How Edtech Startup ‘Native Innovation’ Goes the Extra 300 Miles For...

column | Professional Development

How Edtech Startup ‘Native Innovation’ Goes the Extra 300 Miles For Navajo Customers

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Sep 1, 2014

How Edtech Startup ‘Native Innovation’ Goes the Extra 300 Miles For Navajo Customers

In the blistering heat of Arizona, edtech consultant and former educator Jerome Tsosie loads up his technology tools into a giant van, preparing for the four-and-a-half hour drive to rural To'Hajiilee Community School, 15 miles west of Albuquerque, NM. There, Tsosie and his team will configure 19 SMARTboards and two technology labs, lead professional development for teachers, and later, redesign the school’s website.

Tsosie isn’t a run-of-the-mill edtech entrepreneur: Instead he’s a rare combination of a native educator turned entrepreneur. He literally speaks the language of the community he’s serving and is using his technical skills to bolster education in the Navajo Nation, from providing afford tech support services to even developing apps in the Navajo language.

“We know the needs in the schools on reservations,” says Tsosie, who grew up in northeastern Arizona. “After all, why can't our own people service our own people?"

Tsosie earned his bachelor’s in education and master’s in educational technology from Northern Arizona University. Along the way, he served as an educational assistant, worked with principals and superintendents in Red Mesa Unified School District, and later worked with the Public and Bureau of Indian Education Schools on the Navajo Nation.

After more than a decade in education, Tsosie had his fill of “boring edtech PD sessions,” even as he realized that technology could be a powerful tool--particularly if a community itself took the lead. He also realized there was a dearth in edtech tools showcasing the Navajo language, an integral part of his people’s culture. According to Tsosie, he knew he had to dedicate his time to “making [edtech] relevant” to the Navajo Nation.

“A lot of reservation schools are very rural, located away from major cities and service providers,” he tells EdSurge. “These outside companies, they charge up the wazoo for some of these schools to get the services they need. A lot of these companies come in, and just take and take. They provide service that's really crappy.”

So in 2012, just as edtech startups were beginning to bubble up in Silicon Valley, Boston and New York, Tsosie created his own startup in Flagstaff, AZ: Native Innovation, whose goal is to bring edtech knowledge, services and Navajo-targeted products to reservations across the Southwestern United States. The four-person firm, including Education Research Specialist LaVelda Charley and Education Technology Specialist Kialo Winters, installs technology, helps schools on the reservation figure out how to use tech, and is now the lead developer on a collection of iOS apps designed for the Navajo Nation.

Speaking the language of the people

Tsosie prides himself and his team on their ability to establish a common connection with their customers--currently 20 schools, 95% of which are on Indian reservations. For starters, the Native Innovation team is willing to hit the road. The Navajo Nation spans three states and more than 27,000 square miles. While 90% of these reservations have wireless internet, edtech training is infrequent. And the reservation educators, who are on average between 45 and 65 years old, can’t travel much themselves as they have significant work and family commitments. “They're isolated out there. That's why they call us,” Tsosie says.

Native Innovation aims to price its services at rates that reservation schools can afford--even sometimes that means delivering pro-bono services. By taking on projects such as helping to rebuild the Navajo Code-Talkers website, the company’s got the means to carry out its mission at a low cost for its Navajo clients. “I’d say [our prices] are about 30% lower than everyone else’s,” Tsosie says.

Support doesn’t stop at in-person PD, either. The Native Innovation team makes a point to give schools remote support through whatever digital means necessary. “We're trying to save schools money because they're poor, and a lot of times, they're missing that training piece. We bring that to them,” Tsosie adds.

Utilizing the Navajo language for buy-in

Native Innovation handles anything edtech-related, from showing teachers how to use iPad apps in their instruction to desktop computer training. Not all of its customers are initially convinced about the value of technology. So when it comes to connecting with skeptical educators, the team members use the one advantage that almost no other service has: they literally speak the same language.

When Native Innovation consultants travel to schools and districts, they speak with board members or lead PD in Navajo if the educators predominantly speak the language. Tsosie explains:

“If your school is Navajo, a lot of these school board members are Navajo, and if you can speak the language and explain edtech to them, they'll buy into it. Once you build that connection with them, you have a customer for life, and if you treat them right, you'll always have them as a customer.”

And Tsosie’s team has also developed edtech products specifically targeting the needs of the Navajo educational community, including the first Navajo Keyboard app, where keys correspond to the Navajo alphabet. “These teachers helped me when I was younger, and now it's my turn to return the favor,” he explains. “That’s what my tribe stressed to us when we were younger. That's the basis of what the company is.”

Offering tools aligning with Navajo standards

Teaching the Navajo language, which has 36 letters in the alphabet, requires a different set of academic standards---and technology tools. Navajo tribes have “Diné Content Standards," relatively similar to state standards but created by the Navajo Nation’s Department of Diné Education. Navajo districts are consistently looking for tools that support these standards--and support the teaching of the Navajo culture.

“If you go to the Tuba City Unified School District, their Navajo department has really bought into a different way to deliver information to their students,” Tsosie says, “but there’s a big disconnect with edtech.”

To support instruction of these standards, Native Innovation has developed two products. The first is the Navajo Keyboard, a downloadable iOS app where keys correspond to the Navajo alphabet. The second, set for release on September 1, is a Navajo Dictionary (“Diné Bizaad”) app, which has at least 5,000 words. On the app (seen in the video below), students can tap a word to have it read back to them, add words to a favorites list, and even join up with various familial clans, based on bloodlines of parents and grandparents.

(Video, Native Innovation)

“You'll be able to see how you're related to other clans on the app,” Tsosie says. “In Diné culture, the identity of an individual is defined by his or her clan. For example, Redhouse Clan is my maternal grandparents’ clan, and Salt People are my paternal grandparents.”

Beyond merely teaching students the language, these tools support digital storytelling--a practice that has truly digitized an oral tradition near and dear to the heart of these communities. “We're HUGE on digital storytelling--preserving stories, games, everything that we can,” Tsosie admits, candidly adding: “We're not going to be here forever.”

“This is me, coming full circle, helping our people,” Tsosie shares. “We have a lot of great support from communities, and people are loving what we do.”

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