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May 14th, 2019
Welcome to Leading Indiana Ambition – a series of leadership stories fueled by Elevate Ventures highlighting entrepreneurship across the Hoosier state. This month, we profiled Christine McDonnell of Codelicious. Stay tuned next month for more!


Leading Indiana Ambition - Christine McDonaldCodelicious CEO Christine McDonnell on Pivoting, Fortuitous Timing and Computer Science EdTech

CEO Christine McDonnell’s goal for Codelicious is to become the “gold standard for computer science curriculum in the classroom.” In spite of the competition for attention — the education technology space is teeming with purported solutions — and schools’ notoriously long sales cycles, Codelicious is making surprising headway. Sixteen schools currently subscribe to the curriculum. To build her business case for computer science education, McDonnell has listened to parents, partnered with nonprofits and discussed the 21st century workforce with legislators. A decisive company pivot in 2017, among other factors, ratcheted up demand. Codelicious landed its first school district in spring 2017, and has been adding private, charter and public schools ever since.

You’re in the business of K-8 education. What did you enjoy in school?

Math and science were a natural fit for me. In high school, my math teacher brought in a computer and asked if I wanted to stay after class to show me how it works. She opened up the back and walked me through how this amazing piece of electronics operates. I was hooked. I went on to earn undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. I practiced engineering for quite a long while, and then took the business track and got my MBA. After working for McKinsey & Co., I ran my own consulting firm for 17 years, and then we started Codelicious.

Lots of people are trying to fix public education. There’s a lot of noise in this space and people trying to make fast money. How do you make Codelicious heard above the din?

 Leading IN Ambition - Christine McDonald

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is a major discussion all across the United States right now. We’re focusing specifically on the computer science aspect of it. Our differentiating factor is that we approach computer science comprehensively, exposing students to the foundational skills of coding, while also introducing what it means to think about hardware and computer science, and what does it mean to think about computer science in other industries. For example, the medical industry or agriculture — data analytics is big in farming today — or marketing and communications. There’s not a profession that these students can think about in their future that’s not going to require some element of computer science.

More often than not, computer science is synonymous with coding. But when you look at jobs in the workforce today — the hundreds of thousands that are going unfilled in the technology space — only about a third of them require mastery of coding. But all of them require an understanding of computer science. So when schools are only teaching coding in the classroom, they’re only hitting that intersection of foundational skills and interests with maybe a third of the students.

Our comprehensive approach is also education standards compliant, so educators can see how well students are meeting these foundational skills year-over-year, from third to eighth grades, much like they would do in any course (like math or English), and consistently reinforce those skills.

Why is now the right time to enter this market?

 Leading IN Ambition - Christine McDonald

Our original business model was to offer computer science in an afterschool setting, like an enrichment setting. When we were doing the market research, we talked to hundreds of potential clients, hundreds of parents. Many of them said, “Yeah, I think that’s great in an afterschool setting,” but a small percentage said, “Why do I have to wait for this to only happen after school? My kid plays sports; my kid’s in the band; my kid’s in theater. Why is this only available after school?” That really resonated with me.

Then we began talking to educators and school district administrators to try to understand why computer science hadn’t been brought into the school day. That’s when we realized we had an opportunity. We had already built this amazingly comprehensive curriculum that was education standards compliant, and written so that any educator could hit the ground running from day one to teach it. The more conversations we had with educators, the more we felt like we could help them accelerate this into the school day.

And so in January 2017, we pivoted from the enrichment model to a licensing model for educators in the classroom to help them accelerate computer science into the school day. The timing happened to be right. Very shortly after that, different states began to legislate education standards and set timelines for bringing them into the classroom, tying outcomes to funding. We had the right product with the right fit at the right time. Now you hear everyone talking about it, but at the time, you didn’t. Because of all of these market forces coming together, Codelicious seems like an overnight sensation, but it really was just knowing that we wanted to bring this into the school day because kids weren’t able to access it otherwise.

Who is using the Codelicious curriculum today?  

“We’re in 16 schools and 25 classrooms, and have reached over 1,400 students to date and growing.”

We’re in 16 schools and 25 classrooms, and have reached over 1,400 students to date and growing. And because any educator can teach our curriculum, we have English-as-a-second-language teachers, history teachers, science and math teachers teaching our curriculum. Educators are very logical thinkers. What we provide them with is all of the curriculum and tools they need to teach. They just have to choose which tools are the best ones to engage students in their classrooms.

How is Codelicious using public policy to drive change, opposed to selling directly to individual schools?

