#Edtech Goes Back-to-School

“Tell me about your biggest problems, I’d like to fix them for you.” As well-intentioned as this sounds, it is a common request from tech entrepreneurs that often frustrates educators and school leaders. And unfortunately it is still how many edtech solutions are designed and distributed.

TeacherSquare wants to flip that model by creating opportunities that bring educators together as the influencers and creators of edtech solutions. This past Saturday, in partnership with Castilleja, we co-sponsored “Edtech Goes Back-to-School,” an invite-only event targeting educators and edtech enthusiasts to stimulate conversations around how to foster better innovation from within schools. The optimist in me hopes that the top-down policies and district-level decisions will be balanced by a grassroots, bottoms-up movement and meet in a productive middle that improves learning outcomes for all.

 The activities of the day were framed around several ‘how might we…’ questions that we collectively wrote based on participants’ responses to a pre-event survey. Questions like how might we:

…make EdTech more student-driven, student-led, and student-centric?

…give developers and EdTech entrepreneurs a better opportunity to observe, interact with, and serve students and teachers?

…build a community of EdTech learners, educators, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts?

We started the event with a mini design-thinking exercise (that participants shared was ‘inspiring and productive’) lead by the brilliant minds at d.cipher. Zanette Johnson and Marilyn Cornelius met while completing their PhDs at Stanford and upon graduating launched d.cipher to ‘transform complex challenges into innovative solutions’ with a focus on climate change, education and wellness. Their passion for this work was energizing and I was so pleased to hear that several schools are going to invite them to jumpstart future PD sessions.

Throughout the day many educators expressed common opinions about their experience with edtech and these were a few questions/comments that I heard over and over:

  • How can we take the focus off the tech? (The tech is great but it’s just one aspect of teaching/learning.)
  • How can we avoid tech implementation that is just for tech’s sake? (Investing in devices without any guidance on how that will impact teaching and learning.)
  • How can we be innovative while working in highly constrained systems, specifically with standardized test, grades, A-G requirements (It is not impossible but requires a certain mindset.)
  • Extracting meaning from the data is the biggest challenge and opportunity

This event would not have taken place without the energy and leadership of Gabe Lucas, Director of Technology at Castilleja and while it was hosted at an affluent private school, the audience and conversations spanned all levels of preK-12 and school types (district, charter, private, parochial.)

We often hear complaints about teachers being behind the times or not open to trying new approaches in their classrooms. This is not always true and I’m constantly inspired by the educators I meet who are leaning in to their PLNs and experimenting with different approaches. Events like this bring PLNs to life and are necessary steps in the right direction.

My hope is that one or more of the attendees will take a new idea and experiment with implementing that in their school and I’d gladly showcase those efforts here in a future post. If you’re interested in fostering a conversation like this in your school community, please join the TeacherSquare Community on Google+ or reach out on twitter @TeacherSquare.

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The Meet Education Project

Kudos to Nick DiNardo, member of the Pearson Online Learning team, on launching the Meet Education Project. This podcast series showcases educators and edtech innovators from around the country and I’m honored he invited me to share my experiences building bridges in the edtech community through TeacherSquare.  In our ~30 min chat we discuss the edtech ecosystem in the Bay Area and beyond, highlighting some of my favorite players Imagine K12, 4.0 Schools, EdTechRI and more.

MeetEducationProjectLogo

While podcasts may seem dated, I am actually a fan and find they are a great way to directly hear from some of the thought leaders in this space.  My favorite is Audrey Watters’s Hack Education series with Steve Hargadon, which I hope they’ll bring back sometime soon. (Their most recent one is from Feb 11, 2013.)  I put one on during a run and find it’s a great way to learn from others doing inspiring work in education. If you have any feedback for Nick or me, send it our way.

Angela Estrella: Empowering Educators to Embrace Edtech

Profile #2 in the Teacherpreneur Spotlight Series that I’ve produced in collaboration with EdSurge.

Angela Estrella’s personal fascination with technology began during her undergrad years at UC Berkeley, using her Palm Pilot whenever she was riding on BART. “I used that Palm Pilot ALL the time- as a calendar, to take notes so in many ways that was my first ‘smartphone.’”

