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?

With $6m to spend on Literacy, why not just build a product?

Earlier this week my team launched the $6m Literacy Solutions Challenge, open to for-profit and nonprofit providers of online content and tools that support Common Core literacy standards, particularly in writing. You can read more about the specifics of the challenge here.

Why in the world are we doing this? I coauthored a blog at Impatient Optimists with Emily Dalton Smith and Robert Torres that talks about the critical need for students to increase their literacy skills and some of nuts and bolts of the The Lit Challenge. The launch of the Challenge generated some great questions about why we settled on literacy and why we chose the challenge structure. So, I thought I would address those here.

The Lit Challenge is designed to fill an important gap in the digital courseware market. We’ve seen a lot of activity in digital math products in the last few years, but the level of activity for literacy solutions doesn’t come close.

In 2010, the entire K-12 supplemental materials market grew more than 10% to nearly $3 billion in sales, including 20% growth in courseware (instructional software) for all subjects. The supplemental English Language Arts (ELA) materials market for grades 4 through 8 is approximately $800 million, 40% of which is digital in some way.

While at first glance this is a healthy, growing market, the detailed sales figures for digital solutions are a little sobering. Nearly half of spending on digital 4th-8th-grade supplemental resources in 2010 was on interactive whiteboards. Courseware (instructional software) for all subjects accounted for only 7% of the market, and digital content (digitized materials) for less than 5%.

Math courseware is a bright spot in the segment. Products such as Reasoning Mind, Dreambox, and ST Math are producing demonstrable learning gains for students. Mathalicious is also a great resource.  Khan Academy, a free resource originally built for self-directed learning, burst into the public consciousness and into classrooms. Dan Meyer, a great math teacher, also has a library of free lessons which include instructional videos for math topics like Algebra and Geometry.

New entrants and new products from existing players in the literacy space have been pale by comparison. And few literacy products can provide even moderate evidence that they positively impact student learning. Scholastic’s terrific Read180 is a notable exception. Based on our analysis of the market, which was corroborated in conversations with educators and investors, this gap presents a major challenge to implementing the Common Core and advancing personalized learning.

But still, why a challenge? Why not set some product criteria and just pay a developer or two to build  solutions that meet the market need we think we identified in conversations with users and buyers? Actually, there are lots of reasons not to take the needle in the haystack approach, but I’ll cover the two main ones in this post.

First, my team and I aren’t interested in (and don’t believe in) the one best product. We are more interested in seeing an increasingly competitive, performance-driven market for literacy courseware, with many innovators tackling tough instructional challenges, and with mechanisms for generating and distributing abundant, transparent information about the attributes and effectiveness of products. This goal is different from looking for THE needle in the haystack or silver-bullet product that will meet most everyone’s needs.

Second, the structure of the challenge focuses simultaneously on strengthening the capacity of buyers and users to identify and articulate their needs more clearly and use them to make solid purchasing decisions. The most innovative teachers and school leaders tell us they are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with their existing options for literacy courseware. They also are able to clearly articulate what they would buy if it were available. We and many analysts we talk with believe this is a leading indicator of where the overall demand-side will move over the next few years. By shining a spotlight on these product attributes now, we aim to catalyze innovators to create solutions for a segment that is poised to take off and will eventually begin to eat into the massive basal textbook segment.

So, by mobilizing customers and the product developers in an organized way, we’re trying to foster healthier market dynamics for the long term.  This is different from Gates or any other donor deciding what everyone needs, funding the creation of it and subsidizing districts & schools to use it.

Around 30 schools will participate as test beds during the challenge, and they’ll select which products they want to try from among the entries. Schools will have free licenses for the products, and teachers will incorporate the solutions into their literacy instruction. An outside evaluation team will be tracking implementation issues and product efficacy. At the end a few winners will be named, and all of the product information generated through usage and evaluation will be made public.

This post is longer than my rule of thumb, but if you made it this far I’d love to hear your reaction to the thinking behind the challenge.

