Q&A with Department of Ed's Jim Shelton on Entrepreneurs and Innovation

Q&A with Department of Ed's Jim Shelton on Entrepreneurs and Innovation


At September 10's "Mini-Maker" celebrating the kickoff of the MENTOR Makerspace program, EdSurge's Tony Wan had the opportunity to discuss entrepreneurship and innovation with Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the Department of Education.

Tony Wan: Entrepreneurs in this space view dealing with the government and public school system with trepidation. On the one hand it's a sizable market, but on the other they fear getting bogged down in the quagmire of regulations. How do you go about redressing this perception?

Jim Shelton: There are two or three things, some happening with the government and some with the private sector. It’s a well known fact that the fragmented procurement market makes it very hard for entrepreneurs, especially with long sales cycles that stretch new companies out for a very long time. But several factors are going to change this:

1) The Common Core Standards, to the extent that they drive the market to allow people to develop solutions that can scale across many markets, means that anytime an entrepreneur creates a solution, it has much bigger market potential than it had otherwise, without having to build additional customizations. That alone lowers the entry thresholds for many entrepreneurs.

2) With Race to the Top, we’re hoping to see states and districts are learning how to collaborate on purchasing decisions. Our hope is that we’ll see much more aggregate demand and more communication between districts and states about what the dimensions of their requirements are, how they can collabobrate on those things, and put together joint RFPs that allow for easier access to entrepreneurs.

3) One of the primary initiatives of Digital Promise is the League of Innovative Schools. Districts and schools across the countries are testbeds sites that vet solutions to education challenges and do so in a way that is efficient and provides great insights into the impacts of those solutions. if they are successful, they will significantly streamline the mechanisms by which entrepreneurs will have a large available marketplace to enter. Add them all up and there are almost three million students currently represented by the League of Innovative Schools.

4) Similarly, we are encouraging the development of regional innovation clusters. Not something funded, but we’re trying to get communities around the country to develop testbed sites that will make it easier for entrepreneurs to get in, try their ideas, get access to new markets and scale once they demonstrate efficacy.

How do you go about ensuring that the Education Innovation Cluster is actually accelerating innovation rather than impeding it, given that there are many players who may hold conflicting perspectives and interests?

Education is not the first place where innovation clusters have shown up. One of the key things is that each of the players and stakeholders have to clearly demonstrate is added value to their cluster. In the education space, some of these folks have not been able to do this. Entrepreneurs don’t tend to look to researchers because it's not clear that the best researched product is going to produce a breakthrough that distinguishes them from others in the marketplace. But as [the value of research] becomes more apparent folks will see the value of these partnerships.

Testbed sites will make it easier for entrepreneurs to go in, test and rapidly refine and improve and get to the next level of performance. Researchers will be able to go in and work with the same school districts and give insights on what solutions they should be deploying in what circumstances. Investors will realize that tools that have gone through this vetting and partnership are actually producing higher returns. In the meantime it's going to take a concerted effort with the backbone organizations that pulls everyone together and keeps the eye on the vision they want to accomplish.

Is there a mismatch between the pace of innovation in typical Silicon Valley startup mentality and education?

There is definitely a tension there. The reality is that the Silicon Valley startup mentality is not [right] for every solution. There’s a reason why biotech startups aren’t on the same timeline as those in consumer web. What we need to start doing in education is to recognize where speed is appropriate and where we have the potential to get a better outcome by starting and then rapidly refining [an idea] as opposed to trying to perfect a solution before we even get started. And that’s something we’re not very good at as a sector, and something we can learn a lot from from the Silicon Valley.

What is Digital Promise doing to turn the promise into a reality? What are its deliverables?

The thing I’m most excited about is the work they’ve done to create a learning community and run testbed sites. Examples include DigitalPromise's work with EdLabs at Harvard to set up an arrangement for evaluation of new solutions as they enter the space. And the development of model RFPs among the districts that they can share and use to acquire new solutions.

What has the response been with the Education Data Initiative and the Data Jam sessions? Is it a challenge to get vendors to share their data?

We’re particularly pleased with how many vendors are participating in the MyData initiative; it makes sense that individuals ought to be able to take their own data and share it with others. We’ve been encouraged overall when we see vendors that have recognized that by making available data that they had once considered proprietary, they’re not only creating new opportunities for themselves but also increasing the value of the data they have. There will be tensions over time over the level of details of data that companies collect when it comes to adaptive learning and what decisions students make in programs, but we are pretty far away from that. So far we’ve got a great opportunity to expand the field and make data much more open.

How does the Department of Ed plan to address procurement so as to allow teachers have more freedom and resources to try out new tools?

That decision has to be made by states and districts. What we can try to do is to facilitate the creation of marketplaces that will allow teachers to participate. We will keep pushing to keep having that influence on the marketplace so that there are more solutions available for teachers. Whether or not these turn into actual purchasing opportunities and privileges depend on the states and districts.

The latest RTTT-D grants will focus on “personalized learning environments.” How do you evaluate this criteria? Especially in light of the news about the School of One / New Classrooms blended learning program, which was highly touted by the Department, being dropped by two of its three pilot schools?

Anytime we do innovation work, the expectation is that we will hit bumps in the road in terms of how people actually try to accomplish the goal. School of One is one model--they demonstrated something important in shaping people’s perspectives about what it means to try to personalize education.

We expect that there are going to be many other models that will emerge. The desire to get to personalization isn’t to promote one model, but to figure out how we accomplish this goal in a way that is rooted in research. It's great that School of One was there as an initial push to get lots of people to think about different learning approaches. Now its up for us to use Race to the Top District to encourage lots of other approaches to this goal.

Schools need to make the decisions to ensure the best outcomes for their students. I’m glad they are actually being discerning about it. The big question for School of One is what are they taking from that feedback and how are they going to produce a solution that is worthy of being maintained by the schools?

Are there certain indicators and measures of student learning that we shouldn’t rely solely on Big Data to tell us?

I don’t think we know enough yet. One of the things I’m most excited about with Big Data can show us things that we didn’t know we were looking for. There will be patterns that emerge from lots of different variables. Over time we may discover that variables that we didn’t think were important at all are actually quite critical. We need to be careful not to over-interpret the early data that we have.

How does the Maker culture influence our thinking about the purpose of education--and especially how we assess students?

In the end, knowledge is most useful when its applied. And what Maker asks is: How do you take what you know from a variety of context and pull it together to create something of value? There are very few things we have in education that actually drive this instinct, to pull through the knowledge to application in a way that not only gets students  engaged and excited, but is also a demonstration of mastery. The more sophisticated manner by which we can do this, the more powerful the education experience we will be able to provide. If you can get rid of the question “What am I learning this for?” you’ve soved a huge challenge in education.

In the past we’ve had workshops and garages in schools for classes like auto shop. How did we move away from this to the state that we’re in today?

I wish I had the answer to this. I’m not sure exactly how the transition took place. I think that often times we as a society make false choices. We wanted to emphasize academic rigor, and in that context made decisions about other things that didn’t seem like they were as focused on this.

What you most looking forward to 2013? Any particular project or initiatives tha twill bear fruition for the public to see?

Knock on wood--in 2013 ARPA-ED will launch. And we’ll build off some of the successes of the military and defense efforts. And I think just the promise alone, even before it actually has deliverables of its own, will be the signal of the a new vanguard in education.

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