SIIA Education Industry Summit: Data, Bubbles and Kudos

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SIIA Education Industry Summit: Data, Bubbles and Kudos

Debates trump hype at annual event

By Frank Catalano (Columnist)     May 18, 2014

SIIA Education Industry Summit: Data, Bubbles and Kudos

There are events where education technology companies hype the potential. And there are events where they struggle with the issues and celebrate the accomplishments.

It may be a sign of its maturity that the Software and Information Industry Association’s (SIIA) Education Industry Summit was more latter than former. The bright-shiny vision of technology in education remained in view after its 13 years as a standalone conference and years more as a part of SIIA’s once-combined annual event. But the practical conversations predominated.

More than 315 industry execs showed up at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco to debate, discuss and dish. Here are some of the high--and not so high--lights.

The Data Dilemma

In the wake of the shuttering of inBloom and SIIA’s own issuance of student data privacy guidelines for its members earlier this year, data safeguards and policies loomed large. In a general session, it was clear that one big unknown lay in products that cross the semi-permeable consumer-school barrier.

Bob Moore, founder of RJM Strategies and project director for CoSN's Protecting Student Privacy Initiative, said products that come into schools through individual teachers could lay a minefield when rarely read terms of use and privacy policies are clicked past. "We're asking classroom teachers to accept terms that are probably in violation of district policies,” he said.

And then there’s that definition of “privacy.” Noted Moore, "There isn't any consensus around what we really expect when it comes to our privacy." Generally, it’s that something "doesn't feel right” about how data might be used. He implied more specifics are needed for action: "We have to get beyond feeling to thinking.”

Linnette Attai, president of PlayWell and compliance advisor for iKeepSafe, which works with companies in both entertainment and education markets, said at the heart of concerns is the safety of kids. Yet part of the problem is “a real lack of understanding [by the public] of how technology operates” and what kind of data is needed to make a website or app function the way the user expects it, Attai said. "But that doesn't mean we can't minimize the collection of personal data."

Now factor in shifting laws and parent expectations. Her advice to edtech startups? If a privacy policy was written when a company started and a year or two has gone by, "Your privacy policy is outdated. I can almost guarantee it."

Bubble? What Bubble?

The bubble may be in the eye of the beholder, at least when it comes to education technology. Coming off the flat statements by speakers at the ASU+GSV Education Innovation Summit in April that there was an edtech bubble, GSV Advisors founder and Managing Partner Deborah Quazzo averred in the opening keynote that she loved Mr. Bubble as a child. But, she countered, a bubble is defined as “no true demand to support the funding of supply.”

Rapidly citing a number of startups that have gained traction in the past few years, Quazzo concluded “there is very real demand” for edtech products, and that high-profile failures of the dot-com era almost two decades ago (such as UNext and Lightspan in education) were a case of being too early and experiencing a “false start to scaling.”

So is there a hype bubble? Investment bubble? No bubble? Quazzo instead reinforced that there is real demand now: "If this is a bubble, then I really like it."

Incubating Innovation--and Diversity

SIIA’s long- (and likely longest-) standing edtech startup product showcase and competition, the semi-annual Innovation Incubator, began in 2006 and had its latest iteration in San Francisco. Aside from crowning online degree marketplace Ranku as Most Likely to Succeed and web-based grading workflow site Crowdmark as Most Innovative, the competition both overtly and subtly poked at, and noted progress in, gender and diversity problems in tech.

Of the ten Innovation Incubator finalists, three were pitched by female entrepreneurs. Kim Taylor, observing the mix of conference attendees while accepting Ranku’s award, said, “It's really inspiring to see so many women involved with SIIA.”

Founder and CEO Lissa Johnson of Mosa Mack: Science Detective, featuring an animated protagonist who is female and a person of color, was asked by a competition judge what the problem was with existing videos used in science classes. Citing one or two, she concluded, "We also see that most resources feature an older Caucasian male." Cue quiet chuckling in the audience.

But the Most Careful and Indirect Criticism Award should have gone to founder Mike Neubig of Capture Education, which produces Schedule Smart. Asked who the biggest critics were of his course scheduling software for counselors, he suggested, "Non-innovative traditional users and thinkers.”

CODiE Awards: Newbies Welcome

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in the 29th annual awards for the best education technology products and services was that they didn’t just go to the big names. Sure, Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill Education and Blackboard all took home blocks of Lucite in various CODiE Award education categories.

But many young or lesser-known companies were among the winners of the 31 awards, among them Learnosity (for Best K-12 Enterprise Solution), Credo Reference (for Best Education Reference Solution), ReadWorks (for Best Reading/English/ELL Instructional Solution), Rullingnet (Best Game-Based Curriculum Solution), and Think Through Learning (Best Mathematics Instructional Solution).

The big winner? Schoology, which snagged not just Best K-12 Course or Learning Management Solution and the general Best K-12 Solution honor, but also the equivalent of Best in Show (sans Christopher Guest): the Best Education Solution. And, unlike last year, no presenter mispronounced the product name once.

Heard and Overheard

Mark Schneiderman, Senior Director, Education Policy, SIIA , as he suddenly realized his words and projected images were not matching in a classic tech industry conference fail: "I am scrolling through my computer and not advancing my slides. Here is all that great information I wasn't sharing with you."

Jeff Livingston, McGraw-Hill Education, on The Parthenon Group’s survey result that 20% of teachers and decisions makers expect to eliminate physical textbooks in five years: "I'm pretty sure I haven't attended an education conference in the past 15 years where someone didn't say those words.”

And finally Dr. Leonard Hall, recipient of SIIA’s Education Lifetime Achievement Award (one of its highest honors) on the role the trade association plays in the storied history of the edtech industry: "If you wonder Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, you'll find she's on the Oregon Trail with Stickybear Bop and Reader Rabbit. If you get that joke, you definitely belong in SIIA."

Startups: Yes. You can look it up.

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 was the emcee of the CODiE Awards for the fourth year running and has been invited back for a fifth year, even though he offered to have the dot-com-era dog sock puppet take his place.

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