Sink or Swim: Which Professional Development Companies Survived EdSurge’s Virtual Shark Tank?

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Move over, Mark Cuban. In the EdSurge world, the sharks aren’t investors--they’re smart, discerning educators.

On Tuesday, December 9, EdSurge hosted its first-ever virtual shark tank, moderated by EdSurge Senior Editor Mary Jo Madda. Modeled after ABC’s Shark Tank, three professional development edtech companies—BloomBoard, LessonCast and edWeb—had the opportunity to pitch their professional development solution to the sharks—a collection of four bloodthirsty educators.

After brainstorming with the Redesign Challenge, along with the support of The Gates Foundation, this Shark Tank’s theme spun out of a question shared by all: Can video professional development (PD) overcome the “one-sized-fits-all” PD that teachers often encounter, and instead provide differentiated, personalized PD that truly helps teachers to grow in their practice?

And who were the sharks, you may ask?

Lewis kicked off the night explaining that the current professional development model isn’t working because, “in most sessions, the teacher is talked to, talked at and we are never invited to the table.“ Shaw agreed, chiming in that PD should, “Inspire teachers and transform their practice… we talk about teacher growth a lot, but we don’t talk about teacher transformation.” In terms of where companies are failing to fix this issue, Mosbey explained that many PD companies don’t fully understand what teachers do on a day-to-day basis, and he was eager to see if BloomBoard, LessonCast and edWeb also lacked that knowledge.

Which companies swam—and which ones sunk to the bottom of the tank? In this article we’ll share some of the biggest themes and tips that emerged, but don’t worry, EdSurge captured the whole thing on video.

First Place: LessonCast

LessonCast took home the first place spot in the Shark Tank, with their lesson-centric model of professional development.

LessonCast was last to enter the tank, but as the ultimate winner of the Shark Tank, their presentation certainly was not least. LessonCast explained how their video format, otherwise known as “lesson casts,” provides educators with a way to explain the behind-the-scenes thinking around effective implementation of a lesson. Teacher coaching models often make use of LessonCast, and founder Nicole Tucker Smith shared that these lesson casts enable teachers to grow in their individual practice.

Moseby kicked off the questions, asking about time versus outcome. “We all know that teacher time is very valuable and I was looking at how you laid out the time requirements,” he started. “As an elementary teacher I teach lots of different lessons every day. Do you think the benefit actually meets all the time required to create a LessonCast?”

Lewis also questioned their use of Teaching Channel videos, wondering if “having another company that shines so bright on your site…. kind of dims what you are actually doing.”

Tucker-Smith responded, “We actually encourage that! We take a look at what are the resources that are out there and how can we make it work for that particular learning community.”

Second Place: edWeb

EdWeb claimed second place in the Shark Tank but faced tough questions around their use of sponsors.

The next minnow to enter the tank was Lynn Scott, Senior Program Director for edWeb. She shared how edWeb helps teachers get what they need by hosting 300+ webinars each year on different areas of professional development, in addition to providing a space for educators to collaborate and share.

Andre and Moseby both expressed concern about who was leading those webinars, questioning how EdWeb validates good content when it is being sponsored by companies. As Andre explained, “What scares me when I start looking at edtech tools is sponsors and vendors, all these people are sponsoring it and making it free—how is vendor presence affecting the type of content teachers are getting?”

Lynn explained that the companies rarely actually run the webinar; instead, they invite a master teacher to host. Lewis, in response, pushed her, asking, “You said the sponsors go out and find teachers doing a great job, so what makes people like Crayola and Shutterfly great at evaluating good teachers who will be running my PD?”

Lynn responded, “The vetting process is the most difficult part, but it is important to know that every teacher is different, and we can’t always provide the perfect PD for everyone. That’s why we are happy to offer it for free. If something isn’t working for you, stop that webinar, search for another one, go into the community and post ‘this webinar isn’t working for me, does anyone have something that might be a better fit.’” She goes on to explain that with edWeb’s different free offerings, teachers can be the drivers of their own learning.

Runner Up: BloomBoard

BloomBoard started the night off strong, but faced tough questions around content and the use of micro-credentials. 

In the Tank, BloomBoard, a marketplace for teacher professional development, launched their newest product, which helps teachers access curated materials around the competencies or problems of practice that are most interesting to them. After teachers are able to prove mastery in a specific area, they are able to apply for a micro-credential, or “credit” for continuing education, through BloomBoard’s new partnership with Digital Promise.

The Sharks wasted no time in asking some important questions, particularly in regards to defining how Bloomboard vets the “master teachers” that make decisions on what kinds of PD are relevant and improve practice.

Shaw pushed the needle further around the question of “micro-credentials,” asking, “These are not small tasks, so what evidence do you have that taking one of those mini-credential courses actually changes learning?”

Lange responded, “You’re right, these micro-credentials are non-trivial in terms of engagement, but demonstrating mastery of a craft as complicated as teaching is not a trivial task. All the artifacts required [for a micro-credential] are around things that demonstrate mastery of student outcomes. For example, what student work demonstrates that you can achieve that skill and how do you know there was a change in practice.”

The Future of Virtual Shark Tanks

This is just the beginning of EdSurge’s Shark Tank. We had an overwhelmingly positive response. Viewer Doug Lerner commented in the chat forum: “I’d rather watch the EdSurge Shark Tank over the presidential debate.”

While the event was going on, viewers had rich conversations and collaboration going on in the chat. Audience members voted on each of the rounds through quick polls.  Viewers also took to Twitter to share their thoughts via #EdSurgeTank

EdSurge will host our next Shark Tank, also with the support of the Gates Foundation, in early 2016. Interested in joining the next one? Click here and you will be the first to know about the next one. 

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