Education is often described like a large ship in distress, though there is debate about how far into the sinking process it is. On the rough waters there are other crafts trying to save education; technology is one. As legal and financial systems continually change the terrain of the rough ocean everything rides on will technology be able to effectively intervene with education?
To help answer that question I attended DC Tech Meetup #6: Education Technology Edition. It was a well-designed evening that exposed attendees to current education technologies based in the DC area ending with a panel discussion on education and technology. I attended as a former high school science teacher and early technology integrator at my schools.
After listening carefully to each presentation I ended the evening with jaded optimism about the new technologies. There is great potential for the different products presented. But their success will rely on better communication with and integration of the educational sector. Otherwise I fear despite the best intentions these entrepreneurs their products will simply pass education by like ships in the night.
So what happened?
The evening started appropriately with a discussion with a teacher. DCPS 3rd grade teacher Amy Reno candidly explained her technological situation with the eloquent Peter Corbett (MC for the evening).
Amy brought up some pertinent issues:
- Many students do not have a computer or internet at home.
- Many of her computers were not up to date and could not run newer versions of software. At least they had not been taken away yet.
- Her class got to go to the computer lab once a week and there was no longer a full time person working in the lab to teach tech and help organize lessons (likely attributed to budget cuts).
- She spent between $500-$1000 out of pocket on technology. On taxes she’s reimbursed $500. That figure drops to $250 for teachers in most states.
Peter asked what DC tech could do. Amy described various methods of outreach. Of course there is the issue that technology cannot run without computers. So when your office upgrades can you donate your old computers to the school system.
It got me thinking about government surplus. When government offices upgrade they replace every computer and there are auctions of old equipment. With the proximity of DCPS and the federal government why can’t the computers go to the classrooms? But then again DCPS has one of the highest per pupil expenditures in the country. Why should they get preferential treatment from the federal government because of proximity?
SkillShare by Amanda Moore and Brandon Anderson
This is a great opportunity for adult learners to enrich themselves and to build a local community through education. Once Washington DC is unlocked I look forward to posting some classes and attending others.
As SkillShare enters the DC market they may want to integrate with the recently launched Knowledge Commons DC that is already one semester into offering free classes.
Edualizer by Todd Marks
Todd began by explaining he was a former math and tech teacher that moved to start-ups in the 90s and later to Wall Street. That would explain why Edualizer looks at teachers and students like stocks imaging multiple sets of data. There are many unique imaging features on the software. What I was not clear on is how he gains access to detailed student data, such as classes taken, to incorporate into the site.
His passion for performance based assessment of teachers came through at the end. I applaud his metrics going beyond student test scores but fear they stop short of measuring true teacher effectiveness. The teacher willing to take on the below grade level or behaviorally troubled class will inevitably score lower than the teacher that had the honors class.
There are already metrics out there that measure specific teacher skills within the classroom. Praxis III is the most universal set of high performance standards. Synthesizing Praxis III standards with Edualizer visualizations would be the best visualization to assess teacher performance. But that is akin to someone publishing your performance evaluation on the web. My understanding of privacy laws prohibits a company from publishing your annual evaluation on the web. Thus accurate detailed teacher performance data should be kept within the organization for individual improvement not available to the general public.
TalkChalk by Daniel Doll
This is a pragmatic solution to a real world problem. In the past I wrote a grant and paid for access to www.webassign.com for my students. One of the features of the program is chat application for students who are having trouble. Students never used them. I learned from a parent that they were chatting about homework problems on facebook.
Could school systems get over the fear of facebook and use its potential? Maybe. It will depend a lot on how well the TalkChalk adresses privacy issues.
The formatt of TalkChalk brings up expectations question. As a teacher I already put in over an hour or two of overtime every day the week. If students are asking questions via TalkChalk during the evening will I now be expected to answer student questions during my evening?
Facebook has a love/hate relationship with many teachers. Some teachers have been fired or disciplined for posts or photos on the Internet. Some students create false facebook profiles for teachers they do not like complete with photo and e-mail of the teacher from the school website. Generally the sites can be taken down when discovered but whether the students will be disciplined for their actions is not a guarantee.
Will TalkChalk be able to prevent false profiles from creating or contributing to classes? And how will they overcome the resistance of teachers who don’t want to touch that d**m site following negative experiences of their colleagues?
Always Prepped by Fahad Hassan
This program has a lot of potential. The grade level performance of students is a big deal in the NCLB era. I look forward to seeing the content of the site expand to cover more grades and content areas. I would recommend that Always Prepped build vertically through math curriculum and then move horizontally through the different content areas. If the owners have a particular market in mind I’d recommend looking at the years of major standardized testing and focus development on those years. For example, many states do standardized testing in 4th, 8th and 10th grades.
Initially I believe Always Prepped has great potential in the home and charter school market. Home school parents have to provide yearly portfolios demonstrating progress with their students and in some areas demonstrating that their students are preforming on grade level. Charter schools are also evaluated on performance of students and Always Prepped may provide solid data. Charter schools also have greater freedom to come up with reward programs for students.
I was pleased to hear Fahad ask for teachers at the end of his presentation. Teachers are very familiar with what standardized tests look like and in some cases are also authors of test questions.
