Educators Front and Center at Milken Penn GSE Competition

Educators Front and Center at Milken Penn GSE Competition


Osmosis, a Philadelphia-based company that helps medical students retain what they’re learning, and San Francisco-based Totus Power, which creates battery packs to power schools in communities with limited access to electricity, each took home a nice chunk of the $140,000 cash prizes up for grabs at the 2014 Milken-Penn Graduate School of Education (GSE) Business Competition, organized by Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan, executive director of academic innovation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Branching Minds ($25K), Professor Word ($25K), EduCanon ($15K) which also won the 1776 Global Challenge Prize, and UBONGO Kids ($5K) walked away with the rest of the cash prizes.

The Milken Penn GSE conference didn’t just showcase the 12 edtech finalist companies; educators were front and center throughout the two days.

“Isn’t it time that we stop bashing teachers?” began Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, in his interview with Kurshan. “Teachers need to be a core member of every research team,” Levine contended, and teachers should participate in action research in their own classrooms. Other speakers continued this theme. “You neglect teacher input at your peril when launching an edtech startup,” argued Patrick Hayes, business development director of London-based TSL Education.

Where Are They Now?

The “Where are they now?” panel featured several educator founders and former competition winners who offered sage bits of wisdom on involving educators.

"I knew that the moment I left the classroom, I was no longer building for myself," shared Jen Medbery, founder of Kickboard, a system that helps teachers track and support the needs of the whole child. Though her inspiration was rooted in the needs of her own classroom, Medbery recognized that even educator founders need to continue to listen to educators who are still based in schools. “I would challenge the belief that entrepreneurship and innovation is just about Silicon Valley,” argued Medbery. “Edupreneurs should launch in the community they know.”

Another founder, and still practicing special education teacher, Michele McKeone, CEO of Autism Expressed, also offered her perspective on how her entrepreneurial pursuits brought attention to her current students: “The media attention that Autism Expressed [which helps students with special needs master digital skills] has received allowed me to put my students in the spotlight and to make our school even more inclusive.”

Gamers Need to Work with Educators

The co-founders of E-Line Media, Michael Angst and Alan Gershenfeld, also advocated for more classroom-focused research in the education gaming world. “Most game companies make education games as a hobby not as a business,” shared Angst. “Game-making is too hard to be done as a hobby.” Angst added: “Much research has been done on how games could impact education, but not many games have truly been designed for the classroom.” Involving educators has the potential to make this possible, contended Angst and Gershenfeld.

Bringing Stakeholders Together

EdSurge led an interactive session with 18 mixed teams of eight to 12 educators, researchers, edtech companies and investors to tackle key questions around involving educators in research and the development of education technology tools. The key message: Give educators a voice in the design process at every stage! Check out the groups’ collected responses and their draft of an “Edtech Bill of Rights.”

Leveraging Research to Benefit Practice

The final panel also focused on the inclusion of educators in research around education technology: Andy Porter, dean of GSE, William Hite, Jr., superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, and Andy Rotherham, co-founder and partner of Bellwether Education, discussed how to leverage research to benefit practice.

Porter advocated that researchers need to cycle through “building on existing research” and then “testing with students and teachers” before “evaluating what was just learned and then iterating again.” Historically, university research often takes several years to process. Shorter research test cycles that work closely with teachers are a better fit for education technology which is changing so rapidly.

“We don’t have money so we’re looking for real partners in edtech companies and research institutions,” shared Hite. If companies or education researchers in higher education are willing to provide services and tools at little to no cost, then the Philadelphia school district may be open for business when it comes to pilots. Hite’s advice to entrepreneurs wanting to work with his district:

  1. Focus on outputs, not inputs;
  2. Perceive failures as opportunities to learn; and
  3. Share results broadly.

Rotherham also commented on the perceived buzz around increased investor money in edtech. “In the larger investment landscape,” argued Rotherham, “what’s being spent in edtech is still relatively small. There’s much room for growth.”

All edtech company finalists and semi-finalists have been invited to participate in the Education Design Studio affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

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