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FounderDating comes to Education

It’s the ecosystem, stupid.

FounderDating Education Logo

FounderDating is moving into Education

For a convergence of reasons, the energy buzzing around starting companies in the education sector is coming together quickly.  Being a veteran of the space, working in both Higher Ed and teaching High School, I help others the best I can.

So I’m excited to help announce that FounderDating is having a round to provide a platform for education entrepreneurs to meet one another and make entrepreneurial love and have company babies.  Props to Jessica Alter and a nod to Jessie Arora, Wayee Chu and Jennifer Carolan for helping to bring this together.

FounderDating has high standards for tech and entrepreneurial talent, and if you’re a great designer or hacker it’s a good spot to start noodling around with ideas and scheme with others.

If you have a blog, Tumblr account, please write a post.  Otherwise, share on Twitter and Facebook.

K12 just got (re)Imagined. Or, notes from Demo Day.

Imagine K12 Logo

Imagine K12 is an incubator for companies unafraid of taking on Education.

I just had the privilege of going to the Imagine K12 demo day. At the beginning, the founder of InstaGrock said something along the lines of “welcome to the revolution.” My eyes glazed over. 5 years ago, I gave up on the idea that anybody was going to “revolutionize” Education. By the end of the presentations, I wanted to give the companies a standing ovation. I don’t know if it’s a revolution, but there is a dramatic shift in Education that is just beginning. And it’s time to get really, really excited.

The take-away, by far, is that companies are getting traction.  Lots of it.  And quickly.  Edmodo and ClassDojo, it turns out, are just the start.

TeachBoost, LearnSprout, Hapara, Socrative, InstaGrok, LearningJar, EdShelf, BrainGenie, Tap to Learn.  All of them (are you ready for this?) know what they are doing.  Gone are the days where entrepreneurs were either completely naive to the Education world or hopelessly inept at building great products.  We’ve got both, baby.  In spades.

Best of all, every single company that had launched had significant growth and traction amongst teachers, students, and districts in the MONTH OF APRIL.  Yeah, you heard me.  They are almost all showing HOCKEY STICK level growth in the Education space.  Granted, they are all early, but there is reason to believe that this time change is gonna come.  And it’s been a long time coming.

Each of these companies deserves their own post, so I’m not going to leave a trail of one sentence descriptions.  Just go to their sites and get the scoop.

Tap to Learn probably won the day, thus their closer status.  In the spirit of Brian Wilson (closer for the SF Giants), they made me giddy.  2 million children are using dozens of their learning game apps on the iPad.  Their games are genuinely fun, AND parents can get learning analytics.  250,000 minutes of “study” aka “game play” got logged YESTERDAY.

So Kudos, IK12 companies. Kudos to Alan Louie, Geoff Ralston, and Tim Brady for collecting a great motley crew of emerging companies and budding entrepreneurs.  This time, the seeds of transformation that are sewn are looking like they’re going to sprout.

Leave your thoughts and your ideas, and give a round of applause for the new talent in EdTech.  And, shouts to my friends at @LearningJar, @LearnSprout, and @TapToLearn.  You nailed it.

 

 

College Readiness and Completion: My Perspective

I made this presentation auditioning for TEDxSFED.  Hope you like it.

How Would I Spend $100 Million to Save Education?

I have three different paths I would pursue: one to increase the distribution of new technology to institutions, one to open up data to enable great services, and one to subsidize investment into web services that improve teacher collaboration and best-practice sharing.  Given my experience as as a secondary teacher and as CEO of Inigral, this would be my contribution to the dialog.

1. Technology can’t successfully enter a market dominated by institutions that have trouble evaluating, deciding and purchasing.  To address this, I would first create a well-branded call for early adopter institutions to participate in a special league of institutions who try out new technologies.  This would also lead to organizing and plotting institutions in Higher Education and K12 onto a technology adoption curve, so that new companies and technologies know which customers to partner with while they are still early.

2.  A second major problem is the stranglehold on data and information that could be used by web services to provide great technology.  My personal pain has always been with plugging in to courses and schedules, which are nowhere with that can be read and process by computers.  I suggest that institutions receiving state funding or accreditation participate in the Open Data movement (tastefully, while still respecting privacy), and the laws around privacy be revised to provide consistency with Open Data.

