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?

4 thoughts on “Teachers, Ed-Tech Conferences, and Innovation

  1. Digital Wish has spent the past 4 years implementing 1:1 computing programs in the classroom across 39 schools, and going in weekly to train. There’s a disconnect between the commercial market solutions and what happens at a very grassroots level with technology in the classroom. One of the principals welcomed us on the first day like this, “…they close the door, pick up the chalk and textbook, and continue teaching just like they have for 20 years. The kids have technology everywhere except in the classroom and they disengage.”

    Generalizing here, but teachers unfortunately don’t go to ed tech conferences because they don’t have access in their classrooms and they don’t have budgets to buy technology. So it’s not yet relevant. Adding to that, withdeclining budgets and no hope of technology funding, the only way many schools will get technology is through BYOD. Regardless of what MDR data is telling us about student:computer ratios, only 15% of the 39 schools we entered had anything more than 1-3 aging computers in the back of every classroom and a computer lab down the hall. These are average rural schools, and not a “high need” cross-section.

    We’ve seen firsthand that teacher resistance stems from the complexity of technology. Every tech-resistant teacher we encounter has repeated failure stories to tell, where they tried to use technology in teaching and something went wrong within the confines of the time-restricted school schedule (the network admin changed the logins, DeepFreeze removed all the icons, the internet went down,) and the educator had just 55 minutes to teach this concept — so without immediate tech support, they were forced to abandon technology and return to their conventional teaching methods.

    Technology has to be simple, or it won’t get adopted. Remember the Flip camcorder? It revolutionized classroom video for the average teacher (not just the savvy) because it was “just good enough”. It didn’t have fancy features, just ease of use. Push the button to record, and when you “Flip” out the USB – everyone knew where to stick it. So it got adopted – and in many classrooms, without a single hour of PD. Blended learning needs to follow this model.

    When technology is simple, the PD paradigm begins to break down. Teachers don’t need nearly as much training to adopt. Look across the market at the blended learning tools. Even iBooks Author is too difficult for most educators to adopt. It has to be simple.

    The ideal teacher tool will allow average teachers (not just the savvy) to create blended content with nothing more than mouse skills – then teachers need to be able to make adaptations themselves and without the necessity of constant PD and tech support – and they need to be able to share content freely or at a price they can afford, out of their own pockets (i.e. $.59 cents) across a network that they already belong to (i.e. don’t make me go somewhere else!). That’s a mouthful!

    This is what Digital Wish has built. It’s called the eBuilder, and it delivers blended content as an app to any mobile device that the students bring into the classroom, Apple, Android, Windows, tablet, smartphone. It makes huge strides toward solving both the access and adoption difficulties at the same time. I hope you will add it to your list – it’s launching next month.

    All the best,
    Heather Chirtea
    Executive Director, Digital Wish, [email protected]
    P: 802-549-4571

  2. Thanks for talking about a vary valid concern.
    As an educator, I have often felt as if products, services, or platforms were created and then looked for problems to solve. All edTech companies (and for that matter, all ed companies) should make sure they start with research to help identify a real problem that exists. From here, their main focus should be solving these problems, not just releasing a product to gain marketshare.

  3. Fantastic blog post!

    Did you catch the “Modern Family” panel @ ASU? Great discussion there about the differing levels where procurement could happen, & discussion about the risk of losing “cohesiveness” if purchasing becomes too decentralized. I love empowering teachers to make decisions, but I worry about training, profession development and data integration if every teacher is using a separate set of tools.

    When I was in the classroom, my school gave me a budget (~$500) for supplies, books, tech, etc. It was incredible.

  4. Stacy – great set of four, and most could be addressed with best practice approaches to connecting the two systems/communities (educators & entrepreneurs) and incentivizing collaborative design thinking together. You mention MedTech R&D in another post — getting entrepreneurial minds in hospitals for study and collaboration, AND doctors/surgeons into design discussions (with mild incentives to collaborate) has resulted in new medtech devices solving practitioner needs.

    This has yet to manifest in meaningful ways between educators and entrepreneurs, but it’s the next evolutionary step. In fact, an NC SMT Center and partners recently recommended a “Collaboratory” for education innovation; Ohio and other states are working on their innovation laboratory models through STEMX and the Battelle STEM Innovation Lab. Unlike most Education Startup challenges, competitions and incubators — which often have “geeks” solving perceived challenges, or teachers ‘hacking’ their own tool — the next stage of edtech innovation/incubator should include *accomplished* entrepreneurs fellowshiped into schools for observation, relationship-building, problem identification, and innovation ideation; educator incentives to engage in structured, collaborative design with rapid prototyping resources; and angel-style investment/awards with business, legal, and financial stake to minimum viable product stage. Parts of this are occurring through Startup Weekends, TechStar-style incubators, etc., but not together or focused on the big system of public K12 and the K20 pipeline. The capacity and structure to connect networks of schools (great schools, decent ones, and ‘failing’ ones) with business and technical talent doesn’t have to be expensive, but will change the domain.

    Thanks for your leadership! Glad you and your smart team are working on this.

    Karl Rectanus

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