News

Mobile Matters

Published: 30. June 2016

Mobilskole provides efficient mobile communication between schools and homes. We caught up with CEO and founder Håkon L. Kalbakk to talk about the company, education, his role, research projects, expectations and the importance of good communication and ways to use and store data.

 

by Ingrid Somdal-Åmodt Vinje

Oslo Edtech Cluster:
With a turnover of 12 million NOK last year, Mobilskole have become a small Norwegian company with several employees. Last year, you got 12th place in the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 Norway, a ranking of the fastest growing technology companies. How did you work to achieve this?

Håkon:
To be honest, that came as a big surprise. It is a great example of the funny things that can happen with small companies. In the first months and year of a startup, you rather talk about growth than revenue. It is a lot more motivating to say that you have increased by 50% than to say that your revenue have grown from 250.000 NOK to 500.000 NOK. That ranking reflects on our fierce growth over the past four years. We have actually managed to grow from 1 to 2,5 to 5 million and 10 million in revenue. I tend to forget where we were five years ago, but luckily I have a wife that reminds me of what we have managed to accomplish.

Oslo Edtech Cluster:
Originally you worked with mobile technology aimed towards dentists, hairdressers and opticians. Then you discovered an unfulfilled need in the communication between schools and homes. How did you discover these needs and how did you decide to aim for the school-home communication?

Håkon:
The short answer would be that we received enquires from two schools. They had heard that we were working in the field, and they were looking for easier means for the schools and homes to communicate. This was in 2007-2008, when the majority of schools were using traditional, analogue “backpack-post”, meaning notes were lying crumpled under the lunchbox.

The longer version is that as part of my Norwegian School of Economics degree, I went to the Entrepreneur School in Boston. I graduated and returned home in the summer of 2007 with a desire to work in a startup company. After doing some research and networking, I met a guy named Geir Sand Nilsen, who, together with Cato Gulliksen, had started a mobile technology company. These were the ones that made the contact with the schools. It started out as a school project seeking a project manager. I thought I should take a closer look at this, and we started off in the end of 2007. We got funding from Innovation Norway, and even though we had to deal with a lot of oatmeal and bootstrapping, we managed to survive. I think I had about 25-30 schools when we launched Mobilskole AS as a company in April 2009.

As we have been growing, my role has changed. I enjoy working with sales and marketing, so I spend a lot of time with our customers. In addition, as the CEO, I have the overall responsibility for our employees, as well as making sure our product at all times meets the expectations, that we continue to be innovative and develop our product, in addition to look at new potential revenue streams.

Oslo Edtech Cluster:
What do you consider the biggest challenge for Norwegian edtech companies in 2016 to be?

Håkon:
Sales. Every year, I see the creation of really good solutions and successful pilots, but they are cut short when it comes to selling. I guess you can discuss whether Mobilskole is a success or not, but at least we have been able to sell our services to thousands of schools in Norway, which provides us with a big market share. One reason is that we have been working with sales from day one. I’ve been concerned with cash flow and getting customers since the very beginning. Getting paying customers to generate pilots has also been a matter of importance.

Oslo Edtech Cluster:
Was it a straightforward journey?

Håkon:
We have spent huge amounts of time travelling across Norway to visit different schools. We could have used the phone instead, but that is not how it works in Norway. The schools and the principals are focused on relations and quality rather than price and functionality. We didn’t manage to visit all the schools, but we got results from the ones we did. However, I doubt that our approach would have the same effect today. Since Mobilskole started, there has been an explosion of new products, so the schools are getting approached more than before. If you want to succeed today, it is not enough to have a great product, you need to show it off. A good example is Kahoot! who are having great success. Behind their success, there has been a lot of hard work to position the product and onboard the users. Regardless of your product being free, like Kahoot!, or costs money like Mobilskole, you need to focus on the sale aspect. You will need to find your business model and stick to it. You can’t just develop a great product and think that it will sell itself – that is never going to happen.

Oslo Edtech Cluster:
In Denmark, national and local education authorities collaborate to increase the digital investments in schools. They have allocated 2 billion DK to focus on digital learning materials and infrastructure. How can Norway learn from this?

Håkon:
We do not necessarily have to copy their model, but I think we need to start realising that good technology comes at a cost, just as hiring a good teacher does. In many schools it is believed that free and good solutions are accessible, and this may be right – sometimes. But nothing is really free, is it? If you use free solutions, you’ll pay in other ways. For example, with your privacy; data about you are handed to third-party companies.

Whether you follow Denmark´s model or not is not important. Either way, if you look at what Norwegian schools spend on digital tools, it is a small fraction of the total school budget.

Oslo Edtech Cluster:
How would you describe your dream school?

Håkon:
I think I share the view of edtech being an important part of the classroom with many people. Technology can enable a more meaningful and interesting school setting, but I’m convinced that edtech can be an important contribution to all the aspects that happens outside the classroom as well. One example is strengthening the link between schools and parents – a lot of principals claim that the key to a successful school is maintenance of the relationship and dialogue with the parents. If we manage to get the parents committed to their kids’ school days, I think the motivation among the students will increase.

Mobilskole are currently working with NIFU on a research project, where we want to find out whether the use of mobile technology and notifications has an impact on the students absence. Just imagine a teenager that skips school. If his parents get a notification from the school every time he doesn’t show up, he might find it wise to be present.

