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.

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Teacher Tech Talk

During my exploration deeper into the world of edtech, meeting with countless entrepreneurs & investors and attending numerous conferences & events, I feel a very important perspective is missing from this growing movement… the voice and participation of educators. Can we really redesign and distribute new innovations in teaching and learning without active involvement from the teacher community? I’ve been to several edtech meetups, Startup Weekend EDU events and conferences and it’s rare to find attendees that are actually current teachers, working directly with students and trying out the new tools that seem to pop up weekly.

So, what can we do about that? Last night I hosted the first Teacher Tech Talk event to help identify and build a community of educators that are interested in playing a more vocal and active role  in this growing edtech movement. It’s been hard to miss all the buzz around the ‘edtech’ world lately, however, people who have been thinking about ed reform for a while recognize that technology is merely a tool and the larger disruptions and improvements to current teaching and learning practices depend on when/how those tools are used, which is  largely driven by educators.

My goal for this community is to collectively figure out how best to bridge the educator and education startup worlds. How can we get more perspective from what is happening in classrooms and schools into the product development process of startups, rather than when it’s time to find beta testers or product evangelists? The group consisted of current and former educators, entrepreneurs, school/district tech leads and even an investor. The diversity of perspectives lead to a very insightful discussion session, and as this community grows I imagine it will attract more entrepreneurs and investors, however, I’m extremely focused on keeping the content and conversation centered on educators.

After some networking, we settled into a brainstorming and discussion session around what the educators think would make their teaching lives easier. The responses ranged from predictable need for more time, access to devices, actionable data to more collective impact approaches, engaging parents, inter/intra district collaboration and thinking how to bring more relevancy and real-world application to the current standards-based curriculum. Greg Klein was our first guest speaker, invited to share his perspective as a former principal in Oakland and current teacher, leading the blended learning initiatives at Downtown College Prep. He shared an in-depth look into the tools (Khan Academy, Manga High and long list of others) and process he’s piloting at DCP and stay tuned for a follow-up post that goes into more detail. Brett Kopf, co-founder of Remind101, then shared his experience incubating his startup through Imaginek12 and speaking with hundreds of teachers before starting to build his product that aims to power communication between teachers, parents and students.

This pilot event was a success and surfaced some extremely useful feedback on how to grow and shape this community going forward. Look out for an invite to next month’s event and if you’re interested in getting involved in anyway, let me know. As with most startups, I’m figuring this out as I go and can use all the feedback I can get!

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?

NSVF- Planting the seed

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the launch event for New Schools Venture Fund SeedFund, the most recent endeavor of dynamic duo Wayee Chu and Jennifer Carolan, who also spearheaded the EdTech Lab at Stanford this time last year. With the team at NSVF, these two have spent years encouraging and investing in entrepreneurs passionate about building tools and systems to help all kids have access to a high quality public education. Jennifer’s most recent blog post shares the thought process behind creating this seed stage funding opportunity and how supporting these entrepreneurs early on has the real potential to improve the struggling K-12 education system. The event attracted an impressive audience of VCs, angels, entrepreneurs and members of the community that have devoted their lives to improving education outcomes for all kids.  The highlight for me was Jennifer and Alan Louie, from Imagine K-12, kicking off the event with some compelling reasons why the timing is right to truly change education now. The stars have aligned in the following ways:

  • Technology: Current infrastructure (ie. AWS, Rackspace) makes it easier than ever to build a startup and pc/tablet penetration is increasing ( there is a 3:1 ratio of kids to computers (on avg))
  • Talent: 40% of teachers are under 30 years old and feel very comfortable using technology in the classroom
  • Common Core is laying the framework to consolidate learning goals/standards across the country (adopted by 43 states already)
  • Budget constraints: strapped districts, now more than ever, are looking for tools/systems to help them do more with less

I think another big point related to technology that was not mentioned is the availability and ability to use data in a meaningful and actionable way to drive personalized, self-paced learning to meet kids where they are and help each of them succeed on their own timeline.

Overall, I love the optimism and forward-looking tone of the evening, especially when it’s so easy to get dragged down by the history of education reform and all the strategies that have been unsuccessful in the past. The night continued with presentations from the first three companies in the SeedFund; Goalbook, Engrade and LearnZillion.

Efforts like these, that are seeking to improve education outcomes for kids and communities that need it the most, are what fuel my own passion for this work. They push us all to rethink the role of schools, what teaching and learning can and should look like in a student-centered world. We can get there, together, and NSVF is helping to plant those seeds.

Imagining a Better Way…

Imagine K-12 is quickly gaining exposure and recognition as the best education startup incubator around. All 10 companies from the first cohort got the chance to pitch at TechCrunch Disrupt earlier this month, and you can read more about them and watch the pitches here.

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