High on EdTech in the Mile High City

Listening, observing, and absorbing at ISTE 2016 in Denver.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura

CREDIT ISTE 2016 twitterISTE 2016 reveals the edtech field to now be significantly maturing, employing sophisticated technologies to provide crowdsourced instructional, assessment, and professional development items for teachers by teachers; rich, easy-to-use content, and dedicated to developing and supporting student creativity. Yeah!

Okay, unpack bag? Check! Wash dirty socks? Check! Sort out all business cards and session handouts? Check! Write my annual piece on what got my heart and mind racing at ISTE? Here we go:

Yes, as its previous incarnations did, ISTE 2016 came through big time on its promise: to deliver more brilliant edtech to understanding-hungry educators packed into a single venue, more next-level thoughts whizzing around one’s head, more wonderful new tech items to ponder and covet, and more reasons and hunches to make an educator feel good about being a teacher at this particular moment in time than any other program or event I can imagine!

It’s not enough just to jump into the digital pool, [solution providers] must be clear about which resources support and establish practices that truly reflect advances in pedagogical concept and theory, and that further offer practical, effective ways to put them into use with real kids in actual classrooms.

After returning from a previous incarnation of this conference in the not-too-distant past, I wrote about my having collided there with abundant evidence that the field of edtech had split into two realities, two distinct paradigms. One that fully supports the forward thinking, bleeding-edge of progressive teaching and learning as manifested in practices like Project-Based Learning, student online publishing, educational gaming, social media-based class exchanges, and the like. And the other, steeped in and misguidedly dedicated to preserving a 19th-century style, traditional, teacher-centered instruction. In my mind, this variety changes students’ school experience only superficially through the application of a veneer of digitization comprised of things like digital, but traditionally formatted digital textbooks; online summative assessments; and the same old, tired worksheets dressed up with a tad of digital animation.

I think this take on the state-of-the-field of just a year or two ago was pretty much on the money, considering that over the past few months the edtech literature has informed us that the industry dedicated to supporting schools in their digital transformation has reported a savvier customer base; school personnel who are now well aware that it’s not enough just to jump into the digital pool, that they must be clear about which resources support and establish practices that truly reflect advances in pedagogical concept and theory, and that further offer practical, effective ways to put them into to use with real kids in actual classrooms.

I wasn’t at the conference long this year before I began to realize that a still newer reality is now coalescing to redefine the field of Educational Technology, actually the entire field of Education. In the past, edtech was fully embraced primarily by that minority of teachers and schools who confidently understood the shifts in the goals of education that are reflected in progressive frameworks like the ISTE Standards and 21st Century Learning. These were forward thinkers, willing to take on the risks involved in leaving the comfort zone of the known, traditionally-run classrooms model.

At the other end of the spectrum, districts feeling pressure to “integrate technology” were willing to dabble in it, but only so far as they could keep a digitized version of teacher-centered control of traditional curriculum going, and adopting tech resources and practices that would help them accomplish that.

Hitting the Sweet Spot

This year, what I witnessed throughout the conference, is the emergence of a mature sweet spot, an area of informed and sophisticated technology-supported instruction, and importantly, a body of emerging resources to make being part of this phenomenon easy for so many educators out there who currently sense that they need to become part of this transformation. There seems to have evolved a wonderful middle ground comprised of resources and practices that bring the benefits of appropriate personalization, increased student engagement, and progressive pedagogy; things like constructivist-aligned social learning and authentic activities into a comfortably redefined classroom experience.

In this emerging learning environment, students once again (or perhaps more truly, for the first time ever) can see the relevance and feel the excitement of core learning activities that give them a sense of participating in the exciting world that is unfolding all around them. Teachers, too, now have opportunities to crowdsource and pool resources that bring this new variety of education to vibrant life, opportunities to collaborate around this new variety of practice in ways that they will, I’m sure, find irresistible.

So what did I see and experience in ISTE 2016 in Denver that got me so high on education once again?

A Little Bit of Inspiration

The look on the faces of the folks from Amazon who gave me a tour of their new resource, Amazon Inspire (launched at the conference) seemed to me to communicate pride and anticipation as much as the resource itself strongly sent out a strong ‘game changer’ alert! Imagine a somewhat traditional looking and feeling social media resource, something not unlike YouTube that allows (well, if we think about it a bit, encourages) teachers to upload their best lessons and resources, tag and label them, and offer them to the rest of the world’s teachers. Not only can teachers’ best instructional items be uploaded to be viewed and shared online, but users can aggregate them into folders, entities like YouTube’s channels and Spotify’s playlists. These can be shared through links compatible within other social networking and media resources, can be subscribed to, curated and re-curated, and on and on—making this new resource what appears to me to be a soon-to-be essential resource for teachers, coaches, school and district subject departments, graduate education classes—and just about any entity within the field that wants to aggregate, curate, archive and selectively retrieve, share and collaborate on resources and materials to support its efforts. The field has been looking for things of this nature for a very long time—but the sheer simplicity, powerful and stable functionality, and relative freedom from unnecessary involvement from its provider that might inhibit the viral, crowdsourcing potential of this resource—makes me think that something truly important has arrived at our doorsteps, inviting us to accept its challenge. I was impressed!

