Education: Thinking Beyond School

Seth Godin recently gave a thought-provoking TED talk that has been making its way across the web. He explains how the current school system, which hasn’t changed much since the Industrial Revolution, is optimized for generating interchangeable units of people, and is “the thing we built to indoctrinate them into obedience.” Godin pushes us all to ask, what is school for?

Inspirational talks like this get me fired up about my own work to help improve education, redesigning the future of teaching and learning to rethink what is possible in schools and communities. Here is another great short film, also featuring Seth Godin, that celebrates the potential of how technology will revolutionize education. (Note that this one is focuses more on specific mobile tech solutions as it was produced by Ericsson.)

While these videos definitely help bring awareness and energy to modern education reform efforts, I often feel that they skip over two very important aspects at the root of why there is such education inequality in the US: motivation and culture.

We’ve all heard the rationale behind the current school system’s batch-processing model designed for military and/or factory based models to create many of the same type of person/consumer. This message is not new. We know this model doesn’t align with our growing emphasis on innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. So, let’s assume for a minute that we actually can shift to a student-centered, project-based learning school system. Continuing this dream, let’s then assume that teachers and schools automagically have the tools and resources (money) to support this type of individualized system. Would this solve the problem?

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to get to this type of system, which I think is necessary, but I don’t believe we can have a conversation about true education reform without acknowledging what is happening outside of school. Seth is a genius and outlines an ambitious goal for all of us to ask ‘What is school really for?’ yet I wish he, and others who give talks like this (Ken Robinson, etc), would take it a step further and address the role that motivation and culture play in the learning process and how much that actually matters when we compare the US education system (mainly through test scores) to other nations.

Families and communities establish important cultural norms for kids, which directly influence their motivation and willingness to engage in school, no matter what that system looks like. We cannot talk about addressing comprehensive education solutions without talking about parents and what is happening at home and in neighborhoods.

People are motivated when they feel competent. They are motivated when they have more opportunities. I think the true role of education is to help learners discover ongoing opportunities and feel competent to pursue them. We must realize this goes beyond just what is happening in schools, and that it is our collective responsibility if we want an educated society.

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TeacherSquare On Air

For the past several months I’ve been working on my own initiative, TeacherSquare, exploring various ways that innovative educators can share their expertise and connect with each other, both on and offline, with the goal of co-creating a community to support better (& smarter) technology adoption in classrooms. One of our most successful and engaging events was our August Teacher Tech Talk at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation where Jack West (braincandy), Trenton Goble (MasteryConnect) and Tim Burke (Gooru Learning) shared their strategies on utilizing specific tools to bring formative assessment techniques to the classroom. During this interactive BYOD session participants broke into small groups to share their specific experience and best practices with each other and it was almost impossible to get the groups to stop talking when the event ended.

In thinking about how best to continue that conversation and include others from all over the world, TeacherSquare is talking it’s Tech Talks On Air via Google Hangout. Jack West will be leading our first Tech Talk on Air on Wed, Oct 24th at 7pm (PT) to share his story balancing multiple passions as an educator, edtech blogger and entrepreneur. I’m really excited to extend the energy and reach of TeacherSquare and I hope you’ll join the conversation, help spread the word and/or submit a question in advance.

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.

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.

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.

Reflections on my First #ISTE12

The past few days have been equally amazing and exhausting. San Diego was lovely, as always, and I managed to pack in quite a bit during the 2.5 days of the ~5 day extravaganza that is ISTE. With ~15,000 attendees and so much to cover, I tried to balance my time between meeting the who’s who of edtech cyberland in the blogger’s cafe, observing sales pitches in the Expo Hall and actually attending some of the sessions. There was so much to take in and it is impossible to capture everything here, so I’ll focus on a few highlights.

  • It is always great to get out of your own little bubble and meet people from the real world.  I think this is particularly important for entrepreneurs from the Bay Area who are building tools and programs for K12, to meet educators from all over the world and get a diverse perspective of what teaching and learning really entails. It was fabulous to meet the Steve Hargadon in person as I’m a fan of his weekly edtech round-up with Audrey Watters, and also learned more about his project here, ISTE Unplugged. I had so many inspiring conversations with educators across the globe, and even some from my own backyard, who are really diving into experimenting with different tools and technologies in their classrooms. I especially enjoyed Adam Bellow‘s session on Web Tools that will make your Classroom Rock, and was surprised to learn about so many new tools (beyond what comes out of Silicon Valley) and see how he had used them with his students. It was also fun to get a sneak peak of the new tool he built, EduClipper, that he is launching soon.
  • Yong Zhao‘s keynote on Tuesday morning was just fantastic. I really appreciated his in-depth critique of the US education system and how we must rethink our broader goals around what we are teaching and what outcomes we truly desire. He shared some really thought-provoking data around how even though US test scores are extremely low, the actual ‘success’ of our economy is based on embracing creativity and entrepreneurship. (I really hope this message gets to policy-makers as well.)  “You can’t teach creativity, but you can kill it and the US does a worse job of killing it than other countries.” He urges us all to not think about education in terms of deficits, but rather focus on skills and talents, leaving me wondering ‘how can we all tap into our inner Lady Gaga?’
  • Hat’s off to Remind101, ClassDojo and Educreations for throwing an awesome Startup Party on Monday night where I made one of my most exciting connections of the event, Andrew Coy from the Digital Harbor Foundation. Andrew is one of those educators where you can feel the passion flowing out of him and I was so energized to meet his first cohort of EdTech Link Fellows and learn more about the work he is doing connecting educators and technologists in Baltimore. I cannot wait to speak with him again and bring some of his ideas and energy to the Bay Area.