The pilots we have done in the recent years, have had great success. One example is the one we did at Stovner High school. After they started with SMS-notifications, the pupils´ absence dropped by 50%. Most parents today don’t get updates on their children’s absence, and they need to log on to inconvenient platforms to get an overall overview. In the worst cases, they only get printouts twice a year. So one of my main aims is to give parents a quick and easy access to relevant information about their children. If the parents get notified in time, they get the chance to sit down with their son or daughter and talk about the absence.

Bullying is another concern of mine. Mobilskole has a free service for notifying bullying, where students can give anonymous alerts. The schools using this service reveal that they get a lot of valuable insight they probably wouldn’t get if the students didn’t have the option to be anonymous.

Oslo Edtech Cluster:
You’ve mentioned the aspect of involving parents in the communication. It is common to distinct between different levels of school-home communication, where the lowest level is providing the parents with information. The next level is when there is a genuine communication between the homes and the schools, whereas the third and highest level is the parents having a real influence of the school setting. How do you relate to these levels? What do you think about parents getting the opportunity to actively influence the school day?

Håkon:
I believe it is highly important, as well as being the foundation of a good cooperation. As of today, I believe Mobilskole can serve as a provider of the first two levels. When you have succeeded with those two, level 3 will follow. It is all about information. The schools need to be good at providing the information, and the parents need to make sure that they receive the information. One of the challenges we are facing today is when parents check the school platforms only to find the exact same information that was there two weeks ago. Then I understand that the parents loose the motivation to log onto the platforms. With Mobilskole, the parents get push notifications on their phone about school related matters. Further, they get the possibility to address issues of interest.

Oslo Edtech Cluster:
Do you think that many parents and guardians are not aware of how much they can influence their children’s school days?

Håkon:
That is hard to say. I have a son in kindergarten, and sometimes I can get the impression that the staff wants to get feedback, but that the feedback is not always taken seriously. However, I believe that, as in the rest of the society, what matters most is to have an open dialogue, a defined mandate and clear expectations. We need to identify what the parents expect from the school as well as what the school expect from the parents. I believe that mechanism has been improved in recent years. My impression is that it was a bit of a challenge earlier; the parents blamed the school and vice versa. Now, the schools are more clear in their communication, and say “we’ll take responsibility for the children’s learning, but in order to do so, the parents must make sure their kids get enough sleep, have a proper breakfast, and get to school on time.” It seems like both the schools and parents have become better at communicating their expectations – and that makes the relationship so much easier.

Oslo Edtech Cluster:
With the help of educational technology, we can gather large amounts of the students’ personal data. Do you have any thoughts regarding how we can, without being a showstopper for innovation and development, protect the students?

Håkon:
That is one of the reasons I’m happy I didn’t become a politician! Of course, as a shareholder and CEO of a software company, I need to consider Norwegian laws and regulations, including the Personal Data Act. Beyond that, I’m thankful that I don’t need to consider the key political issues. Personally, I think it is nice that data is accessible to anyone, anytime. In my private life, I use a lot of cloud services, and I don’t mind Google showing me content and ads based on what I write in my emails. That is part of the package. But I don’t wish to take a stand on behalf of the society as a whole, as I respect that other people might have another view than me.

Arriving at a consensus on this matter is a challenge, but I try to look at the advantages rather than the drawbacks. I believe there is a lot of unexploited potential in big data. Mobilskole has a project where we look at absence among students. In high school, there is lots of documentation regarding absence. There is data telling us how big it is, the dropout rate, and how much it costs our society. On the other hand, we have extremely little aggregated data in primary and elementary school. Mobilskole has approached some of the big municipalities in Norway, as well as the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training, but neither have got statistics of the absence in elementary school. High school drop outs are often a result of absence, and the absence often start already at primary school. So I’m convinced that it is essential to assess the absence. The teachers are already recording the absence, and the data is stored in a database somewhere in the school administration. The problem is that we don’t aggregate and use the data – and that is somewhat a surprise in 2016. Within education, we’re not good at taking advantage of data. But I’ve seen some Norwegian companies that have discovered this opportunity, and started to make some good money on it. I believe we will see more of that, and it will be a great social benefit.

Oslo Edtech Cluster:
So, you are holding on to the idea that we should focus on the possibilities instead of just the challenges?

Håkon:
We must try to look at both. At least, we should not be scared to look at the possibilities, fearing that they will bring new challenges. It is pretty clear that the Personal Data Act and the regulations that control the storing of data was developed years ago, and that it’s about time to make some adjustments.
The Norwegian Data Protection Authority, which administers these regulations, is often perceived as criticising, but we shouldn’t be afraid of approaching them. I have a positive experience, and I don’t think their aim is to ruin our systems, products and solutions. It is all about communication, in addition to trying to influence the political regulations. In my opinion it is safer to store the data in the cloud instead of in an archive folder at some office. Over the last 7-8 years, I’ve visited several thousand schools. At nearly all of them, I’m able to enter most offices without prior notice. If I wanted to, I could access their archives without anyone asking questions. I don’t do that, but the possibility of doing it says a lot about the safety. It makes me wonder why we are so reluctant regarding online storage. When you can make huge transactions online, I can’t see the problem of getting online access to your son´s absence.