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What if the classrooms of the future were inspired by WeWork?

Teacherly's Atif Mahmood explains how tech could turn schools into shared spaces focused on digital learning.

Teacherly's Atif Mahmood

Teacherly's Atif Mahmood thinks the future of education could be a hybrid model, where children increasingly combine learning in schools and from home.

Photo: Courtesy of Teacherly

Education is in the midst of some of its most dramatic changes ever, with millions of kids and teachers all adapting to a new model of distance learning. For Teacherly founder Atif Mahmood, that presents a big opportunity.

"We have an opportunity to learn and have a discussion around what is the classroom, what is the curriculum, what is assessment, what is school," Mahmood said in an interview with Protocol. He thinks this is the perfect time to reexamine our preconceptions of how education works — and how tech can make it better.

With Teacherly, Mahmood and his team have developed a workflow tool that helps teachers plan lessons, do personalized professional development and teach remotely. "Lesson planning takes up 30% of the teacher's time," he said, adding that "there's something that's obviously broken." Inspired by the power of enterprise workflow tools, the London-based Teacherly is trying to bring similar productivity improvements to teachers, by turning lesson planning into a collaborative, Typeform-style drag-and-drop experience.

In a conversation with Protocol, Mahmood discussed the struggles of competing against Big Tech, what the future of schools might look like and how teaching can modernize.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

If Teacherly is a workflow tool, why does it have a remote-teaching functionality?

If you think about Slack, it's a workflow tool. It enables us to communicate better as a team. But within that workflow, we also are able to have a call. So if you think about the workflow [of a teacher], as part of when you plan your lesson, you then teach that lesson. When you teach that lesson, it can be done face-to-face, but it can also be done remotely.

One of the things that I'm a huge advocate of is flexible teaching. When I look at enterprise, and look at myself and the employees that I have, I pushed for flexible working, remote working. But if you think about education, you think about the demographic of the teaching workforce, 70% is female. But then if you think about the policies when it comes to working, it's still very back in the day — nothing's really changed.

So when I started thinking about where I wanted to go with Teacherly, it made total sense if you think about the workload — I can teach my lesson in class, but I could also create small online classes and I can teach remotely. That could be live lessons, or it could be me assigning a group of lessons to a small class, but it's flexible teaching from wherever.

What have the last few months been like?

It's been really, really busy. But at the same time, it's made it a little bit difficult, too. There's a lot of companies who maybe don't have the right solution for remote teaching and remote working but have kind of jumped on the opportunity and attracted schools, because they said, "Hey, you can use this for free from now until whenever." In a way, it's a good thing, but in a way it's actually quite sad — it's just become too much noise from companies or platforms that are probably not fit for purpose. Because of the free thing, it makes it quite hard [for us] at times.

Our revenue has been growing but hasn't grown significantly enough as I wanted to because we've had to be conscious of Microsoft Teams being free, Google Classroom being free. We've got over 20,000 teachers using [our product] for free — that's a total revenue potential of just under £5 million ($6.1 million USD). In reality, maybe we would have generated some of that revenue beforehand, but because others are free, there's a push to be free, a little bit.

What are your expectations for people sticking around once schools start reopening?

One of the things that's key here is the usage. We've gone from where teachers were using the platform 80 to 85 minutes a day, and now it's nearly 220 [or] 230 minutes a day, because teachers are using it for not just planning lessons or communicating with one another, but also delivering live lessons in bite size.

I think the future is more of a hybrid model, whereby you still have students coming into school, but you also have students learning from home, or maybe learning from another space. I've got two daughters — one's 8, and [the other's] 2. And I always said this when [the youngest] was born: I don't think when she starts school that she'll be going to a school like [the oldest] has been.

I think she'll go around to a — I don't know what you want to call it, a WeWork, coworking space. And then she'll go into school maybe a day a week or two days a week. But even at school, I don't think that school will be her individual school. I think there's an opportunity here to have shared school spaces. So hybrid, to me, is coworking, shared school spaces, with online learning.

What happens to the social side of school then?

It's important. When I started teaching in my second school, it was very much a white area. And one of the things that attracted me to that area was: They probably haven't seen an Asian or a Black person. And it's not their fault.

I don't want [my daughter] to be online all the time, because how is she going to connect, how is she going to play? When you think about the curriculum, it's still so rigid. It doesn't actually teach you anything around social or emotional learning — it still is very academic. It makes more sense to actually think about shared school spaces, where you do get to interact with different people from different schools. There needs to be an open dialogue around shared school spaces.

How do teachers feel about remote teaching — do they want things like this hybrid model?

We hear a lot about the fact that teachers have actually enjoyed working remotely. They've enjoyed the flexible working that I'm talking about: They see how they can generate an income on their own, whether it's through smaller online classes, or setting up their own school online. Because even when schools reopen, not every parent is confident with sending their kids back, and actually some parents have enjoyed home schooling their children. What I've seen from parents, and from teachers, is how do you connect the classroom closer to home. So those parents that do want to home-school, how can they be much closer to the teachers?

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