Up On the Edshelf

From beyond and back, the platform that continues to fill a need.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Mike Lee of edshelf.jpgThe co-founder of edshelf.com, a socially-curated discovery engine of tools for teaching and learning, Mike Lee is also a father, husband, and self-described idealistic realist and humanistic technologist. “That means I dream big and work hard on building concrete plans for achieving those dreams,” says Mike. “I also believe technology should be focused around the interests, needs, and well-being of people.” With a background as a software engineer and technical manager at Yahoo!, Mike is passionate about edtech, and with edshelf, it shows. Here’s what happened when he almost let it go. It’s an interesting story, and here it is from Mike.

I’ve always had the desire to improve the world in a significant way. When you strive for vast goals like that, it helps to break them down into achievable parts. Here’s how I did it.

What a long strange trip it’s been! Could you share the origin, some highlights, any low points, and resurrection of your platform? And what are your original purposes in edtech?

Mike: I’ve always had the desire to improve the world in a significant way. When you strive for vast goals like that, it helps to break them down into achievable parts. Here’s how I did it.

It’s a large planet, so instead of changing the world right away, let’s start with my country, then grow from there. So how can I make a meaningful impact on this country? I believe that can be done in two ways:

  • By changing the laws and policies of this nation. Once a policy is enacted, the impact can be relatively immediate.
  • By changing the education level of this nation. This is a slower, yet more fundamental way to have an impact.

Being a politician doesn’t interest me, so I choose education. If I can’t cure cancer or end poverty myself, maybe I can help with the education of young people who will one day do those things.

I looked into the field of education for a long time before I stumbled across this thing called, “education technology.” My background as a software engineer made this field seem perfect for me. So I posted a Craigslist ad asking if any local teachers would be interested in a free lunch in exchange for telling me about their daily work. I have an aunt, cousin, mother-in-law, and lots of friends who are all current or former teachers, but I wanted to learn more from a wider set of educators.

From those discussions, I amassed a long list of frustrations teachers frequently face. I went down the list to see if technology could be a viable solution. For many of them, it was – or at least, could be used in a way that minimized the pain of a frustration. I also noticed that many technical solutions already existed. I contacted those educators again to ask if they had ever tried those products. The answer I received was, “No, I’ve never heard of that. Where did you find it?”

CREDIT edshelf image1.pngIt was two of these educators that listened to my entire journey thus far and gave me the idea for edshelf. “Sounds like we need a catalog of edtech. Go build this please.”

So I built a quick prototype, got lots of positive feedback from every educator who would look at it, applied to the edtech startup accelerator Imagine K12 with a group of friends, and got in. That was a definite highlight and an amazing experience.

Trying to raise venture capital funding that was a definite lowlight though. While we were able to get a footprint into about 40 percent of the K-12 school districts in the U.S. by year two, investors weren’t interested. We looked at everything from grants to bank loans and everything in between, but unfortunately none of them worked out. The team eventually parted ways because their personal savings dried up. I stubbornly pressed on by myself for as long as I could, until I finally announced I had to shut edshelf down.

Then something amazing happened.

Educators rallied around a #saveedshelf hashtag. This cumulated into a successful Kickstarter campaign that gave edshelf a second lease on life. I raised enough money to hire some contractors to fix a bunch of problems with the site. Then I sustained myself by becoming a part-time web development contractor while slowly adding highly-requested features for edshelf.

I stubbornly pressed on by myself for as long as I could, until I finally announced I had to shut edshelf down. Then something amazing happened.

I’m happy to say that edshelf is still growing steadily and the response from educators is amazing. Reading their emails is what keeps me going every day.

How is edshelf something that resonates so strongly with others? What real service are you providing, and why are people reaching for it so strongly? 

Mike: I once did a survey with thousands of educators about the top frustrations of education technology. The top three responses were:

  • They don’t do exactly what I need.
  • Tech support and access issues.
  • Too many options; I don’t know what is best.

Edshelf addresses the third frustration. I think that’s part of why it resonates with educators. And in particular, with the people responsible for identifying, evaluating, deploying, training, and supporting technology in their schools. If you’ve ever walked into a supermarket aisle to buy cereal or toothpaste, you’ll know how stifling it can be to have too many choices.

I’ve also been told that many educators were touched by my personal story and struggles, especially during the Kickstarter campaign. If there are any edtech startup founders reading this, I would encourage you to use your own voice and be authentic whenever possible, instead of using corporate “marketese.” I think people appreciate that much more.

Has there been a person or pivotal event that informs your current approach?

Mike: As a kid, I was quiet, not very good at sports, and one out of a handful of minorities. That made me a target for bullies. When I got to college, I came out of my shell and lead a bunch of student-run community service organizations. This experience taught me that it was possible to do good in the world, especially for marginalized groups.

What are your thoughts on the state of education these days?

