Teachers as Innovators

I occasionally have moments on my morning drive where I’m so captivated by the conversation on NPR that I spend a few extra minutes just sitting and listening. This happened to me on Tuesday while listening to the Forum segment with The Economist’s Vijay Vaitheeswaran talking about his latest book, “Need, Speed, and Greed.” His broader message is that risk-taking innovation is the only way for companies and entrepreneurs to survive in a disruptive era of globalization and I was particularly drawn into his points on how education plays such a vital role in innovation. Vijay defines innovation as ‘fresh thinking that adds/creates value’ and I really appreciate his emphasis on how innovation is not always related to or dependent on technology.  In applying this to education, this immediately made me think about a recent EdWeek article highlighting a study that shows ‘Teachers Can Influence Colleagues, Change Schools.’ If more teachers see themselves as the innovators, tasked with the challenge of determining how/when to utilize various edtech tools (which is far more difficult than just creating them), that will drive significant improvements in teaching and learning. My favorite message from that piece is that  “Educators must consider each other the most valuable resource in a system, to be developed and supported with leadership, structures, tools, and processes for promoting continual professional learning.” I believe that the value created from focusing on teachers as innovators and constant learners themselves is the true revolution that schools need in order to improve student outcomes.

He went on to stress the importance of investing in education, which is one of the main drivers of innovation and that recent cuts to higher ed, especially to the UC system, are fundamentally wrong as we are cutting future productivity gains. Vijay’s views on purpose really resonated with me and were the main reason I came back and listened to the rest of the segment. He shares that in an ideas based economy, what truly motivates people is “purpose,  a sense of community, autonomy, mastery, independence, being good at what you do and connecting with something bigger than yourself.” If you know me or have read previous posts, you’ll know how much I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment.

I find his optimistic perspective extremely refreshing in a conversation around poverty alleviation and education that is often portrayed as in crisis-mode. He asserts that change is possible and disruptive change is coming (with a nice shout-out to Khan Academy and Acumen Fund.) I agree and am enthusiastically hopeful to see what we as a society can create when we focus on greed for good.

A Deeper Look- Blended Learning at DCP

Last fall I was fortunate to meet Greg Klein, Director of Blended Learning at Downtown College Prep in San Jose, and got a chance to see one of the few truly blended learning schools in the Bay Area. Greg manages his lab as a startup, piloting a variety of software programs giving himself and his students a chance to test it all out before integrating it fully into their workflow. As the first guest speaker at my Teacher Tech Talk event, Greg gave us all a deeper look into the tools he uses and some of the key decisions he’s made to cultivate an engaging and highly academic blended learning environment.

It helps to start with a deeper understanding of the student population. Downtown College Prep (DCP) in Alum Rock is located in one of the lowest income communities in San Jose. Greg’s campus serves 180 students (6th and 7th graders) of which 89% are on free/reduced lunch, however, 2/3 of the students d0 have access to internet at home. 60 students at a time spend 90 min/day in the learning lab going through 3 30-min rotations. The computers are setup in rows with a simple system of using red/green plastic cups to identify student progress and who may need some additional support.  Greg went on to share the pretty comprehensive list of tools he uses to structure the content and delivery during those rotation sessions.

Greg and the DCP Team are currently experimenting with these products in the following areas, although many of them can be used in other content areas, too.

Communication: Edmodo***, Goalbook*, Google Docs***
(* indicate Greg’s enthusiasm for these different products)

A student and instructor favorite, Quizlet, is in the process of launching a beta version of  a new product, Sentencer, that allows kids to collaboratively create sentences and then vote up/down their writings. One of the obvious gaps was software tools to support science instruction and project-based learning (PBL,) and DCP currently uses Google Docs through Edmodo to deliver lesson plans that the teachers themselves created.

In generating this list during the discussion, a teacher made an interesting point wondering if students then had 11 different logins to manage these systems? While a Google Apps login is shared across a few of the tools, there are still several different logins that students have to remember and enter on a daily basis. This tied directly into an early suggestion on the need for unification of tools/systems to make it easier for students and teachers to use and access data from these different platforms.

Special thanks to Greg for being our first guest speaker and sharing these insights from the blended learning environment he’s creating at DCP. Keep an eye out for similar deep-dives as I plan to connect with the blended learning folks at SF Flex Academy and Rocketship sometime soon.

Teacher Tech Talk

During my exploration deeper into the world of edtech, meeting with countless entrepreneurs & investors and attending numerous conferences & events, I feel a very important perspective is missing from this growing movement… the voice and participation of educators. Can we really redesign and distribute new innovations in teaching and learning without active involvement from the teacher community? I’ve been to several edtech meetups, Startup Weekend EDU events and conferences and it’s rare to find attendees that are actually current teachers, working directly with students and trying out the new tools that seem to pop up weekly.

So, what can we do about that? Last night I hosted the first Teacher Tech Talk event to help identify and build a community of educators that are interested in playing a more vocal and active role  in this growing edtech movement. It’s been hard to miss all the buzz around the ‘edtech’ world lately, however, people who have been thinking about ed reform for a while recognize that technology is merely a tool and the larger disruptions and improvements to current teaching and learning practices depend on when/how those tools are used, which is  largely driven by educators.

