In Edtech Partnerships, Teacher Experience Matters--to an Extent

In Edtech Partnerships, Teacher Experience Matters--to an Extent

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This weekend the edtech world will rally in Atlanta for four jam-packed days of learning at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). In addition to enjoying workshops centered on new digital tools, more and more teachers will be sharing edtech tools that they designed themselves to remedy daily classroom problems. Teachers are also increasingly partnering with technology companies as product consultants and developers to merge the minds of pedagogues and programmers.

Between ISTE’s hundreds of hands-on learning sessions and its Pitch Fest for nascent startups, the Venn overlap between teachers and technologists is expanding every day. One surprising statistic, however, is that among last year’s throng of over 18,000 ISTE attendees, only 19 percent (or 3,420 attendees) were PK–12 educators. Compared to the almost 500 businesses and 4,510 employees in the Exhibition Hall, this meant that more company personnel turned out for the convention than actual classroom teachers.

In light of the burgeoning collaboration between educators and entrepreneurs, as well as the lingering concern over the involvement of teachers in the tech space, we interviewed four executives at leading edtech enterprises to find out what types of experience they look for when hiring or supporting PK-12 teachers.

Experience vs. Mastery

In 2008, a plurality of teachers had only one year of teaching experience, as compared to 15 years in 1987. The majority of teachers leave the classroom before they hit the five-year mark, several years before longitudinal studies confirm that one can attain “master teacher” status.

Alex Selkirk, founder of Ponder, a micro-reading response tool, observes that teachers need “road miles” to really know their craft. “We’ve found the help we need for Ponder comes from folks with significant classroom teaching time under their belt.” Jesse Olsen, founder and CEO of JumpRope, a web-based platform for standards-based grading, agrees. Although he is a famed teacherpreneur, Olsen doesn’t “necessarily consider [him]self a master teacher,” because he was in the classroom for only five years.

Yet Selkirk also emphasizes that a master teacher is equally defined by how “deeply” he or she has been teaching. He highlights the intellectual process inherent in good instruction, similar to the cognitive commitment necessary to create an authentic digital tool.

Who Exactly Is An Expert?

Wendy Drexler, Chief Innovation Officer at ISTE, notes that her organization intentionally does not use the term master teacher. ISTE instead recognizes “exemplary” educators based on its Standards for Teachers, which include such metrics as to “design and develop digital age learning experiences and assessments.” Drexler recommends that edtech startups adhere to the same standards when determining whether to hire teachers as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), to better align the missions and expectations of both constituencies.

In Selkirk’s view, more than possessing fluency with technology, an educator-expert should carry a vision to work through thorny teaching challenges. The ideal educational partner must have the ability to decide which tried and true practices stand in the way of innovation, and “which must be preserved at all cost.”

Olsen echoes this thought, noting that when companies solicit feedback, it is tempting to latch onto the advice of the most tech-savvy teachers. The ones who have the most expertise in pedagogy, however, may have equally valuable contributions.

Staying Connected

Amid the concerns of marketing and funding, it can be possible for startups to become dissociated from the needs of on-the-ground students and teachers. Courtney Williams, co-founder and CEO of Torsh, a video-based teacher observation and coaching platform, explains that while schools may not have developers, they certainly have needs. He first met with teachers and administrators to see what systems needed to be developed to ensure quality instruction. This feedback was key in developing products to later market to other customers.

For his part, Olsen still teaches one afternoon a week at Validus Preparatory Academy in New York City to keep in touch with colleagues and better understand their real-world concerns. When asked if it were rare for a CEO or founder to still be in the classroom, he said, “It’s rarer than it should be.”

Diversity Is Essential

Whatever a company’s niche, Drexler stresses that it's important for them not to dwell on isolated feedback and to instead look for a plurality of experiences. Each school does not look the same, especially in rural or underserved areas that have overlooked needs such as narrow bandwidth.

Olsen notes that the edtech marketspace, therefore, needs to offer a diverse range of products. In fact, teachers who create their own apps often pinpoint more complex problems to solve, because they struggle with them on a daily basis.

For opportunities at the ISTE 2014 to spark conversations between teachers and techies, Drexler recommends the free Hack Education pre-camp on Friday, June 27. Also, the poster sessions will offer dialogues for entrepreneurs to hear what teachers are already doing with technology, while the Start-Up Pavilion and Pitch Fest will let teachers catch a glimpse of the latest tools emerging from digital innovators.

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