Her passion for teaching traces back to her own experience in middle school, where she was deeply inspired by teachers who took an interest in her and motivated her to become the first in her family to graduate from a university. Fast forward a few years after graduating from Cal and she found herself teaching at Overfelt High School in East San Jose, which didn’t quite have the resources to match Angela’s passion for technology. Still, she quickly noticed that her students were more engaged when she used various tech tools, especially those that involved using videos to demonstrate their learning. This inspired the savvy entrepreneur in Angela to seek out tech grants, and in collaboration with a visionary principal her school was awarded a substantial grant to start a Multimedia Academy at Overfelt through the CA Partnership Academies (CPA) Program.

“I encourage aspiring teacherpreneurs to identify small pots of local funds, such as the SVEF Innovation Grants or funding from your PTSA, to fuel your vision. I’ve also had 3-4 grants funded by DonorsChoose, so that’s been really helpful.” She added that starting off small creates a unique sense of ownership and the ideal scenario is to collaborate with local schools or educators to apply together. “As a member of SVCUE (the Silicon Valley chapter of Computer Using Educators) I can apply for their mini-grants. I think joining organizations like your local CUE affiliate is a great way to connect with educators and learn more about professional development and grant opportunities.”

Things changed when Angela began teaching in the more affluent Cupertino area in 2010, where teachers and students had more access to technology. But new challenges surfaced. While teachers had access to the latest devices, such as iPads, Apple TVs and SmartBoards, few of them had the knowledge or confidence to integrate them into their teaching practices.

So Estrella took it upon herself to create a more collaborative environment among her students and fellow faculty to help one another locate and try out new tech tools. As Lynbrook’s Library and Media Teacher for the past couple years, Angela has launched some innovative programs for students and teachers such as the Virtual Vikings and redesigning their Tech Menu Days. Virtual Vikings, essentially a student-powered geek squad, has illustrated for teachers how students can provide real-time tech support and enable the smart adoption of tech tools in the classroom. Through Tech Menu Days, Angela has tapped into the expertise within her teaching community to showcase best practices on how to use various edtech tools, such as Google Aps for Edu and KidBlog.

Fostering support and buy-in from her district has been a major factor in her success. “I’m working with our Director of Technology at the District to expand what we’re doing,” she said. “That guidance and support is essential to scaling what we’ve proven works at Lynbrook.”

Estrella turns to her extensive online PLNs (professional learning networks), mainly via Twitter and Facebook, for sources of inspiration on how to creatively use tech in her class.  She’s constantly trying out edtech tools and finding creative ways to introduce those tools and the entrepreneurs who build them to her school community. It’s all part of her larger vision to create a culture of experimentation and embracing of edtech for both students and teachers at Lynbrook.

Hear directly from Angela about her work from this video profile, connect with her on Twitter @am_estrella or check out her blog.

#EdUnderground: Finding your Herd

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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.)

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.)

TeacherSquare takes Tech Talks on Air

As the TeacherSquare community continues to grow, I have been thinking about the best way to open our conversations to a larger audience. Last night we hosted our first Teacher Tech Talk on Air using Google Hangouts and despite minor tech issues on my end, we had a lively discussion on formative assessments and how some cloud-based tools are making this more of a reality in many classroom.

Thanks to Jack West (Braincandy), Tim Burke (Gooru) and Trenton Goble (Mastery Connect) for sharing their perspectives as educators and edtech entrepreneurs and leading this important discussion. Additional appreciation goes out to Andrew Coy (Digital Harbor Foundation) and Steve Taffe for their participation and for sharing their insights.

TeacherSquare plans to continue both on and offline discussions just like this so if you have any feedback or suggestions for future topics I’m all ears.

TeacherSquare On Air

For the past several months I’ve been working on my own initiative, TeacherSquare, exploring various ways that innovative educators can share their expertise and connect with each other, both on and offline, with the goal of co-creating a community to support better (& smarter) technology adoption in classrooms. One of our most successful and engaging events was our August Teacher Tech Talk at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation where Jack West (braincandy), Trenton Goble (MasteryConnect) and Tim Burke (Gooru Learning) shared their strategies on utilizing specific tools to bring formative assessment techniques to the classroom. During this interactive BYOD session participants broke into small groups to share their specific experience and best practices with each other and it was almost impossible to get the groups to stop talking when the event ended.

In thinking about how best to continue that conversation and include others from all over the world, TeacherSquare is talking it’s Tech Talks On Air via Google Hangout. Jack West will be leading our first Tech Talk on Air on Wed, Oct 24th at 7pm (PT) to share his story balancing multiple passions as an educator, edtech blogger and entrepreneur. I’m really excited to extend the energy and reach of TeacherSquare and I hope you’ll join the conversation, help spread the word and/or submit a question in advance.