My goal for this community is to collectively figure out how best to bridge the educator and education startup worlds. How can we get more perspective from what is happening in classrooms and schools into the product development process of startups, rather than when it’s time to find beta testers or product evangelists? The group consisted of current and former educators, entrepreneurs, school/district tech leads and even an investor. The diversity of perspectives lead to a very insightful discussion session, and as this community grows I imagine it will attract more entrepreneurs and investors, however, I’m extremely focused on keeping the content and conversation centered on educators.

After some networking, we settled into a brainstorming and discussion session around what the educators think would make their teaching lives easier. The responses ranged from predictable need for more time, access to devices, actionable data to more collective impact approaches, engaging parents, inter/intra district collaboration and thinking how to bring more relevancy and real-world application to the current standards-based curriculum. Greg Klein was our first guest speaker, invited to share his perspective as a former principal in Oakland and current teacher, leading the blended learning initiatives at Downtown College Prep. He shared an in-depth look into the tools (Khan Academy, Manga High and long list of others) and process he’s piloting at DCP and stay tuned for a follow-up post that goes into more detail. Brett Kopf, co-founder of Remind101, then shared his experience incubating his startup through Imaginek12 and speaking with hundreds of teachers before starting to build his product that aims to power communication between teachers, parents and students.

This pilot event was a success and surfaced some extremely useful feedback on how to grow and shape this community going forward. Look out for an invite to next month’s event and if you’re interested in getting involved in anyway, let me know. As with most startups, I’m figuring this out as I go and can use all the feedback I can get!

Top 5 Tips for Edtech Storytelling

Sharing your Story: Marketing to the Fragmented K12 World

In consulting with several education related startups, I often get asked the best way to approach marketing to the fragmented K12 space. While there is no easy way to get the attention of massive numbers of teachers & parents at the same time, here are the key strategies I’ve found that successful (read fast-growing) edtech startups leverage to tell their story. Expert marketer and blogger Neil Patel outlines tips for low-budget storytelling through his post on 21 Big Marketing Ideas for Small Marketing Budgets. Pulling from these strategies, I’ve highlighted the Top 5 ways to start with a lens from the edtech perspective.

  1. Comment on blogs

Edutopia and Mindshift are great places to start as they already have vibrant communities that contribute posts and comments. Join the conversation by following a few key authors and establish your own voice through consistent commenting.

  1. Start blogging yourself

Use your own blog as a platform to share information about your product and progress, as well as general trends in a specific aspect of edtech. Choose 1-2 key areas (ex. STEM, Blended Learning, Mobile Learning, PD, etc…) and provide useful updates/tips on what’s going on in that space. There are many great blogging platforms (Tumblr, Posterous) but teachers love WordPress and if your blog takes off a bit, this is another way to build community with educators through WP following and commenting. Invite your early-adopters to guest blog. This deepens their engagement, provides an authentic voice (educators love hearing from other educators rather than product folks) and offers fresh content.

  1. Leverage social networks: Engagement > Size/Reach

If your startup has been around for more than 5 minutes, then it’s likely that you already have a FB page and a Twitter handle. Social Media Marketing, specifically to teachers, can be it’s own massive post but for now the top tip is engagement matters more than the size of your community. On FB, this means looking at the number of people ‘talking about your page’ rather than just the total likes. On Twitter, follow the Top Edu Tweeters and join the weekly chats to share updates and get a sense of what educators are talking about. Lastly, Edmodo, striving to be FB for schools, also has a feature where you can create a community around specific content areas or tools/services and engage with the teacher and students who are on their site. With over 6 million users (as of March 2012 and is gearing up international expansion) this is the largest centralized community of educators anywhere on the web and it’s growing fast!

  1. Craft some Case Studies

Another benefit that comes from early adopters are enthusiastic testimonials. Take time to develop these into case studies, even a couple 1-pgrs can be useful to spread the word about your effectiveness and build your brand. Remember, educators love hearing from other educators and case studies can help you capture the enthusiasm and results from your initial users. Want examples? Check out how LearnBoost has captured early user stories.

  1. Speak at Events & Schools

The edtech scene is heating up and with that comes an increase of events and speaking engagements. Meredith Ely runs the monthly EdTech Meetup (Thurs evenings in SF) and often seeks to shine the spotlight on members, giving startups a chance to share their story. This is great practice for more formal speaking events and even pitching to investors. EdSurge, the weekly edtech newsletter, always highlights upcoming events (it’s long so scroll all the way down) and reach out to the organizers to see if you can join a panel or even give a quick pitch.  Reach out to local schools and see if you can stop by a staff or department meeting to talk about your work. This requires some cold outreach and can be particularly challenging, but if successful, will lead to some very valuable relationship building and customer development opportunities.

Overall, just remember that utility drives adoption and community drives retention, and the challenge is figuring out the best way to tell your story. If you’re delighting your users, especially teachers and parents, they will be drawn into the community and will happily evangelize your product on your behalf.

