“There’s got to be some technology that could make this better!”
So many educators have said this to themselves as they encounter the same issues again and again in the classroom, only to find nothing useful in the market. Most of them, discouraged by their lack of technology skills, business acumen and funding, and left out of key conversations such as SXSWedu, never find a way to bring these ideas to life themselves, leaving many to nod in frustrated agreement with Gina Sipley’s and Mercer Hall’s question in their recent Edsurge op-ed, “Where are educators in the edtech revolution?”
But over 50 remarkable hours during Startup Weekend EDU (SWEDU) in Oakland, CA, last month, more than a dozen educators saw their ideas come to life. Developers and designers coalesced around ideas described in rapid-fire 60 second pitches by educators at the beginning of the weekend, and proceeded to work with them to build products to demonstrate the concepts to a panel of judges that included members of the venture capital community.
This is the way to develop products that students need to succeed
Despite the frenetic pace of the weekend, SWEDU Oakland forced a discipline on the edtech startup process by pointing developers and designers passionate about education, towards issues that educators cared about most. Investors only evaluated those concepts that had already been short-listed by educators.
Best of all, this event teamed educators with strangers with the technical skills to build tangible prototypes, and with coaches with business, education, entrepreneurial and technology experience who could advise on strategy and execution. In only 50 hours, solid foundations had been laid for some students to soon get the exact technology they need to help them succeed.
Educators describe problems they are facing today
The educators in attendance presented more than thirty ideas and then voted among themselves to identify the most important issues. All the 70-plus participants subsequently formed teams to tackle these issues.
Monica Guzman, principal of Oakland Unified School District’s International Community School, had spoken with many teachers about the difficulty getting students to engage in academic conversations that take their thinking to a higher level. She envisaged a type of game to encourage students to be more active and thoughtful in classroom discussions. “Students are motivated to gain points in video games and are used to hearing bells and whistles to validate their moves,” she said.
Ben Stenhaug traveled to Oakland from North Carolina with his friend Seth Saeugling just for the event because he had “heard that California has a great scene for innovation.” Stenhaug and Saeugling both felt the schools were failing their students in rural Warren County, where they were assigned by Teach For America. Stenhaug found that his Algebra I students seemed to grasp individual concepts as they were being taught, but were unable to apply the concepts to solve general problems. He could not find any textbook or software that tied the concepts together, and wanted to create easily accessible instruction and assessments that could fill this void.
Nina Portugal has been trying to help teenagers in her English Language Development (ELD) class at Oakland Unified School District’s Castlemont High School speak and write better English. “Some of these students were born in the U.S.” says Portugal, “but they can only speak ‘social English.’” By high school, many of her students do not want to attend ELD class and are too embarrassed to participate in group discussions. Many feel like failures and do not graduate, she said. Portugal felt these students needed a private, learning environment that could provide immediate feedback. Like Monica Guzman and many other educators, she has been intrigued by the power of video games to engage and motivate students.
Techies work on issues that educators consider most important
Most technologists, like Emmy Chen, came to the event to “exchange experience and skills with other people who shared a vision and passion for education startups” and they all savored the challenge of building a working prototype in 48 hours.
Many echoed Ray Chung’s sentiments: “The greatest value in attending these kinds of events is the advice and outside expertise we were able to glean regarding our thought process.”
Sometimes, the mesh of skills with the need is almost serendipity. David 'DC' Collier had been working on games for language learning and naturally gravitated towards building a solution to help Nina Portugal’s English learners. Together, along with Emmy Chen and five other team-mates, they built a prototype called Rock Your Voice, which was judged the winner.
Dreams can become reality
“I think so often as teachers we can see and think about all the things we would love to have and need to make our lives easier but the time and energy it would take to make it seem almost impossible. After this weekend, my opinions have changed and it is amazing how quickly a dream can become a reality for our youth and schools.”
--Nina Portugal, Educator, Team Rock Your Voice, winner of SWEDU Oakland 2014