TCU Innovate! Business Challenge Winner Certell: Reinventing the Education Industry

Here's how Certell evolved its business operations after COVID-19 resulted in stay-at-home orders in Indiana and across the world.

TCU gave $35,000 to the five winners of its TCU Innovate! Business Challenge, which highlights how small businesses have adapted to unexpected and difficult pandemic conditions.

“The coronavirus pandemic has created economic conditions that have forced businesses and nonprofits to make unexpected adjustments — and this competition has highlighted just how well they have adapted,” TCU President and CEO Paul Marsh said. “Our business members have shown great innovation in their operations, products and services, and we’re proud to support some of the best ideas.”

Because of the pandemic, most educators and students suddenly found themselves forced to use technology as they teach and learn. 

That’s been a major learning curve for students, educators and parents, but it’s also been an opportunity for TCU’s winner of the TCU Innovate! Business Challenge — Certell.org.

Certell is an Indianapolis nonprofit developer of global online courses and course materials. As schools shut down in response to the pandemic, teachers needed a steady supply of curriculum materials and at-home activities. Certell provides free materials in an easily accessible e-format, as well as offering resources for teachers to adapt to online education.

Fred Fransen, who holds a doctorate in Social Thought from the University of Chicago, started exploring digital education in 2012 in collaboration with faculty from Florida State University Stavros Center for Economic Education. “One thing led to another," Fransen said, "and in 2015 we formed Certell to begin working with universities around the country.”

Even before the outbreak, education technology was growing rapidly. But as more people began looking for quality, affordable materials — all of Certell’s content is available for free due to the generosity of donors — the non-profit took off.

“As we upped the amount of time spent helping teachers, we were also hearing their stories, and started some podcasts,” Fransen said. One new podcast was Certell Connects, a series devoted to teachers helping teachers manage some of the new demands of remote instruction.

Certell also started a new series called “Bell Ringers”— short, engaging, multimedia lessons — to provided historical context to America’s current challenges, connecting coronavirus-related issues to health and economic crises of the past.

“In late March we began to write social studies lessons that tied in with the past. We looked at COVID and Black Swans, occurrences that have a huge impact and are difficult to predict,” Fransen said. “An example is the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, which is currently the plot of a popular videogame, we featured a scene from the game.”

With technology as an enabler, Certell has been able to take quality content, creating it in one small part of the country, and distribute it all over the world, which has been vital under the pandemic.

The nonprofit has also fast-tracked a number of developments such as a dashboard which will enable teachers and administrators to measure engagement with and actual learning of materials presented. The dashboard will be able to decipher if students are actually reading assignments and watching videos.

"A drawback of technology has been teachers not really knowing if assignments are being done,” Fransen said. “Now they’ll be able to determine discussion groups based on who did the reading. It will also help teachers be more proactive, for example if they see a student did the homework but is not prepared.”

Fransen said e-learning can help close the education gap, especially for children in urban areas with poor access to high-quality teaching. And that the dashboard they’re developing could pave the way for a better educational experience in future — one that’s tailored to students’ individual needs. 

“Our services soon will be able to assess the progress of learners,” Fransen says. “Data can lead to improved learning experiences. When we can understand learners’ behaviors and activities, we can find correlations to their learning success or failure and help them become more successful in school.”