Further Enlightenment

Another resource that caught my attention was shown prominently on the exhibition hall floor by Follett, the venerable book and school library support company. LIGHTBOX  provides e-content titles and related, supporting content, in fact a wide variety of it, on strategically selected themes in well-coordinated, low-cost packages. According to its site, “Lightbox is a multimedia educational space that encourages students to see learning in a whole new light…students receives a true multimedia learning experience that incorporates audio, video, interactive activities, and much more across a variety of professionally developed curriculum.” I can see a teacher with little experience integrating technology, beginning with this one and if not hitting a home run, then getting on third without too much difficulty. This resource seems to give kids what they want and need in a highly engaging, interactive format that promises to work across platforms and devices. The time has come for those classrooms that have been slow to join the movement to make up lost ground. This resource and others like it, I think will get them caught up and looking for more!

Getting a Kick Out of Teaching

Another trend that presented itself strongly this year involves items designed to increase the way schools can cope with the affective dimensions of learning and student participation in school. One item of this sort that caught my eye is Kickboard, a tablet app that allows schools to establish criteria for observing behavior and tracking and analyzing it using mobile devices. Rather than waiting for misbehavior or behaviors that are counterproductive to learning to spiral out of control, or simply to go un-noticed by teachers and students (we really need to begin to put in an effort to develop student self-awareness and knowledge), with Kickboard, schools can get a handle on all of this and foster a much more informed and controlled environment for the benefit of students and their teachers.

Up to Speed

Pushing ever further, I sat with some really smart folks from Voyager Sopris and discussed their new resource, Velocity, something this group describes as the next generation in adaptive learning. Its site states that “Velocity incorporates the most advanced computer science to facilitate individual learning outcomes by breaking down the entire learning process to a new level of granularity. Velocity then optimizes student learning by continually monitoring understanding and instantly adjusting based on student performance. Students in grades K-5 gain proficiency in critical English Language Arts skills faster and with more 1:1 student-teacher interaction. Teachers get actionable data and resources for better engagement and improved learning.”

This kind of thing is what has me happily convinced that advanced technologies are available now that have the potential to provide significantly improved student outcomes without much struggle needed to take advantage of them. I walked away from the meeting contentedly feeling that we’ve arrived at the a next-level stage of development where teachers remain central to the processes of the most important aspects of education as they and their students benefit from advances in interactive resources that are applying remarkably sophisticated, truly adaptive technologies to their needs.

What Really Matters

I found myself also sitting with a group from Performance Matters which offers an integrated portfolio of online solutions, all supported with robust data analytics that connect student and educator growth together. Refining student assessment and using it to inform instruction highly effectively as well as ongoing teacher professional learning aligned with it is something that’s been on my mind lately. Not surprising, as I’ve been teaching a few graduate-level courses in it online. The items Performance Matters showed me seemed to be very well designed and ready to support schools in accomplishing these things. It made me think that one of the dilemmas we are up against at the moment is simply to get our plates and minds cleared enough so that we can take advantage of the truly well thought out resources that have been developed and brought to market.

Part of their portfolio of things that I was shown is PM Nation; free to participating Performance Matters customers, it’s an online collaborative that allows educators to author, review, and share items and assessments with other PM Nation members across the country. Its website points out that “Currently, PM Nation members have access to several thousand items that have been vetted by grade and subject, with new items being added and reviewed daily.PM Nation grows in value with every contribution. As new items are contributed, item statistics drive updates that continuously improve PM Nation assessment content.” There’s that trend again. This idea of finally establishing a powerful community of connected educators who take advantage of the cloud as the ultimate teachers’ lounge to expand their practice and capacity to benefit their students kept reasserting itself and for my part, I think in the very near future it will become absolutely undeniable by educators at all stages of technology adoption.

Sophisticated and Capable

With so much going on online, so much data collected and stored and ready to be used, so many places for teachers and students to go out on the web to explore, those schools who are onboard and who want to deepen and refine their technology experience need a state-of-the-art Learning Management System. For the experienced school, one that has already successfully begun its digital journey and is now ready to take advantage of technology’s potential for next-level teaching and learning, it’s good to know that smart people like those behind Edsby have developed a truly sophisticated and wonderfully capable LMS. Edsby’s site describes it as a cloud-based platform for K-12 that incorporates learning management, data aggregation, and real-time analytics. My half hour sit down with this company showed me that they know what they are doing, thoroughly understanding the needs of schools, including those who are already coming to see that they’ve outgrown simple systems and are ready to grow into something that will support them for a very long journey.

