their interactive presentation could solve another problem: better engaging students in the classroom.

Pear Deck, founded last year, has created a new teaching tool for teachers — sort of like a PowerPoint presentation, but one in which students can follow along on their own computers and answer questions throughout the lesson.

That’s a key distinction, Eynon-Lynch and others say.

In a traditional classroom, a teacher might give a lecture, possibly using a PowerPoint presentation, and then assign students homework and give a test at the end of a unit.

But with Pear Deck, Eynon-Lynch said, “every student knows that he’s expected to contribute something. Which is a really big change from most kids thinking other kids will do the contribution.”

Pear Deck allows teachers to pause during a presentation, ask all students a question and then watch as their responses — drawing a graph, typing an answer or labeling a diagram, for example — come in electronically. Teachers then can display all students’ answers at once, anonymously, or feature one student’s response and ask others to respond to it.

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That can allow usually shy students to participate more in class and can lead to all students being more engaged and doing more critical thinking, said Michal Eynon-Lynch, Pear Deck’s chief operating officer and chief educator.

“It’s this very active learning environment where they’re actively thinking,” she said.

Matt Townsley, the Solon Community School District’s director of instruction and technology, agreed. Townsley has not used Pear Deck, he said, but he’s familiar with the idea behind it.

“It allows more students in the room to have a voice,” Townsley said. “When a teacher does (a traditional lecture), either the teacher is the one talking or asking a question and one student is responding at a time.”

“When there are social learning opportunities, it creates a potential for 100 percent of the brains in the room to be active,” he added.

Traditional lessons still have value, Riley Eynon-Lynch said, and Pear Deck isn’t trying to force teachers to give lessons a certain way. The company allows users to import existing PowerPoint presentations and provides tools for PowerPoint-based teachers to start slowly.

But, Eynon-Lynch said, “It doesn’t make sense anymore to just talk at (students) for 45 minutes and then assign them homework.”

Ultimately, he said, research has shown that higher engagement among students can lead to higher test scores.

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Pear Deck’s product is subscription-based, Riley Eynon-Lynch said — individual teachers can use it for free, but entire schools pay for access.

The company, with eight full-time employees, now has at least one full school using its product in 36 states and eight countries, Michal Eynon-Lynch said. And there are free users in every state.

Riley Eynon-Lynch said he’s proud that Pear Deck has roots in education.

“We’re starting our own company, it’s growing quickly and it’s based on what teachers are saying, what science about education is saying, and not just something we’re making up,” he said. “That’s pretty rare.”

Townsley agreed.

“There are a lot of products that are created that are oftentimes retrofitted for educational purposes,” he said. “It’s really nice to see a company that’s focused on education and on schools and on kids.”

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