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!