Mike: There seems to be a common belief that education has gotten worse, that schools were better in the past. I don’t agree with that assertion.

Most teachers I speak with are far better informed and trained than ever before. Their passion and dedication isn’t less than it was decades ago. Even with changing classroom demographics and sizes, the vast majority of teachers are still sacrificing their time and energy to give all of their students a good education.

Sure, there are still many problems facing many schools, such as lack of funding, harmful policies, high turnovers, socio-economic issues, and more. But the professional of teaching and quality of education on a macro-level seems to be higher than it has been in the past. The statistics I’ve seen, such as high school graduation rates, are trending positive overall. And not just for this country, but for the world.

Every time I see an education leader asking introspective questions and challenging the status-quo, I am excited. We should also have an open dialogue about how to improve the way we educate future generations. Even if policies are enacted that may take us a step backwards, I know that eventually we will take two steps forward.

What are your thoughts on technology’s role in education?

Mike: I believe that technology is a tool that should not and cannot replace teachers, but augment their practices. Technology can be transformative and enables a wide range of new activities not possible before. But at the end of the day, having a human connection is critical for a student’s development.

In my opinion, a lot of today’s problems can be traced back to a lack of emotional and social intelligence. Not enough people try to understand one another. Not enough people are able to carry out a calm yet critical debate. Not enough people work towards inclusion and cooperation.

Emotional and social intelligence is just as important, if not more important than academic intelligence. The leaders of tomorrow are the students that are learning how to understand and manage their interactions with other people. Technology can facilitate some of that, but human role models are the best. If students’ parents aren’t good role models, then hopefully their teachers are.

The leaders of tomorrow are the students that are learning how to understand and manage their interactions with other people. Technology can facilitate some of that, but human role models are the best.

What are some of the common traits of great stuff on the “ed shelf”?

Mike: Four common traits come to mind:

Responsive to educators’ needs. This goes for customer support issues, adding new features, and fixing existing problems. Organizations that have an open dialogue with the people that use their products tend to have the best products.

Well-designed features. Whenever a student or teacher gets confused with how to use a website or mobile app, the fault lies not with the person, but with the product. Good edtech is easy to use.

Good security and privacy practices. If a product stores any kind of student data, it needs to follow all modern security and privacy practices.

Ability to try the product out easily. If the product requires a fee, provide a free online demo. Many educators want to quickly play with a product to see if it fits their needs. If they have to go through barriers such as calling a sales person or entering in credit card information, they will go try a competitor instead.

Any advice you’d give to those in search of great edtech? 

Mike: The answer ultimately depends on one’s situation and goals. Here is a suggested framework that may encompass a variety of situations and help narrow down one’s selection.

Ask yourself:

1. What are my goals? If this is for my students, what are my instructional goals? What kinds of outcomes am I seeking? If this is for myself, what am I trying to achieve? What problem am I trying to solve?

2. What kinds of activities do I want to do? If this is for my students, am I looking for a solo activity or a group project? Should this be interactive or is it more about rote learning and drills? Will this take place inside or outside of the classroom? Should they make something or consume something?

3. Who will be involved? Will my entire class be participating, or just a subset? What are the grades/ages of my students? Are there any special needs and concerns? Will parents or other individuals be a part of this too?

4. What are my device constraints? What kinds of technologies do I have on hand? iPads, Chromebooks, an interactive whiteboard, a shared computer lab, students’ own devices, etc?

Steps 1 and 2 can be broken down into many sub-steps, such as alignment with Common Core State Standards and fit within Bloom’s Taxonomy, TPACK, SAMR, etc, depending upon your preferences. Going through these steps will progressively narrow down your choices from thousands of tools to hopefully a more manageable number.

Once you have that, here are some ways to help you decide between the final choices. Look at:

  • Expert and peer reviews. What do experts think about these tools? What do my colleagues think about them? Which opinions are most relevant to me? Which opinions do I trust?
  • Ease of use. Can I use it easily? Can my students use it easily? Is there a demo I can play with right away?
  • Support options. If I need help, are there tutorials or guides to help me? Is there a way to contact customer support?
  • For websites, does the URL start with https://, with the s there? A lack of this doesn’t necessarily mean it is a bad site, but having it is a strong plus – with one exception: if the site has a page that asks for a username and password, that page MUST have an https:// in the URL. Otherwise, don’t use it.
  • COPPA compliance. If my students are under 13 years of age, is the tool COPPA compliant? Does it ask for parental consent before my students sign up?
  • Data ownership and portability. Will you and your students own your data, or does the company own it? Will the company use your data in ways that make you feel uncomfortable? Can you export your data from the tool? Does it integrate with your school’s student information system?

If your school is fortunate enough to have a dedicated technology team, they can help you with all of this, and much more. If not, hopefully this is a good start!

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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