#EdUnderground: Finding your Herd

EdUnderground_Nov2012_59

As I continue to grow the TeacherSquare community, I’ve been inspired to find other local efforts around the country that are bringing together innovative educators to deepen their knowledge and comfort with using technology to change teaching and learning. One such organization is the EdUnderground, a group of ~20 educators in Rhode Island who have come together to learn from and inspire each other. As the co-founder, Shawn Rubin describes, “we are group of wild horses looking for our herd, feeling a lack of exploration and innovation in our existing school cultures.”

Rubin, Director of Technology Integration at Highlander Institute, is exactly one of those wild horses who has always been “looking for ways to do transformative things inside and outside the classroom,” and is cultivating that spirit of tinkering through the EdUnderground community. “I see the EdUnderound as equal parts edCamp + Apple Store + Fab Lab. A space where there are crazy-inspiring tools, with a balance between being polished while still encouraging tinkering and knowledge sharing.” Through his role at the Highlander Institute, he realized he had this unique acces to hardware and software tools to stimulate that tinkering and invited 7-8 educators to join him. Fueled by some Rhode Island state grants to support PLCs (professional learning communities) this group quickly doubled and is continuing to grow, with geography playing a role in that growth as well.

Being a small state with 11k teachers and 150k students, Rubin quickly found there were lots of ways educators were experimenting with different tools and strategies in a very small geographic area. In addition, Rubin shares that being “uniquely positioned between New York and Boston, we serve as a testing ground for those edtech ecosystems who are all incredibly interested and eager to get access to this engaged group of RI teachers.”

EdUnderground session

The group currently hosts regular meetups and workshops to share best practices and experiment with various edtech tools. Up next, Shawn is working on building a lending library of hardware and software for teachers to bring these blended learning experiments back to their schools. Shawn and his team were also just awarded a significant grant to build a Blended Learning Institute (as part of Highlander Institute) to showcase blended learning(BL) in action and create a space for educators to explore various BL methods.

As TeacherSquare evolves, I have been looking to connect our community with others, like the EdUnderground, to create a national network of entrepreneurial educators to continue their edtech explorations together through on and offline interactions. If you’re interested in getting involved or starting a similar group in your community, please feel free to reach out to Shawn (srubin@highlanderinstitute.org) or me (jasmit@gmail.com.)

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Plugging Edtech into Schools

TeacherSquare partnered with Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) to bring November’s SF Edtech meetup to the San Jose. True to form, it was a fabulous gathering of teachers, technologists, education enthusiasts and supporters. I was particularly excited to support this event, not only because I’m a South Bay resident and am so pleased to see this meetup expanding to other regions of the Bay Area, but more so because I’m passionate about expanding the conversation in the edtech space beyond tools and entrepreneurs, to really focus on teachers and school leaders, who are at the heart of education change.

Muhammed Chaudhry, CEO of SVEF, moderated a really thoughtful conversation between our panelists of local school representatives to highlight the challenges at the core of making this edtech movement a real revolution. The panelists were:

  • Chin Song: Director of Technology at Milpitas Unified School District
  • Bruce Neff: Technology Curriculum Specialist at Oak Grove School District
  • Mariana Garcia: Science Teacher, AdVENTURE STEM Program at Herman Intermediate School (Oak Grove School District)
  • Randy Phelps: Director of Information Technology Services at East Side Union High School District

I storified some tweets for anyone who wants to see quick highlights and some of the questions that came from the audience.
The core of the conversation was framed around  connectivity challenges, mainly around these 3 aspects: 1) infrastructure 2) devices and 3) tools and support.

Bruce Neff from Oak Grove shared that their “goal is to have a wireless access point in each classroom,” which is still a ways off. All the talk of connectivity made me think of efforts like the Education Superhighway, which is trying to bring national awareness to the lack of broadband in schools and how that is an essential element for creating the classrooms of the future that we all fantasize about.

Beyond connectivity, the audience was very interested in hearing more about the complex procurement process in districts and if there are any strategies to navigate that system, especially for smaller startups with shorter runways. The panel shared that for the most part, hardware decisions are made at the district level to enable discounts for buying in bulk while software decisions are made at the school level, and school boards only get involved when it’s a much larger purchase. Chin Song from Milpitas Unified shared his basic rubric for evaluating educational software; does it does it fundamentally change the teaching and learning environment, impact student learning and offer easy access to the data. In response to assessing free tools he also added that-

“We look at it as a VC… is this built to last? Would we recommend this to other districts?”
This is particularly interesting when you consider the growing number of consumer-oriented edtech startups offering their tools for free and exploring freemium business models.The conversation also addressed the anticipation around common core and how everyone is hopeful it will lead to better forms of ongoing assessment as well as the buzz vs. reality of flipped vs. blended learning, to which Randy Phelps replied, “it’s all still pretty much buzz.”

In closing, the panel was asked to share their dream app or what they most want to see from the edtech community. The common response was to remember that the student is the ultimate client, and technology approaches should be appealing for students and engage them in their own learning process. I appreciated Chin’s addition that even as we explore getting more/better technology in schools, “we want to minimize the time that kids are online, in front of a screen, at school” and must focus on character development and social/emotional learning. His comment that “I don’t want (kids) hooked on badges, creating a token economy” reminded me of a LearnBoost blog post from last year on 3 reasons not to gamify education.

It is so refreshing to attend an edtech event where school leaders are at the heart of the discussion, sharing their perspective on the realities of utilizing technology to improve education for all students. Muhammed closed the night with a thoughtful Bay Area based request for this growing community to not just think about students who live off 280, but to also remember the kids and communities off 101.

TeacherSquare plans to continue this effort to host future SF Edtech Meetups in San Jose in the coming year and we are already identifying teachers to serve as panelists and share their insights on how they are bringing edtech tools to their schools. If you know a teacher who would like to participate or you would like to get involved, please contact me (jessie (at) TeacherSquare.org.)

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.

The Long Tail of Edtech

In case you missed it, last weekend education technology enthusiast, Steve Hargadon, applied the long-tail framework to explain some of the key trends we are seeing in the edtech space right now in his post, A “Tail” of Two Edtech Agendas. I think this is a very helpful way to understand why certain startups are capturing much of the capital and media attention right now, even though they may not be poised to deliver the deeper disruption that many of us are hopeful for.

I cannot agree more with his point that we must shift our focus to solutions that target users (students, educators, parents) that make up the long tail. He describes “success in the tail is differentiation, diversity, and choice,” which I believe are the basis of personalized, self-paced learning that can (and in a few cases already are) revolutionizing teaching and learning.

He goes on to state “edtech reform in the head is about using money to scale simplified solutions of that which is popular, or the status quo. Ed tech reform in the tail is about using the network to provide freedom and choice” which captures an important aspect of scaling a truly differentiated and choice-based model, the network. In order to meet the needs of all types of learners, we must engage and build community with all types of educators, establishing a solid network to capture and deliver customized learning solutions.

If you’re interested in helping bridge the educator and edtech communities to start establishing this type of network right here in Silicon Valley, please join us for our first Teacher Tech Talk event, Friday March 23, 4-6pm at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park.