Community Drives Retention

As any of my readers know, I care deeply about cultivating diversity in the edtech ecosystem, with an emphasis on empowering educators to be at the center of the movement. So I’m always happy to have the opportunity to share my perspective with the ImagineK12 cohort just as they are building their startups and encourage them to engage educators at all levels of their work. Generating buzz offers a short-term high (and sometimes a spike in user numbers) but building a community drive retention which can lead to an enduring organization with real impact.

Here are the slides from my presentation and click around because I linked  to many of the resources I mentioned. Please let me know if you’ve tried any of these strategies and/or what has worked for you to create community within the fragmented K12 space.

Behind RemixEd: How to Host an Edu Hackathon

(This is a longer post that I wrote for the Edtech Handbook that I also wanted to share with my readers here.)

In an effort to engage educators in the edtech movement edShelf and TeacherSquare hosted RemixEd, an education focused hackathon, designed to bring together teachers, students, developers and designers to build tools for K12 schools. I have been thinking a lot about how to engage education practitioners in the education startup ecosystem and this was one of the events we piloted to see what this type of collective problem solving could actually look like. Mike Lee, co-founder of edShelf and I both shared our specific reflections on RemixEd on our respective blogs. Here I outline more general tips for anyone thinking about hosting a similar event in their community.

Set Clear Expectations
RemixEd was not about launching a startup. It was not even about building a full-fledged product. A hackathon is usually about identifying and building a shortcut or quick fix to a problem. Setting clear expectations about the focus, schedule and deliverable for the weekend before the event begins will help ensure you attract the right participants and set them up for success. For RemixEd we emphasized that the event was more about ideation and the collective creation process than about pitching a fully outlined product with business plan. For future events, we are also considering setting a theme for the projects, such as “Digging into Data” or “Supercharging Productivity & Operations.”

Share the schedule for the entire weekend and remind teams halfway through the event what the end goal, in this case the demos, should look like. Few suggestions for more structured knowledge sharing:

  • Kick-off the event with a design-thinking workshop (~1 hr)  to get everyone into brainstorming mode and set the tone for the weekend
  • Have local edtech startups conduct mini-workshops (~20-30min) to share their expertise and approaches to their product development

Focus on Your Target Audience
For RemixEd we were optimizing for the teacher experience. Since most teachers have never even heard of a hackathon, the more resources and support you can share in advance, the better. We started with asking teachers to submit a potential idea or details around a problem they have been struggling with to begin the ideation process a few weeks before the event. (Future Tip: Ask teachers to submit a ~1min video of them describing their problem/idea. This will help them practice articulating and give you some content to share with the group during and after the event.)

Then, the week before the event we shared general resources to begin introducing some of the technical elements, APIs, etc that will be part of the building process during the weekend. This scaffolding prepares first time attendees, especially who are non-technical, to begin thinking about their weekend hacks.

In keeping with our theme all of our judges were current or former educators with varying levels of experience using technology in the classroom. This helps create an authentic audience for presentations and feedback. Figure out what motivates your attendees and design prizes/incentives accordingly. Being so focused on teachers we could have done a better job with prizes and creating incentives for the designers and developers. Teachers love swag- collect stickers, t-shirts and other tchotchkes from sponsors and other known brands and create little bags for each team.

We ended up with quite a few student participants and could’ve done a better job providing support for them. For future events we are also planning on having students as coaches and judges.

Space Matters
We spent several weeks looking for the ideal space for this event, which was based on geography as well as the size and functionality of the room. 500 Startups was a wonderful space for collaboration and brainstorming and worked out very well for RemixEd. Many of the teachers and students were inspired by just being in the same space as other startups, making the technology world feel slightly less foreign and more accessible. Other highlights were the space is close to public transportation, between San Francisco and the South Bay with great natural light and modular furniture layout so teams could rearrange the space as needed. The only downside was that it was tricky to access the building on the weekends which made it difficult for people to freely leave and come back, which is important when you want to encourage them to take breaks.

Keep it Healthy
We were particularly focused on making this a healthy hackathon, with nutritious food/snacks, reasonable working hours and even a Zumba break on Saturday afternoon. Yet often times we assume we know when to take a break, grab a snack and re-energize. We learned that especially with students involved, you should set explicit times for everyone to take a break, get outside and walk around the building anything that engages the group and gives everyone a chance to recharge. This also creates more opportunities for the teams to mingle, share progress and let new ideas take shape. We also had a great rotation of general and technical coaches circulating throughout the weekend, supporting teams as they progressed.