Mad About Learning

But, with head spinning and tail growing a bit numb, I just had to get up and away, had to touch base with my tribe: teachers! I had to run into one of the conference’s instructional playgrounds and get a dose of classroom-based, spirit-oxygenating inspiration. Quickly, I was put back in touch with my years of rubbing elbows with early adolescents as, thank heavens, I ran into Vicki Davis, a blogging teacher whose Cool Cat Teacher blog rarely fails to deliver. Vicki was giving a short presentation on her project in which students not only create their own apps, but as budding social entrepreneurs must sell their concept to emerge as the empowered front runner in a Shark Tank type “collabo-tition” program. Students collaborate, and collaboratively compete across class and school boundaries to learn and make an impact on their world. Very uplifting. Ms. Davis calls this program MAD-learn and kindred spirit, Alefiya Bhatia, from Crescerence, the producer of the APP creation resources that are used by the students was on site to answer questions, as well. Very inspiring! No really, I truly mean that I was flying on some sort of contact high from Vicki’s enthusiasm and the obvious, student creativity fostering grand slam home run that this program scores with the lucky students involved in it. I didn’t come down for a good few minutes as a walked the long corridors of the Colorado Convention Center looking for another hit.

Fueling Up

Fortified, I sat with the folks from FuelEd and had to agree that for many schools, offering courses that involve getting kids online with teachers (often of subjects not available in their school’s ‘brick and mortar’ incarnation) who connect with them from a distance may make a great difference. Hey, if edtech isn’t about providing powerful alternatives to the traditional, then after a quarter century of involvement, I guess I haven’t been paying close enough attention. This is powerful stuff and it’s good to know that we have come to a point in our field in which there are groups like FuelEd who are ready to provide schools with the know how they need, eliminating the sorts of painfully slow, trial and error that I witnessed in earlier days.

Fast Forward

As intoxicated on emerging possibilities for previously unimaginable approaches to Education as I may have been, I still have to confess, I do tend to be jaded about the claims of resource providers. I was very much taken, though, with Accelerate Learning, and when its President, Vernon Johnson, proudly asserted to me that its pre-K through 12 STEM curriculum offerings are disruptive, despite my ‘Seen it all, Heard it all, Sorry!” instincts, after listening for a few minutes I had to agree. This provider has too much going on for me to explain it all here, but I very much like the fact that it assures relevance by, at least in part, crowd sourcing ongoing curriculum, which is written by engaging a body of actual teachers who continue refining it in a continuous process of improvement. Want kits to offer kids hands on experiences as a way to foster their understanding and learning? Users can download updated shopping lists of easy to find items (think Walmart, Ace, Target, etc.) or order pre-assembled kits from Accelerate. PD? Accelerate’s model includes a coaching website and importantly, PD embedded right in the curriculum. At roughly $5 a kid per year, I don’t think ‘disruptive’ is hyperbole.

Help from Hardware

I don’t always gravitate toward established hardware providers’ offerings at ISTE; I tend to be attracted more to concept and digital content resources. However, I’m very happy that I had an opportunity to sit with a few of DELL’s top educator support folks, Jason Vossler, a senior product advisor, and colleagues in this case. I take special pleasure in hearing from the ‘hardware side’ language that to me smacks of deep understanding of the revolution, not just in the material reality of classrooms, but in how it can and should be part and parcel of a deep reconsideration of what’s worth doing with kids these days, and why, as well as what resources might support these powerful shifts away from the traditional to the sort of Education truly worthy of today’s kids.

When these good DELL folks spoke to me of their understanding of “Student Led Learning” the veteran teacher in me was truly heartened. Yes, that concept has everything to with encouraging kids to take charge of their own education, and to hone powerful thinking and communication skills as they engage one another in authentic inquiries and presentations that focus and relate their learning. And yes, I can see how items like the larger format, multi-touch point displays I was shown could easily help reconfigure the traditional classroom into a learning environment that is much more supportive of the sorts of 21st-century skills so many of us have come to see as appropriately updated goals for relevant learning. As a professor of Education courses I often speak about three modes of instruction: Whole Group, Small Group, and Individual learning—and, while it’s easy to see how 1-to-1, small-device implementations (Chrome Book or other) can satisfy the needs of individual learners, and easy to see how large displays, either touch screen or interactive whiteboard, or simply projector, supports whole group discussions, I think having a few medium-sized touch screen displays, good options for which apparently are now emerging, might be the perfect thing for small group learning, as well. These, to flesh out the full picture of an appropriately enabled, tech supported, modern learning environment that addresses and supports all modes of teaching and learning.

