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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.



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.

Reaction to “Waiting for Superman”

Waiting for Superman is a great call-to-action regarding the state of our nation’s public schools.  

I agree with many of the arguments within the movie.  For instance, it points out that good policies to improve education include: 

  1. focusing on good teaching with merit-based systems – incentivizing good teaching and good teachers, and maintaining an ability to fire poor teachers.
  2. allowing innovation “outside” the existing systems – promoting independent charter schools with innovative practices.
  3. building strong feeder programs that start really early and carry the relationship through the development of the child.

However, the film does not acknowledge that successful charter schools are actually rare, and many charter schools fail at either creating superior outcomes or building an organization that is functional and sustainable.  That’s a messy reality that the film totally omits.  I’m not suggesting that charter schools are bad, on the contrary I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the movement for charter schools.  I’m suggesting that the conversation about charter schools will have to get deeper than policy and strategy, it will have to get tactical and technological.  

“Waiting for Superman” also does not go any deeper than these aforementioned broad best practices in policy.  There are many innovations and improvements buried in strategies and tactics that can be implemented at schools, departments, within classrooms, or for individuals that create better outcomes.  The film doesn’t seem to acknowledge that these exist – it’s as if the only path for improvement are in these big policy shifts and school improvement cannot be addressed in smaller details.  

The film, in pursuit of building a set of heroes, presumes that their heroes have “found what works,” as if these truths have not been “known” for long.  This is not true.  Setting high expectations, focusing on children and great teaching, and innovating outside the system have long been discussed within education – long before KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone were ever dreamed up.  

KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone are so successful because these are organizations with good execution and strong leadership, and they have been successful because they did so much more than just talk good talk.   There are a million things they did right, a lot of it buried in technocratic details.  But, we have to acknowledge, that these million details were right only in an environment where visionary leadership is possible – in charter schools.  It’s harder to be a visionary leader in public institutions, it’s too political.  It’s possible, but wherever politics is involved, building a culture of achievement is extremely difficult.  

So, while I support the film and it’s recommendations, it’s not a good prescription necessarily.  To add my own agenda, it’s not really focused on tactical innovation – the pursuit of my life.  But then again, the film-markers objective is to influence voters and donors, and in that regard I think this film is going to achieve more in engendering and focusing our national conversation on education more than anything we’ve seen in our recent history.

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.)


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.