Don Kilburn's father came home from World War II a disabled veteran. Through the GI Bill, he was able to earn a degree at the University of Georgia by taking classes at night.
"Education—and education changing lives," Don says, "was big in my family."
The 'Reality Check' of Working Alongside Educators
Don is President of Pearson North America.
"I feel like my work with Pearson is more following than it is leading," he says. "So many educators enter our business who once made a difference in the classroom, and now want to make a bigger difference at scale."
"These colleagues care deeply about education," Don says, "and I draw energy off that every day."
The Learning Struggles of Don's Own Son
One of Don's two children has tested on the dyslexia spectrum and, before it was diagnosed, said things like 'I'm dumb and I'm stupid.'
"He's not," Don says. "It happened to be a Pearson test that helped us assess, then remediate, his struggles in school. Now he's thriving."
"When Pearson can help with changes like that," Don says, "that's why working for this company is such a great thing to be involved in."
Doing Well By Doing Good
After a recent visit to Boston International High School and a tour of its innovative curriculum, Don sat down to talk about Pearson's ongoing mission to help change many more lives.
Edgar Lozano once hosted a podcast episode for the blind community that featured his friend, Jose, who had recently traveled through an airport and recorded his experience from the perspective of a man who is blind.
Mathematics, however, has always been his passion.
"Ever since elementary, math has always been a subject I enjoyed," Edgar says. "I like doing calculations in my mind. I like playing with numbers."
Fooling His Teachers
"I took math like anybody else would," Edgar says. "I had the skills to master things like algebra, but, over time, there were lots of concepts—especially when they were written on the board—that I found very confusing."
"But my teachers just passed me on to the next grade level," he says.
"When 8th grade came along," Edgar says, "that's when I really started to struggle." For the first time, he encountered Algebra II with linear equations and the quadratic formula.
With the help of specialist educators, Edgar went back through Algebra, then tackled Geometry and Algebra II—then moved on to Calculus.
"Now I'm in college taking really high-level math classes," Edgar says by phone where he's a sophomore at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.
There are no other blind or visually impaired students in his classes.
"My professors are amazed at how I keep up with class," Edgar says. "I just seem to have a good memory for all that kind of stuff."
Math on the Next Level
Edgar was brought in by Pearson last summer to collaborate as an intern on a special hardware and software project that was trying to make math learning easier for blind and visually impaired students. It's called the Accessible Equation Editor, and we described the project in an earlier LearnED post.
Early on, the team asked Edgar to code in early math problems and wrangle with various bugs in the system.
"To be honest, I had my suspicions when we started about whether the project would work at all," Edgar says.
Over time, the project got better—and Edgar's view of it changed: "It was really showing some promise."
A Mentor and Coach
Edgar's closest collaborator was Sam Dooley, a senior developer at Pearson.
"Sam taught me so much," Edgar says. "He showed me how to organize my code like a professional. He introduced me to a lot of the computer science and math subjects that I wasn't able to understand."
"He willingly answered all of my questions."
"The most important thing Sam taught me," Edgar says, "is, if you have a problem or an issue in front of you, break things down in to steps and manageable tasks."
Graduation and Beyond
Edgar is majoring in computer science at Texas State University.
"People always ask me how I manage it," he says. "I've just always enjoyed coding and math."
As for his future, Edgar says it's "unpredictable."
"I want to go anywhere to help people with my computer science knowledge," he says. "Or develop applications on my own that continue to push the limits of technology."
"Math was very painful for me as a student," says Su Park, a high school student who is blind.
Until her sophomore year, general education teachers would convert math lessons in to Braille. Su would use those converted lessons to learn concepts and complete classwork. Then her work would be converted by hand back into forms that sighted teachers could understand.
"I struggled to learn Braille, my teachers didn't always know Braille," she says. "And feedback was always delayed."
"I figured if I stuck with it long enough," Su says, "something would come along that would make the whole process a lot easier."
