Connecting teachers and developers

I often say that when it comes to K-12 learning technologies, we need lots of innovators working in different ways on the same opportunities. My team and I believe this can help speed up the innovation cycle for lots of great, affordable solutions aimed at tough instructional challenges.

Grant-makers, including my team at Gates, often strive to fund the “best” intervention with hopes it will produce results and be able to “go to scale.” But this needle in a haystack approach can be ineffective when it comes to early stage learning technologies. New applications and tools are rarely “right” from the beginning. They need time for testing with users and room for shifts in functionality and business model. Philanthropy can have the unintended consequence of buffering entrepreneurs from the natural give and take between product developers and customers that makes solutions better.

That’s why we’re trying to spend more of our time and capital on increasing the number of needles in the haystack so they are easier to find. I’m not sure this haystack analogy works, though I promised myself I’m not going to edit these posts much. But you get the picture. Rather than always looking for THE solution, we’re trying to figure out ways to strengthen incentives for lots of players to tackle tough problems, trusting that in the long-run customers will pick the winners based on what works. I talked with edsurge about this a few months ago and will share more of what we’re thinking and doing on this front on this blog over the next few months.

One of the projects we’ve been working on with partners for a couple of years is the Shared Learning Collaborative.  We’re funders and I chair the board.  The project is complicated, but one of my favorite descriptions shows how the SLC tech services help Mr. Thompson, a fake middle school math teacher, personalize learning for his students.

Though good ol’ Mr Thompson is fake, the scenario he represents is very real. By working with partners to solve key pain points at the infrastructure level, the SLC aims to create more incentives for innovation in applications that help personalize and accelerate learning for students. At this point we’ve talked with around 1000 educators about what they need from instructional technologies. One thing we heard loud and clear is that many applications don’t take into account the reality of the classroom — which problems are most important, how kids and teachers interact, what resources they have available.

So, we are working to link teachers more closely with developers & entrepreneurs who want to put their creativity and talent to work on solutions that matter most for kids and teachers. In that spirit, over the weekend I was in Silicon Valley at  SLC Camp with 300 educators and developers who formed teams to generate ideas and translate them into prototype apps over about 30 hours.  Here’s a team of teachers and developers at work on their idea:

SLC camp

At the end of the weekend, seven teams of educators and developers pitched their ideas and demo-ed their prototypes. Three won cash prizes. I’ll do a short post later in the week with brief descriptions of the winners. In the meantime, let me know what you think about our intention to spend more time on strengthening incentives for lots of innovators and creating better connections between teachers and product developers.

4 thoughts on “Connecting teachers and developers

  1. I like your first few blogs.

    On this matter: To what extent do you think we need more than collaboration, but a real marketplace where individual teachers, not whole schools, control large portions of their pro-rated budget for teacher tools, p.d., and curriculum?

    I suspect that’s the only way to have a flourishing demand side. Disintermediate district gatekeepers. And what’s unusual…this is a potential education win that is also a political win…teachers would love it.

    • great to see you here Michael! love the idea of teachers in control of the budgets for content, tools, and p.d. Would create much better market signals for suppliers about what teachers and kids need and about what works. For now we refer to the idea as “teacher wallets” and have a couple of projects in the work on this front. More to come!

  2. I know that disintermediation is becoming an increasingly popular strategy for innovative tech companies to get their foot in the door at schools and districts. Our learning management system, for instance, has been growing in popularity primarily through this market strategy, i.e. market directly to teachers, provide a free version of the tool, and then force their tech directors to support the technology.

    To whatever extent teachers are given control over their PD budget, my hope is that the Learning Registry can be utilized to appropriately tag electronic resources, similar to what is being done for instructional resources for kids. As a technology leader at my district, I see myriad examples where schools and teachers waste a lot of money on bad technology. So before they are given even more control of the PD budget, I’m in favor of providing a technology landscape that provides guides to selecting appropriate tools that are aligned to the CCSS.

  3. The ‘Mr. Thompson’ video definitely resonates at our district, and we are actively pursuing funding to build out an instructional improvement system (IIS) around this vision, and also want to build into the solution a predictive analytics engine that recommends learning resources, lesson plans, PD, etc, based on formative assessment data, and with guidelines in place to ensure that content aligns with the CCSS and our curriculum.

    As an SLC pilot district, we appreciate the emphasis on teacher voice. Our teachers embraced the opportunity to collaborate directly with technologists at the Colorado SLC camp, as they have historically been given this opportunity as part of the procurement and development of instructional tech. In other words, the SLC camp was simply an extension of the type of teacher/technologist interaction that our teachers have become accustomed to.

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