From our perspective it’s about driving awareness and opportunity. We are out in the community at every opportunity helping to pursue this, often partnering with organizations that value confidence-building in students, like the Indiana Sports Corp, the 2019 Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament and the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association). So for us it’s that opportunity to get the word out to students and educators that there really is something in this for everyone.

What were the market dynamics when you rolled out the Codelicious offering, and how has that changed?

 Leading IN Ambition - Christine McDonald

In January of 2017, there were less than a handful of states moving down this track of accelerating computer science into the classroom. In November of 2017 Indiana’s governor [Eric Holcomb] announced that Indiana would be accelerating computer science into the classroom by 2021. The way it looks right now, 10 states are accelerating computer science in the classroom. These initiatives are either tied to some kind of legislation, like in Indiana [From the Indiana Department of Education, IC 20-30-5-23 states that after June 30, 2021, each public school, including each charter school, shall include computer science in the public school’s curriculum for students in kindergarten through grade 12.] or it’s tied to funding and outcomes related to computer science.

Twenty-two states have completed their computer science education standards and are working on how to accelerate them in the classroom. Another 11 states are in the process of developing their education computer science standards. So literally in that timespan, the acceleration of bringing computer science into the classroom has really accelerated. It’s good timing for us, and it’s probably not something we could have predicted.

What other market changes are you anticipating or driving and how are you positioning the company to take advantage of those?

There are a couple of things that we’re looking for. State-level education standards are at a very foundational level right now. We anticipate that as students begin to move through these education standards, their proficiency will build. Whereas today the standards might be written towards just a basic understanding, we foresee some proficiency-level challenges arising as students start at different points or progress from year to year. To keep pace with the constant advances in computer science, every six months we update the curriculum.

Also, right now we have around 16 different courses that educators can license from us depending on the skill level they want to generate and where student interests might lie. We’re anticipating that trend, going from, “Hey, how do we get into computer science?” to “How can we take it to the next level for our students and their interests?”

 Leading IN Ambition - Christine McDonald

Making money and doing good are often viewed as two very different things. What are your thoughts on their relationship as it relates to Codelicious?

The opportunity to give to the community is first and foremost for us. We are constantly looking for ways to help excite students and educators more about computer science outside of just revenue-generating ways. You don’t have to love coding to go into computer science. I have a son who was on a robotics team and coding wasn’t his favorite thing. He loved driving, so he would code complex driving sequences so that he could drive better.

At community events, we don’t always run a coding experience behind the computer. We will run a hardware experience or what we call an “unplugged experience” teaching technology away from the computer. So we’re doing things from a community perspective to really show that there’s something in this for everyone. No matter where your passion lies, having a foundation in computer science is going to be beneficial to where you want to go.

You’ve talked about organizations you’ve partnered with. Can you talk about working with and communicating with legislators?

What I love about this state is there’s a very rich ecosystem of government, corporations and nonprofits working together, so we have the opportunity to engage and intersect. Recently, I was on a panel with Gov. Holcomb, Elaine Bedel of the IEDC and Theresa Lubbers, the Commissioner for Indiana’s Commission for Higher Education, during Innovate WithIN, which was a high school business plan competition. Opportunities like this allow me to communicate to constituents in other areas about what computer science education looks like. The good news is that within Indiana, there’s a strong understanding of the value proposition, led by great organizations who came before us that have been working on this for a long time.

What drives your team and what is its vision for the future of education in Indiana and beyond?

 Leading IN Ambition - Christine McDonald

We are passionate about having students find the aspect of computer science that excites them to learn more, which fuels all of our curriculum development. It fuels the projects that we design for our project-based learning. It fuels the discussion topics for educators. We’re also passionate about helping educators understand that they are all logical thinkers and that any one of them, if they want to, can teach computer science. It just requires having the right tools. Making all that available and accessible drives everything that we do every day.

Our vision is to accelerate this across the United States. When we talk about the map of the United States and about how market forces are at work, we want to be the gold standard for computer science curriculum in the classroom. That is what’s driving our vision.

What has surprised you most about leading Codelicious?

Most surprising and encouraging is how fast the market demand is accelerating across the United States. When we launched this to be in the classroom, we had prepared ourselves for some amazingly long sales cycles because selling to schools is typically a long process, and it still is, and yet because of this pent-up demand for computer science and computer science curriculum, and because of this model of curriculum subscription that we’ve developed, the adoption rate has gone a lot faster I think than we would have anticipated. And that’s a great thing. It’s a good validation that we have a strong value proposition for schools.

That’s a good surprise.

Yeah, that’s a good surprise.


Read our previous Leading Indiana Ambition story profiling AIT Bioscience’s Terri Pascarelli here.
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