Facebook, College Summit & the College Knowledge Challenge

If you ask eighth-graders if they are going to college, 95% of them say yes. But gaps between high- and low-income students develop throughout high school. By age 24, 82% of high-income students earn a bachelor’s degree. The completion rate for low-income young people plummets to 8%. Here’s a look at the numbers at key points in time:

High Income Students Low Income Students
Say going to college – 8th grade 95% 95%
Say going to college – 10th grade 80% 60%
Graduate from high school 94% 70%
Begin college after high school 84% 41%
Finish college by age 24 80%   8%

Last year our team worked with a partner to create a picture of how these numbers map with dynamics that support or inhibit students reaching the college aspirations they all hold in middle school. You can explore a prezi of it here.

We support grantees and partners working to change these numbers in many ways. One project we’re part of aims to create new ways to help young people better navigate the college-going process. We partnered with College Summit and Facebook to launch the College Knowledge Challenge (CKC). My teammate Emily Dalton Smith designed and leads this project (and many others).

CKC is a $2.5m competitive grant fund for developers of Facebook applications aimed at making the college-going process more transparent, collaborative, and easy to navigate for low-income and first generation students. The goal is to spur the development of creative apps that make the most of students’ participation in the world’s largest social network. The CKC was open to for-profit and non-profit developers with ideas for great apps to help students in one of three ways:

  • Helping students build, test, and implement personal academic pathways that grow out of college-career aspirations and are supported by informed decision making.
  • Helping students build social capital and a college-going peer group.
  • Rectifying information asymmetries in college admissions, financial aid, and college selection processes that disadvantage low-income and first generation students.

Last September, CKC kicked off with a day-long hackathon at Facebook headquarters with more than 100 developers, engineers, high school & college students and College Summit mentors:

facebook hack

The hackathon generated a ton of attention for CKC, and College Summit followed up with webinars and other resources to help developers understand key barriers to college for low-income young people. Experts were available throughout the fall to talk with app development teams if they had questions.

In the end, more than 100 teams submitted ideas to CKC. Last week a judging panel of students, experts in the college-going process, technologists, investors, and philanthropists selected 21 winners based on demonstrations of prototypes. Each winning team received $100k to further develop the apps. Next fall, all will be fully functional and widely available.

The project is an example of how our team is trying to catalyze more innovators to work on the same challenges in different ways, rather than always looking for the needle in the haystack. If you get a chance to poke around on the CKC website for more info about the contest parameters and the winners, let me know what you think!

What teams of educators and developers can create in 30 hours

A couple of days ago I wrote about my team’s efforts to better connect teachers and developers in order to catalyze better learning applications. In the post, I mentioned last weekend’s SLC Camp app challenge and promised to post something about the winners.

Last year the SLC ran focus groups with 800 teachers from several states and distilled those conversations into 10 scenarios that teachers say are important to them. (You can find them here by clicking “key scenarios.”) SLC camp has run in a number of cities over the last several months, and each time the teams of educators and developers are asked to focus on 2 of the 10 scenarios. At the Silicon Valley camp last weekend, teams were encouraged to create prototype apps that address:

1. Interventions, flagging action, and measurement

2. Communication, collaboration, and sharing

Multiple teams formed around each  scenario. After a 30 hour codeathon and winnowing process, 7 finalists told their stories and showed their prototypes. Here’s a summary of what the three winners came up with in the 30 hour window:

1st place: 3R radar helps teachers communicate with parents about a student’s area of weakness, suggest strategies and activities for assisting, and report back on results. Prize = $5,000 cash plus $1,000 in Amazon Web Services and 4 hours with an AWS Solution Architect.

2nd place: NOTE-e-FI (from CaseNex) helps teachers track and communicate about student performance, attendance and notes. It is designed to facilitate both parent contact and collaboration among staff. Prize = $3,000 cash plus $500 in Amazon Web Services and 1 hour with a Solution Architect.

3rd place: Rapid RtL uses cohorts and smart goals to help teachers design, deliver, monitor, and assess group interventions for students with common needs. Prize = 1,000 cash plus $500 in Amazon Web Services.

You can read descriptions of all seven great ideas here.

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.