I ran off in search of lunch, although in the end, I never connected with anything to eat. I did, however, spend some time with school-based tech coordinator, Ashley Kemper, at her mobile learning playground table display on “Exceptional Assistive Mobile Learning Tools”. Ms. Kemper highlighted a number of resources and related practices that reaffirmed my take on the growth and teacher friendliness of an extended body of resources that continues to emerge. Ashley showed how she uses augmented reality as an assistive learning tool, tools that help keep kids organized, resources and their uses to help kids regulate their emotions (especially helpful for kids with sensory processing disorder and/or on the autistic spectrum), and finally, resources to help exceptional learners thrive.) A well-informed and insightful teacher-user of APPS is wonderful to sit with and learn from. Thanks, Ashley!

Capping It All Off

Another resource I came across that I found interesting and encouraging is Capstone’s new pivotEd, whose site states that it “harnesses the proven power of Capstone’s award-winning content and pairs it with innovative technologies so educators in 1-to-1 and blended learning environments can connect directly with students. Teachers leverage a rich ecosystem of readily available interactive lessons that foster creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication.” When providers site those goals as things they’ve embraced, and when my probing conversations with them prove to me that they’ve got folks onboard who fully comprehend all of this, so much so that I can accept them as ready to lead others in those directions, I walk away very encouraged. Things really do seem to be changing for the better in our public schools, institutions, armed with such resources, I think can reinvent themselves from stodgy, stifling institutions to places where young minds can be appropriately nourished and above all excited.

Making Things Happen

And there’s so much young talent emerging in our field. I love to visit the conference’s Start Up Pavilion on the Exhibition floor to rub elbows with some of it. So many gutsy, insightful ‘edu-preneurs’ introducing new offerings. I had a great conversation with Andrew Miller of MakerSpaces.com, a company that provides expertise and support for schools interested in establishing a makerspace. I was gratified to swap views on how it isn’t just about kids putting lots of little pieces together, but that through the establishment of a well thought out makerspace program, student innovation and creativity can be fostered and nourished following an established body of instructional thought and practice.

Literally Literacy

At my own session, one I give every year as the President of the Literacy Professional Learning Network to highlight new and promising resources, my group acknowledged the following groups, all of who had members of their development team on stage with me to explain and interface with ISTE members about the things they have been developing for the field: Beeline Reader (a browser-based screen text reader very likely to revolutionize reading instruction), Participate Learning (Find.Connect.Collaborate – an online resource teachers use to collect and share items to make their teaching more effective) , Actively Learn (an exciting resource that enables teachers to personalize and customize content for their students, making it more engaging and accessible) , and Bookopolis (online social media resource through which kids share book recommendations, reviews, and more).

Hard Work Pays Off

I have to confess ISTE is not a lark for me. I work hard there, listening and observing, running around watching demos, interacting with teachers and students, reading materials at poster sessions and playgrounds, and generally doing my best imitation of a trend spotting, state-of-the-art knowledge sponge. But hey, don’t feel too sorry for me, I make the rounds of the evening parties, too (this year the conference opening reception, as well as the CUE party where I chatted with CEO Mike Lawrence about its very impressive Leading Edge Certification program, and at the NEARPOD party, where I took in a presentation about that resource, something that, judging by the crowd assembled, is well appreciated by its clients.

Trending Now

I finished up the conference at the Trending Now panel discussion. One of the panel members, Nicholas Provenzano, a former ISTE Teacher of the Year a high school English teacher (who makes great use of Project-Based Learning as he provokes student creativity through the use of technology) stated, “Find the tool that best fits your students’ projects, and you will see the most amazing projects and examples of learning you’ve ever come across. Technology is providing more opportunities for kids to express their understanding in creative ways.”

And yes, the theme of education supporting the development of student creativity as an emerging goal of high importance was in evidence throughout the conference. Professor Michio Kaku alluded to it strongly in his opening keynote presentation and it was echoed throughout the conference in the field-defining conversations and presentations that happened there.

But Wait, There’s More

PS – Before I forget: My apologies to the many, many other groups and resource developers and providers I saw and talked with and shared enthusiasm for working at this particular junction in the technology-fueled transformation of Education with and for whom I just couldn’t squeeze justice to their contributions into the article above. Some of them whose brilliant offers at this particular moment continue to roll out of my mind and conference bag include:

EXPLOR-eBook From Teacher Created Materials, a body of 500+ books packaged with lessons, tools for collaboration, media, and monitoring by teachers.
WALKABOUTS The active learning platform integrates physical activity with academic subjects in the K-2 program.
Couragion STEM career exploration resources.
Actimator Peer-Led Game Design for Computer Science Education.
TURN ON iste 8 Best Projects for Your Classroom Centro Escolar Los Altos.
­LAB4U Science APPs for students and teachers.
Lifelique Virtual Reality, interactive 3D Objects, 3D printable media, etc., as a classroom resource.
ClassTag Connect and collaborate more closely with parents.
Army Educational Outreach Program STEM enrichment activities / competitions.


