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Conferences/Events Edu Startups Tech in the classroom

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.

Categories
Conferences/Events Edu Startups Entrepreneurship

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!

Categories
Ed Reform/Policy Edu Startups Entrepreneurship

Who will Transform Education?

Diane Ravitch, education historian and professor at NYU, recently posted a question to her twitter followers that lead to a pretty heated back and forth with Justin Hamilton, spokesperson for the Dept of Education, and several other followers.

While I am a believer that healthy debate can be very constructive, pushing the thinking and assumptions of both sides, I find this question really perpetuates this gap between educators and education startups. Ravitch’s view over simplifies the classification of an entrepreneur as someone working outside the school system in a for-profit organization with an emphasis on making money.  I think that narrowly defining entrepreneurship in this way not only undermines all the entrepreneurial work happening within the school system, at the classroom and district level, but also disregards non-profit startups that are fully focused on improving education outcomes for all students. And what about creative efforts from parents and students themselves, who often go above and beyond to stretch limited resources and make something out of nothing. Isn’t that form of alchemy the essence of entrepreneurship?

Being a Stanford Ed School Alum, I am familiar with much of Ravitch’s work and often agree with her thinking around focusing on educators and improving the system from within. However, as someone working on finding ways to bridge these two communities and shine a spotlight on teacherpreneurs, I was really disappointed to see this type of divisive conversation. Broad education reform requires a collective effort and I think we should include as many people in this movement as possible. It takes a village, right?

So, who will transform education? All of us.

Categories
Edu Startups Marketing & Distribution

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.

Categories
Edu Startups Entrepreneurship

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!

Categories
Conferences/Events Edu Startups Entrepreneurship

Future of Education…but not for everyone?

As part of Pearson’s recent efforts to make things more open and interactive they hosted an event with a diverse panel of folks attempting to discuss the “Future of Education- Learn Anything, Anytime, Anyplace through Informal Learning.” The moderator, Leonard Medlock, a fellow Stanford Ed Alum (LDT ’11) and current edSurge contributor, defined informal learning as learning that is “learner driven, flexible and not restricted to time or place.” The ambitious topic and my support for edSurge attracted me to the event but I have to say I was pretty disappointed, mainly due to the narrowly defined notion of ‘anyplace.’ For me, the potential for technology to impact education now more than ever before is the ability for it to level the playing field and ideally create environments for all learners to have access to the highest quality content, anytime and anyplace.

However, the general message from the panelists was that ‘anyplace‘ means wherever people already have access to devices and internet connectivity, as well as exposure to a culture of self-driven learning. Beyond that, it is really quite shocking how little people think or talk about getting these products to communities that need it the most. Credit to Sifteo co-founder, David Merrill who shared a story of donating Sifteo cubes to a local San Francisco school, but sadly no broader vision for how to scale those efforts. At the end of the day, I understand that they are a business driven by the need for sustainability, but then can you really say you’re representing a movement to provide learning opportunities for anyone, anytime and anyplace?

Udemy founder, Gagan Biyani, strongly stated that students either need to have access to really high quality schools or parents or they don’t have a chance to be successful within the current system. While this is probably true (and lead to a lively conversation about what constitutes high quality schools and teachers), I thought the focus of this particular event was to get the best and brightest people thinking about solutions to help all learners, anytime and anyplace, through informal settings outside the current dysfunctional school system. It is much easier to create informal learning options for kids who are fortunate enough to attend good schools and/or have good parents. Many of those learners are  already empowered to take control of their education and really take advantage of learning anything, anytime, anyplace. But isn’t limiting the conversation to those populations such a narrow way to discuss the future of education and informal learning?

I think the bigger challenge around the future of education is making learning anything, anytime, anyplace a reality for all students. This goes beyond distributing devices, which we saw clearly from the crash and burn of the OLPC program, and really extends to creating environments where people are empowered and motivated to learn. Brad Feld put it well in his blog post just today that “you can’t motivate people, you can only create a context in which people are motivated.” For me, creating these environments where people are motivated is the true challenge that we must tackle in thinking about the future of education and I’d love to find a community and go to events where people are talking and thinking about this broader issue.

Overall, the individual panelists are bright, inspiring and passionate entrepreneurs and the event attracted an interesting group of people. So, my biggest piece of feedback is directly to Pearson and the title of the event. Can you really claim to be fostering a conversation around the ‘Future of Education,’ focused on informal learning that can happen anyplace if that doesn’t include a large portion of the population that needs these services the most? While I know there isn’t a purely technical solution to creating motivating learning environments, I believe that technology can and will play a big role in helping people reaching their learning goals and I hope the tech community will embrace a broader definition of the future of education and what it means to truly make their products available anytime and anyplace.