Teachers Not (Necessarily) Included

column | Startups

Teachers Not (Necessarily) Included

For startups, though, they’re needed – for now

By Frank Catalano (Columnist)     Apr 7, 2014

Teachers Not (Necessarily) Included

Is an education technology startup without a teacher like a day without sunshine? Or a fish without a bicycle?

Depending on the distance of the time horizon and the drive to transform, it could either Vitamin D or Omega-3.

There is no doubt that the prevailing advice to startups is that, if you want to get schools or districts to use your product or service today, you’d better have a teacher on tap. And the more directly, the better.

That principle was clearly demonstrated at the microcosm of edtech entrepreneurial activity known as the New York EdTech Startup Showcase. Five companies showed off their solutions for educators as part of the March event organized by the NY Edtech Meetup: Credly, MakerState, MarcoPolo, Mediathread and Pear Deck.

Invisible Educators Appear

A pre-event investigation of each startup’s website uncovered only one that declared it had teacher involvement; of course, four of the five websites had no humans listed at all. But when the companies gave their onstage demos, they revealed they weren’t necessarily teacherless:

  • Mediathread was the most obvious: It’s an open-source platform designed by educational technologists at Columbia University for clipping multimedia to annotate course materials in journalism, art history and teacher education (so far).
  • Pear Deck was a close second for direct educator involvement, as its Google Drive-focused interactive lesson building tool sported a CEO and co-founder who is a former high school teacher.
  • MarcoPolo Learning, which has the MarcoPolo Ocean exploration app for iOS, had no teachers or former teachers on staff (the two founders come from technology and entertainment), but it alone listed an “educational team” including two advisers who are science teachers.

So I knew for a fact that more than half of the firms presenting to the comfy chairs in the Knewton offices had some ongoing level of current or former educator involvement. It’s an educated (forgive me) guess that the other two had at least indirect input:

  • Credly is a digital open badge platform already used by K-12 educators.
  • MakerState hosts pop-up project-oriented Maker learning labs (and its founder Stephen Gilman later confirmed, “We are mostly all educators on the MakerState project”).

Knowing the Pain

Why is any teacher involvement critical?

Pear Deck CEO Riley Eynon-Lynch, a Microsoft intern who went on to teach high school for five years before turning to edtech startups, was unequivocal: “Having experience struggling and succeeding as a teacher helps me relate to teachers and helps me design tools for teachers. I have a network of about 1,000 teachers online through my blog and Twitter, and that’s a powerful tool when I have a question or what to show a new idea and get feedback.”

Getting quick feedback on a prototype was only possible because of these contacts, he said. “I couldn’t have done that from outside the ‘being a teacher’ network.”

Others, like MarcoPolo, have educators involved at various stages and in advisory roles, such as at the start to determine curriculum goals for its game design. “In our case, we work with educational consultants,” said CEO Justin Hsu, who has the entertainment background. “Educators work with us on all aspects of the game design from the graphics to the humor. They also help keep our ideas in line with our target audience.”

Clearly having direct or indirect educator involvement, especially if selling into today’s school environment, is seen by these startups as a must. After all, current and recent teachers know how to solicit peer feedback, where a new tool would fit in instructional practice, what it might replace, and are potential referrals and sources of sales leads. (How to compensate educators for this effort is a related and important question but less clear-cut.)

Incremental vs. Institutional Change

But what if a startup’s objective is to completely upend present-day educational practice? Not just augment or improve how classrooms already operate, but dramatically alter that operation?

There are a number of recent examples in other arenas, from taxi service (Uber) to automobile sales (Tesla) where transformation began with people on the outside who had nothing to lose by changing the model. Most famously, retail music wasn’t transformed by an inside executive or by someone who had a career in the recording industry. It took Steve Jobs to shift the entire process of how recorded music is packaged and sold, breaking it down into bit-sized, digital chunks with no physical distribution. Apple had no vested interest in preserving the existing system, unlike those who already worked in it.

Besides, if all it took was hiring teachers, one could argue that they’ve been hired by the established education companies for decades to create new curriculum programs and tools. Teachers, just like “disruptive” technologists, are prone to preconceived notions, internal biases, and bad ideas. If simply having any educator inside an industry business meant dramatic change, it likely would have already happened.

Perhaps, for farther-reaching change, what’s less important is familiarity, and more important is basic education knowledge coupled with an outside perspective and strong vision.

Just one of three isn’t enough. After all, as Pear Deck’s Eynon-Lynch observed, Sal Khan is an education outsider, but by Eynon-Lynch’s measure the Khan Academy “is just an incremental improvement for most school classrooms, by lowering the cost of a lecture.”

But somewhere that education transformation triple-threat may exist. I can’t predict its source. It may be, as MarcoPolo’s Hsu speculated, percolating in teachers “probably earlier in their career when they might be most idealistic.” It may be, as Pear Deck President and co-founder Anthony Showalter suggested, enough to allow for transformation to develop through “a spectrum of innovation” because “we can’t effect change via moonshots alone.”

Or it may be the source isn’t teachers or adults at all. It may be, long-term, in this first generation of edtech-enabled students that the latest educator-enabled startups are inspiring. They could become the new entrepreneurs who bridge today’s practice and tomorrow’s desired, and unpredictable, reinventions.

Frank Catalano is an independent industry consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He's a regular columnist for EdSurge and the tech news site GeekWire, and tweets @FrankCatalano. He gives an appreciative nod to historical metaphor fans who recognized those attributed to the Florida Citrus Commission and Gloria Steinem.

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