Mark Gura, EdTech Digest Advisory Board member and editor-at-large, taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. An edtech pioneer, he spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, where he assisted over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. Now retired, he currently teaches graduate courses to EdTech Masters students. Most recently, Mark is the author of Make, Learn, Succeed: Building a Culture of Creativity in Your School

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Cool Tool | TigTag from Carolina Science Online

CREDIT TigTag science videosTigtag is an online science teaching resource for grades K-5. Hundreds of short (3 minute), engaging, real-world science videos introduce basic science concepts and captivate young minds—teachers included. Background and preparation materials are provided for teachers, along with ready-made lesson plans and practical science activities which help teachers implement a ‘blended learning’ environment in their classroom. Seasoned expert, new to the profession, or even lacking confidence teaching science—all of these types of teachers can benefit from Tigtag as a time-saving solution for bringing science to life in elementary classrooms. “This has been a godsend for providing real-life, factual material to the children about science concepts that we are studying,” says one teacher. “The proof of its effectiveness has just been realized with excellent grades on their recent unit assessment on classifying animals.” Another teacher: “The content is great for either introducing new standards, or reviewing what we have learned. I have been able to use Tigtag effectively with grades 1-5. My students love it. They love the quick reviews and questions. The content is presented in an interesting and exciting manner. It draws my students in!” Available exclusively from Carolina Biological, this resource is a great example of using video in the classroom to provide students with deeper conceptual understanding of an important subject area. Learn more.

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Accelerating Literacy

Personalized libraries, embedded assessments, and built-in motivation with Gideon Stein.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Gideon Stein of LightSail EducationAn adaptive reading platform that helps students, classrooms, and school districts exceed their literacy goals – all while fostering a love of reading. Sounds like a good idea. And that’s exactly what Gideon Stein works on improving every day. “Students using LightSail gain access to personalized libraries filled with thousands of engaging, just-right texts from which to choose,” explains Gideon. “They’ve told us their favorites are Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the Divergent series for the last two years running.” The platform embeds assessments and progress monitoring in the text in a natural way. Students answer multiple-choice, written-response, and Cloze assessments throughout each text. As student

Success is having millions of kids around the globe reading 30 minutes a day – whether that’s on LightSail or even physical books. We’re focused on promoting literacy in any form.

ability grows, LightSail tracks achievement and updates the selections in each reader’s library – that way, students are always reading just right texts.

Where does the name LightSail come from?

LightSail logoGideon: A “lightsail” is a solar sail propelled by light, used to power space exploration. We see the name as a metaphor for propelling kids through literacy and enlightenment, without boundaries. There’s an acceleration factor to it too – unlike fuel powered ships, a lightsail can gain speed as it travels. It’s similar with LightSail, where the more kids read, the more they learn and the faster they grow.

Since launching in 2013, your company has seen a number of significant milestones – expanding availability across platforms, entering new school districts, adding new content to the library. What has been the catalyst for this?

Gideon: We’ve achieved a series of events that will allow LightSail to reach millions more students, expand its content library and grow our footprint. LightSail now counts more than 250,000 students at 700 districts and schools using its technology in the classroom, including the New York City Department of Education, the Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools, and Boston Public Schools. That is an increase of 400 percent since this time last year.

There are two central catalysts for our growth. First, the efficacy of the product – it works. LightSail has a proven impact on developing readers. Not only do we hear that regular feedback from teachers, it is also supported in a new study from Johns Hopkins University that found students reading as little as 30 minutes a day on LightSail saw 2.7 times their expected gains.

Additionally, we can’t succeed without access. LightSail has more free and affordable content across multiple platforms than ever before. LightSail is now available on all the devices preferred by school districts: Chromebooks, Apple iPads and Android tablets.

We’re also constantly expanding our library. This spring we added daily content from The Washington Post. That significantly expands our library with articles about everything from current events to science and social studies. Students using LightSail also have access to KidsPost content, regular news section written for students in grades 3-8. All Washington Post content comes complete with LightSail’s embedded assessments.

And to help with our sustainability we are raising the necessary capital to support our growth. This spring LightSail closed on a Series B round of $11 million that was led by Scott Cook, the co-founder and Chairman of the Executive Committee of Intuit. The Bezos Family Foundation also joined existing investors in the round.

There is a continuous evaluation of edtech in the classroom generally. You’ve recently released results of an independent study of middle school students that shows the platform can help reverse summer slide. What are the findings?

Gideon: We are really excited about this. A team from Johns Hopkins University conducted research that found based on Lexile growth, students who read on LightSail over the summer for 30 minutes or more, returned to school at a reading level projected for November versus where we typically expect to see them lose ground. This is a meaningful gain of five to eight months over the devastating ‘summer slide’ scenario.

