EdSurge Silicon Valley Summit: Gamify the Conversation

EdSurge Silicon Valley Summit: Gamify the Conversation


For better or worse, the Valley has become a rather glam place, in an Iron Chef! kind of way.

The grumpy old man in me is often wistful for the days when credibility was measured in the age and wear of your company t-shirts (and when everyone got the same tent-cut XXL Hanes t-shirt regardless of the size and shape of the wearer).

I’m happy to report that this past Saturday the get-your-hands-dirty pragmatism I fell in love with when I first arrived in the Valley was out in full force in Mountain View, CA, albeit with better fitting t-shirts. The t-shirts were green and they read: “Keep Calm and Read EdSurge.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a courageous first effort at enabling real educator-edtech conversations in Rhode Island. There were problems, potentially event-killing catastrophes, but by thinking on their feet, EdSurgers, Highland Instituters and EdTechRI-ers adapted and iterated “in real-time” and pulled off a successful event. There were clear lessons coming out of that first event, and I was excited to see how “agile” EdSurge could be with how they ran events.

This was the basic setup…

  • A generous room of large round tables, one for each company, each surrounded by chairs, loosely grouped by product focus.
  • Power strips for each table with tape for the inevitable cable undergrowth.
  • Surprisingly solid wifi, especially given the attendance
  • Efficient Lightning talks in a separate, yet adjacent auditorium

These structural changes got the whole thing moving…

  • No parallel workshops!!! More on this in a moment.
  • A team of easily identifiable green-shirted people assigned to specific companies to match-make educators with technologies.

One final stroke of genius put it over the top…

A raffle for teachers, with real prizes (a bunch of Surfaces, iPads, Chromebooks, Lynda.com subscriptions, no keychains, no squeezyballs). But this was no fundraising raffle. The way teachers obtained raffle tickets was by providing feedback to the companies. Let me just repeat that so you can fully absorb what a great idea it was.

The way teachers obtained raffle tickets was by providing feedback to the companies.

Technically the way it worked was I was supposed to give them 1 ticket for filling out a short 1-2 minute survey at my table, and then they could get three tickets by filling out a longer survey at the main EdSurge table-Island in the center of the room.

In reality, EdSurge had successfully gamified cross-discipline conversation. Once the game was clear, everyone knew how to play.

Gone was the awkward mingling, the "Who’s-going-to-say-something-first?" interactions. Everyone had a non-stop flow of teachers coming up to them with a clear agenda: “Tell me about your product. I teach ____ to grades ____ and I want to hear how you think it could be relevant to me and my students.”

Really, no workshops?

One of the concerns I had as the event planning was coming together was the ballsy decision to not have any PD-type workshops at the summit. I had a secret fear that without that incentive many teachers would not make the trek to come to the conference at all. My fear was all for nought. I’m curious what the final EdSurge numbers will be, but I spoke with well over 100 educators in a constant stream from 9AM to 4PM with just one break for the lunch panel. I’m not sure how to extrapolate that over the 30 vendors, but the place was packed and filled with energetic voices and enthusiastic discussion.

My admittedly self-serving theory is that by putting a stake in the ground and saying:

This event is dedicated solely to bridging the communication gap between educators and edtech so ‘Conversation’ is going to be its sole activity.”

EdSurge showed everyone involved that they really mean it. And in my experience teachers are some of the best Do-you-mean-it? detectors out there. Still, I think that took guts and it paid off – “Conversation” was center stage the whole day.

The kids will be alright.

There’s just one last thing I need to sing the praises of and then I promise I’ll get more critical. The lunch panel featured 10 kids from roughly 1st through 12th grade. It’s a “stunt” which I have seen attempted at various other events and I call it a “stunt” because that’s how it often comes off. EdSurge however managed to pull it off. The moderator Chris Fitz Walsh from Zaption did a great job of asking questions, and the kids they picked provided real insights beyond the usual “I like to tweet so schools should tweet too.” Judge for yourself:

“My teacher has a little microphone clipped to her shirt so everyone can hear her clearly even when her voice is tired.”

Huh, I would never have thought of that.

So, no room for improvement?

Just to shore up my plummeting credibility, here’s a list of complaints:

  • There were so many teachers that it became unrealistic for them to both talk to me and then fill out the 1-2 minute survey at my table in exchange for more raffle tickets, so I simply started handing them out to whomever I spoke with. I like the idea of eliciting more frank, quantifiable feedback through the survey. But there simply wasn’t enough room for teachers to fill out the survey without creating a bottleneck for conversations. Perhaps if the raffle ticket was attached to the survey itself, then I wouldn’t need to play “enforcer” for whether a teacher “earned” a raffle ticket. The problem with that would be people filling out the survey without even coming to the table…maybe there isn’t a solution.
  • We were almost shouting over one another to be heard. (I know a good problem to have!) It was definitely a function of attendance levels, but paying attention to the acoustics of the room might have helped manage noise levels. Still a noisy room is an energetic room, so in the end, it probably did more good than harm.
  • I didn’t have a great way of keeping track of all the teachers and schools who came by to talk other than giving them hand-outs or having them scribble emails on a sheet. Because we’re still in pilot-mode for K12, we’re trying to be extra hands-on with our teachers and I was worried the whole time I wouldn’t be able to follow-up with all the people I was talking to. This seems like a very solveable problem though.

So what’s next?

Now that EdSurge has a template for this kind of event, I’m hearing whispers that lots of other cities around the country are requesting their own version, and my guess is that EdSurge will deliver. But what about new templates to address other gaps in edtech? Creating a “conversation space” where educators and technologists can talk is just a first step.

Chatting afterwards with Idit Harel Caperton from Globaloria and EdSurge’s Mary Jo Madda, Idit suggested a principal/administrator/budget-decision-maker focused event, which at the very least this edtech startup would find incredibly useful.

We are a few weeks from sending a survey out to our K12 pilot schools about our pricing plans. We’re still struggling with the conundrum of: Teachers love the idea of using Ponder, but rarely have any personal budget to pay for it at a price that would sustain the service longer-term. I’m sure we’re not alone.

Unlike professors in higher-ed, K12 teachers lack personal agency to purchase tools. Yet, they more than principals and administrators know which tools would actually be useful. I also suspect edtech companies need to address structural issues to be convincing to budget-decision-makers:

  • We need a tidy answer to the question: Does it work? In the form of objective efficacy validation! We’re working on it now!
  • We need tried and true best practices to help manage the risks of trying new technologies in classrooms that have little room for wasting time.
  • We need to reward teachers and schools for taking risks and being open to experiment. From our perspective, we learn far more from failures (e.g. the technology made no difference) than unmitigated success.

I know, this should really be a separate post.

I’ll just wrap up and say: Thank you EdSurge, your hard work and attention to detail showed. We’re not just reading, we’re looking forward to more, and following your lead!

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