The Long Tail of Edtech

In case you missed it, last weekend education technology enthusiast, Steve Hargadon, applied the long-tail framework to explain some of the key trends we are seeing in the edtech space right now in his post, A “Tail” of Two Edtech Agendas. I think this is a very helpful way to understand why certain startups are capturing much of the capital and media attention right now, even though they may not be poised to deliver the deeper disruption that many of us are hopeful for.

I cannot agree more with his point that we must shift our focus to solutions that target users (students, educators, parents) that make up the long tail. He describes “success in the tail is differentiation, diversity, and choice,” which I believe are the basis of personalized, self-paced learning that can (and in a few cases already are) revolutionizing teaching and learning.

He goes on to state “edtech reform in the head is about using money to scale simplified solutions of that which is popular, or the status quo. Ed tech reform in the tail is about using the network to provide freedom and choice” which captures an important aspect of scaling a truly differentiated and choice-based model, the network. In order to meet the needs of all types of learners, we must engage and build community with all types of educators, establishing a solid network to capture and deliver customized learning solutions.

If you’re interested in helping bridge the educator and edtech communities to start establishing this type of network right here in Silicon Valley, please join us for our first Teacher Tech Talk event, Friday March 23, 4-6pm at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park.

Cultivating the Entrepreneurial Learner

I just got around to watching John Seely Brown’s keynote address, Cultivating the Entrepreneurial Learner in the 21st Century, from the Digital Media Learning (DML) conference last weekend in San Francisco. It is quite long (over an hour but he starts at ~13min ) and I’d like to share the points that resonated with me the most:

  • The technology is the easy part. The hard part is what are the social practices around this and the institutional structures that match the new technology/tools
  • Half-life of skills is ~5 years, people must be constantly reinventing themselves and their skills
  • Maria Montessori and John Dewey were the education heroes of some of the top tech entrepreneurs
  • Tech amplifies curiosity
  • Interesting communities and ideas being generated around the social edge of massive multi-player games (like WOW)
  • Truly customized learning- can we develop an eHarmony tool for 1:1 tutoring and highly skilled mentorship?
  • Meaning emerges as much from context as content, making teachers/librarians/mentors even more important
  • I especially liked his message on collectives, essentially the new form of learning communities, and we already have some tools to foster these types of social interactions but need new tools (conceptual lenses through play)- networks of imagination
  • Tinkering captures 3 core lenses: Learn + Make + Play, new learning systems need to restrike a balance between these 3
  • He asks us to consider the permissions we give students to play and explore in classrooms? I’d like to add that it’s even more important that we give teachers permission to experiment and play with various teaching practices and redefining what a ‘successful classroom’ looks like.

I was tempted to attend the conference this year and hope to make it happen sometime in the future.  I’m pleased to see that this and many other videos from the event are posted online and plan to watch them throughout the next couple weeks.

Creating Distribution Pathways

Edmodo, considered Facebook for schools, announced at SXSW that they are opening up their API to third party developers to build and more importantly distribute their apps on this platform. There are more detailed write-ups from TechCrunch and HackEducation, and my favorite part is “Edmodo is also launching a Teacher-Developer Exchange to connect educators directly with application developers so that together they can create the apps most needed in today’s classrooms.” As Edmodo begins tackling the massive challenge of distribution into schools and is engaging educators in the process, are they on their way to becoming the OS for K12?

Putting the ‘ed’ in edtech

Tim Brady welcoming the Educator Day crowd

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been to some great events that are really trying to introduce and amplify the educator voice into the edtech startup scene. This past Friday, Imagine K12 hosted its Educator Day event which attracted an even larger crowd ( ~100 people) than the last batch with an even stronger presence of teachers from traditional public schools. I believe this type of event is more important for both the educators and the entrepreneurs than the typical investor-focused demo days and I hope to see more opportunities for these groups to interact and share feedback during the program.

Last weekend, Startup Weekend Edu hosted an event at Kno in Santa Clara which drew a large educator alumni crowd, mainly from the TFA network. Katrina Stevens, co-founder of LessonCast which came out of one of the first Startup Weekend EDU events, was guest blogging all weekend trying to capture the diversity of energy and ideas between the teams.  The success of the event was largely due to the efforts of Nihal ElRayess, a Teach-For-America alum who pushed hard to make sure the were a significant number of educators in the room, and even hosted a competition among TFA alumni where the winner was offered a free trip and participation in the 54-hour event.

Impressive teams. High energy. Cool ideas. However, even with the efforts to engage educators the representation was mainly TFA alumni, so very few ‘educator’ attendees were actually current teachers, in classrooms right now. I had some great conversations with several other mentors on why that is and if there is anything we can do about it. My take is that teacher time is so very precious that it is really difficult to ask them to give up 54 hours of it, even for an event as energizing as Startup Weekend. I think we need to create and promote other opportunities that encourage educators to engage with the edtech community in a more casual and less time-intensive ways. If you have any suggestions for simple ways to bridge these communities, I’d love to hear them!