Learn. Link. Launch.

 

 

The Silicon Valley Education Foundation recently hosted their 5th annual #iHubPitchGames at Google. Through this home-grown version of an edtech accelerator, they have been iterating on the process of matching rising education startups with local schools to conduct ~3 month pilots, empowering teachers and students to provide direct and meaningful product feedback. In some ways this experience is a natural follow-on to more well established incubator programs, as several of the teams (Sown to Grow, Bird Brain, Peekapak and MathGames) are alumni of ImagineK12.

My favorite aspect of this event is the authentic focus on educator perspectives. School teams that applied for the fellowship were required to submit a ~60 sec video explaining how they believe technology can be used to improve a specific learning challenge they face in their classrooms. The event started off by sharing these videos to set the context for the 10 startups that then presented their products.

After watching the educator videos the entrepreneurs had 20 min to prepare a 2-minute pitch on how their products can address those learning challenges. The teams clearly knew how to present to an audience of educators, connecting their tools to the educators needs in the participating schools. After the pitch event, a subset of the companies are matched with more than 40 teachers selected from 11 districts across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.  

While I haven’t had a chance to try out all the products, I was personally impressed with the project-based approach of Cashtivity (real world math challenges) and Cignition (neuroscience based math lessons). The flashiest software tool was clearly HSTRY (create interactive timelines), while MakersEmpire is helping schools unlock the power of their makerspaces.

The iHub program is one of the few structured opportunities for edtech startups to work directly with educators to get meaningful feedback during the early stages of product development. I’ll check back in with the teams in a couple months to see how the pilots are progressing.

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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.

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!

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.

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.

Cultivating Entrepreneurs of the Future

I was honored to be a judge at the Technovation Pitch Competition today at Microsoft and was truly blown away by how much the program has grown over the past 3 years. Iridescent founder, Tara Chklovski, kicked off the event by sharing some startling statistics about how 6th grade girls actually score better in STEM content areas but somehow once we get to higher ed communities in a room of ~30 engineering students, only 3 will be girls. I wish that every person who has ever talked about the lack of diversity in the startup community would have been in the room today, not only to hear these stats, but to see a program like the Technovation Challenge that is determined to change the ratio.

If only all Demo Days embodied this level of energy and authentic enthusiasm. 10 teams had 4 min each to pitch their Android App and then respond to questions from the judges. The ideas ranged from medical/healthcare apps that allow you to easily share your general medical history to food discovery apps for people with allergies or dietary restrictions (vegans) and games that teach marine biology in a fun and engaging way. The winning team from our session was an app designed to reduce teenage pregnancy and STDs by providing preventative care information in a format that is appealing and compelling for high school students.  The pitches were great, however, what was most impressive was the demonstration of what the girls had learned about what it really means to make something out of nothing. During the poster session I spoke with several of the teams who shared their experiences with customer development, co-founder disagreements, sizing the market, brainstorming distribution strategies, outlining business models and perfecting your pitch. These are the exact same topics that I discuss with startups that I work with in various incubator programs in Silicon Valley and it’s inspiring to see high schools girls learning these processes and techniques that they will hopefully carry with them as they continue their education and professional careers. This is what authentic STEM education looks like. This is what teaching entrepreneurship really means.

Towards the end of the event I was asked what I’d like to see come out of this type of program over the next several years. Ideally, if we say we want to educate our children to be the innovators of the future then I strongly believe this type of program needs to be integrated into the K12 curriculum. Shouldn’t all students have an opportunity to gain these necessary skills during the traditional school day?

The winning teams from today and the other regional challenges will come together at Intel in Santa Clara next Thurs, May 3rd for the National Pitch Competition. Tickets are free so if you’re available and are interested in seeing what empowering young girls to develop an authentic desire for coding and entrepreneurship looks like, I highly recommend you attend. Kudos to the entire Iridescent team for a fabulous event today and for empowering high school girls all over the country to design their futures.

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!

Engaging the education community

I had the opportunity to speak to Imagine K12‘s 2nd cohort today on how to approach marketing/distribution in edtech, which for me centers around building community, empowering product evangelists and engaging teachers/parents to help share your story. I’m happy to share my slides and would love to hear from anyone who has had particular success engaging with their user community to grow their brand and user base. What have you found are the best strategies for reaching educators and parents in this highly fragmented environment?

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.