The researchers studied 280 New York City Middle School students, 17 teachers and five coaches from New York City’s Middle School Quality Initiative (MSQI) over seven weeks who participated in LightSail’s SummerSail program. They evaluated the technology’s impact on student learning, impact on reader identity, and perceptions of the technology.

The study found that students who read on LightSail for even 15 minutes per day showed growth in their Lexile scores – countering summer slide in a meaningful way.

Also telling – the demographics of the student cohort studied are 91.7 percent minority, with 88.8 percent eligible for free/ reduced lunch and 12.7 percent are English Language Learners (ELL).

You’ve said your mission is for young people to love reading—what does success look like to you?

Gideon: Success is having millions of kids around the globe reading 30 minutes a day – whether that’s on LightSail or even physical books. We’re focused on promoting literacy in any form.

More than 80 percent of the kids reading on LightSail are characterized as “at risk.” We are incredibly proud of reaching that demographic, and we see it holding as we’ve started to expand internationally – across continents.

You’ve been engaged in other education ventures before this—how did that experience inform your decision to create the platform?

Gideon: I’ve been a technology entrepreneur for nearly 20 years. I founded a software company in the late 1990s and sold in 2005, at which point I got involved in education philanthropy. Driven by a desire to close the achievement gap, I served on a number of board for schools, education reform organizations and other nonprofits. Over the past decade, I’ve seen a lot of great work and a lot of things that haven’t panned out. My focus with LightSail was to take the best practices and use technology to deliver them cost-effectively at scale. Given that literacy is the foundation on which all learning rests (try doing math or science without being able to read), I decided to create LightSail and find creative ways to get it into kids’ hands.

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

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The Titans of EdTech

A big problem and good idea make for the start of a never-ending adventure.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT EdTech TitansPairing hands-on device education with software and social network collaboration, EdTech Titans has students enroll in a certification program where they must complete device repairs for their school and are then eligible to buy product from their school bookstores to repair devices. Schools save money on repair costs and students are left with a skill they can use outside of the classroom to generate income. “We are more than just a network,” says Joe Mravca, EdTechTitans’ founder and CEO (pictured, right). “We are a community of like-minded individuals from San Francisco to New York. All participating students access one collaborative network where ideas, support and encouragement are exchanged across classes, campuses, and state lines.” Eleven percent of iPads alone break each year and with 258 million Apple iPad units sold as of first quarter 2015, there is a lot of growing room in this space. Students learn how to repair iPhones, Macbooks, Chromebooks and other devices at their own pace, on their own time, and interest. “The EdTechTitans chose to put the controls at the students’ hands. If students want to learn to deconstruct and repair an iPhone, they deconstruct an iPhone. If students want to deconstruct a drone, they deconstruct a drone. We see this as Woodshed 2.0 in schools with all the coolest tech gadgets.” The program brings valuable trade skills to school campuses and provides education, materials and constant support to every student in the program. “We are comprised of soul and purpose. We want to make an impact,” says Joe.

Joe was born and raised in Sunnyvale, Calif., and is the middle child from a family of five. He attended grade and high school in the Bay Area, majored in philosophy in college, and says, “I feel that I am, at heart, someone always seeking to learn.” He worked among startups and developed a love for their entrepreneurial energy and pace. A self-described engineer by hobby, he has always enjoyed building and DIY culture, and he’s “built computers, hovercrafts, catapults, milk carton boats, potato launchers, etc. all throughout childhood for fun,” he laughs.

What else has informed your current approach?

Joe: I can remember as a third-grader using iMac G3’s on campus and having computer lab. We played Mario Teaches Typing for an hour every Thursday or so and looking back I am shocked with how rapidly we honed our skills. I remember watching my Dad type so fast without looking at his fingers and working my ass off in the those computer labs (orange key hider cover and all) to raise my abilities to his. Having had those iMac G3’s and not been taught about programming, website development, and/or hardware components inside astounds me. We missed an amazing opportunity.

What prompted you—was it an incident, a conversation, an inspiring person— to go ahead and form your company? 

Joe: I was in between jobs when approached by the IT Director of Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose. He was determined to save money insuring iPads the school purchased to supply the students and faculty on campus. He could not find a major industry interested in supplying him the tools and education a school needs to get the job done until we met. Educators always have their students at the forefront of their minds and Chris Carey, the IT Director, was no different. He excitingly discussed his vision for repurposing saved funds to further benefit the students and campus. It was during one such discussion that we began developing the student-driven iPad repair team.

At that moment, EdTech Titans was born. Within the year, an official program developed. We educated 10 students in the first year alone on how to complete device repairs. I knew we had accomplished something incredible the day Bellarmine gave a certified Tech Titan senior student 10 broken devices to fix in his spare time before he went off to college.

