Hi-Tech

Schools Clamored for Seesaw. That Was the Good News, and the Bad News.

The first requests that upended Seesaw, a popular classroom app, came in January from teachers and education officials abroad. Their schools were shutting down because of the coronavirus, and they urgently wanted the app adjusted for remote learning. The company figured it could do that with a single short hackathon project.

“We were so naïve,” said Emily Voigtlander Seliger, a Seesaw product manager.

Weeks later, reality hit: The virus spread to the United States, where more of the app’s users are. Seesaw had been designed for students in a classroom to submit an audio comment or a digital drawing after a lesson. But thousands of teachers suddenly wanted it to work as a full-featured home learning tool. Rather than using Seesaw for a couple of assignments a week, they were using it for hours each day.

It seemed like every start-up’s dream: racing to keep up with demand from people desperate for your app.

And in many ways, that has worked out well for Seesaw, a San Francisco company. The number of student posts on its app increased tenfold from February to May, Seesaw says, and the paid customer base has tripled from last year. The app is now used in more than three-quarters of American schools, including big districts like Dallas and Los Angeles.

“In a matter of two days the world flipped upside down,” said Victoria Lawyer, global sales manager at Seesaw. Seesaw usually pitched large districts for six months or so before one signed up. Suddenly, she said, those districts were saying: “We need to get set up by tomorrow. What can you do?”

But Seesaw’s experience also shows the kinds of hurdles that a company must jump in such extreme circumstances, going through years’ worth of growing pains in a few months.

ImageA screenshot of the app, whose use increased tenfold during the first few months of the pandemic.
Credit…Seesaw

Other digital education products, like Zoom and Google Classroom, experienced similar growth spurts and ran into their own problems — such as unwelcome strangers who dropped into those early weeks of Zoom school. But they are public companies with resources to spare. Seesaw had just 60 employees in February, when the coronavirus hit the United States, and was trying to prove that it deserved a tryout for the big leagues.

Small issues that the company knew about but hadn’t addressed before the pandemic became significant problems. Teachers begged for app reliability, but some changes Seesaw made for at-home use didn’t always work smoothly. While Seesaw executives wanted the app to be interesting for students, it had to be streamlined enough for frazzled parents suddenly running at-home school.

All this happened while Seesaw, like many other companies, closed its headquarters and shifted employees to working from home, where many juggled their work with their own children’s classes.

Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“We’re going through what everyone else is going through in terms of balancing child care and home-schooling and working from home,” Carl Sjogreen, one of the company’s founders, said. “The intensity of the growth in our business at the same time is a challenge and a struggle.”

Mr. Sjogreen, 42, and Seesaw’s other founder, Adrian Graham, 41, first met at Google in the early 2000s. They left, founded a travel-advice start-up and moved to Facebook as product managers when it acquired their company. In 2012, they left Facebook and started Shadow Puppet, an app that lets people make videos by adding voice-overs to photos and other social media.

They thought Shadow Puppet was almost embarrassingly simple. But the app proved popular with teachers, and it led to the idea for Seesaw.

In the fall of 2014, teachers trying out an early version of Seesaw reported back with comments that surprised the founders, Mr. Graham said. Some students opened up once they had an audio recorder, the teachers said, and some who might not be great writers — and didn’t seem that engaged as a result — made lively videos or digital drawings once those became an option.

In January 2015, Seesaw released the app to the public. It’s free for individual teachers, with a features-added version for schools and districts for $5.50 per student per year. The founders took seed funding when starting the company, and $8 million more from investors in 2017. Mr. Sjogreen declined to give valuation or revenue figures, but said the company would be profitable this year.

And it’s been a year. In February, Mr. Sjogreen was mapping out long-term projects from Seesaw’s downtown San Francisco office. Come March, he was working from his Noe Valley house, juggling home-school duties for his 9- and 12-year-old children, just like many of the employees, and Seesaw was in “rapid-response mode,” as he put it.

Teachers like Sharmeen Moosa, a first-grade teacher at an international school in Bahrain, decided Seesaw would be their remote-learning platform.

“Prior to Covid, I used it as just a digital portfolio for kids,” an online collection of their drawings and recordings, Ms. Moosa said, but when her school closed in February, her use “transformed massively.” She used the app for morning messages and daily lessons, adding audio or video clips, posting additional resources, and creating student assignments along with communicating with families.

Many other teachers used the app in similar ways, exposing shortfalls that the company had to race to fix.

The app, designed to work with iPads and Chromebooks, had hardly been used with Android tablets. But now parents were logging on with Amazon Fire or Samsung devices running Android. Numerous students didn’t have email addresses and needed a different way to log in from home. Teachers, who could no longer look over students’ shoulders while they worked on an assignment, wanted to comment on saved drafts before students submitted a final version. Notification delays grew from a couple of seconds to hours. The company’s servers sometimes slowed to a crawl.

Those issues meant teachers, families and schools all fired questions at Seesaw for help. Mr. Sjogreen, who prided himself on getting back to customers almost immediately, found that just wasn’t possible.

“I’m sad that during a time where they were so stressed out, we were not as responsive as we would like to be,” he said.

Internally, the company had to figure out how to handle a remote work force that was also, in many cases, dealing with added responsibilities at home. Many employees needed time off at peak hours to handle their children. While being interviewed for this article, Mr. Graham bounced his baby girl in a Snugli, while Mr. Sjogreen was interrupted by his son, who asked for permission to go on YouTube. (Mr. Sjogreen nodded, resigned.)

Seesaw tried to accommodate employees’ schedules and child care demands, and even added a remote yoga session on Tuesday mornings to clear heads, “but I’d be lying if I said it was easy,” Mr. Sjogreen said.

Mr. Sjogreen said he had gotten a good idea for Seesaw from his 9-year-old, who uses it at his school. While working from home, Mr. Sjogreen heard “tears, frustration” from his son, who had accidentally deleted work completed on the app. The company added a button to confirm deletion — Mr. Sjogreen suggested an icon of a crying child to accompany it.

Credit…Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

To prepare for the fall semester, Seesaw added 15 full-time employees and 100 contractors to help with customer support. The app kept adding features: Teachers said students didn’t know what to work on first, so the company let teachers designate priority assignments and let students see which assignments were done. Assignments can now be filtered by topic, like math or Spanish. Users can print posts, and students and teachers can add multiple videos on a single post so teachers can conduct long lessons.

Jennifer Montemayor, a teacher at Bulverde Creek Elementary School in San Antonio, has kindergartners in her remote class who speak Vietnamese, Spanish, Persian or Russian at home. She loves how Seesaw translates her class announcements and assignments into languages the parents can understand.

A Seesaw enthusiast, Ms. Montemayor is finding fewer people to proselytize to these days. “Everybody knows Seesaw now,” she said.

Whether Seesaw can hold on to customers when schools, many of them facing new budget pressures, return to in-person learning is an open question. Kelly Calhoun Williams, an education analyst at the research company Gartner, said that while other ed-tech companies got nervous watching school budgets shrink, Seesaw was well placed because of its users’ “I want to keep Seesaw because now it’s part of my day” attitude.

Mr. Sjogreen said he was just looking for a chance to get back to some long-term planning.

“I never thought I’d say this as a start-up founder,” he said, “but I’m not worried about growth anymore.”

Back to top button
Close
Close