Addressing the STEM Teacher Drought

VIP tour of the Computer History Museum

Embark Labs Teachers getting a VIP tour of the Computer History Museum

Recently, there are two topics circulating within the edtech community that I find interestingly at odds with each other.

The first is the announcement from the Mayor of New York City, the largest school district in the country, that all students beginning with elementary to high school will have access to computer science instruction within the next ten years. It’s an exciting and audacious goal, and one that I foresee many other regions/districts taking on in the coming months. (We have already seen similar declarations from Chicago and San Francisco.) While there are many challenges in implementing an initiative like this effectively, what stands out is the massive effort to prepare and support the number of educators needed to make this work.

The city (NYC) estimates that it will have to train close to 5,000 teachers to meet its pledge to provide the instruction at every level of schooling. Some might teach computer science exclusively, while others might be traditional elementary school teachers who will learn to incorporate it into the curriculum.

This leads directly into the other piece of news making the rounds on the edtech wire– we have a serious STEM teacher shortage. Earlier this month The Education Trust West released this detailed report on the Cracks and Disparities in California’s Math and Science Teacher Pipeline. While this report focused on CA, we know this is a problem facing many districts and states.

EdTrust-West Infographic

So, while many of us are excited by the prospect of better preparing our kids for the future by introducing them to computer science and coding, who exactly is going to teach them?

This challenge is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about while building Embark Labs. We began as a program for kids to learn computer science in a hands-on, project based approach. While we create vibrant learning experiences for kids from diverse backgrounds to learn together, we quickly realized that in order to bring this program to more students we have to work more closely with schools and educators. Through an amazing partnership with the CalStateTeach Teacher Preparation program we are able to train pre-service teachers on how to introduce computer science (and more so, computational thinking) in a project-based approach. By working with teachers as they are getting their credentials we demonstrate how to build a climate of inquiry and culture of collaboration within their classrooms on day one.

During this past summer we trained 20 teachers and are on track to more than double that next summer. While Embark Labs provides educators with a pedagogically sound curriculum for teaching kids computer science, our bigger focus is to instill a level of confidence in teachers, building on their existing classroom skills and ability to differentiate instruction.

I’m hopeful as we see more announcements like those from NYC, SF and Chicago, that we will also see more teacher preparation programs think strategically about how they are preparing teachers to meet the demands of the modern classroom.

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Embracing Schools as Customers

Often times the various demo days and edtech press all tends to blur together in a cloud of buzz words (a la adaptive platforms, flipped classroom), however, Imagine K12’s recent batch of edtech startups sounded distinctly different. With 13 teams presenting, one of their largest batches to-date, there was a noticeable shift in tone as many of the startups were not afraid to say they are selling to schools and are actually generating revenue. From the “ramen profitable” startup DeansList kicking off the day to YC and Zuckerberg-backed Panorama Education closing the show sharing they have “4,500 schools using their product, all of which are paying customers.”

As someone who has been following and working in this space for the past few years, hearing these stats are a welcome change. This not only indicates that the investor side of the ecosystem has matured and has a better understanding of the K12 market, but it also demonstrates that more and more schools are deciding to purchase and pilot new edtech tools.

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As for the teams themselves, the pragmatist in me likes more enterprise oriented startups like SchoolMint, while the optimistic side is drawn to efforts like Kodable. SchoolMint’s appeal comes from the basic idea that they are saving schools/admins hundreds of hours by digitizing a process that is currently entirely offline. (And the fact they are already on track to $100k annual revenue is a sign they are addressing a real pain point for schools.) Similar to another IK12 alum, Chalk Schools, these products seem obvious and I think in several years we’ll look back and wonder why schools took so long to adopt these more streamlined and efficient systems.

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Kodable believes that even before kids learn to read they can learn the basic elements of programming. My 3.5 year old and I have tried out the app and I hope more schools and parents will find engaging ways like this to introduce loops and conditional statements to their kids. Kudos to Imagine K12 and the teams for kicking off the year on this impressive note.