Back to School
We have received great feedback and interest in hosting RemixEd events all over the country, as well as planning our next Bay Area event this fall. It is inspiring to see that others are also thinking about how to create opportunities like this to bring together educators, students, designers and developers to work on challenges in our K12 schools together. To truly make an impact, we realize this type of collective problem solving has to find its way to the traditional school environment. In thinking about how to integrate this into the school system here are a few suggestions:

  • Introduce the event through a mini-workshop at a teacher in-service day to build awareness and buzz to attract more teachers
  • Partner with a school district and have a set number of teachers and students from each school attend, then present back to others who ideally would attend next time
  • Break the event into 3-4 hour chunks spread over a few days (ie. 2-3 consecutive Saturdays) so that those who can’t give up an entire weekend can still participate. Maybe start with a short three hour session during the first weekend could be used to brainstorm ideas. Then, the week could be spent conceptualizing and prototyping a first model. The second weekend could be an opportunity to present the model, get immediate critique that is then taken into account when the students (and their teacher guides on the side) work with hackers to build out a more sophisticated model or perhaps even the next version of the prototype.

Taking it to the Next Level
Ideally we’d like to keep the conversation and the hacking going, but that really depends on each individual team and participant. Mike outlined some “After RemixEd” resources to support those folks who want to build off some of the momentum for the weekend. If you are thinking about hosting a similar event in your community, I’d love to hear from you and offer some support. You can connect with me on Twitter @TeacherSquare.

The Magic of an Unconference

  1. I have heard a lot about the magic of the edCamp unconference, which promotes “organic, participant driven professional development for K12 educators worldwide,” and as a first timer I was really impressed. Sounds so simple– people show up, decide what they want to talk about, organize themselves in sessions throughout the day and begin. Yet as someone who has organized several events, especially for teachers, it is pretty crazy how smoothly the entire production unfolded given that a majority of the planning happens in real time. Massive shout-out to Diane Main and Bill Selak, with support from several amazing sponsors (like Remind101), on making the magic happen.

    I was bummed I couldn’t attend the morning sessions but glad I got to connect with some of my favorite edu folks and enjoyed the smackdown. I think Storify is the best way to capture the highlights from the smackdown where attendees took turns coming up and sharing tips and tricks about the tools they love and new ones they plan on trying out. 

  2. billselak
    It’s time for the Smackdown at #EdcampSFBay! Follow @EdCampSFBay for every site/resource shared.
  3. Lots of love for ImagineK12 alumni with mentions of Remind101, EdShelf, Educreations and more…
  4. teachingwthsoul
    Whoo! @remind101 Rocks! “@EdCampSFBay: Remind101- free mass texting app. #edcampsfbay””
  5. There were also shout-outs to usual suspects Edmodo and Quizlet. The one I’m going to try out is YouTube video editor to help with all my TeacherSquare videos.
  6. Jessie_Arora
    Thx @rushtonh for this ninja tip “@EdCampSFBay: YouTube video editor-free online video editor. Creative commons, music & more! #edcampsfbay”
  7. VisionsByVicky
    It’s official – I’m exhausted! Thanks to everyone who attended #edcampsfbay today & made it such a great day.

Edtech For Teachers, By Teachers

On Friday Imagine K12 hosted their 3rd Educator Day and I have to say these events just keep getting better. This makes sense as IK12 is a startup itself, iterating and improving with each group and  just getting ready to launch their third batch of 11 startups later this year. Tim Brady shared some insights from their first 30 companies, highlighting 3 categories that the companies they incubate fall into:

  1. Learning Tools: Student-centric tools designed to improve the learner experience, in both formal and informal settings
  2. Teaching Tools: A majority of their companies fall in this bucket, creating tools and systems to help teachers do their jobs more efficiently
  3. Administrative Tools: This is the least common area, where companies are building tools to help schools and districts operate more effectively, typically with an enterprise sales business model

I am extremely impressed by the number of teacher-led teams in this batch as I am a big believer that edtech for teachers, by teachers is going to create the products that are most likely to improve teaching and learning. (If those companies will survive long enough to figure out a business model is a topic for another post.) My quick highlights from the event:

  • My favorite teacher-founder is Kasey Brown with DigitWhiz. Kasey and I met at the Women 2.0 conference in Feb of this year and she was passionately talking about her product to help kids master fundamental math skills in a game-based environment. I strongly encouraged her to apply for IK12 and it’s wonderful to see her as part of this group, watching DigitWhiz evolve and become more than a side project.
  • My favorite product idea is Raise, which is taking a unique approach to college readiness by focusing on the financial barriers, giving students visibility and access to scholarships before the actual college application process. If done right, this has the potential to make college more of a reality for kids from underserved communities. I find these types of student tools particularly exciting and really hope they can create the partnerships and funding streams to make this happen.
  • My favorite new addition to IK12 is the Teacher-in-Residence. I am slightly biased as I’m a huge fan of the first person to take on this role, Jennie Dougherty, who is a HS teacher and co-founder of edUpgrade. You can’t walk by Jennie without picking up on her energy and passion for this work and all the teams are incredibly lucky to have her there to share her direct experiences from the classroom at the largest high school east of the Mississippi.
  • Special mention to Chalk, where 2 of the 3 team members just graduated from the Stanford LDT Program and began incubating their idea as part of their masters project.

