When Teachers Unlock the Dungeon

When Teachers Unlock the Dungeon

By
Shervonne Cherry, Mindgrub

Talk about transformation: about four years ago, the students at New Milford High School accused principal Eric Sheninger of “creating a jail” because he had banned technology from school. Over the next four years, Sheninger changed--and so did his school. New Milford High has become a spotlight example of how a public high school can foster a bring-your-own-devices policy--and support social media--all while increasing student achievement.

Sheninger was the morning keynote speaker at the 2013 Education Technology Innovation Summit (ETIS), a first time event in New York City that took place on July 25, 2013. It was organized by Mindgrub, a mobile, web and design tech company founded in 2002 by former teacher, Todd Marks. It wasn’t a huge meeting--probably 100 attendees in all--but the themes that resonated through the sessions illustrated many of the tensions and opportunities in the interplay of tech and education.

Even though the event was held in New York, it had a decidedly Cheasapeake flavor: Baltimore has a growing hive of education technology activity, noted Dan Cohen, chief operations officer at Mindgrub, who helped organize the meeting. Among the Baltimore groups spotlighted at ETIS: Digital Harbor Foundation, Allovue, Unbound Concepts, An Estuary, LessonCast, the Baltimore SEED School and Connections Academy.  The Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, a key sponsor for the event, has also recently been focusing its efforts on showcasing the Baltimore edtech community.

Here are a few other notable themes:

Building an Edtech Runway

The “Building an Edtech Ecosystem” panel--all women—addressed the complexities and challenges of building an edtech ecosystem both within and between the Baltimore and New York City communities. I moderated a panel with Heather Gilchrist (Socratic Labs), Katie Palenscar (Unbound Concepts), Jess Gartner (Allovue), and Erica Gruen (Quantum Media) around the networks and relationships with schools and investors needed for edtech companies to survive.

The panelists agreed that edtech companies need longer runways, strategic partnerships, and relationships with educators to be successful. They all also recognized the importance of “de-risking” the process of partnering with edtech startups. As Gilchrist noted schools aren’t just afraid startups will fail. They also fear that the startups will succeed--and pivot into a new direction. Schools need confidence that a startup won’t radically change direction just after teachers and students invest their time in understanding how to use the product.

Edtech investors also still seem to need a bit of remedial ed on the realities of school systems. Several panelists felt like they were on “an education tour” as they explained key concepts to investors, who were often incredulous about how things are traditionally done in education. (Yes, indeed, many principals still brew their own budget spreadsheets using tools like Excel.) Panelists remained upbeat, confident that as more potential edtech investors understand the nuances of the education system, funding for seed companies will increase.  (And here are a few words of advices from the panel about mentoring and “leaning in.”)

Startup Goals: Make Money or a Difference?

Particularly as edtech has become seen as a “hot” market, tension has grown thicker between those who want to make money and those trying to solve a real problem in education. During the “Edtech Startup” panel, one panelist suggested looking at the top ten companies that acquired companies last year as inspiration  for future startups. Others begged to differ:  Sarah Hall, CEO of Harley & Co, countered that there’s a place in the market for edtech companies that are not focused on being acquired and are building a viable business that solves a real problem in education. Conference attendee Christopher Will, a senior VP of Jones and Bartlett Learning, cautioned companies seeking an acquirer that they must “make sure that they’re adding value to whatever problems are being faced.”  As more edtech companies flood the market, will schools take a company’s motivation into consideration during their partnering and purchasing decisions?

Haves and Have-Nots: Do Startups Need Educators on Their Teams?

Should every edtech company have a teacher on board? The panel split between the haves- and have-nots: Everyone acknowledged that “connecting” to educators is crucial. But the companies without embedded educators felt they could achieve this through relationships with educator networks. The two panelists with educators on their founding teams argued that it was vital to have an educator voice at a high level of decision making. While not explicitly stated, the kind of product clearly makes a difference in terms of how nuanced an understanding is needed for a company to be successful in the education market.

How to “reach” educators was also hotly debated. “Educators are not interested in sales tricks,” noted conference attendee, Adam Aronson. “Solve their problem and they will be interested.” Read Ben Stern’s piece for more tips on pitching technology to schools.

Teachers as Dungeon Masters

Two main themes emerged from the “Game Based Learning” panel: games are an excellent way to teach students that it’s okay to fail and that cooperative games such as Minecraft are a great way to teach soft skills such as collaboration. Making mistakes during games isn’t perceived by students as failure, but rather as just part of the game; students are encouraged to fail often and to try again repeatedly. In terms of soft skills,  Justin Eames, technology teacher at the Baltimore SEED School, shared that often students who didn’t get along previously would happily work together to complete game-based assignments. Ben Zimmer, executive producer at Vocabulary.com, argues that we need to go further and to “meet digital natives on their own terrain with true game based learning, not just gamification.”

One particular geeky quote from Mindgrub’s Marks resonated with the gamers in the crowd: “A teacher is becoming more of a facilitator than a sage on a stage; in fact, teachers are really becoming “dungeon masters.”  

Going Mobile...When It Makes Sense

While mobile technology serves an increasingly more important role in education, sometimes it is simply not the best tool, panelists noted. Many classrooms still lack wifi access or sufficient bandwidth. For mobile tech to be successful, argued the panel,  it must be available offline, cloud-based when online, social and connected to data. Much as we’ve designed amazing bicycles, observed Michael Lindsay, founder of Three Ring, sometimes it still makes more sense to walk.

Professional Development is Broken

The “Professional Development” panelists stressed how broken the current model is: the current one-shot workshop model rarely changes teacher practices and minimal funds exist for sustained, ongoing PD. Each panelist is addressing PD issues from different angles: TeachBoost CEO Jason DeRoner focused on the need for ongoing dialogue among teachers and administrators, not just one-time evaluations. LessonCast founder Nicole Tucker Smith advocates professional learning that is condensed, job-embedded and just-in-time. Shelly Blake-Plock wants to shift the paradigm so that teachers are “developing the profession,” not simply receiving professional development.

Why School?

Andrew Coy, Executive Director of the Digital Harbor Foundation, focused his afternoon keynote on supporting students becoming technologists, not just consumers of tech. “What students can create is often better for society than what we can buy,” he says, and offers an impressive example: two Digital Harbor students recently spent eight days creating their own 3-D printer. Yes, these students built their own printer.

Coy also advocated for a different school structure, citing Will Richardson’s argument from his new book, Why School?, that we need to shift what students learn from “just in case” to “just in time.” School should be a place where students are creating and learning the skills they need, when they need them. Coy played on this idea of original creation with an earlier quote shared by Jess Gartner, “If they want a faster horse, give them a car.” Andrew took it further: “If they want a faster boat, let them fly.”

If students can build their own 3D printers, imagine what else they can do!

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