Young Dreamer Network- Slum of Dreams

If you’re a regular reader, you already know that one of the main reasons I’m so passionate about education is it’s ability to transform people’s lives. I get to support that transformation through my work with the Young Dreamer Network (YDN), a nonprofit organization based in Redwood City, CA that works with youth in India, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Ghana to empower them to become agents of change in their communities.

YDN Slum of Dreams

YDN recently released Slum of Dreams, a compelling short film (<20min) that profiles the lives of 2 Young Dreamers in the Ambedkar Nagar Slum in Jaipur, India. If you’re interested in seeing how a small organization can have a massive impact on students on the other side of the world, please watch and share this video.

Building a ‘Perspectful’ Edtech Ecosystem in India

teach her to read SA copyrighted

India’s education technology industry is poised for explosive growth over the next few years. Over the past 20 years, India has enjoyed an annual average GDP growth rate of 5.8%. Although recent months have seen a slowdown, analysts estimate a growth increase of up to 7.5% within a year. The mobile industry is slated to be the second largest market by 2016, and half of its 1.2 billion people are under the age of 25.

So if you want to make an impact in education at scale, India is the the place to be. Just ask serial entrepreneur John Danner, who co-founded Rocketship Education and devoted a 4-part series on his blog outlining the insights from his travels there last winter.

While the opportunities seem exciting, there are many challenges in connecting Indian startups with investors around the world. Enter Perspectful, a newly launched advisory firm that helps investors make more meaningful and effective edtech investments. I recently caught up with one of the founders, Shabnam Aggarwal, to learn more about her take on the Indian education ecosystem.

What drew you to working in education in India?

I am a Bay Area native, and after studying electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon and working stateside, I realized there were more opportunities to make an impact abroad. In 2008 I moved to Cambodia to dive into the world of social impact. A year later I moved to India to work with a professor from Carnegie Mellon to build English games on low-cost mobile phones for children in rural areas.

This is when I became obsessed with the potential of technology to make an impact on student learning. In April 2012 I joined Pearson in India as the Head of Strategic Partnerships, where I spent a year working with local edtech entrepreneurs to determine how Pearson could support their work. During that time I crossed paths with Josh Engel, who became my co-founder.

What is the problem that you’re trying to solve?

Perspectful wants to channel more investment dollars to promising entrepreneurs in India by enabling more risk-tolerant foreign investors to enter the market and make an impact. Our efforts are focused on 3 core areas:

  • Sourcing: Identify education ventures that increase access and offer high quality learning opportunities

  • Diligence: Align and mobilize capital

  • Mentorship: Provide assistance to entrepreneurs on content, team, product, processes and technology

What are the challenges for edtech investors in India?

One of the biggest problems is finding the right entrepreneurs that meet their investment philosophy and are at the right stage for funding. Through numerous conversations with investors who were curious about the Indian edtech market, a common concern was being able to identify and support the right entrepreneurs, given their limited travel to this region. And even after the investment, support for entrepreneurs require more hands-on attention that can’t come from Silicon Valley.

From our research, there are hundreds of investors for whom “education in India” is a portfolio they’d like to pursue over the next five years. We’ve personally spoken with at least 50 of them, with a good majority looking to make investments this year.

The most well-known education investment firm in India is Sandeep Aneja’s Kaizen, which focuses on later stage ventures to mitigate risk. The latest philanthropic fund is Ashish Dhawan’s Central Square Foundation, which solely focuses on nonprofit ventures. These two firms are just the tip of the iceberg when you think about the increase in VC investments and actual dollars going into education over the past decade.

The edtech ecosystem is just starting to develop. There have been a few social entrepreneurship pitchfests, and Pearson’s Affordable Learning Fund, in partnership with Village Capital, just kicked off the first education-focused incubator.

What is one of your current projects?

In April 2013, Atlanta-based Gray Ghost Ventures First Light Fund invested in Sudiksha to build a chain of affordable private preschools. They then decided to hire us to help scale that model to support another 50+ schools. Building, recruiting and creating processes for that type of growth is a daunting task, so Josh is in Hyderabad right now working with that team.

What do you feel are the main challenges to the effective adoption of education technologies in India?

India’s education technology ecosystem today is where the U.S. was about 15 years ago. We don’t have centralized systems for teachers and educators to connect, streamline systems and share best practices.