I’m excited to see these teams continue their process and am optimistic about their potential to make a real impact on education.

Hacking the Future of Learning

What an awesome weekend! In partnership with Mike Lee, co-founder of edShelf, and local educator Rob Rinsky, I hosted my first education-focused hackathon, RemixEd K12, at 500 Startups in Mountain View, CA. Mike posted some great reflections on the edShelf blog, sharing more about hackathons in general and some of the questions and challenges we faced.  There are more pictures and information about hosting RemixEd in your community on TeacherSquare. I storified some of the tweets and you can see them all at #RemixEdK12.

As I continue to develop my scope and vision for TeacherSquare, it is clear that hosting events like these to bring together teachers, students, designers and developers to think about challenges and opportunities in the K12 space are so valuable to all involved. This quote really captures the educator experience beautifully.

“I felt like such a student. I learned so much this weekend.”

The teachers were thrilled to have a platform to share their ideas, collaborate on the very early stages of product development and then present their findings to the diverse audience. (I’m always surprised at how teachers, who spend their lives speaking in front of groups, get nervous addressing crowds outside the typical school environment 🙂 I’m convinced that if TeacherSquare can get more educators to participate in events like this they will be inspired to bring these new practices and a culture of experimentation to their schools and classrooms.

Not surprising, the students were the best part. They jumped right into the activities and their energy (as well as a Saturday afternoon zumba break) kept the teams going.  While this was a successful inaugural event, of course we have a growing list of how we can improve for next time.  For one, I’d definitely like to be more explicit about students sharing their ideas in advance and also include them as coaches and/or judges. (And there were clearly some avoidable tech and presentation issues.)

Audrey Watters, a friend and well known edtech blogger, showed her support throughout the weekend and dives deeper in the role and potential for these types of events in her post on Designing Education Hackathons. I optimistically see this collaborative learning format as part of the classroom of the future. This type of event is the embodiment of project-based learning (PBL) and I’d love to explore how to bring elements of this directly into schools and districts.

I’d like to express tremendous gratitude to our panel of judges, all education practitioners themselves, who not only provided feedback to the teams but also helped coach Mike, Rob and I on how to continue creating opportunities like this for teachers and students. And we couldn’t have done any of this without the generous support from our sponsors, especially New Schools Venture Fund.

We are continuing to gather feedback and there is so much more to share, so keep an eye out for a follow-up post on best practices for hosting an education-focused hackathon. This is just the beginning and as we collectively explore the potential of the flipped classroom I hope others will think about bringing this format of project-based learning to their schools. I’m thrilled to see all the enthusiasm to carry this work forward. Onward!

Authentic Edtech Incubation

It was a full house this afternoon at the Learning, Design and Technology (LDT) Expo at the Stanford School of Education. I was not at all surprised by the size and engagement of the crowd given the impressive quality of the teams and their final presentations. The groups took on a diverse set of learning challenges, ranging from learning math through music, addressing learning needs for children on the autism spectrum, skills retraining through the Kinect to religion and sex education. I was honored to attend the morning presentations as a reviewer, specifically for Handily and The Presence Project, and it was interesting to see the details behind several of the projects.

What was most inspiring for me was to see how this program has evolved, especially over the past few years. Karin Forssell, Director of the LDT Program (now referred to as the MA in Edtech), captured the essence of the program with her thoughtful closing message as she officially launches this cohort into the world. She stated that the challenge with education technology is to start with the learning goals, push assumptions on what is possible and what we expect from current technology tools to design solutions focused on the learners first and then incorporate the technology.

Kudos to the Stanford School of Ed for creating this environment that is incubating authentic edtech solutions, focusing on prototyping various approaches to specific learning challenges, grounded in research and classroom practice and then thinking about potential for commercializing those efforts.  I think a few of these teams have particularly promising ideas and I hope they will continue building on this initial work. Like most incubator programs, some teams are on track to be more successful (and marketable) than others and that’s typical.

For today, they’ve all launched and for that they should be extremely proud.