3.  Good best-practices and supporting materials to are not getting to teachers and practitioners in ways that are easy to use and adopt.  One way to address this would not require innovation at all, just a real focus on selecting “Master Teachers” and giving them the time to coach and train upcoming teachers.  Beyond that, I would incentivize investment from private investors in web applications that support best-practice sharing and peer-evaluation and feedback.

More Detailed Explanations for the Interested:

1. High profile Foundations should make an official call for Visionary and Early Adopter institutions modeled on Race to The Top, with new technology grants to the strongest applicants.  In order to qualify, these institutions would need to set up a fast track way to make decisions about technology adoption in order to have the privilege of being part of this community.  Institutions that sign up for the Visionary program would make themselves available to entrepreneurs who are literally nothing more than an idea and talented people in a garage. They would work with these entrepreneurs to come up with a Minimum Viable Product and get to a working prototype.  These institutions would not pay anything or would pay a very small amount.  Early Adopter institutions would be willing to pay for products after a working prototype has been iterated upon until it successfully solves problems and gets used.  They must be willing to pay more for a competitive advantage and to have early access to any efficiencies or solutions provided by the innovative product or service.

2. I suggest a national repository as part of the Open Data movement, and require or incentivize schools, post-secondary and K12, submit their planned course offerings to a central repository that can be read by computers (i.e. in XML).  I personally would also create levels of access with secure keys to access more specific data about teachers and enrollments.  Companies could then gain various levels of access, monitored and permitted by institutions themselves.  There are all sorts of online tools, gradebooks, communication tools, etc, and one of their major barriers to entry is that teachers aren’t spending the time to set them up effectively, virtually locking in old vendors who aren’t innovating and preventing new products from getting utilized.

3. I used to teach K12, and its amazing what an isolating experience walls are.  It’s also outlandish how poor teacher training is, even the best teacher training.  It’s presented as all art and strategy, even though good teaching is entirely proven tactics that need to be practiced to the point of perfection.  Nearly half of teachers spend two years getting their bearings and then quit.  It has little to do with salary, and mostly to do with a lack of support, a lack of respect, and a lack of recognition.  Many of these related problems can be addressed through the internet.  These kinds of services need “patient capital.”  Bootstrapping a company requires instant revenue streams, of which there are few in education.  Venture Capital is looking for billion dollar exits within seven years of their investment.  As a result, there are a lot of people that would do something in this space, but just can’t get off the ground

I’ve heard a couple of great ideas in this regard, and I know some of them are being worked on by various folks. For instance:

A.  A K12 teacher-driven web platform that shares best-practices, model teaching, and tactical advice as well as resources.  I’ve seen a million lesson sharing sites, and BetterLesson stands out as a quality product, HotChalk stands out in terms of quantity and breadth, my understanding is TFA has a start on this internally, but they don’t share and they need better product design.  But lessons themselves don’t really do anything.  They’re not chunked enough, they’re not contextualized enough, and a lot of the time its not the lesson itself that makes good teaching, it’s the good teaching around the lesson that new teachers need.

B.  A Yelp-like review system for education vendors.  You’d be amazed the absolutely terrible, unworkable products that get into our schools.  Why?  There’s a budget, and the sales process masks all the terribleness, the buyers are almost never the users.  Technology companies in higher education tend to over-invest in sales (because selling is so difficult) and under-invest in product development.  I’ve heard of scenarios where highly paid sales teams outnumber software engineers 6 to 1.

C.  A $100 dollar stipend for each teacher that they must spend on web applications.  This way, the user is the buyer.

Strategies for Adoption in Higher Education

This is one of my responses to the call by the Gates Foundation for Next Generation Learning.  The question was “WHICH INTERACTIVE TECHNOLOGIES HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO BE MOST WIDELY ADOPTED AND WHY?”

