The next best thing in edtech is surely on its way but it may not be coming from the Silicon Valley... or Alley. Deep in southern Israel--or the "desert region" as it's affectionately known--the town of Yeruham is now home to a new edtech innovation center, MindCET, that aims to bring the educator and entrepreneur communities together. (It also has an office in bustling Tel Aviv, but we like the exotic image and metaphor of an edtech oasis in the blistering desert.)
MindCET, an independent body within the 40-year old Center for Educational Technology (CET), divides it programs into three, charmingly named departments: the Garage, the Laboratory and the Aquarium.
Most of MindCET's conventional "incubating" takes place in the "Garage," a community of entrepreneurs and mentors not significantly different from U.S. incubators. The Garage offers two programs for startups at different stages:
- The five-to-six month Pre-Seed program is geared to those looking to turn rough ideas sketched out on napkins into minimum viable products. It asks for 4% equity in return for workspace, office hours, and a mentor from each of the three departments. There are currently eight projects in this program.
- The Incubator program is a bit more serious, offering startups with more developed ideas and business models $50K in return for 8% equity. So far, it’s been an incredibly selective program. MindCET CEO, Avi Warshavski, shared that of the 100 applications his team has fielded, only two have been accepted: Reelingo and Wikibrains. The incubator program is looking to accept three more--but at this rate, it looks like it may take another 100 applications. (Those could arrive quicker than one might expect, however, for a country that boasts the highest density of tech startups in the world.)
Warshavski shared that within the past four years "there’s been a huge effort and budget from the government to bring technology into educational system in Israel." But he adds that "not all the schools are at the same level with regards to access and opportunities."
The core of MindCET’s mission is "helping schools implement technology in a wise way," says Warshavski, "Sometimes people are looking at technological infrastructure and hardware and forget the pedagogical aspects of the operation, which from our point of view are the most important ones."
In this regard, MindCET is taking matters into its own hands through the work of other two departments. The "Laboratory" pulls in educators and students from elementary and secondary schools to help entrepreneurs validate ideas and test prototypes. MindCET also has an in-house research department, the "Aquarium," which fosters dialogue between schools and startups, and conducts research on the effectiveness of certain tools.
That the MindCET program highlights educators and researchers in the innovation process by organizing entire departments around their work is a welcome divergence from other incubators, where entrepreneurs and demo days get all the buzz--and where teachers and students too frequently are relegated to benchwarmer or behind-the-scenes roles.
The past decades of educational technology, observed Warshavski, "have been more about amplifying the existing system." He quickly points out that the move from blackboards to interactive whiteboards and textbooks to e-textbooks largely "reinforce[d] the existing traditional structure of education." He’s not overselling the evaluative capabilities of technology either, noting that while "technology brings a lot of opportunities in evaluation, in some places evaluation becomes too powerful in the educational process and becomes a value that stands alone."
2013 has so far been the year of the incubator--with at least five announced in the U.S. alone. (Hey, Virginia, are we hearing something from ya'll, too?) We’re also seeing some action from our friendly neighbors up in Canada, and across the Atlantic in the U.K., where the blandly-named "Edtech Incubator" was just announced.
This trend attests to an increasingly global belief that education can be improved by technology. But it also raises a host of questions. Are there too many edtech incubators? Will they spew out a glut of competing startups and products? Are edtech incubators financially sustainable?
What's a sure bet: Students can study evolutionary laws in biology class--or they can follow the trajectories of edtech startups and incubators over the next few years.