FIELD REPORT: The SIIA EdTech Business Conference

FIELD REPORT: The SIIA EdTech Business Conference

Flickr user Erik Daniel Drost CC BY 2.0

Over the past eight years I've walked into a hundred classrooms. I've even marched boldly into my share of meetups and conferences like South by Southwest and the NMC Conference. But I will confess that venturing into New York City's McGraw-Hill Conference Center this week, did give me a few flashbacks to "Stranger in a Strange Land," which is odd considering I’m an educator and it was a conference about education. 

This year was the largest SIIA Ed Tech Business Forum ever, bringing together 340 innovators, entrepreneurs, thinkers, leaders and investors in the education technology space. I was there to learn about the latest innovations--including, I hope, some that will help the schools that I work with. Plenty of entrepreneurs, on the other hand, came looking for funding and plenty of investors came scouting out potential partnerships.

Monday kicked off with a speed-networking extravaganza, one of the most popular functions at the conference. This was our first glance into the scope of the attendee list. While the background beat of the "Macarena" was a bit distracting and three minutes never seemed long enough, it provided the perfect experience for company representatives to refine their elevator pitches and dish out those Moo Cards

According to veteran SIIA member Frank Catalano, the number of startups at the conference has noticeably increased. This is a step in the right direction and fits in nicely with the conference theme of seismic change.   

Monday climaxed with the Innovation Incubator: 13 innovators competing in three separate locations, aiming to share their vision, their accomplishments and their potential. I spent some time researching the 13 teams prior to the competition and I had hoped to feel a direct connection to many of them – particularly those focused on K-12 since that is where I spend my days. (Here's a list and descriptions of them all.) I wanted their presentations to bring back personal moments from my classrooms and make my internal teacher voice shout, “This tool would have solved my problem that day!”

Some of them did just that. I find, though, that sometimes it takes a pronounced effort to distinguish a great speaker from a strong idea from skilled implementation. The ability and responsibility to distinguish is crucial when participating in a competition like the SIIA Innovation Incubator.

The three-way split was challenging, especially when multiple companies presented simultaneously on similar products in separate locations. Perhaps next year the Incubator should consider taking on more of a “Battle of the Bands” vibe, and encourage companies building multiple solutions to one problem to talk to each other...or at the very least, to listen.

Of the four presentations in room 207, Clever was the one that racked up the most votes for "Most Innovative" and "Most Likely To Succeed." (Here's some background on Clever.) By chance, I sat next to the ever eloquent Michael Cohn, VP of GSV Advisors: “The SIIA Ed Tech Business Forum provides a much needed showcase for companies like Clever and LearnSprout that are solving real pain points for students, teachers, and administrators to get in front of their broader industry constituents.” Agreed! As a teacher and instructional coach, I see the challenges that Clever and LearnSprout are addressing directly impact 80% of the classrooms I visit each week. On Tuesday, Clever snagged the top title in both the "innovative" and "most likely to succeed" categories.  

Still, I couldn't help but have my heart stolen by Mathalicious. Founder Karim Kai Ani's passion for bringing highly engaging materials to a subject that too many teachers struggle with was awe-inspiring. Not to mention the quotable nature of his words: 

@Mathalicious RT @NextThoughter: Mathalicious on Khan: "you have to have a good product before you wrap technology around it" #etbf12 

Chatter about Mathalicious and Karim’s captivating presentation was abundant during the reception on Monday evening and on Tuesday--so much so, that Catalano dubbed Mathalicious the winner of “The Bridesmaid Award.” (It officially took runner up in both categories.) 

What I--and perhaps the judges-found particular compelling about both Clever COO Dan Carroll and Mathalicious' Karim is that both have spent quite a bit of time in the classroom. And seeing teachers become greater stakeholders in the education technology arena is exactly the kind of truly seismic change I and many others are hoping to witness.

Marisa Kaplan is the founder of the education blog, EdGeeks. She is also a literacy and special education instructional coach for K-12 teachers, a private tutor and an educational writer. In addition, she is the Head of Curriculum Development at PenPal News, Community Ambassador at Citelighter and a Mentormob Innovator, and on the advisory board for SxSWedu.


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