Understanding the Barriers
In February of last year, a team from Pearson showed up at Su's school in Texas. They wanted to talk with blind and visually impaired students about the barriers they faced in math class.
"It was more than anybody else in education was doing to smooth out struggles with math class," Su says. "But I remember thinking, 'What are they going to do about it?'"
"I honestly didn't expect anything out of it," she says.
Her First Challenge: 948 Math Problems
Su's contributions during those brainstorming sessions at school led the Pearson team to hire her as an intern last summer.
The team was developing the Accessible Equation Editor, new software and hardware that allows students using Braille to interact with math on a computer the same way that sighted students interact with math on a computer. (We describe the innovative hardware and software in this LearnED story.)
"We needed someone to read the Braille from the perspective of the student and tell us whether we were getting it right," says Sam Dooley, a senior developer at Pearson who helped lead the project.
"It was very surreal," Su says. "I went through 948 math problems and, because it seemed so seamless, I was too caught up in the moment to realize what was actually happening."
A Long Summer
Eventually, the Pearson team asked Su to write an instruction manual for the Accessible Equation Editor from the perspective of a blind user.
"I thought it would be easy," Su says. "But I'd never written an instruction manual before and I'd never thought about guiding a blind person through a visually-oriented task with words."
"Sam and Dan Brown were the people who kept me on track and taught me how to do everything," Su says. Dan Brown is Pearson's senior engineer for blindness technologies who is also blind. "When things got tough, they helped me take a break."
'I Think Math Will Be My New Passion'
"For years, I told myself I'd never work in a math-related field," says Su. "Now, with a couple more years of learning and exposure to concepts, I think math will be my new passion."
"This makes history for everyone involved," Su says. "For blind students and general education teachers who are working with these students in advanced math."
"What's important to understand is that 'accessibility' is not about technology," Su says. "'Accessibility' is made by people like Sam who tackle challenges and endeavor to fix them in ways no one has ever tried before."
Su, now a junior in high school, still can't really believe the Accessible Equation Editor works so well.
"It's our first chance to see eye to eye with sighted students in the classroom."
Sean Keefer was once deputy chief of staff for the governor of Indiana. Because of close ties with state agencies related to workforce, labor, and economic development, he had unique insight in to what Indiana's employers were looking for in job applicants.
"Employers are expecting skills beyond those that the education system provides students and future workers in high school and college," Sean says.
"Parts of the education process need to teach workforce skill sets that are not currently in the system," he says.
"It's causing problems," Sean says, now a regional director with Pearson. "Public policy experts and governors and associations are saying we need to fill the skills gap so the U.S. is competitive globally."
A Better Way
"State governments have tried to train the workforce in better ways," Sean says.
"But, so far, few solutions have been effective or sustainable."
The Direct-to-Work Initiative
Sean and his colleagues are collaborating on a new project with training company 180 Skills to identify students or graduates who can be trained well, trained quickly, placed in to jobs with skills that businesses need—then measure how the whole thing is working.
It's called a direct-to-work initiative and a pilot program is already underway in Indiana.
"If you don't have a high school diploma or equivalent," Sean says, "we'll help with your GED."
"We're proving that employees who don't have that diploma can still have rewarding careers and thrive in the modern economy."
Several hundred students are participating in the pilot. Many of their training classes will focus on manufacturing or computer science.
"There is some very sophisticated software involved," Sean says. One class about welding uses that software to study complicated pieces of technical equipment.
"It's like a flight simulator," he says. "In the software, you can pull out every piece, every nut, every bolt, and study the innards of that piece of equipment."
Among the students in the pilot who already have a high school degree, Sean says the project expects 90-percent of them will graduate from the course and that 90-percent of them will get jobs.
Those numbers drop—slightly—to 75-percent when Sean's team sets expectations for students who are not high school graduates.
"This kind of approach is proven out," Sean says. "When some students have the option for alternative, vocational areas of study, they will stay in school—and graduate at a higher level."