Overall, I was really impressed with how organized the entire production was and how many sessions had their resources posted and ready to share. The Twitter conversation (#ISTE12 & a few people were using #ISTE2012) was a constant flow the entire time, so if you were not able to attend or just want to track down some information, I recommend revisiting those hashtags and checking out all the links. I’m still absorbing everything and will probably process it all just in time for San Antonio next year.

Social Gatherings at #ISTE12

I’m just getting ready to head down to sunny San Diego for my first ISTE Conference. I’ve heard the best aspect of the event is the networking so I thought I’d share the social gatherings that I’m planning on checking out. If you’re around, I’d love to meet up and chat about all things edtech in person.

Sun, June 24th: ISTE Un-Meetup 6pm (location TBD, organized by Meredith Ely, SF Edtech Meetup)

Mon, June 25th

5-730pm: Startup Party at Bar Basic, organized by Remind101, ClassDojo and Educreations

730-1030pm: Google in Education event at Proper Pub

Tues, June 26th– 7pm: Edtech Karaoke Rooftop Party, Andaz Hotel

In true edcrunch style, I promise a full report back on my experience and of course I’ll be tweeting throughout the event.

LaunchEdu: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The edtech movement got a boost of good old fashioned Silicon Valley energy at Jason Calcanis’s Launch Edu & Kids conference this past week held at Microsoft in Mountain View, CA.  Calcanis, an entrepreneur, blogger and internet personality behind This Week in Startups (TWiST), hosted his first Launch conference back in Feb 2011 which is designed to showcase unannounced startups. Edtech is definitely trending in the startup scene and there have been several events focused on “education and kids” already this year. I’ve been to quite a few of them, so given that perspective here’s my breakdown on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good

Marshall Tuck’s keynote was the highlight of the event. Tuck is the Executive Director of Partnership for Los Angeles schools, an independent nonprofit that works with the City of LA and LAUSD to turnaround LA’s lowest performing schools. He opened the event sharing his experiences from working on the ground in some of the toughest schools in Watt and South & East LA, highlighting the importance of teacher collaboration and setting an entrepreneurial culture that embraces experimentation. “Risk is required to achieve change,” and he wasn’t shy with his praise for ST Math, BetterLesson and a few other tools that have helped his team deliver on their mission.

Given that praise, he also touched on the key element that is often missing from too many edtech startup demos, which is the training and support required to successfully integrate tech tools into learning environments. “Early support (with implementation) is just as important as the software.” Amen!


The Bad

Any effort to bring together a group of individuals focused on providing better tools and resources for our schools and kids in general is a huge step in the right direction. However, the integration of the educator and student perspective felt very superficial. I was hoping that Tuck’s energetic keynote would set the tone for the rest of the event, however, very little focus was placed on how some of the companies highlighted were solving real problems that educators face in the classroom. While Jason and his team made a clear effort to invite teachers and kids to the event, their perspectives were included in what felt like an inauthentic manner. Adding an educator to the judging panel on Day 2 was clearly an after-thought and asking kids to come up and share feedback on pitches in exchange for toys/swag just felt a bit off.

Also, several of the companies were hardly early-stage or unannounced startups, which felt a bit odd presenting with younger startups just coming out of stealth mode.

The Ugly

The deeper issue is that so few conferences and events focused on education even try to engage the educator community. So kudos to Jason and his team for a valid attempt, but it was in no means what we really need from events that are trying to connect educators and edtech startups to create environments fostering true user-centered design. The fact that the event was sold out illustrates the significant interest in this type of gathering, but if we really want to see edtech companies building products people want, we need to include those people (aka educators, parents, learners) in all aspects of the ecosystem in meaningful and authentic ways.

Bridging the tech and education divide is a complex issue and I believe this tweet captures the essence perfectly.

While I keep telling myself I’m going to stop attending events like this, I am off to ISTE later this month and still optimistic about efforts that claim to bring educators and edtech entrepreneurs together to design real solutions for our kids. I’m excited to focus my efforts more on bridging these communities… and more on that soon!