"The notion that a video is always more interesting than the teacher is...uh....wrong."
When I heard Steve Silvius, one of the founders at Three Ring say that at our first Ed Tech Entrepreneurs NYC meetup on February 28, I knew that something wonderful had happened in the education technology vertical. Entrepreneurs were not, as they are sometimes vilified or incorrectly labeled, a bunch of geeks with no education scruples who want to exploit the current education system and use it to make products so they can make a lot of money.
Yes, they are geeks—but geeks who are deeply interested in education as it is practiced, and they get it. They get it. And we had proof.
Four companies—some just barely off the ground, some getting funding from investors—presented their education technology ideas to a room filled with 220 or so teachers, students (higher ed and secondary), investors, and other entrepreneurs.
The audience they presented to was one of builders, teachers, people who want to either invest in the future of our education system, or make an education system that is truly useful in 21st-century economics.
They presented because they wanted to know what teachers and students think of their products; the way that the current education system is set up, teachers don't have enough time to spend their day looking at education technologies, and entrepreneurs don't have much success cold-calling teachers for feedback.
Doing It Differently
I used to be a teacher, so I fully understand the division that exists between the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism and the sanctuary that is teaching and preparing students to make the most of their lives.
For the most part, from elementary school all the way up through higher education, that system works very well. Kids come to school to learn. We aim nurture them, to envelop them with wisdom and goodness. We send them up through the ranks, improving all the way.
But we are not always providing people with the right tools to get this done. Teachers are too busy to experiment with new learning technologies, so they don't. Entrepreneurs can't gain any significant access to the learning environment, so they go about doing what they do best, but without the most crucial part of the equation—the consumer.
Part of this is cultural. No teacher likes to think of his student as a consumer of vendor tools. They like to think of them as humans.
Humans work best operating in a network of cultural exchange. Education creates this cultural exchange, but because it's education, and becuase it's important, and because it's a state and federally funded enterprise, there are few places for entreprneeurs and teachers to work together quickly and earnestly to make education products that fix real problems.
In other words, we have true edge of the envelope thinkers and doers inside and outside of education—teachers and entrepreneurs—who are basically trapped in a 19th-century system.
There's no way to be an independent, education-loving entrepreneur and push out the big products to get them tested, unless you get a huge dose of capital. But then you can't really get a huge dose of capital unless your product has a lot of traction (or a lot of students and teachers using it). Since it's hard to get these products in front of teachers and students, change in education is slow. Big products are guesses.
Vendor-driven solutions are based on a seemingly timeless educational system, but there are some among us who question whether building products this way achieves the same results as using a lean startup method to build education products that begin in the hands of teachers, students, and parents.
That's why my partner Saad Alam and I launched the Ed Tech Entrepreneurs Meetup. We want to be part of the sea change in how educators, entrepreneurs, administrators, and communities work together.
We want to create a cultural space for learning about ed tech, creating relationships between all significant parties, and we want to have fun doing it.
When we looked out across the room and saw a standing-room only crowd, it was really hard to convince either of us that we were not creating a cultural space where real educators, students, and community leaders, school administrators and budget operators meet with entrepreneurs to give firsthand reviews and feedback on what makes their products work and what makes them not work. This was happening in the room, right here.
Change happens when people believe they can participate in their own future. And in that room that night were many, many people who saw their future, and it involved working together and creating new opportunities for students.
I closed out the night by saying that I felt inspired by the number of innovations I had seen, but that I was even more inspired by the idea that techonlogy and the liberal arts had no better place for convergence than in education.
I was reminded of a teacher who had said to me that there was a difference between writers and people who write things. Writers, he said, give something of themselves to people. Their work is a gift.
Teachers are like this, too. I have been a teacher, and I can testify that every day of my teaching career was about giving almost all of myself—and sometimes all—to the students who needed and wanted to learn.
Entrepreneurs are no different.
That's why we invite both of these groups to our meetup, to share information on how classrooms operate, how budgets work, and how teachers live their day to day lives in the school system. We share what it takes to build something, what it takes to test, test, and test until you get it right.
We mix up the culture, and create innovation. The similarities to a real classroom, and the energy of learning and change are uncanny.
We will be doing these meetups once every two months to start, and then once a month as they gain traction. We will have keynote speakers, real teachers, who come to discuss their everyday experiences in the classroom. We will work closely with teacher fellows programs and with education technology directors of school districts, to bring the right people into the room to ask questions, give answers, and generate ideas.
Investors will be part of our guest speaker series. Entrepreneurs will present their products. Community leaders will be in the room to rally forces of change.
And we will do all of this in the independent spirit of teaching.
Douglas Crets is the co-director of Ed Tech Entrepreneurs Meetup in NYC. He operates this forum for inventing, building, and learning with Saad Alam, co-founder of Citelighter.
[Image: Flickr user Erin Lodes]