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Three Career Paths for Educational Innovators—How to Get There and Where the Jobs Are

By Lisa Dawley     Feb 26, 2018

The seeds of innovation are planted at a young age, and technological advances now provide learners of all ages the opportunity to be creators, builders, designers, producers and makers. STEAM-based learning emphasizes both hands-on and digital experiences with engineering, art, game design, prototyping in makerspaces, authoring, robotics, and much more. Students and teachers are learning to innovate hand-in-hand. Where there is innovation, entrepreneurship often follows.

In 2017, I began a position at UNC Chapel Hill directing the new M.A. in Educational Innovation, Technology & Entrepreneurship (MEITE). As I considered the curricular experience for educational innovators, my challenge was to a create career pathways experience where our graduate students literally invent the future of learning.

Who are the innovators and what do they do?

Educational innovators can come from any background and be any age. In our program, we see educators, principals, business people, computer scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, people who work in non-profits, recent undergraduates, and more. As George Couros explains it, innovation is a mindset.

Often, educational innovators are teachers interested in using their expertise to create a professional brand. Once an innovation is developed, a frequent next step is to consider how and if the innovation can scale. For example, alongside content creation technologies are the emergence of digital marketplaces where creators can sell their work. Educational innovators might:

  • Write a book - publish on Kindle or iTunes
  • Create lesson plans - sell on TeacherPayTeachers
  • Create a YouTube stream - monetize it and develop your brand
  • Build an app - sell it in the Apple or Google Play app store
  • Create Minecraft adventure maps - sell on the Minecraft Marketplace
  • Create 3D printables - sell on Shapeways

Michael Matera, a 6th grade world history teacher in Milwaukee, used his expertise in gamification to write a top selling book, Explore Like a Pirate. He runs the weekly #xplap chat in Twitter, engaging hundreds of followers, and has recently launched his YouTube channel. Michael has a deep passion for innovating. He explains, “My mindset wouldn’t change whether I made money or not, I would still be an educational entrepreneur. I treated my classroom like a business by investing in long-term purchases, I made an investment in my company.”

“Lego Lessons in the classroom” from Michael Matera on YouTube.

Michael also shared his thoughts on developing a professional brand and the importance of his community on social media:

Having a professional brand really means that I have ultimately reflected on what I want to do and be as an educator. We should all have our personal mission and belief system, I know what I want to do and I’m not going to be sheepish about that. We should be ok with it. 'I’m the gamification guy,' come talk to me.

Another rising educational innovator is K-5 art teacher, Tricia Fuglested. With over 20 years classroom experience, Tricia is all about “putting the STEAM back in STEM.”

"Don't Crush My Dreams" from Tricia Fuglestad on Vimeo.

Tricia explains how she started to share her innovations with a larger community:

There is no single pathway for educational innovators, although there do appear to be several emerging strands where innovators are finding employment. Innovators also seem to jump between these career opportunities as they seek to master a field, for example, or to explore new opportunities.

While hundreds of graduate programs in educational technology exist across the globe, it is still rare to see an emphasis on both edtech innovation and entrepreneurship. Our challenge is to create a customized curricular experience for each of our students given their diverse backgrounds, as well as their unique interests and the outcomes they are seeking from the degree experience.

Not all innovators need a graduate program to support and energize their journey. For those seeking a supportive and established network, a customized learning experience, and multiple resources to support their development, we designed our degree program to fulfill those needs.

The more I shared via blogs, Twitter, or on Artsonia, the more I realized that other teachers wanted to use our movies, lessons, and resources for their classrooms. Knowing that their work could potentially be seen by others beyond our school community raised the bar for my students in motivation and execution. This has energized me personally and my students. It's not a one-way street.

Six educational innovators to follow

  1. Michael Matera—6th grade world history teacher with expertise in gamification and author of Explore Like a Pirate. TwitterYouTubeWebsite
  2. Trish Fugelsted—K-5 Art Teacher with expertise in STEAM Art. WebsiteTwitterFree art lessons
  3. Dave Burgess—Former teacher; author of Teach Like a Pirate; founder of Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc., a disruptive publishing company specializing in innovative, creative books and professional development. WebsiteTwitter
  4. Alice Keeler—Teacher and Google Certified Innovator, author, keynote speaker, and workshop presenter. WebsiteTwitter
  5. Michael Cohen—Designer and technologist turned educator, also known as the Tech Rabbi. WebsiteYouTube channel
  6. Don Wettrick—Teacher, entrepreneur and founder of StartEdUp. StartEdUp podcastTwitter

What are the career pathways and job opportunities?

  • The foundational experience of our program is the year-long internship. Students spend one day per week in an innovative educational organization, engaging in innovation work, designing, scaling and leading initiatives. We partner with over 75 organizations to ensure our students have internship options that meets their needs. We are also launching our learning innovation design center this fall with state-of-the-art facilities to explore VR/AR, makerspaces, green screen and video production, personalized learning zones, brainstorming hubs, live streaming and more.
  • In connection with the internship, all students participate in an Integrative Seminar where we explore connections between their internships and coursework. In the first semester, we focus on developing an innovator’s mindset, creativity, and design thinking. In the second semester, the seminar examines the scale of educational innovation, asking questions such as, “what do we do with innovation once it is built?” Students also take three electives per semester—exploring learning science, innovation and design, and business—offered by different departments on campus.
  • Finally, the program concludes with an MA Thesis project where the student scales an innovation design project, most often leading to the launch of a new product, innovation or business. These are showcased to local community members, investors, educators, and faculty members on a final pitch day. Throughout the program, students have access to multiple competitions, challenges and awards on campus, as well as access to over 15 incubators and accelerators for those who wish to further pursue their business ideas.

Designing a curricular experience for innovators

  1. Learning Innovation Designer is an emerging type of instructional designer with an emphasis on designing learning innovation from a student perspective. The role can be performed in partnership with students, businesses or other educators. The design process can focus on building apps, curriculum, exploring new pedagogy, creating educational content, as well as building out innovative learning spaces—both virtual and place-based. Job titles in this category might include Learning Innovation Designer at an education non-profit or school district, VR Educational Content Producer at a local planetarium, or Learning Space Designer in a local consulting company, for example.
  2. Learning Innovation Leader is often someone who started as a teacher or designer and is now ready to assume a leadership role managing or directing teams, projects and/or organizations involved in educational innovation. Sample job titles in this category can include Director of Academic Innovation & Technology at a university or K-12 school district, Manager of Innovation at a local maker space, or a C-level role in an edtech startup, such as Chief Innovation Officer.
  3. Edupreneurs are individuals who have often worked in an educational setting and are interested in developing a business—either their own or in partnership with others. Frequently, edupreneurs start small while still working in their original positions. They might sell some content they created, write a book, or build an app, for example. By gradually expanding services and their professional brand on social media, they eventually grow a business that they run either part or full-time. Job titles in this category might include Chief Executive Officer of an edtech startup or Entrepreneur-in-residence at a high school.

Educational innovators are rarely followers. They are people who challenge the status quo. They are the “what if” people who enthusiastically try new ideas with their students and in the curriculum. They are excited by new possibilities, and learn from their failures. They are the Henry Fords of education.

Full size image here.

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