Since, it has evolved into a hand-off ready curriculum complete with a social learning platform, tools and parts so that any school can participate across the nation.

What’s in the name?

Joe: EdTech Titans represents our mission to prepare the next generations tech titans, or superheroes, through engaging, grade appropriate, educational lesson plans. With our roots in educational technology maintenance, we believe it defines our desire to internalize student repair teams on campuses nationwide that have gone 1-to-1 (we define this as one tablet or laptop device for educational purposes per student) whether that be iPads, Chromebooks, etc. Students, girls and boys alike, can join the course with no technological background and leave fully comprehending how these modern tech marvels are put together and how the internal components are assembled to generate function. Schools and parents can save money on repair costs while accelerating their comprehension of the technology.

What drives your mission forward? 

CREDIT EdTech Titans 1Joe: The engagement level of participating students and the constant collaboration from school administrators. Recently we began partnering with our first grade schools, teaching students in even 4th grade to open these devices and learn about the internal components. The best part, they really do love it. Pictures are worth a thousand words right? So here are some pictures of visits to The Madeleine in Berkeley (see pictures). They are an exceptional grade school applying numerous 21st century learning principles for their students that we are thrilled to partner with. I love that their eyes are glued to the devices!

I am always impressed beyond words with how teachers so selflessly commit themselves to their students’ futures. Their steadfast dedication to improving the world through providing students with advanced curriculum makes me confident in the future. Education is in great hands.

Where do you see this organization same time next year? How about in 2-3 years? 

CREDIT EdTech Titans 2Joe: At the same time next year I see us partnered with dozens of California schools. We have already discussed the initiative with schools out of state however so I may be underestimating the adoption rate. We are, at this time, actively seeking funding and hope to pair with VCs that share our vision.

In 2-3 years I envision a fulfilling and up-to-date tech curriculum, including 1-to-1 device repair, that stays current and rolls out on grade school or high school campuses with the click of a button.

What are your thoughts on education in general these days? 

Joe: While the rest of technology advanced, education struggled to keep pace. Major industry evolves so rapidly that we are all often left dumbfounded at just how quickly our most recent purchase now rests on the shelf, obsolete. The lifespan of even the most advanced technologies, if left stagnant, will be comparatively ‘useless’ to the most current iterations every 3-5 years. Just imagine if teaching about technology occurred just as English or Math teachers prepared students in their respective fields. Starting a course on the iPad 1st Gen in 2010 only benefits the students if the course mirrors the advancements made by Apple. Otherwise, our hypothetical student graduates with a degree in a disposable, conversation-piece, type of technology.

Educational reform, to me, is a matter of precise tweaks, not a complete system overhaul. The precise tweaks will come from entrepreneurs entering the educational space. With the right products and services students continue learning common core standards through modern means which simultaneously advance STEM initiatives.

How is your idea a real opportunity for the youth of today?   

CREDIT EdTech Titans 3Joe: By learning about these advanced technologies through grade appropriate lesson plans students gain confidence in the field of engineering. Our focus is on making STEM initiatives tangible. Regarding iPad and iPhone repair education, every single student that completes the lesson plan now possesses a skill that can make them money for the next 10 years. This is the birth of widespread student entrepreneurs. Students that not only understand the form and function of iPad and iPhone hardware but connect their understanding of the technology to an ability to generate business. That business directly correlates to education.

Participants in our program are connected with like-minded students across campus, county, and state lines. Through an online certification platform we encourage social learning. Students give peer-to-peer advice surrounding device repair techniques through the collaborative platform.  They can choose to learn from a variety of lesson plans, beyond device repair, which prepare them to reverse engineer and re-assemble modern day technologies (quadcopters, for example) by hand. I dislike the term ‘pay to play’. Learn to play, or, understand to play—make more sense to me. Our program yields fantastic results for educators interested in getting girls into engineering. Boys and girls alike share an interest and engage each other through the online platform to hone in their understanding.

Are you aware of similar efforts? How is your organization unique? 

Joe: We know there are plenty of edtech companies looking to improve upon education but are not directly partnered to any of them as of today. We would love to partner with other organizations that see the value in teaching students about hardware.

The vast majority of edtech organizations are preparing students through programming courses and trust me, the actions of these companies will shape the future of the world. We are predominantly focused on hardware, on reverse-engineering, and on assembly. This allows us to educate on topics that span the fields of mechanical, electrical and software engineering.

Do you have problems of scaling? What sort of challenges are there in this area of growth? 

Joe: The most difficult aspects of scaling: One, getting the word out two, finding other visionaries.

As for one, as with many small companies one of the biggest issues is that no one has heard of you. While expected (only two years young) we are just now lifting the veil. We wanted to ensure that our process worked before bringing in more schools.

