For a technology guru, John Gamba’s office is surprisingly low tech. One wall hosts a white board filled with a rainbow of notes made with colorful markers. A laptop rests on his desk, but things are hand-written on a legal pad. Books on his shelf are the old-fashioned, paper kind, including Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
Like Jobs, Gamba made his fortune early. In 2004, he sold PACE, the first school-to-home communications network. Four years later, his buyer sold it to Blackboard, an industry leader in educational technology, for $182 million in an all-cash deal. “My family still had equity in the company, and we had a mega exit,” says Gamba. “It was nice to be able to take a break and consider several options for the next stage of my life.”
Then 38, Gamba invested in ventures like Massive U, an active learning platform that powered solutions for educational publishers, including Pearson, Blackboard, McGraw Hill and Scholastic. Now, Gamba has taken on what may his biggest challenge yet: He’s the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education’s first entrepreneur-in-residence and director of innovative programs. Gamba is part of a GSE team that collaborates with Delaware Valley school officials on reform and educational technology initiatives. He also serves as mentor for the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition. Now in its 10th year, the Milken competition hosts 150 entrepreneurs from more than 20 countries. The latest winners will be announced in October. They receive more than $150,000 in cash and in-kind prizes.
In the same way that Jobs revolutionized technology by creating products that people didn’t know they needed, Gamba wants to transform schools by designing digital tools that engage students and teachers. Penn GSE is creating “learning engineers” who use engineering principles to tackle problems, come up with hypotheses, implement theories of change, then make revisions based on findings.
It’s a concept embraced by local leaders like Regina Speaker Palubinsky, superintendent of Great Valley School District.
“We need to start with end goals in mind and build from there,” she says. “What will the Class of 2040 be expected to know and do upon graduation? How can we create environments for them to learn that? Maker spaces, creativity corners and professional development for teachers are parts of that.”
On the other hand, many parents already decry the seemingly ubiquitous role of technology in kids’ lives. Limiting screen time often devolves into all-out warfare in the home. Gamba fully acknowledges the hazards while reframing the question. “Is it the screen time itself or the habitual nature of it and the kind of engagement kids are having with the screen?” he poses. “New research is debunking myths on how we learn.”
Gamba believes that a 21st-century learning model should use technology to foster the 4 Cs: critical thinking skills, creativity, collaboration and character. Palubinsky agrees. “We want students to use technology to be creative thinkers, demonstrate mastery of their skills and adapt to a variety of situations in which they may find themselves,” she says.
One of Gamba’s favorite apps focuses on health science. Students are asked to form a task force and come up with a hypothesis for treating Ebola in an African country. They work with that team to create and test solutions and present them through a digital portfolio.
While that sounds educationally exciting, Gamba realizes that many school systems aren’t yet able to embrace technology in that way. Teachers need to learn how to use the programs. They also need access to high-speed internet. Gamba quotes research showing that 23 percent of American schools still don’t have the necessary bandwidth to support one-to-one learning, in which every student and teacher has a digital device and the necessary bandwidth to support personalized learning. “These tend to be inner-city and rural schools,” Gamba says. “So the issue isn’t necessarily access, it’s equity.”
Closing the achievement gap is one of the missions of the Gamba Family Foundation, funded with proceeds from the sale of Gamba’s companies. Since its inception in 2006, the foundation, co-founded by Gamba’s parents and sister, recently gave away its millionth dollar. Grantees include CityBridge Foundation, Urban Teachers, Teach For America, and schools in Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Florida. “We’re obsessed with closing the achievement gap,” says Gamba.
The value of education is ingrained into the Gamba family. John F. Gamba Sr. served as school board director for West Chester Area School District from 1968-1974. Mary Anne Gamba worked in West Chester’s Head Start program and as a professor at Delaware County Community College. Their son knows full well that not every kid is surrounded by opportunities for education.
“We’ve been working hard on the achievement gap for years, and we’ve had some areas of success,” says Scott Eveslage, assistant superintendent of Lower Merion School District. “But some of the data in Lower Merion is discouraging.”
While some of the gaps are along racial lines, Eveslage says a bigger contributing factor is the quickly growing population of people who speak English as a second language. “There wasn’t an expectation that adding laptops would eliminate the learning gap,” he says. “In Lower Merion, where we have a large population with access to resources, we have others who don’t. That’s made closing gaps challenging.”
Palubinsky sees the same thing in Great Valley. “The largest growing demographic is Asian-Indian students,” she says. “Our focus is on equity and inclusion, and aligning our district’s goals and vision with community expectations. How can we make everyone feel included, especially if they have been marginalized in the past?”
Technology can help. What if entire families—including non-English speaking parents and grandparents—used digital tools to get involved in kids’ educations? “Research shows that a more engaged parent leads to a higher achieving student,” Gamba says. “Research also shows that conversation is a key contributing factor to the achievement that comes from engagement. What can we do to cultivate family conversations?”
Turns out there’s an app for that, too.