In terms of actual tech adoption, the challenges aren’t that different from any other region in the world. Currently, almost all the attention is focused on hardware sales–mainly Android tablets/phones–and there is very little software or programmatic support to ensure effective implementation. There is huge potential for products on the Android platform for teachers, parents, administrators to manage and improve learning outcomes.

Which edtech companies have caught your attention out there?

TutorVista is heralded as the darling of edtech in India. It was one of the first Indian edtech companies to expand services to U.S. and Europe, and in 2009 was acquired by Pearson for $127 million. This acquisition also included the subsidiary company, Edurite, a school management company that provides private schools with services to revamp infrastructure, technology, and teacher training.

On the flip side, all the buzz and growth potential don’t always lead to positive outcomes. The case in example is Educomp, which went public in 2006 but has spent the last 5 years in a downward spiral. Despite the fact that the adoption numbers for its most touted edtech product, Smart Class, grew from 100 to 6,550 schools in 2012, net profit margins have fallen 61% in the last four years. The stock has fallen 91% over the last three years. This has created quite a few disgruntled schools, parents–and investors.

What we’re seeing today are smaller efforts targeted at parents-as-payers, such as after-school tutoring products, informal “educational” (often used more for marketing than actual learning) gaming apps and test prep for IIT entrance exams.

Lastly, where exactly do you see the brightest spots for innovation in edtech in India?

The areas that excite me most from an entrepreneurial perspective are the unregulated markets: preschools (a $2 billion market projected to grow at an annual rate of 40-45%), supplemental tools for K-12 classrooms, tutoring, assessments and test prep.

Over the next few years, I think we will see services that empower students to play a more active role in their learning process. We will see more and more students in India gaining access, via mobile devices, to tools like Coursera and Khan Academy that are better tailored to the Indian culture and context.

It’s an insanely exciting time to be at the front line with such innovative entrepreneurs. I’m meeting entrepreneurs who are able to put adaptive learning tools in the hands of poor children at just $2/month. And companies such as FunToot can show a 20% improvement on learning outcomes at that cost. I don’t know anywhere else in the world you can achieve that kind of cost-benefit ratio in education for the poor.

Learn more about Shabnam and follow her on Twitter @shubbless.

This article also appeared on EdSurge.

Is there Really A Movement?

Howard Fuller was absolutely amazing as the keynote speaker at the New Schools Venture Fund Summit this past Wed, appropriately kicking off the event asking everyone to think about why they are here, doing this work, and what role they can and will play. He passionately expressed the sense of urgency we need to have in solving the challenges of our current education system and echoed a similar message from Don Shalvey, that I wrote in a previous post, that there is room for everyone to play a meaningful role in improving education outcomes for all students.

Many of his comments were twitter-worthy (and the audience did an impressive job keeping the tweet stream (#nsvfsummit) flowing all day) but this was by far my favorite.

“We think we are all awesome. We are not all awesome. Most of us are regular people. We have to create systems where regular people can have awesome results.”

For me, this captured the essence of the entire event. NSVF has been supporting some of the top edupreneurs since 1998, who span from school builders to tool builders and everything in between, who are working to create ways in which regular citizens can make a real impact on teaching and learning.

The title of this post borrows from that of the opening session itself, questioning whether the current education reform movement is moving fast enough. I wonder if outside our bubble of edtech trends and the charter reform, is there enough community engagement and energy to even classify this as a movement? I would love to see what happened to the environmental movement take shape in the education world, where regular citizens not only have awareness of the problem but have actionable ways in which they can make a difference. Everyone recycles and that’s awesome. Can we get everyone to volunteer at their local school or contribute to educating all our children in other every-day ways?

Fuller simply states that in order to build a movement, we must engage people on a grassroots level. I whole-heartedly agree, which is why I’ve been organizing a growing community of educators who are interested in helping build the edtech movement through my Teacher Tech Talk events. (The next one is coming up on Wed, May 30th.)

The rest of the day was equally amazing, full of great speakers and opportunities to connect with fellow edupreneurs, old and new. It would be impossible to capture everything here, so keeping with their efforts to foster this community, NSVF will post all the sessions online. (A few of the sessions are already live on NBC News Education Nation.)

