Cultivating Entrepreneurs of the Future

I was honored to be a judge at the Technovation Pitch Competition today at Microsoft and was truly blown away by how much the program has grown over the past 3 years. Iridescent founder, Tara Chklovski, kicked off the event by sharing some startling statistics about how 6th grade girls actually score better in STEM content areas but somehow once we get to higher ed communities in a room of ~30 engineering students, only 3 will be girls. I wish that every person who has ever talked about the lack of diversity in the startup community would have been in the room today, not only to hear these stats, but to see a program like the Technovation Challenge that is determined to change the ratio.

If only all Demo Days embodied this level of energy and authentic enthusiasm. 10 teams had 4 min each to pitch their Android App and then respond to questions from the judges. The ideas ranged from medical/healthcare apps that allow you to easily share your general medical history to food discovery apps for people with allergies or dietary restrictions (vegans) and games that teach marine biology in a fun and engaging way. The winning team from our session was an app designed to reduce teenage pregnancy and STDs by providing preventative care information in a format that is appealing and compelling for high school students.  The pitches were great, however, what was most impressive was the demonstration of what the girls had learned about what it really means to make something out of nothing. During the poster session I spoke with several of the teams who shared their experiences with customer development, co-founder disagreements, sizing the market, brainstorming distribution strategies, outlining business models and perfecting your pitch. These are the exact same topics that I discuss with startups that I work with in various incubator programs in Silicon Valley and it’s inspiring to see high schools girls learning these processes and techniques that they will hopefully carry with them as they continue their education and professional careers. This is what authentic STEM education looks like. This is what teaching entrepreneurship really means.

Towards the end of the event I was asked what I’d like to see come out of this type of program over the next several years. Ideally, if we say we want to educate our children to be the innovators of the future then I strongly believe this type of program needs to be integrated into the K12 curriculum. Shouldn’t all students have an opportunity to gain these necessary skills during the traditional school day?

The winning teams from today and the other regional challenges will come together at Intel in Santa Clara next Thurs, May 3rd for the National Pitch Competition. Tickets are free so if you’re available and are interested in seeing what empowering young girls to develop an authentic desire for coding and entrepreneurship looks like, I highly recommend you attend. Kudos to the entire Iridescent team for a fabulous event today and for empowering high school girls all over the country to design their futures.

More Ed. Less Tech.

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program is back in the press lately, triggered by an Economist article critique of a recent study conducted in Peru, coverage from Mashable and a thoughtful response from Audrey Watter’s Hack Education. And after overwhelming comments the members of the Peru study posted their own response as well.

So, while the launch and perceived failure of these types of programs is complex, it is clear that no one is surprised. The OLPC project is a classic example of an over-engineered product (too much tech) where little time and resources were actually devoted to the training and implementation (not enough ed.) Teams spend years designing and building the product without much thought on how to distribute and integrate these tools into the learning goals and systems. This is illustrated by Negroponte’s plan to just drop OLPCs out of a helicopter, which luckily was scrapped, but that type of distribution plan highlights all that is wrong with edtech solutions that are focused more on the tech and less on the actual education mission. I’ve have one (from the 2007 Give One, Get One program) and find myself wishing I had some training to help me understand its full potential.

While no one is surprised that the initial efforts of the program were unsuccessful, I don’t believe it’s fair to use standardized test scores to deem the entire endeavor a failure. Rather, I’d like to draw upon the popular notion amongst many valley startups that ‘failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure’ and there is a lot that OLPC and other edtech companies can learn from the past several years. Clearly, OLPC wasn’t quite a lean startup they didn’t fail fast, but they were blazing the trail for others and executing on a very ambitious vision. We should focus on the lessons learned and move on.

By disproportionately focusing on the tech and then labeling the whole effort a failure, this undermines the real role that technology can play, as a tool that improves and enables better teaching and learning, when put in the hands of trained teachers and learners. The real question we should be asking is not whether or not technology tools are needed but more so what are the best methods for integrating these types of tools into the learning environments of global communities. We know that in order to educate a global citizenry that investment in edtech tools are needed, but larger emphasis must be placed on the distribution and adoption plans if we truly want to see impact on student outcomes (and that means more than just standardized test scores.)

I still love the vision behind OLPC, as it was probably my first crush in the edtech world, and believe we will get to a place where access to devices and connectivity will no longer be an issue. However, to truly make an impact on education, from the perspective of teaching and learning, we have got to focus on more ed and less tech.