To answer the question specifically: technologies that show the potential to be most widely adopted will have a combination of network effects, a sticky user experience, and a low-resistance path-to-market that focuses on users and circumvents institutional decision making.
Student-centered web services like Chegg, CourseHero, Cramster, Notehall, Zinch, Unigo, GulliverGo, ULoop, and others have the chance to get the widest distribution.
We can also assume that any innovative product will have highly social elements that tap into network effects.
Monetization does not necessarily follow distribution, (though Chegg is killing it).  The easiest way to monetize is to sell a product to the user or get in the lead gen game (like myedu.com did), but it’s also the easiest way to lose focus on bringing innovation to education.  In order to fully monetize the user base the service will need to offer products to the institution, using the extensive student distribution as a lever.  Zinch has this model, though it also plays the lead gen game.  The most high-profile company to pull this path-to-market off in the commercial world is Yammer.
When it comes to the thesis of Next Generation Learning, NextGen seems to skip the fact that consumer-focused products with sticky and simple user experiences will win big and be able to translate that into a new learning platform.  In particular, Watermelon Express has executed well on their product development. Grockit is also making a bold play with a similar test-prep like point of entry, but with a clear platform for a “DIY” Adaptive Learning Environment with gaming mechanics.
When it comes to course management products, either a disruptive model will have to back it’s way in or the new new thing will have to have an open-source distribution model with a value-added services business supporting it.  There’s simply not a real economy around EduPunks for the forseeable future, institutional adoption processes are slow and painful enough to kill any start up, and Blackboard is out to push out or scoop up anybody that gets traction.  In particular, I have hopes that someone will hone in on an opportunity around real-time classroom participation through the form of backchannelling here.  Drew Harry at MIT has open sourced his backchan.nl.  HotSeat came out of Purdue but I’m not sure how they plan to spin it off.  The good part about education is that there are lots of people willing to collaborate all across the world.

To answer the question specifically: technologies that show the potential to be most widely adopted will have a combination of network effects, a sticky user experience, and a low-resistance path-to-market that focuses on users and circumvents institutional decision making.

Student-centered web services like Chegg, CourseHero, Cramster, Notehall, Zinch, Unigo, GulliverGo, ULoop, and others have the chance to get the widest distribution.

We can also assume that any innovative product will have highly social elements that tap into network effects.

Monetization does not necessarily follow distribution, (though Chegg is killing it).  The easiest way to monetize is to sell a product to the user or get in the lead gen game (like myedu.com did), but it’s also the easiest way to lose focus on bringing innovation to education.  In order to fully monetize the user base the service will need to offer products to the institution, using the extensive student distribution as a lever.  Zinch has this model, though it also plays the lead gen game.  The most high-profile company to pull this path-to-market off in the commercial world is Yammer.

When it comes to the thesis of Next Generation Learning, NextGen seems to skip the fact that consumer-focused products with sticky and simple user experiences will win big and be able to translate that into a new learning platform.  In particular, Watermelon Express has executed well on their product development. Grockit is also making a bold play with a similar test-prep like point of entry, but with a clear platform for a “DIY” Adaptive Learning Environment with gaming mechanics.

When it comes to course management products, either a disruptive model will have to back it’s way in or the new new thing will have to have an open-source distribution model with a value-added services business supporting it.  There’s simply not a real economy around EduPunks for the forseeable future, institutional adoption processes are slow and painful enough to kill any start up, and Blackboard is out to push out or scoop up anybody that gets traction.  In particular, I have hopes that someone will hone in on an opportunity around real-time classroom participation through the form of backchannelling here.  Drew Harry at MIT has open sourced his backchan.nl.  HotSeat came out of Purdue but I’m not sure how they plan to spin it off.  The good part about education is that there are lots of people willing to collaborate all across the world.

Why Smartboards are a Dumb Initiative

When you get called to post by “The Innovative Educator,” you post.

I roll my eyes every time I hear people talk about putting Smartboards in the classroom. Ugh….

Don’t get me wrong, Smartboards are cool.  They are just the least cost-effective way to improve learning I’ve ever seen.  (Except for building new physical plant, that’s worse.)  We need to acknowledge that all a Smartboard does is 1) instead of using the mouse at the keyboard to interact with content, the presenter can stand at the board (and there’s some wow factor there that might amuse students for an hour), 2) and it makes saving content on the whiteboard a little more efficient.  (You can essentially use Microsoft OneNote and press “Save” with a projector and get the same love.  Or, you could use an Overhead Projector, a transparency, and a scanner.  Or, you could take a picture of the whiteboard with a camera and save it to Evernote.  The “save the brainstorm” possibilities are endless on a much smaller budget.)

