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.

The State of STEM Education in Silicon Valley

Under the warm sun shining through the San Jose City Hall Rotunda, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation convened a group of policy makers, educators, and business & community leaders to explore the “#StateOfSTEM: How to Fill Tomorrow’s Jobs.” The forum focused on advancing STEM education, to help our schools catch up to the innovation happening all around us.

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San Jose Mayor, Sam Liccardo joined two local Superintendents and Tim Ritchie, the President of The Tech, for the first panel. The educators shared their school districts’ best practices in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and successful programs at their schools. The highlight from their comments was the idea of creating “city-wide learning labs,” that integrate schools, community-based organizations, parents and connected citizens. This notion of collective impact is not new and has shown early signs of success in other parts of the country.

The second panel included John York, Chairman/Co-owner, San Francisco 49ers, who is also the key supporter behind the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute. Through launching Embark Labs I’ve had the pleasure of working directly with that amazing team and students, helping them design a robust computer science program focused on creative problem solving through authentic projects.

Personally, I’ve taken a break from attending education events such as this, which often bring together very passionate and well-meaning citizens, yet rarely give audience members a chance to hear from educators and students directly. However, I was pleased to hear the conversations go beyond just STEM topics, to include structural reform issues such as teacher compensation, instructional time, credentialing challenges and much more.

 

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Mike Kirst, President of California State Board of Education, recapped the event perfectly by saying,

“the State of STEM is in transition.”

As a passionate parent and concerned citizen, I’m sure many of you will agree with me that we wish those transitions were happening more quickly and reaching more students. However, the optimist in me is hopeful that our collective efforts are making a difference for students in our communities.

Creating Learning Innovation Hubs

Building Bridges Between Educators and Edtech

SVEF NSVF

The Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) and New Schools Venture Fund (NSVF) Seed Fund have constantly been exploring ways to deepen relationships and meaningful exchanges between educators and the edtech community. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they teamed up to launch the iHub program earlier this year. (Many regions are testing different approaches with similar programs being piloted in NYC and San Mateo County.) Curious to hear how these efforts were progressing and provide insights for others trying to connect these communities, I recently caught up with Ritu Tandon and Jennifer Li who are leading the efforts for the SVEF team.

 

While the broader goal is bridging the gap between educators and edtech, the more specific mission of this pilot is to “facilitate collaboration and product feedback for more effective and impactful edtech tools,” according to SVEF.
iHub Pilot Group

Pilot Group: Educators and entrepreneurs focused on middle school math

Pilot Group
The four teams and eight fellows, all with a focus on middle-school math, are approximately half-way through the pilot now, capturing results through case studies, video reflections and measuring student engagement.  The iHub team was very thoughtful in their approach to identify and pair up the educators and entrepreneurs. Once the eight fellows were identified, their school and classroom details were shared with the NSVF team who looked to their portfolio and beyond to identify the startups.  “In selecting the startups it was important to look at the stage of development of their tool, would their product work on the platform/devices for the schools they had chosen, as well as if they had rich content for teachers to delve in to,” Tandon explains. She goes on to share, “one of the main selection criteria was the ability of the entrepreneurs to work with teachers.” The group of semi-finalists went through a ‘shark-tank’ style competition where the winners were chosen by a panel of school administrators, educators and business leaders.

 

With the selection process complete the match-making began, pairing teachers with the startups in regionalized groups to meet regularly, mentor each other and talk about product implementation feedback and strategies. The pilot culminates in May with a collaborative session to reflect back on the experience and redesign certain aspects of the program to be implemented for the fall cohort. Tandon shares they have been “extremely cautious about jumping to any assumptions about impact on student achievement because the pilot is only three months long and classrooms differ on pacing and structure.”

 

In designing the program, there were a few key factors that have led to the positive results so far, including compensating the educators (each receive a $1750 stipend), incorporating their feedback in iterating on the pilot and the timing of the selection process. “We were looking for educators that had more experience teaching, previously worked with tech and excited to try new things,” shares Tandon. She adds, “it was also essential that the schools we chose have capacity to support this type of work and have a philosophy for embracing tech in their classroom.”
blendspace screenshot
One of the fellows, Gabriela Rios, clearly embodied this philosophy, as she was already open to experimenting with new tools. (One of her students learned about Knowre, an adaptive math platform, while attending a MouseSquad conference and spoke so passionately about this product that they decided to pilot it in their classroom.) That culture set the perfect stage for a successful iHub experience implementing Blendspace to organize content and create personalized lesson plans for students. Rios shares that using this tool has improved her ability to flip her classroom more effectively, which “allowed me to have more conversations with my students, more often. This experience has made my students more comfortable with math and has taught them to be more independent and proactive around their learning.”

 

In reflecting back on the experience so far, the main critique Rios shares is how she wished fellows were more involved in the first round of the selection process. She explains that, “the (judging) panel was impressive but many of them are not in the classroom and it would have been useful to have someone who is in the classroom give their input.”

 

Beyond Silicon Valley
When efforts like this see pockets of positive results we often think about how that can scale to other communities. Many startups (BetaMatch and TinkerEd are the two most recent that come to mind) have explored how software can possibly support this type of match making to bridge the educator and edtech divide, however no one has been successful, yet. SVEF and NSVF clearly see value in the early results and are looking for ways to scale this type of program by emphasizing the local and centralized approach. According to Li, “rather than run the program ourselves in other locales, our thought is to engage others and provide support for them to execute this model. This is similar to our approach in scaling our Elevate [Math] program to Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties over the past two years.”

 

The team has been very happy with the progress so far. “For me it has been really exciting to see the community reaction to this project as it is something we’ve been trying to launch and facilitate for a while,” says Li. “One area we are looking to improve the next time around is to draw from a more diverse pool of teachers.”

 

Hear that, Bay Area educators? If you’re a local educator or edtech entrepreneur and want to get involved you can apply for the next round of the fellowship (applications open later in April) and attend the next pitch event slated for this summer.

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.)