Are meetups the new classroom?

Coursera, one of the education startups that is fueling the MOOC (massive open online courses) trend, hosted their first meetup yesterday at Flood Park in Menlo Park. (For background, here is a great piece on the evolution of MOOCs and their growing role as a platform for elearning.) The initial idea was to get ~100 students and supporters together to meet the faculty and begin building some offline connections to compliment the online courses. When 500+ people rspv’d in the first week they knew this would be more than a casual backyard BBQ. The final attendee count was closer to 900, with people signing up for the morning or afternoon blocks.

Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, the Stanford professors who founded Coursera, were easily accessible throughout the event and briefly shared how this worked stemmed from a desire for “democratizing higher education, moving it from a privilege of a few to a basic human right.” They are just starting out on this journey, having launched partnerships with several universities and have already had more than 900k students sign up for their classes.

While it is way too early to really say exactly how higher education will be ‘disrupted’ by MOOCs and other online learning startups, it was clear to see the community support and appetite for connecting offline, in the real world. I was pleased to hear the Coursera team talk about their plans to expand these offline events to reach more of their students, a majority of which are outside the US and are not just university students. Prof Koller captured the essence of life-long learners, describing their users as people looking to “expand their minds or improve their communities.”

As online learning systems continue to expand the definition of student, university and school, I think the most intriguing aspect of these shifts is how online tools can foster richer offline exchanges. I see meetups as one form of the classroom of the future, bringing together people who are passionate about learning and sharing around a particular topic, meaningfully blending the experience across the physical and virtual world. This combination of free & high quality online content with targeted offline exchanges is really what is going to change our understanding and expectations of teaching and learning.

I’m curious to see how other online content providers translate their experiences offline, as well as how the community itself will organize to further their learning and deepen the experience.

Re-engineering Summer Camp

The most exciting (and challenging) aspect of flipping the classroom is figuring out how to bring real hands-on learning activities back into the school day. Khan Academy, often at the center of the flipped classroom conversation, is exploring some interesting project-based learning efforts during their Discovery Lab Summer Camp. A few members of the team are in the middle of running 3 2-week long sessions at the International School of the Peninsula for middle school students and I got a chance to stop by for a bit this week and observe their lesson on reverse engineering.

The ~20 students in the group were asked to bring in pretty mundane household items, ranging from an old-school telephone to a toaster (one student even attempted to take apart an iPhone), to reverse engineer. One of the newest KA team members, Karl Wendt, shared his example of deconstructing a hair dryer and identifying the various parts, their functions and the materials used to construct the object.

While it is difficult to draw too many conclusions from a brief observation session, it was clear to see the students were engaged in the work and doing some interesting research to understand the mechanics and history of their products. Creating this experience in a 2 week summer camp environment reaching ~ 100 kids is great. Integrating these projects into classrooms across diverse schools and communities during the school year is a massive challenge.

People have strong feelings about Khan Academy, and even the assumptions behind the flipped classroom model. (I think we should acknowledge that people often have strong feelings about a lot of things and move on to what really matters.) To appropriately address this massive challenge of making learning engaging and relevant for all students, we need to continue to attract all forms of energy and talent to create solutions.

I think the best ideas often come from diverse teams bringing new and creative ways of approaching the problem. This is what excites me most about the recent surge in energy and attention focused on the education space, which has brought more people into the conversation who typically wouldn’t want to take on the massive challenge of fixing what’s not working in schools right now.

Personally, I am drawn to solutions that come from entrepreneurial teachers, however I believe we should embrace that diversity of perspective, focusing more on the solutions and their potential for future impact, rather than rejecting approaches that come from ‘non-traditional’ sources. I think that’s the best way for us to collectively re-engineer the future of education.

RemixEd K12: Mixing up #edtech

As part of my new initiative, TeacherSquare, I’m super excited to be partnering with edShelf to host our first educator focused hackathon, RemixEd: Build Tools for Schools which will take place Aug 4-5th at 500 Startups in Mountain View, CA. Building on the vision of previous Teacher Tech Talks, this event is designed specifically for teachers, as part of a larger effort to bring the educator and education startup communities closer together. Only current classroom teachers can submit ideas and Mike Lee, co-founder of edShelf, has been working with them to set realistic goals for what is possible to ‘hack’ together over the course of ~2 days. We have invited developers, designers and students (yay!) who are passionate about building tools for schools to form teams around the educators and their ideas and spend the weekend building something together. We have an impressive line-up of teachers as judges, as well as some of the best edtech entrepreneurs offering their support as coaches.

While I’m sure some interesting (and useful) tools will be created during the event, what really excites me is co-creating this experience to connect educators to the startup world, giving them an opportunity to inhabit a typical startup incubator space for a couple days and get exposure to their lingo and processes. This is a community-driven event and we are still looking for a couple more sponsors to support these efforts. If you’re interested in helping bridge the educator and edtech divide and getting involved as a sponsor, just let me know.

Some of our favorite edtech bloggers are going to stop by and I will be sure to share the highlights in a follow-up post. You can find out more about events like this @TeacherSquare and follow the progress over the weekend using #RemixEdk12.

Edtech Handbook Comes to Life

Our K12 education system is extremely complicated. I have spoken with a ton of entrepreneurs who are excited by the challenge of building products to help improve teaching, learning, or the school experience itself, but don’t really understand the nuances that make this a particularly tricky space. I have been thinking about compiling this resource for a while and am happy to see this first draft come to life.

An early version of VentureHacks for Education, the Edtech Handbook is designed to demystify the process of launching an education startup, specifically for companies focused on the K12 market. (I would like to add insights from tackling problems in Higher Ed as well, but for now I personally feel that space has gotten quite a bit of attention lately.) This guide is a collection of tightly curated articles from edtech entrepreneurs sharing their direct experience overcoming specific challenges in designing, launching and distributing products for teachers, schools and districts.

This is a community effort and I’d like to thank the early contributors for sharing their expertise. This space is evolving fast. There is no ‘right‘ way to be an entrepreneur. To make this resource truly useful, I encourage this community to comment on these initial perspectives and invite more education entrepreneurs to become contributors. If you want to see an article on a particular topic and/or contribute to this resource, just contact me.

I hope you find this helpful and would love to hear your feedback!