FROM FAST COMPANY
The Secret to Building Great Edtech Products? Teachers.
Dave Cho, a South Korean elementary school teacher, never intended to become a startup CEO. "I’m an educator before an entrepreneur," he says. "I miss my students."
But for the last several years he has been focused on Classting, the classroom-based social platform he launched in 2012. "I used social network services like Facebook and Twitter in my classroom, but it was very difficult because of privacy issues," he says, calling from his office in Seoul late one evening. "I decided to make a more fun educational service, and a more safe service to communicate in the classroom."
His idea has become a runaway hit in South Korean schools, where students and teachers now discuss assignments via the Classting app, which combines practical features like document integration with kid-friendly touches like animal "stickers." As of June 2015, Classting had won 1.7 million student and teacher users spread across more than 12,000 schools.
Now Cho is taking Classting to the U.S., in addition to China, Japan, and Taiwan. Here, he’ll face stiff competition from established classroom management and messaging tools like ClassDojo and Remind. He’ll also join the growing ranks of educators getting involved in education technology—a few as startup founders, and many more as engaged early adopters, ready and willing to provide critical feedback.
Technologists and educators used to operate in separate spheres, resulting in frequent classroom-level frustrations. While software developers were hard at work refining the adaptive algorithms behind their curriculum apps, teachers were hard at work helping two dozen eight-year-olds reset their forgotten usernames and passwords. When the two groups did come together, in hopes of solving those practical challenges, cultural differences would often stand in the way of progress. But recent developments suggest that teachers are finding their voice, and that technologists are increasingly eager to listen.
"It seems to me that programs are becoming more intuitive to teachers than they used to be," says Marlena Hebern, a veteran educator based in Mariposa, Calif. She attributes the shifting dynamic to the competitive landscape: "There are a lot of companies vying for our attention." As a result, "they’re listening more to what teachers want."
Indeed, the edtech market has exploded over the last two years. In 2010, venture capital firms invested $414 million in education companies, according to CB Insights. By 2014, that total had quadrupled to $1.6 billion, spread across over 200 deals.
Even a dominant company like Google, which has built a significant education business through Chromebook sales and Google Classroom, is taking pains to design alongside its classroom users. Hebern, for example, found the text size of a particular Google Classroom interface too small for her students to read. She raised the issue on a message board, and "the next thing I noticed they had changed it," she says.
Educator Anderson Harp has observed a similar shift. He recently left the classroom in order to oversee technology initiatives at the Browning School, an elite private school in Manhattan. "I have contributed feedback, and I know other teachers have," he says. Though he still sees many products focused on multiple choice "drill and kill" or distracting bells and whistles—"I’ve seen some things get better."
Efforts on the part of nonprofit leaders within the education community have also had an impact. Phyllis Lockett, founder and CEO of Chicago-based LEAP Innovations, left the charter school sector in order to, as she puts it, more efficiently "link up supply and demand."
"Technology companies, honestly, are sometimes developing in a vacuum, too far away from what students and teachers need in the classroom," Lockett says. "We are bringing educators and tech companies together to collaborate. We’re also training educators on how to personalize learning."
In the LEAP model, teachers are the judge of which apps are worthy of their students. After participating in a professional development program alongside their principal and technology specialist, teachers interview a set of edtech companies that have been vetted by a national panel of experts. The companies that survive their turn in the hot seat win an opportunity to test their software during the school year.
"The teachers get to choose what they want to pilot," Lockett says. "They’re in the middle of that experiment; they have to be." As for the companies: "Many are hungry for that feedback and innovation."
FROM CHICAGO INNO
Here's A Look At The Edtech Companies That Presented At Leap Innovation's Pitchfest
1871-based edtech hub LEAP Innovations capped off an impressive summer with a pitch competition attended by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Richard Culatta, head of the Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology.
On Thursday, LEAP and Hive Chicago hosted the Edtech Pitchfest, a pitch competition aimed at bringing together members of the Chicago education community. The event showed off several Chicago edtech companies with promise, and presented the beginning stages of what they hope will make Chicago a national leader in blended learning.
Earlier this summer, LEAP won over $5 million in grants from the Gates Foundation and committed $4 million to local schools from other sources to continue their model of testing edtech solutions and outfitting schools with blended learning. The past week, representatives from several major school districts around the country were in town observing LEAP in action, and discussing ways to bring the model elsewhere around the country. This attention caught the eye of the Department of Education: the Chicago stop on their summer-long "Edtech developer tour" coincided with the Pitchfest.
"We are an anchor for the tech community that is focused on education. We have not had that," said Phyllis Lockett, CEO of LEAP, to Chicago Inno. "[Chicago] has been very focused on bio, digital media, manufacturing, green tech--all very important. But education is foundational to our city, foundational to our country. And we have got to focus on that if we are going to advance as a country."
Mayor Emanuel made a quick stop at the event to applaud what he said will help provide more personalized education for students in Chicago schools.
"What you're doing will allow us to provide education to 400,000 kids at 400,000 speeds and capacities to different degrees," he said to the crowd. "I want the city of Chicago, while making progress on education to also be the epicenter of making progress on education technology…get [innovations] integrated into our classrooms."
Six Chicago edtech companies presented to a panel of judges that included Kenyatta Forbes, CPS' tech innovator of the year; Katrina Stevens, senior advisor at the Office of Edtech; and Shoshana Vernick, head of Sterling Partner's $200 million education investment fund.
The companies were selected through open applications and were selected because they "could have the most impact on education, on students, on helping to advance teaching in and out of the classroom," said Lockett.
The pace and quality of innovation in K-12 education may increase and improve, thanks to a significant new initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and led by Chicago’s LEAP Innovations.
Around the nation, organizations aim to transform teaching and learning to better prepare students for the 21st century, often by personalizing learning and leveraging education technology. Edtech helps teachers differentiate instruction more powerfully than ever before. Its promise has spurred an $8.4 billion edtech boom, but little beyond marketing hype is known about how well the products work.
In response, LEAP Innovations helped start a movement to evaluate edtech, piloting products and techniques that personalize instruction to each student’s level, interests, and goals so districts can quickly scale effective innovations. This new grant enables LEAP to drive collaboration among a growing number of edtech evaluators from across the country, creating much needed national industry standards and sharing of best practices.
“In 1987, then Secretary of Education Bill Bennett called Chicago’s public schools the worst in the nation,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “Today, I am proud to say we are leading the country in education innovation. Thanks in large part to LEAP Innovations, Chicago is becoming the national hub for education technology and personalized learning. We are leading a national movement to develop and scale education innovations that work.”