Anyways…

Here are my two arguments:

1) Smartboards don’t change the model that’s broken. They just make that model way more expensive.
2) Smartboards are an administrative cop out. Administrators like Smartboards because when they spend money on technology they need to spend a lot of it and it needs to be on things they can point to and count.

1) With a Smartboard, the teacher still controls the content, stands in front of a classroom, and has to manage a bunch of kids through a lesson plan they’d rather not be managed through. It doesn’t give kids an adaptive learning environment, doesn’t differentiate instruction (though it does make it a little more media savvy), doesn’t enable social feedback, doesn’t reduce teacher workload, doesn’t make lesson planning more efficient, yada yada.  It just makes the whiteboard a little more attractive.  2) Smartboards are an administrative cop out; instead of re-imagining what school/classrooms/learning looks like/the student-teacher relationship, they write proposals with line-items, they spend money and buy things.  Administrators get evaluated on test outcomes, true, (not learning outcomes), but they also get evaluated on anything else that can fit into spreadsheets and reports.  A senior administrator can ask: “Why do you need more money?” and a junior administrator can say “Because we want to buy Smartboards.”  This is convenient, because if you want to ask for additional resources, you need to specify how you are going to spend the money.   Saying “I would like an extra 200K to experiment with ways to improve learning outcomes” just doesn’t cut the cheese.  It’s also doubly convenient because an administrator can look moderately successful just by spending that money on what they said they would spend it on.  ”Test scores are up 1%!  And, we bought as many as 30 Smartboards!!!!”  It’s less risky to buy objects you can count than spend money on more ambitious initiatives – like, let’s say, reading and math remediate for students supposedly at grade level.

Having said those two things, if I was teaching I would be thankful for a Smartboard only because I’m a gadget geek.  Personally, though, I’d rather everyone in our education system start working towards re-imagining what’s possible.

Debunking the Creepy Treehouse: the Functional Mall.

I need to debunk the Creepy Treehouse, as it seems to have become some sort of rallying cry and is pulling people in the wrong direction.  I’m going to debunk it with contrarian metaphor: the Functioning Mall.  (If you come up with something more catchy, let me know.)

First off, let me tell you that the metaphor of the Creepy Treehouse is powerful.   There are many different ways you can build a Creepy Treehouse.  Instructors crossing lines by getting into personal or social settings where they are not particularly invited is totally creepy treehouse.

However, this in no way suggests that instructors should not be using innovative, even social technologies to engage students.  Adults and Teachers and Parents are allowed to and should get on the Social Web, but they must do it carefully and obey the general laws of coexisting with teenagers.  There are, in natural settings, places where the two have been known to coexist.  This has been happening since at least, as far as I can calculate, 1992 ;)  We can look there for another metaphor: the Functional Mall.

Now, youngsters hang out at the mall.  They consider it a highly social space, and their scene is operated more or less on their terms.  Grown ups, while not prone to hang out at the mall, go to the mall.  There are stores targeted for teenagers that no adult should go to (e.g. Urban Outfitters), stores targeted to adults that no kids would be caught dead in (e.g. the Back Store), and places where both species coexist in their native habitat (say, a movie theater or the Cookie Company).   Adults and young adults know how to behave around each other, seemingly, in this same ecosystem.  There’s a rule, and let me make it transparent: transactional interactions are accepted, social interactions are not.  If a teacher sees their student at the mall, wave hi (or better yet nod slightly).  A security officer opens doors, stops fights, tells directions.  A store owner or employee helps them find things, accepts money, packages items, and send them on their merry way.  Yes, there is a clear line, and that line is socializing rather than transacting.

Would youngsters want adults to leave the mall, never to return? Well, not really.  They understand that the mall can be there for their dates and shopping sprees largely because adults also shop there.  And the mall doesn’t want to limit its customer base to teenagers.  I mean, there’s a business in teenagers: you could have rollerskating rink, or a go-kart shop, maybe put them in the same spot with mini-golf.  But the real business is open access and open wallets.