EverFi by Kara Hedges
Kara presented a nice interactive experience. The product seems like a nice supplemental curriculum for topics that are not addressed in mainstream education. While I like how they integrated the pieces of the software I remain skeptical about the quality of the educational experience after Kara showed how new vocabulary was presented to elementary students. While the interface is great and engaging EverFi could use some educational consultants to improve the quality of the specific educational activities and integrate pedagogical best practices for their target audience.
Campus Splash by Allen Gannett
I really liked how this product would help high school seniors answer some really tough questions. In the DC area many high schools have a specific career and college counselor who would be a good person to introduce the product to since they advise hundreds of seniors about colleges. Campus Splash may also want to consider connecting with the AVID program. AVID is designed to mentor and train students who are the first in their families to go to college. This would be a great resource for students whose families cannot answer questions about college.
Rosetta Stone by Maxim Leyzerovich & Alexie Harper
I’ve heard about Rosetta Stone and how wonderfully effective their products are. The interactive online extension of the courses presented by Maxim & Alexie confirm that this is a company I will be considering next time I have to learn a new language. I know many ESL teachers who would like access to the language learning games for their students. Perhaps there is a separate spinoff access to the games for k12 immigrant students.
Then there was the panel discussion …
This panel spoke on many different topics and two intertwined themes stuck out for me: sales and privacy. The topics were presented separately but from the educator’s vantage point they are intertwined. Some panel members verbally admitted to being unconcerned about privacy issues, others were silent. There was consensus sales of educational technology can be hard and take a long time. Schools are sued a lot. Schools have access to a lot of very confidential information in addition to a tight budget. It does not matter what a student posts on the internet, if a school releases the same information they can be sued. Even if a student has posted a scanned image of their report card to the internet a school could be sued if that same information was gained through an unsecure social media site. Unless your product integrates privacy protections it is untouchable by large segments of the educational market.
The open mic …
I was both fascinated and concerned by the open mic at the end of the evening. It was really fun to learn about all the opportunities available for tech in the dc area. I was concerned because there was something stingingly absent from the evening and the open mic failed the last opportunity to incorporate it into the evening.
We were introduced to countless technical people and numerous requests were made for more to join the projects but baring the 1 request from Always Prepped no one reached out for educators. The title of a new book summarizing the major concern Telling Ain’t Training.
It does not matter how integrated, interactive or engaging your product is unless it incorporates the pedagogical or andragogical knowledge of education you will not be selling an effective or quality educational product. Mastering this knowledge and its application takes years. Experience as a student is no substitute for professional experience and knowledge.
- Does the text of your product accurately reflect the reading level of the user? Do you have the skill to adjust the reading level of your writing?
- Are your questions covering different domains and levels of thinking? (see Bloom’s taxonomy)
- In our diverse DC community is your product friendly to ESL or low socioeconomic learners? There are words, phrases and experiential assumptions that can commonly confuse or shut down these learners, for example the word “brand.”
Just as not everyone has to master the art of computer programing, you do not have to master the art of developing and delivering education. There are many dedicated individuals in this are who know how to do just this.
How do you reach out to teachers?
It can be hard to connect with teachers because most do not network professionally. Here are some suggestions for how to reach them:
- Teachers will gather at conventions throughout the country. Conventions are done by Union, State or Subject matter. For example, NEA or the National Science Teachers. Find a group that aligns with your product’s target user. Searching "national association of ________ teachers" will generally direct you the right way.
- Teachers unions and professional organizations are in contact with their members. If you can get a union endorsement, buy an ad or have an article written about your product in a publication the word will get directly to teachers’ mailboxes (electronic and physical).
- There are a lot of teacher happy hours they just start in the 3-4pm range since that’s when teachers are off work. You could sponsor a happy hour and offer some appetizers (probably only need $20-50 worth). Most schools have a social committee of some sort that would to advertise it to teachers for you.
- Career changers and new teachers are more likely to adopt new technology. Teachers are trained in groups called cohorts. Most DC area universities have programs for teaching certificates and graduate degrees. You have to contact the office of the university program. To meet the teachers you would have to request to present at a seminar or invite the cohort to a happy hour. Cohorts are normally a group of about 20 people. This is a possible double dip as some professors are also principals.
- You can pull individual e-mails off websites or contact the central office for the school system. The central office may have a science or English specialist who can forward your message onto the teachers you are trying to reach.
Some last thoughts on approaching and selling to teachers.
- Be respectful of the hours. High school teachers wake up between 4:30-6am. Teachers get off work between 2:30-4pm in the afternoon. They’re ready to meet up at 5pm and are probably hungry then. For many teachers staying out past 8pm can be hard.
- Most teachers take up second jobs during the summer time. Many that are unavailable during the school year will be free in the summer.
- The job of teaching is so intense the burn out rate is 50% in the first year and most will leave within 5 years. Most teachers you meet will be tired and overworked. That combined with systemic problems with school systems can result in teachers coming across as negative and sometimes whiney.
- It is best not to tell teachers how you think students should be educated or what teachers should do - particularly at the start of the conversation. Unless you live with or are intimately involved with a teacher you really don’t understand what goes into the job. It is very frustrating to be told by someone outside the profession how you should do your job and it happens to teachers a lot.