Essential EdTech

Lessons from LearnLaunch in further expanding the education innovation ecosystem.   

GUEST COLUMN | by Christina Inge  

CREDIT LearnLaunch 2014The LearnLaunch conference has rapidly become one of the essential edtech conferences in the U.S., and it’s little surprise: the event brings together a remarkable mix of educators, students, investors, and technologists to cross-pollinate ideas on the future of educational technology. This year brought the event to a new, larger venue at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for two days of learning and networking. The series of events offered strong focus on the practical, as teachers and entrepreneurs reflected in the panels on what works in their

What really set the conference apart, though, was the focus on bringing cutting-edge trends into the realm of the possible.

respective fields. Startup founders reflected on effective go-to-market strategies, balancing idealism with practicality. The focus: building solutions that work, that teachers will use, and that can be the basis of a sustainable business model. It was a message heard again and again, a strong reflection on the maturity of the market, as building multimillion-dollar businesses around K-12 technologies is now a reality for many companies. It was very apparent that edtech is a strong sector with a lot of sophisticated approaches. Ben Berte, CEO of Socrative and Renee Foster, President and Publisher, Curriculum Associates as well as other startup founders offered realistic advice on securing those critical first customers while other panels looked at the practicalities of funding your solution, building strategic partnerships, and finding the ideal market.

What really set the conference apart, though, was the focus on bringing cutting-edge trends into the realm of the possible. Kellian Adams of Greendoor Labs, Tina Grotzer of Harvard, and other academics and entrepreneurs delved into gamification, looking at the practical applications of this buzzed-about trend. The focus was on what works now, with a nod to the future but a real focus on what to bring into classrooms and homes today that will help students learn. A frank look at the state of the MOOC considered how MOOCs will eventually fit into the overall education landscape.

One of the most popular sessions asked students themselves what technology does for them. A cross-section of high school students from both urban and suburban districts opened up frankly about their needs for more technology, and tech that reflects the way they learn. They shared a real disconnect among the cautious way that some educators are deploying some technologies, such as social media, and their own usage of the same tools. Encouraging were the many examples they also shared of teachers using technology in creative ways.

Collaboration tools especially are transforming the ways students learn, bringing real-time, immediate feedback to students. From the simplest, such as Google Docs, to dedicated platforms like Edmodo, tools that enabled teachers and students to work together on projects got rave reviews for helping enhance learning.

What students wanted to see more of? Social media, devices allowed in class, and innovative formats for assignments, such as video or tweets, instead of the classic essay. The call was for technology to be used in the classroom in ways that accurately reflects the ways students are now using it outside of class.

Hallway conversations were as varied as the attendants. What was apparent was, as in the panels, a growing sophistication in go-to-market strategies, growth, and specialization within the edtech sector. There was a palpable energy, with a real sense that edtech is originating innovations that will have impacts well beyond the classroom.

The final keynote by Chris Dede, accompanied by an audience survey, neatly summed up the state of edtech, at least in Boston: there is a great deal of innovation going on, but the focus is now shifting to seeing it in action in the majority of classrooms. We need to start applying all that innovation, not just in a few classrooms, but across the board. Adoption is lagging behind innovation, as it always does. The challenge—and the opportunity—for the sector is to bring more technology that works into widespread use. This means helping teachers get more comfortable around new technology, listening to students and educators about their needs, and looking for ways to make technology simpler.

EdTrips, the company that I work for, was honored at the end of the event to win the audience vote for favorite startup. But we were even more excited to learn about what other startups are doing. From gamification to collaboration, a lot of bright minds in edtech are building some remarkable solutions that are amazing in their relevance. The key takeaway from LearnLaunch was that we have come a long way, and the best is yet to come.

Christina Inge is Vice President of EdTrips, a simple way to manage school trips from around the corner to around the world. Write to: christina@edtrips.com

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