Facebook, most decidedly, does not want to be just for teenagers.  Most of the country doesn’t realize this but, out in the Silicon Valley, Facebook is hot business.  Microsoft invested in Facebook at a 15 billion dollar valuation; that’s more valuable than Ford Motors.  Their revenues are probably around 200 million a year and climbing dramatically; they have around 550 employees up from some 50 three years ago.  Their engineering and operations team is the magnet for the best talent anywhere.  Zuckerberg just recruited Google’s COO and Head Chef to boot!  This isn’t happening because people think Facebook is going to be a site for college students and teenagers.  Facebook, hands down, is going to get everyone on it and won’t stop until they do.  In the past year in a half its grown from around 35 to 90 million users.  60% of the population of Norway is on the site.

College students aren’t going to just up pick and move to another site.  Facebook is the only web application that’s figured out how to scale and still keep some sort of cohesion as a product and a community.  It’s got privacy settings, and gives users granular control over who can see what.  Grown ups can join without any creepy treehouseness.

What Facebook is lacking is a way for those with careful relationships to have transactional interactions.  But, that’s a good part of the reason that they’ve opened up to applications.  Soon, you’re going to see transactional applications for just about any interaction for any set of careful relationships you can think of.  Yep, you heard me, you’re going to be able to interact with your boss without being friends.

We don’t need to give educators an excuse to not be using these technologies, we need to be getting them to understand how best to use these technologies.  We need to keep in mind the “creepy treehouse” to guide us, but let us not point to everything on Facebook and Myspace, Twitter and Flickr and start accusing.  As long as everyone is using their privacy settings and limits contact with those that might be of a “transcendant” age group or have a “careful” boundary (e.g. teacher/student, parent/child) to transactional interactions.

FERPA, Facebook and The Social Web

As some of you know, I’ve been posting at Michael Feldstein’s blog about our limited beta release this Fall.  The overwhelming sentiment is “This is exciting, but what about FERPA!”

The immediate reaction to the thought of activating a campus-wide Facebook application can make any decision-maker nervous.  Information is shared all over Facebook, and a campus’ interest to keep student data private and secure is not only an obligation but is also upheld by the law.

First, a basic understanding of Facebook Platform is necessary.  Facebook presents applications through a frame and never has the opportunity to cache nor store any data presented within an application.  As of the new redesign pushed by Facebook in July 2008, users have direct control over the “stories” that are generated by applications.  Users also have control of what Facebook users can see what kinds of data, and can even directly block individual users that may find a nuisance.

We store our data with an infrastructure company on the cutting edge of data storage and security.  We can, if requested, create a local installation on a local server behind campus security systems.  However, we’d like our customers to note that innovative hosting companies have extensive expertise regarding large scale, secure hosting with nearly 100% up-time.  Having that kind of performance locally is nearly impossible.

At Inigral, we’ve worked with our pilot school and our lawyers to assure that all features of our application are FERPA compliant and uphold the strongest standards of security and privacy.  I don’t want to go into the exact feature set that makes it such a comfortable thing for institutional adoption, but it is proof that venturing into the wide world of the Social Web is highly possible with a little care.

However, the institution is not completely hands-off in this regard.  At most campuses, the administration will have already asked the student to sign an agreement to share data with third parties acting in concert with the mission of the institution.  With near certainty, we will be covered under such agreement.  If the institution does not have such broad language in place but has policies that treat enrollment data as “directory information,” we will be covered so long as students are notified and allowed to “opt-out.”  If enrollment data is not treated as “directory information,” the students should be asked for their consent by an “opt-in” email.

FERPA is in place to make sure that institutions are careful with and respectful of a students right to privacy, but it was not intended to hold back education in the 1990s before there were things like APIs and the Social Web.  No school has ever lost Federal funds because of FERPA, which is the only punishment that can occur for being in violation (besides being tied up in a lawsuit).  Privacy, Security, and personal Control over information is more than a valid concern, but lets not let it be a brick wall of anxiety in the face of the march towards user-friendly, interoperable, and multitudious educational solutions!

How do we get to the Learner as Customer?