Outrageous to Ambitious

I’m always so impressed by the quality of the fully student organized Stanford GSB Education Symposium and last night’s event was no exception. I was honored to co-lead a roundtable discussion on how to apply design thinking principles to help empower global learners, specifically around re-thinking distribution models for digital content.  This is directly related to the course I am contributing to through the Stanford Ed School this spring, Ed333B: Envisioning the Future of Learning, and it was so beneficial for me to practice some of my instructional approaches with this attentive and energetic audience.

The roundtables were followed by some additional networking and a lovely dinner. The highlight of the evening was the charming and inspiring keynote address from Don Shalvey, Founder of Aspire Public Schools who is currently Director of US Ed Programs for the Gates Foundation. As the godfather of the charter school movement, he shared some entertaining stories about his first time teaching kindergarten and how his teaching craft has evolved over time, with a focus on ‘doing the common thing uncommonly well.’ While I’m not particularly bullish on charter schools as the silver bullet for ed reform, what was most fascinating is his perspective on the ~20 year old charter school movement itself and his key message that what used to be seen as outrageous is now viewed as ambitious. What was previously dismissed as impossible is actually now attainable, once you apply enough energy and investment. While charters are still such a small percentage of schools (~5-7%) they play the important role as a testing ground for piloting programs and iterating before integrating broadly into traditional schools. The innovative and fast-paced culture of some charter schools allow them to experiment with tools and programs that larger, and often more bureaucratic districts, struggle with. The most inspiring part of his address was his call to action for everyone in the room to remember that ‘education is a broad field and there is room and need for talent from all types of backgrounds.’

In a space that is often dominated by negative rhetoric about how the system is failing and in crisis mode, Dean Steele’s opening remarks and Dr. Shalvey’s keynote were refreshingly optimistic and I hope everyone else left with the same reinvigorating feeling that I did!

Early Stages of Disrupting Higher Ed

On my morning run today I had a chance to listen to this recent KQED Forum session with Sebastian Thrun (Udacity), Sal Khan (Khan Academy) and Anant Agarawal (MITx) sharing their thoughts and contributions to online learning.

The conversation opened with Ben Nelson sharing his plans for the Minerva Project, to offer an elite level university education fully online. He recently raised $25M in seed funding to address the issue that the demand for an ivy league style education vastly outstrips the supply and I wish he would’ve shared more of his perspective since he plans to charge students while the other 3 panelists offer their services for free.

It was an interesting discussion where the panelists clearly acknowledged that while their online courses have made a significant impact we are just in the beginning stages of figuring out the best way to deliver and measure online learning where the role of community and 1:1 interaction is still vitally important. In response to how the cost of a higher ed degree is rapidly increasing while its value as a signal of quality and ability to provide job security is decreasing, I appreciated Sal’s comment that we must deconstruct the key aspects of college: learning, credentialing and socializing in order to control quality and costs. There is huge value in each and we must optimize the delivery methods accordingly. Sebastian and Anant shared some valuable examples of how their students have organized both physical and virtual communities to support each other’s learning and how these new models for study groups reflect the teamwork and collaboration we should expect to see more of in the future workforce.

I am so pleased to see conversations like this taking place that go beyond simply bringing content online and are addressing the more complex issue of how to facilitate learning, maintain student engagement and foster community and peer interactions in an online environment. While the discussion was focused on higher education I think, as Khan Academy has demonstrated, this work has broader implications for learning at all levels.

My continuing education

I’ve been on vacation and am pleasantly surprised with how much I have actually been able to unplug from my online life. (Hence the absence of a post or many tweets lately!) It’s always such a treat to getaway and spend quality time with family, however, especially in recent years the distance traveled that impacts my vacation the most is the one between me and my laptop. While I mostly focus on education startups, another purpose of this blog is my own ongoing education and insights I’ve picked up along the way.  So, with that I’ll keep this brief and just wanted to share a lovely quote that I came across while lounging by the pool that deeply resonated with me.

What surprises you most about getting older?

“I am surprised to find how much happier I am with life. With age comes a deep acceptance and appreciation of self. Instead of focusing on what I don’t have in life, I find myself feeling a great sense of satisfaction with what is. I no longer worry so much about what other people will think, or obsess about details that won’t matter in five years. My career has flourished, my home life is happy, and friendships are more genuine and lasting.”