Immersive Learning

Edtech startups jump into the spotlight (and the Shark Tank) at ET4Online.

GUEST COLUMN | by Michelle Pacansky-Brock

CREDIT OLC Teacher TankLast year was a rewarding one for the education technology industry in the U.S., as companies in the space raised a record-breaking $1.36 billion in funding, according to EdSurge. This environment of intense interest and investment provides a great backdrop for the 2015 edition of Launch Pad, the Online Learning Consortium’s (OLC) program that showcases early-stage edtech startups.

OLC (formerly The Sloan Consortium) introduced Launch Pad in 2013 with a dual purpose—to give early-stage edtech companies an opportunity to interact with and learn from the OLC community of online learning experts and practitioners, and to give the community a first-hand look at the latest innovations in the space. Launch Pad generates a conversation between industry and higher education that informs product development decisions through direct feedback to developers. The 2015 Launch Pad program takes place at the OLC/MERLOT Emerging Technologies for Online Learning Symposium (ET4Online), April 22-24, in Dallas.

When you’re building an edtech product, you have to talk to educators. Launch Pad is a great way to field-test and gauge your progress with real users and gather valuable feedback on how you can make your solution better.

“The great thing about the ET4Online conference, and the reason it’s such a great venue for Launch Pad, is that it’s practitioner-based and practitioner-attended,” says Donna Murdoch, chairperson of the Launch Pad Committee. “It’s really about a conversation. The people you meet aren’t trying to sell you. It’s more about knowledge sharing and conversations around the common thread of ‘how can we do this better?’”

Launch Pad showcases a select group of qualifying edtech startups focused on improving higher education. Participants receive highly discounted exhibit space at the annual symposium where they can demo their products for education industry experts and online learning professionals.

Into the Tank

A new feature of Launch Pad this year is “Teacher Tank,” in which a panel of online learning thought leaders will provide constructive feedback in a lively on-stage exchange with Launch Pad startups, much like the popular TV show “Shark Tank.”

The “sharks” in the Teacher Tank are veritable online learning rockstars according to Murdoch. The panel includes successful edtech entrepreneur David Shoemaker, VP of Program Management at Apollo Education Group; accomplished online learning educator Tanya Joosten, Interim Director at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Learning Technology Center (LTC); longtime educator and social media researcher Bonnie Stewart, who has been exploring the intersections of knowledge and technologies for more than 15 years; and MOOC pioneer George Siemens, Executive Director of the LINK Research Lab at the University of Texas, Arlington.

A Chance to Listen, Learn and Make the Right Connections

As Murdoch explains, “When you’re building an edtech product, you have to talk to educators. Launch Pad is a great way to field-test and gauge your progress with real users and gather valuable feedback on how you can make your solution better.”

Emily Foote, CEO of ApprenNet, a developer of a video-based learning tool and a participant in last year’s Launch Pad program, agrees, “Launch Pad was an excellent forum to not only meet potential end users, but to also learn how to improve our offering. One of the most beneficial things a startup can do is connect with end users. We learn what we’re doing right and where we’re missing the mark.”

Foote urges 2015 Launch Pad participants to listen to attendees. She emphasizes, “Listening to your end users in order to understand their obstacles is enormously beneficial in helping startups iterate their product to better meet market needs.”

In addition to gaining user feedback, there’s also the marketing value that Launch Pad delivers to participants. Foote explains that the program helped grow awareness of ApprenNet because, “Launch Pad doesn’t just give startups a chance to meet potential end users. It makes the startups’ presence a highlight of the conference.”

A Smart Investment for EdTech Startups

Often early-stage companies cannot afford to attend, let alone exhibit at industry conferences. This makes Launch Pad a smart investment for edtech startups, according to 2014 alum Kiran Kamity, CEO of Collaaj, a provider of next-generation lecture capture, flipped learning and campus YouTube solutions for educational institutions, and video learning solutions for enterprises.

“Entry to Launch Pad was lower cost compared to other events, so the value for money was good,” says Kamity.

He suggests leveraging the collegial spirit that permeates the Launch Pad program and the conference, not only to gain user feedback, but to expand your network of potential partners, advisors and mentors.

“We met with prospective customers to get feedback on what we were building,” Kamity explains. “We also met with fellow edtech startups, and some of those discussions resulted in helping each other expand our networks as well as cross everyday hurdles we run into as startups. For example, discussions with one of these startups helped us get started with building a learning tool interoperability module to integrate our solution with learning management systems.”

Kamity recommends that Launch Pad participants be open to talking with as many ET4Online attendees as possible. He advises, “Don’t go there with the one common vendor agenda item of acquiring as many leads as possible. Go there to network, to learn, to build friendships, to have fun. The rest will follow.”

How to Apply for Launch Pad 

EdTech startups that are interested in participating in the Launch Pad showcase at the OLC/Merlot Emerging Technologies for Online Learning International Symposium, April 22-24, in Dallas, can apply online at http://olc.onlinelearningconsortium.org/conference/2015/et4online/launchpad. The deadline for applications is February 13, 2015. There is no application fee. The Launch Pad committee will select 7 to 10 startups from the pool of applicants that meet eligibility requirements and offer innovative solutions to higher education challenges.

Michelle Pacansky-Brock is a noted online educator faculty development specialist with a passion for exploring how emerging technologies are making learning more relevant and accessible for students. Michelle has received two Sloan-C awards for her online teaching effectiveness and is the author of Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies and the eBook, How to Humanize Your Online Class with VoiceThread. She is currently an Instructional Technologist for Online & Blended Learning at CSU Channel Islands, an Associate Faculty member at Mt. San Jacinto College, a speaker on teaching innovations, and completing her EdD in Educational Leadership and Management. You may connect with Michelle on Twitter @brocansky.

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