Bringing Down the Walls

Bringing Down the Walls

Mary Jo Madda

Getting people to talk--really talk--is no small task. It involves breaking down walls. (Just ask anybody in Washington these days).

And that was precisely both the literal and metaphorical goal for the Edsurge Tech for Schools Summit in Rhode Island last weekend: to break down the “walls” separating vendors and educators. We did it by encouraging vendors and educators to sit together at open tables, to share pencils and candy. To really talk.

“Because the event was local, all the educators in attendance really wanted to get something out of the event for their own classrooms or schools, so the result was meaningful conversations with educators,” said Michael Lindsay, CEO of Three Ring.

The EdSurge Summit, embedded inside the Rhode Island Department of Education’s annual conference, aimed to give 23 startups a chance for genuine exchanges with educators. The exchanges that transpired were indeed meaningful and rich. One lesson learned for the EdSurge team, however: conducting one event inside of another event can be challenging. Entrepreneurs were eager to meet even more teachers than ventured into the evaluation area.

That said, entrepreneurs did meet engaged teachers and gained a lot from the exchanges: many said they spent the day engaged in non-stop, in-depth conversations they haven’t had at other events.

Shawn Rubin, event organizer extraordinaire and director of blended learning for the Highlander Institute, hustled to pair educators with specific teams, making every conversation count. Eric Braun, CEO of 30 Hands Learning, particularly appreciated these efforts, remarking that Rubin and the Edsurge team “engaged teachers and other educators and then matched them up with technology and people who they thought would be good matches with their interests,” noted Braun.

Educators felt their opinions truly mattered. Entrepreneurs asked real questions and listened intently--not to find an avenue to pitch their product but to understand the needs of educators.

“At every level--state, district, classroom--Rhode Island is walking the walk when it comes to technology integration, so as a company seeking to help them facilitate that process, being able to have substantive, one-on-one conversations with administrators and teachers alike was especially valuable for us,” shared Ogden Morse, current CEO of Academic Merit (and former teacher), who showcased FineTune, a professional development tool for teaching writing.

Team members from one very early-stage, Rhode Island-based team, Quill, couldn’t contain their excitement at leaving the event with a principal willing to pilot their product. “This was the best event ever!”

Participating educators also raved about their time with the entrepreneurs. For example, Dawn Casey-Rowe, social studies teacher and serial beta tester, was excited by multiple teams. Passionate about the importance of “bridging the divide between between educators and entrepreneurs,” she believes that other teachers “need to understand that testing platforms and programs helps entrepreneurs design specific and useful technology that drives the future”-- a future that will better match teacher and student needs. She also realizes the advantages for entrepreneurs learning more about the unique needs of classrooms: “Meeting with teachers helps expand their reach and vision as well as save development costs as they see areas to improve products more quickly.”

Edsurgents helped facilitate surveys of teachers as well as reviews by a speciality team of educators. (Companies will receive all the commentary on their products in the coming week.)

On November 2, we’ll do it again. (Details are here; educators can RSVP for a free ticket). The Silicon Valley summit is a singularly focused event, devoted to helping educators and entrepreneurs connect.

With each event designed to foster dialogue between educators and entrepreneurs, we are inspired anew. And we learn. And we innovate. Sometimes it’s bit by bit. And every once in a while, those walls just come a tumbling down.

See you on November 2!

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