Where are Educators in the Edtech Revolution?

Opinion | Personal Learning Networks

Where are Educators in the Edtech Revolution?

Why veteran teachers are every bit as "agile" and "lean" as youthful startups

By Gina Sipley and Mercer Hall     Mar 1, 2014

Where are Educators in the Edtech Revolution?

As the edtech world descends on Austin, Texas, for SXSWedu 2014, some teachers have the lingering feeling of being left out of this learning confab. Last year’s conference left a sour taste in some educators’ minds, as they noticed the convention lights shining brightly on entrepreneurs and companies, but only sporadically on daily classroom teachers.

At this year’s conference, for example, the marquee LAUNCHedu competition seeks to discover the next great learning innovation. The eligibility requirements for funding, however, require a significant amount of existing business structure that can be formidable for a current teacher with an inventive idea to meet. Also, out of the 126 impressive business, consulting, and higher education leaders on the SXSWedu Advisory Board, only a fraction of the members can be identified as current K-12 classroom teachers.

This perceived industry focus, whether real or imagined, contrasts to London’s Edtech Incubator, which actively targets teacherpreneurs. This organization’s goal is to allocate capital directly to ideas emerging from on-the-ground educators.

It's worth noting that this week’s Fast Company cover story on the most Innovative Companies of 2014 features Charles Best, founder of DonorsChoose.org, who reveals that the success of his company is rooted in a principle “so simple it seems almost radical: Listen to the teachers.”

If it is true that the authentic input of master teachers is absent from much of the edtech revolution, then the question emerges: what are these teacher voices worth? In the $7.9 billion world of educational technology, some classroom educators worry that corporations are gathering input from industry consultants rather than tapping into the veteran experience of the very teachers who will utilize their apps.

One reason for this disconnect is the fact that individual classroom teachers rarely have purchasing power for expensive tech tools. Another possible explanation, however, is an industry bias that views younger teachers as more enthusiastic and tech savvy. Although beginning educators do bring idealism to the classroom, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future estimates that one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46% are gone within five years.

We argue that those teachers who remain, who become master teachers, are actually just as--if not more--agile and "lean." They have negotiated years of technological change and pedagogical reinvention. Veteran teachers most closely model the edtech entrepreneurs themselves, with their shared startup mentalities. These traits include adapting to a changing environment, often on a minute-by-minute basis, as well as inspiring a team with often-limited budgets.

The data shows that entrepreneurs are typically older than the youthful stereotype. In “Why Great Entrepreneurs Are Older Than You Realize,” Forbes contributor Krisztina Holly notes that,“Against all stereotypes, we found that the typical successful founder was 40 years old, with at least 6-10 years of industry experience. Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are more than 50 as under 25.”

The White House, too, recently announced a $100 million edtech initiative to redesign secondary schools as centers of innovation and career preparation. The question is not just how to marshal the funds and innovations of a digital generation, but how to tap the invaluable wells of experience and insight among master educators.

For our part, as full-time lifelong teachers, we are excited about attending our first SXSWedu. In many ways, however, this is not our first visit to the Austin extravaganza. Each year, we have followed the #SXSWedu backchannel on Twitter, as our Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) have been abuzz with thecorresponding excitement and debate. If it were not for the prohibitive cost, more teachers would no doubt attend as well. We are grateful, therefore, for the generous support from EdTechWomen, which has made this once-in-a-lifetime experience possible for us.

We encourage all of the veteran teachers out there to tweet #EduProud, to share the remarkable and innovative work they are doing in their classes with the larger edtech community. More importantly, we strongly suggest that entrepreneurs and startups follow the same hashtag, because the master teachers of America have great stories to tell. They are ready to partner in the next wave of edtech design and development.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this op-ed had an inaccuracy about the participants in the Edtech Incubator. It has since been removed.

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