How Teachers, Entrepreneurs Can Create Common Ground
Chicago shows the way for the future of edtech conferences
Edtech events involving teachers and companies generally trend one of two ways:
On one end of the spectrum are pitchfests, typically made up of four-minute presentations and demos. On the other are massive industry trade shows, with hundreds of companies of all sizes decking the halls with colorful booths and overloading the senses with trinkets, flat-screen TVs and tacky contraptions hanging from the ceiling.
On July 11, the Education Technology Startup Collaborative in Chicago’s Harold Washington Library offered a glimpse of a middle ground. No frills, bells, nor whistles. Just a collection of roundtables where entrepreneurs could engage in small group discussions with educators about their products. It showed how an event could spur meaningful dialogues between two groups--educators and entrepreneurs--who at times may not understand, or even trust, one another. (Fellow EdSurgent, Katrina Stevens, recapped some of the day’s highlights here.)
The event was organized by Abby Ross and Eileen Murphy, co-founders of ThinkCERCA, a startup focused on critical thinking and literacy skills. Support and sponsorship came from the likes of Office Depot, HIVE Learning Network, New Schools for Chicago, Chicago Public Education Fund, GSV, and Teach Plus. (Editor’s note: EdSurge was on hand as a media supporter.)
“We wanted to be very organic. No stale booth setups, no sales-pitch. Just ‘here’s what we offer’ and get hands-on and give feedback,” says Ross, who concedes she powered through sleepless nights to put the event together.
Murphy tapped into her networks at Chicago Public Schools (she was previously Director of Curriculum and Instruction there) and drew a crowd of several hundred local teachers. “The teachers that participate in a user conference are here because they are interested in education technology and want to be part of the solution,” she says. “A natural instinct for teachers is to help other people. And if you ask a teacher to do something that helps another teacher, I guarantee you they will bend over backward to do it.”
Entrepreneurs enjoyed the change of scenery and the opportunity to speak directly with teachers. Dan Cogan-Drew, co-founder and chief product officer at Newsela, found his table constantly crowded with teachers curious about his literacy program. But he didn’t seem to mind.
At bigger conferences, he says, “it’s not so much a conversation as it is a pitch and having teachers drink from the firehose. This is much more informal...and you need to smaller circles so you can convene people with similar interests and really dive in and give them time to talk…I try to talk just a little bit, and it’s an amazing opportunity for us to listen.”
Edtech developers typically try to solve what they believe are the pain points that exist in schools. But as startup gurus such as Steve Blank recommend, entrepreneurs need to be in close contact with their customers or they risk building on assumptions that are out of sync with reality. Even how a “solution” gets implemented needs to be carefully designed to ensure it will work with the resource constraints faced by so many schools.
That made the Chicago experience not just an opportunity to sell--but a chance to listen. Ultimately, said Cogan-Drew, the small group dialogues in Chicago forced he and other entrepreneurs to “weed out a bunch of hypotheses about the problems they’re trying to solve.”
Savvy school technology directors saw the opportunity to engage directly with entrepreneurs as a boon for them, too. “The thing we really look for is a team mindset from the company,” says Chris Liang-Vergara, director of education technology at Firstline Schools. Even if educators are the experts in school, they’re frequently newcomers to using edtech tools. That means he looks for “a collaborative design process, from both sides. If a company comes to us and says, ‘this is how you’re going to use it,’ we walk away.”
The Chicago event also offered teachers a chance to network with fellow educators who’ve been bitten by the tech bug. Dale Loggins, a current high school teacher at Chicago Public Schools with ten years of experience that spans K-8 and special education. “Generally I’ve looked at online tools on my own, but I haven’t had person-to-person contact to get ideas. That’s what I want do more of.”
While teachers generally came away impressed by the entrepreneurs, some offered hard-nosed feedback. Sue Krause, a technology teacher and coordinator at Blaine Elementary in Chicago Public Schools, and who spent 12 years as a software and web developer, expressed concerns whenever she heard entrepreneurs describe their products as “intuitive.” She wished, for instance, that NoRedInk had user documentation. “When I asked for user documentation, [the vendor] said, ‘Oh, it’s so intuitive.’ I can tell you that nothing is that intuitive when a teacher is not that tech savvy,” Krause noted. Similarly, with InstaGrok, she found “the content was fantastic and the ability to do research was great, but right now, working with it is extremely cumbersome.”
These comments underscore the tricky balance between listening to feedback and acceding to feature requests, something that Cogan-Drew knows all too well. Not too long ago, he was on the buyer’s side of the table, as director of digital learning at Achievement First Public Charter Schools. “I gave 100 amazing ideas to [entrepreneurs about products] that were not adopted,” he recalls. “I may have been frustrated, like ‘Hey, why didn’t you use that?’...It’s hard, you get 100 ideas a day and you get a lot of voices telling you which way to turn.” Now, as a vendor, he urged teachers to cut developers a bit more slack. “It’s about focus: while we’re definitely listening, we can’t pivot as quickly as you may think. We have to set long-term priorities.”
Altogether, fifteen minutes of interactions with entrepreneurs was still a far cry away from putting the tool to use in the classroom. Many teachers found they wanted a bigger window to engage with the entrepreneurs. Most had time to talk with eight to ten startups--less than a third of the companies that presented. Even so, many teachers walked away with a couple of new tools on their belt that they hope to try before September.
And as for us? We think Chicago is a model that’s worth trying again. How about you? What would make this kind of event serve you best--whether you’re an educator or an entrepreneur? Let us know. We’ve got ideas about how to brew something powerful here.