EdSurge Green in the Emerald City: Tech for Schools Summit in Seattle

EdSurge Green in the Emerald City: Tech for Schools Summit in Seattle


“I feel like I’ve won already -- I’ve had golden opportunities to sit down and have real conversations,” praised Suzanne Righi, who teaches 5th grade at Madrona K-8 School.

It may have been chilly and rainy in Seattle on October 24-25, but inside the Bell Harbor International Conference Center, discussions of how technology can aid teachers and students were heating up as Righi, along with hundreds of other Pacific Northwest educators, discussed, experimented with and gave feedback to 37 edtech companies at the EdSurge Tech for Schools Summit.

The Power of Community

The Summit started off with a reminder of the importance of connection, forcefully articulated by Choose2Matter founder Angela Maiers. “We all need a network that will not let us fail: Your network of innovators and leaders and educators can be your lifeline,” Maiers urged. “Your future is dependent on what you share, not what you know.”

Administrators and entrepreneurs alike listened and engaged in thoughtful conversations about the power of connecting--and its risks. One administrator asked, “When we connect with people who share our passions, we risk becoming a monoculture. How do you fight that?”

Maiers responded by focusing on the importance of diversity of thought and experience in a community. “You don’t have a shot at change if everyone in the room is just like you,” she said. “To make an impact, the room must be diverse.”

Bringing Together a Diversity of Experiences

A wide range of experiences and backgrounds was a highlight of conversations throughout the Summit. “I’m meeting my customers and fully hearing what they need,” said Alexander Saeedy from PlayForward, which helps students learn about the outcomes of different choices through avatars. “I’m really impressed by the diversity of schools here, and amazed at how devoted all these teachers are.”

Akbar Brooks, a teacher at Aki Kurose Middle School, sees potential for making a powerful change in the lives of his students in several of the products, including PlayForward. “Coming from a low-performing school, I’m looking for tools that will engage students while being easy-to-use and interactive,” he explained. In PlayForward, Brooks appreciated “the depth of research [which could] directly impact student learning beyond just getting data,” helping educators “empower students to be their best selves.”

Righi agrees with the focus on using technology to make a lasting difference in the lives of students. As she sees it, “there’s a difference between a deficit in learning and a disability,” and through the tools and conversations she encountered Saturday, she’s hopeful that technology can help educators better reach students early on in the learning process.

Thoughtful Feedback

Educators gave valuable feedback directly to edtech companies on their products, both through structured activities and individual conversations. On Friday, administrators and companies learned from each other through some old-school classroom games: telephone, musical chairs and MadLibs. Participants whispered the guiding missions of their districts and companies around the table, to hilarious and thought-provoking results. One administrator articulated a lesson learned by many through the game: “I really tried to focus on the what for, and it came back what works.”

Edtech companies in particular also learned valuable lessons as administrators shared honest frustrations with their pitches. As edtech entrepreneur and former literacy teacher David Lowe wrote in an edtech MadLib, “When edtech companies say Common Core aligned, I think blah blah blah.” Take heed, companies.

Trust Your Students

Our Tech for Schools Summit also handed over the microphone to a very important stakeholder in education: the students themselves. Five articulate, thoughtful young voices shared their insights, concerns and advice for educators and companies in the student panel on Saturday.

One lesson stressed by the students was trust. Owen Mattson, a 12th grader at Raisbeck Aviation High School, explained that students can get around preventative settings to access social media on devices at his school, which is 1:1. His solution? “Allow social media in a way that lets students communicate about due dates with each other.”

Frank Catalano, edtech analyst and moderator of the student panel, agreed with Mattson’s point. “Among the students, there’s a remarkable commonality of opinion that you shouldn’t punish the good kids because of a few who use technology irresponsibly,” he said. How can educators establish trust in the classroom? “Instead of requiring an administrator password, create different types of student access, so you trust students” until they abuse their privileges to technology, Catalano suggested.

Student panelists also shared a frustration with poor implementation. “It’s not that the technology itself isn’t good, but teachers and students often don’t know how to use it in the most useful way,” explained Megan, a 7th grader from Evergreen School. Her classmate Carlos Key seconded the thought--and called out often disparaged SmartBoards. “We waste 5-10 minutes per class period trying to make SmartBoards work,” he said. “I’d rather have that time to learn math.” (We hope Key gets some extra credit for that one.)

The student panel also stressed the constant mutability of education technology, and the importance of taking advantage of student knowledge. As Catalano sees it, “There is no such thing as a digital native anymore.” Young teachers, born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, grew up using technology, but not the technology in today’s (or tomorrow’s) classrooms. All educators can learn from their students about how to best use technology--and when to leave the technology behind. In a surprise to many in the audience, 4 out of 5 student panelists stick to reading physical books for pleasure. Looks like paper may still be a contender after all.

Sparking Conversations Beyond the Summit

Throughout the two full days, administrators, educators and students all offered valuable insights and concerns about the potential of technology in the classroom, asking companies tough questions. How does Zulama act as a catalyst for project-based learning? How much can teachers customize Otus for their needs? How does Newsela make sure that articles are appropriate for each grade level?

The weekend’s thoughtful conversations will spark many others inside both schools and startup offices. As Ariel Kirshenbaum, who teaches sixth grade math, explained, “I can’t wait to bring some of these ELA tools back to my colleagues, and hear about how they might help our students in their classrooms.” That’s good news for edtech companies: Kishari Sing from Edcourage hopes educators go back to the classroom and include technology in broader conversations, as they “share this with people who don’t think they need tech, but know that they need rubrics.”

After seeing their remarkable energy and motivation, we won’t be surprised when educators from this weekend’s Summit inspire many others to try technology solutions in the classroom. As Catalano said, “these educators are the evangelists,” and their articulate voices will inform local adoption in conversations far beyond this weekend. After all, change requires connection and community. “The world is fueled by passionate people,” said Angela Maiers, and “we cannot afford for educators to lose their passion.”

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