Jon Mott hit a chord here with his post on the institution as customer rather than the learner as customer.

As I posted here on Michael Feldstein’s blog, I think that ultimately there needs to be a change in the way schools (Higer Ed and K-12) purchase technology for their communities in order to liberate the marketplace to build solutions that satisfy the end-user (instructor or learner).

The Web 2.0 marketplace is filled with great solutions that generally focus on one feature or at least one concept.  Flickr does photos.  YouTube does videos.  Delicious does bookmarks.  WordPress does blogs.  Disqus does comments.  Digg does news aggregation.  Wikispaces does wikis.  Second Life provides 3D worlds.  Facebook does sharing with friends.  What this produces (besides too many logins) is an environment where teams of people are pursuing excellence at one element of information production and sharing.  The overall effect is that in the last 3 to 4 years the web has gone from a place where companies put up their marketing/info websites and you can buy stuff on ebay, to a place where people are participants in the largest groundswell of information production in human history.

In order to liberate this kind of marketplace for the academic environment, individuals must be encouraged to use products that work for them.  The idea that the school can purchase one single solution and force everyone to use it needs to go the way of the dodo.  We need to move the mentality of decision makers from “What are the consequences of forcing everyone to use this?” to “How can we provide more opportunities for our teachers and learners to find solutions that work for them?”

How do we turn the learner into the customer?  Any comments, suggestions?

Education 3.0 (What Web 3.0 means for Education)

For those not privy to internet futurism, Web 3.0 is a term encompassing fledgling developments in the internet that will most likely become mainstream trends over the next decade or so; the gist is that web applications will be able to greet you as if they know you and go get information for you they don’t already have by cooperatively sharing or intelligently finding data; the components include the Semantic Web, web Operating Systems, mobile and geographic integration, and heavy identity-based services coupled with data and identity portability.  If I missed anything for internet gurus, comment below.  The impact on education that I am betting on are primarily threefold.

1) Interoperability and Data (liberation) Portability:  Course data such as title, time, credits, instructors, etc, and personal data such as education history, learning preferences, instructional modifications, etc, will become transferable across applications and software.  This will increase the number of services that schools can provide with marginal additional expense, as well as the services’ ability to integrate with each other to cooperate to provide a cross-platform, integrated learning environment.

2) Identity-based Services:  Services can take that data and cooperate to create distributed, adaptive learning environments and learning management systems, as well as give information to instructors that can help them scale data-driven, adaptive instruction.  These services will seemingly take anonymity out of computer services and personalize learning.

3) Mobile device Integration: Services will be integrated across devices, with particular emphasis on mobile offerings that fill a void in both frequent off-site, low-commitment interactions, as well as synchronous solutions for in-class instructional support tools.

A little background.  I give the Semantic and Data Operability aspect of Web 3.0 considerable thought as I build Standardissimo, a standards-based content publishing, discovery, planning, formative assessment and data analytics tool still in private alpha.  (Comment if you’d like to be included in the alpha).  We’ve been grappling with the inconsistencies of the data model for state standards and the lack of anything close to a Resource Description Framework across states and subjects.  States don’t even try to tag their HTML so that you can easily do something with the data.  They treat it like text, obliviously creating barriers for people trying to improve education through technology!   I just found Academic Benchmarks, a company that solves this problem by affordably offering national database with an abstracted data model and publishing standards in XML to subscribers potentially in all 50 states for all subject areas.  Life saver.  Check them out if you’re looking to create solutions around state standards.

At Inigral, our biggest challenges have been getting hold of and using data sets that should, from a pragmatic perspective, be public and easily integrated into web services; particularly course and enrollment data.  IMS Global and SIF are the organizations devoted to developing data, metadata, and data transfer standards to increase the interoperability of software systems for education; and I’ve found the movements they represent particularly inspiring even if the development of these universal standards are bureaucratic, boring, and mindnumbingly complicated.  (Thanks to Jason Wrage for trying to make sense of SIF on his blog.)

For the instructional version of Education 3.0, Derek Keats seems to have given it a bit of thought here.

If you work in education or educational technology, think about how you can help position your organization to take advantage of and contribute to moving toward Education 3.0….  Namaste.

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