And two, we are on the cusp of an edtech revolution and it can be difficult dealing with the generational gap between some educators and their students. Teachers are getting younger everyday and that means they have a better comprehension of technology. They want to see more advanced programs and gadgets being utilized in the classroom. For the previous generation of educators, what we are doing may seem difficult. But we guarantee that your students are ready. With grade-specific education plans and educational product supplies, we are seeing students as low as fourth grade gain a rapid comprehension of how iPads, iPhones, laptops and gadgets function. Looking back on my own grade school iMac G3 experience I wish teachers would have pushed the boundaries of their comfort zone to prepare me to achieve my full potential.

A quote from Rabindranath Tagore to sum up: “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.”

Great quote! Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning education, technology, today’s next generation, productivity, morale, repair, etc.? Or anything else for that matter?

Joe: Technology killed woodshop. No one individual could produce the quantity and quality of product that the machines engineered to could. The result, machines edged out woodworkers. The common thread throughout history — the advancement of technology has a double-sided nature. Work and life become safer and easier for some, while at the same time, more difficult for others. Middle-skill and low-skill jobs disappear every day as a result of advancements made in technology. John Wu, IT Director from Archbishop Riordan High School, says that our team, “breaks ground in a new form of education, teaching students the fundamentals of how modern technologies work to inspire new ones to be built in the future.”

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

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Shining a Light on Student Outcomes

A poorly-lit high school-to-college pathway leaves students searching in the dark.

GUEST COLUMN | by Colin Mathews

CREDIT Merit meritpagesFor generations, the surest road to success for ambitious students led to college and a bachelor’s’ degree. College graduates reliably out-earned those with only a high school diploma, particularly over a period of declining wages for manufacturing and service jobs. High schools responded by preparing and sending record numbers of graduates to post-secondary education. Yet that once straight route has over time become rutted, redirected and even ruinous for many who travel it. That’s because a combination of a worldwide recession and changing employer demands have made the choices along the path to college a series of high-stakes decisions for those who travel it.

Graduation is an ending for most schools, with the transition from student to alumnus celebrated as a job well done. But what comes next is just as important for the students who have yet to graduate.

What is the best school? What is the best major? What internships, clubs, activities and more will make a difference? What’s more, these choices are deeply dependent upon each person’s individual goals and resources.

Complicating matters is the fact that high school students—and the teachers, administrators, and families who seek to guide them along their way—have very little insight into what awaits them down the paths they set out on. Graduation is an ending for most schools, with the transition from student to alumnus celebrated as a job well done. But what comes next is just as important for the students who have yet to graduate.

High schools have almost no visibility into what happens to the majority of their graduates. There are companies that offer statistical overviews of alumni outcomes, but none of the specific stories that connect the dots between their high school and every college for every graduate—the kind of stories that can create, inform and then nurture a college-going mindset for students who require role models as well as guidance.

Those specific stories make a big difference for students who lack a rich extracurricular support system that structures and enables higher ed expectations. Studies show that among high school students, peer preferences drive not only college choice, but the choice to go to college itself. Older peers, the kinds of “big kids” who can shape those expectations early in secondary school, are a prime vehicle for sending back scouting reports from the college path.

Yet tracking this information down is virtually impossible for most high schools to manage; high school students who head out for college are encouraged to almost superstitiously avoid their old stomping grounds. Even those secondary schools with both the staff and motivation to cultivate alumni relationships—like tuition-driven independent schools—struggle to maintain accurate, up-to-date databases of alumni accomplishments.

Colleges and universities are now starting to take the initiative to reach high schools with compelling evidence of those older peers’ experiences. The University of Findlay, for example, informs high schools which of their alumni are participating in internships or undergraduate research opportunities. Georgia State University connects high schools with stories of alumni and their diverse experiences at GSU, including study abroad, making it into an honor society, or being elected to student government. Those institutions are supported by programs like Better Make Room, with backers like Michelle Obama and LeBron James who are focused on communicating everyday success in college back to local communities and the students who seek the same paths.

Technology is allowing more colleges to connect the dots between their students and the high schools that prepared them for success. My company, which counts 250 colleges and universities on its roster, recently launched free accounts that every high school in the United States can use to view, share and promote the alumni outcomes that each college documents within the platform. Those updates range from enrollment to graduation, volunteer leadership to robotics competitions, and everything in between, casting a bright light on the individual paths each student at those institutions is traveling to their own outcomes.

When colleges make it clear what students are doing and achieving, and when they connect those stories to high schools so that future students can see the possible paths before them, decisions about what to do next are made based on the knowledge that someone like them has already done it, successfully. With technology that lets colleges and high schools collaborate to connect those dots, a new generation of students can see the paths before them and understand, through the stories of people they know, opportunities that await.

Colin Merit is founder and president of Merit, a technology company that helps hundreds of colleges connect personalized stories of student outcomes to high schools, communities, legislators, families, and employers. Write to: colin@meritpages.com

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