#EISummit Closing Keynote a Step in the Wrong Direction

Started a few years ago, the ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit is primarily an industry conference for entrepreneurs and investors in the global education market, from early childhood through corporate training and informal adult learning. Companies are there to pitch, and investors are looking for deal flow. But over the last couple of years the organizers have tried to include content that highlights important issues in US  K-12 and higher education. Things like learning outcomes, gaps the market isn’t addressing, and educator participation in the conference. It’s why we were willing to sponsor the conference in 2012 and again this year.

As I wrote earlier this week, the conference took steps in the right direction this year, working with partners to include educators in the programming. Their presence and voice was much more visible this year, even though there is way more to do to integrate their insights and concerns into the investor/entrepreneur vibe.

The closing keynote was completely counter to the progress on that front. I’m not sure what the rationale was for inviting Andy Kessler to deliver the last speech of the conference. He’s known for being politically incorrect, for trying hard to be provocative. He chose to create a dichotomy between teachers and technology, with technology as a replacement for teachers. From a quick look at the twitter stream, attendees of all stripes ranged from derisive of to offended by his talk.

From my point of view, his speech was a bad finish, and a step in the wrong direction. Students need meaningful interactions with each other, with great content, and with their teachers and other caring adults. To claim that any kind of device (tablet, netbook, smart phone, etc) is a suitable replacement for teachers is simply ridiculous.

Think about medical technologies. An enormous amount of R&D and innovation goes into the breakthrough devices and instruments surgical teams use to increase the quality and performance of their work in operating rooms. These technologies are not intended to replace doctors; they are intended to improve their performance and extend their reach as professionals. This is a much better way of thinking about education technology — a way of supporting and extending the work of professionals, not a plot to replace them.

Teachers, Ed-Tech Conferences, and Innovation

Since SXSWedu, a number of bloggers have raised questions about why there aren’t more educators at ed-tech conferences. I met teachers and school leaders at SXSWedu, but this was mostly before and after sessions with pretty low attendance compared with some of the “hot issue” panels populated and attended by the same entrepreneurs, investors, and bloggers who talk at each other at all the conferences. I’m thinking about it this week because I’m at the GSV/ASU Education Innovation Summit. More on that later in the blog.

A couple of weeks ago Shawn Rubin wrote an interesting piece on edsurge. Like me, he saw more educators at SXSW than some of the critics claim. But he points out that teachers who do attend often feel out of step with the content and structure of the gatherings. He says that because teachers aren’t usually the buyers of ed-tech stuff, companies don’t pay serious attention to them. He argues that if teachers were buyers, they would get more attention from suppliers and topics at ed tech conferences would reflect their influence.

My team and I are thinking a lot about this issue. I agree with Shawn’s insight about teachers as buyers and think it is part of a way forward to an ed-tech market that creates more and better options for teachers and students. A number of teacher-focused shifts could contribute to this, here’s a draft list:

  • Better ways to identify and shine a spotlight on needs of teachers and students that ed-tech solutions could help meet. This applies to both learning and workflow scenarios. Sometimes really talented engineers and entrepreneurs work on stuff they think is great, but it doesn’t support a real use case that matters to teachers and kids. More targeted market information that taps the voice of schools, teachers and students and makes it accessible and useful to product developers is one thing that could help here.
  • Real involvement of teachers in the product design and development process. This is different from asking teachers & schools if they will beta test a product, or asking your college roommate who did TFA if he likes your idea. Some of the hot early stage tech companies like Class Dojo, Goalbook, and Clever have former teachers on the founding team. But full-time involvement isn’t a requirement for success. Finding ways to ask teachers what they need from a solution, what it takes to incorporate a new application or tool into a classroom, listening hard, and integrating the feedback into dev cycles can work — it’s just not happening enough.
  • Teachers need more buying power. Teachers buy stuff for their classrooms out of their pockets. One estimate from a couple of years ago was $1 billion a year , or roughly $300 per teacher. Most of this goes to school supplies and other consumables, but low cost apps are becoming part of this mix, too. And teachers download lots of free stuff. What if individual and groups of teachers had a chunk of district and school curriculum budgets in their hands and autonomy to try out and buy things to support their students, without having to go into their own bank accounts? We need some experiments to figure out whether and how this might work.
  • Incentives for entrepreneurs should align with creating value for teachers and students. Once a company finances itself with venture capital, it can be tricky to maintain a focus on the classroom. I’ve talked with a bunch of early stage k-12 founders over the last few months as well as investors in the space, and the time horizons and return expectations of most VC funds can be out of synch with a team’s desire to focus on US schools as customers. This can show up as pressure to forego schools and sell to parents, look to international markets where a rising middle class is spending more money than ever on education, or pivot to higher ed. Many great companies are fine with this, but many others are not. This is a complex issue that a number of mission-driven, smart people are thinking about.

I’m not the only one highlighting these issues, obviously. It’s great that they are getting more visibility. I’ll write more about them over the next few months as we work with partners on understanding and addressing them.

As I said earlier, I’m at Education Innovation Summit in AZ this week. We’re a sponsor again this year. Last year, there was a huge hole in the conference roster and agenda — unlike the SXSWedu myth, I honestly could not find one current teacher or school employee of any type. Companies, investors, foundation people and think tankers, but no educators. It was unnerving.

I raised it immediately following the event with one of the organizers who completely agreed and asked for help making it better in the future. One year later, we’re here in the desert again, and teachers and school leaders are in attendance and spread throughout panels and round tables. Over the next couple of days, I’ll write about how we made it happen, what they are up to, and what still needs work.

In the meantime, what do you think about the draft list of 4 teacher-focused shifts that could strengthen innovation and performance in ed-tech, particularly in digital content and tools for use in classrooms?

$12 million available for personalized learning schools

With our partner Next Generation Learning Challenges, my team recently issued a $12m call for proposals for personalized learning schools. NGLC is running webinars about the program on Tues April 2, more info later in this post.

Eligible school proposals will share the following attributes:

  • Student-Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information, and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

Last year we supported NGLC in a similar challenge that generated over 100 applications and 20 winning schools. This year, two types of grants are available for new personalized learning schools that serve grades 6-12.

Launch Grants ($150,000 guaranteed plus up to $300,000 in 1:1 matching funds)

20 grants will be awarded to teams to support the launch of new personalized learning schools that will open in fall 2013 or in fall 2014.

Planning Grants ($100,000 each)

30 grants will be awarded to schools (districts, charter management organizations, aspiring charter entrepreneurs, non-profit and for-profit school developers, state education agencies and other institutions, agencies, or entities) that are planning on opening a new, personalized learning school in fall 2014 or fall 2015. The goal of the planning grant program is to support school developers earlier in the development process and to encourage non-traditional institutions to consider opening new personalized learning schools.

On Tuesday April 2, NGLC is hosting webinars about each type of grant:

Launch Grants: Tuesday April 2 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. Eastern

Planning Grants: Tuesday April 2 3:00 – 4:00 p.m. Eastern

Click to: Join the webinars  1-877-944-2300, 99290#

In March, NGLC hosted a kick-off webinar that you can watch here.

We’re excited about the first 20 schools and excited to add up to 50 more to that group through NGLC over the next couple of years.