If you only have time to watch one session, skip straight to the closing conversation between Rahm Emanuel and Laurene Powell Jobs. Clearly a seasoned politician, he had an established message to convey, however, his passion for fixing the broken education system in Chicago was pouring off the stage.

“We’re not for reform, we’re for results. As reformers, we’re for education excellence, not educational reform. I think we confuse the means with the ends.”

It was such a powerful way to close the day and bring the conversation back to the focus of all our efforts, and events like the summit. The focus should not be reforming “the system,” or unions, or teaching training programs, etc… But rather engaging regular citizens in building a grassroots movement that optimizes for educational excellence for all students. If we could do that, then maybe we are all awesome.

Imagine that!

Imagine K12 hosted their Demo Day for batch #2  today and I was impressed not only with the progress of the teams but with the IK12 program itself. In true lean startup form, ImagineK12 has rapidly incorporated feedback from their first cohort, iterated on their processes and prepared 9  startups to contribute to the edtech movement.

Alan Louie kicked off the event with some statistics about the edu startup space that appropriately engaged this audience, made up largely of edtech investors. Most compelling for me is the reality that the US represents only 3% of the global edu market, which means the real opportunity is in designing and distributing tools to learners on a global scale. As the movement continues to build momentum, it is projected that US spending on education will grow to $789Billion by 2015 (just 3 short years from now.)

Compared to other Demo Days that attract an audience of hundreds of people generally interested in getting in on the startup action, Imagine K12 clearly focused on the quality and caliber of the attendees. This not only creates a more targeted pitching experience for the startups but also deepens ties in broader edtech community. I wanted to stop and meet (or re-connect) with almost every person in the room, as I know they are sincerely committed to funding entrepreneurs striving to solve real problems in the K12 space.

The leap from cohort 1 to cohort 2 was tremendous and seems like it just keeps getting better. The next batch embarks on their journey in July and  IK12 is still accepting applications through through this Sunday, May 6th.

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.

Teachers as Innovators

I occasionally have moments on my morning drive where I’m so captivated by the conversation on NPR that I spend a few extra minutes just sitting and listening. This happened to me on Tuesday while listening to the Forum segment with The Economist’s Vijay Vaitheeswaran talking about his latest book, “Need, Speed, and Greed.” His broader message is that risk-taking innovation is the only way for companies and entrepreneurs to survive in a disruptive era of globalization and I was particularly drawn into his points on how education plays such a vital role in innovation. Vijay defines innovation as ‘fresh thinking that adds/creates value’ and I really appreciate his emphasis on how innovation is not always related to or dependent on technology.  In applying this to education, this immediately made me think about a recent EdWeek article highlighting a study that shows ‘Teachers Can Influence Colleagues, Change Schools.’ If more teachers see themselves as the innovators, tasked with the challenge of determining how/when to utilize various edtech tools (which is far more difficult than just creating them), that will drive significant improvements in teaching and learning. My favorite message from that piece is that  “Educators must consider each other the most valuable resource in a system, to be developed and supported with leadership, structures, tools, and processes for promoting continual professional learning.” I believe that the value created from focusing on teachers as innovators and constant learners themselves is the true revolution that schools need in order to improve student outcomes.

He went on to stress the importance of investing in education, which is one of the main drivers of innovation and that recent cuts to higher ed, especially to the UC system, are fundamentally wrong as we are cutting future productivity gains. Vijay’s views on purpose really resonated with me and were the main reason I came back and listened to the rest of the segment. He shares that in an ideas based economy, what truly motivates people is “purpose,  a sense of community, autonomy, mastery, independence, being good at what you do and connecting with something bigger than yourself.” If you know me or have read previous posts, you’ll know how much I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment.

I find his optimistic perspective extremely refreshing in a conversation around poverty alleviation and education that is often portrayed as in crisis-mode. He asserts that change is possible and disruptive change is coming (with a nice shout-out to Khan Academy and Acumen Fund.) I agree and am enthusiastically hopeful to see what we as a society can create when we focus on greed for good.