Archives for the month of: July, 2013


Originally published in Edsurge.

Where do edtech entrepreneurs–many of whom are former educators– find support as they navigate the ups and downs of building a company?

I posed this question to my panel at ETIS 2013, “Building an Edtech Ecosystem.” It really could have been titled “Women to Watch in Edtech” or “Women ‘Leaning In’ to Edtech.” Joining me were Katie Palenscar, (founder and CEO of Unbound Concepts, an edtech startup and graduate from Accelerate Baltimore and Socratic Labs), Jess Gartner (founder and CEO of Allovue, which also came out of Accelerate Baltimore), Heather Gilchrist (partner and program director at Socratic Labs), and Erica Gruen (principal at Quantum Media).

Each panelist shared the classic story of experiencing a pain point in her classroom and wanting to fix it. That was just the first step. Often, having mentors and seeing examples of other edupreneurs have helped educators realize that they could build a solution–and even a company.

That’s what happened to Gartner, who shared that seeing Katie Palenscar launch Unbound Concepts in the spring of 2012 inspired her to start her own company to tackle the problem of school resource allocation. And now that multiple schools signed up for her service, Gartner is the success story–and she tries to return the favor by mentoring like-minded entrepreneurs through the complexities of founding a company.

Gilchrist is “leaning in,” too, and lending a helping hand. Through her work at Socratic Labs, an incubator for edtech startups, Gilchrist shares her experiences from her previous experience at Grockit, a test prep startup. Gilchrist isn’t content to support just the local NYC community, either. She spearheaded Socratic Labs’ Edtech Passport program, which seeks to connect human and capital resources in edtech ecosystems in New Orleans and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Even teachers who have left the field years ago often want to remain connected to education. Gruen represents a different and important aspect of the edtech community member by serving as an angel investor and advisor to startups. Beginning her career as a language arts teacher, curriculum developer, and education psychologist, Gruen shifted to entertainment, taking over The Food Network and selling it, after which she launched and sold Bravo. She now serves as a mentor for Socratic Lab (as well as an angel investor in Unbound Concepts), where she advises edtech startups on marketing and business strategies.

As these entrepreneurs blaze their own trails, they are simultaneously reaching back to show others the way, creating a network of support and resources. Palenscar mentioned that all of her fellow panelists have one another on speed dial; each has answered urgent text messages in the wee hours of the night. Founding an edtech company, they pointed out, is much more possible with the support of like-minded people who are passionate about changing education, and who remind you that you are, truly, the best person to solve the problem.

Originally published in Edsurge.

Whoa! 1,073 tweets, from 119 people over the course of an hour! That’s a virtual fire hose of information.

On Monday, people gathered (virtually) re #edtechchat to share tips, best practices (and even a few warnings) about how to choose technology. Moderator Katrina Stevens has pulled a handful of the comments. Feel free to explore the online archive of the whole chat for more details. Even better: the group will be at it again next Monday evening (8pm ET; 5pm PT) Join in!

How do you choose edtech tools? 

@harrell_art The learner is the center. Use technology as a tool to engage the learner rather than the focus.  

@SrtaLisa The learning goal still needs to drive the lesson. Must consider if tech helps or complicates that.

Sometimes you have to be the guinea pig & be the first teacher in your school to try edtech tools. Someone has to be first.

@Jepson  you need #edtech that ENHANCES your curriculum, your teaching, and students…not dominates.

@SaneeBell Tools are like shoes. Not all tools will fit every teacher and every classroom.

What should administrators do?

@nathan_stevens Admins should curate tools and have a portfolio of options for teachers. don’t have to know how to use, but exist

@hparcher Ts need to realize engaging with tech is no longer optional. Ss need skills & 2 become dig. citzns. Who else will model that?

@ryanhorne0076 Qs to ask: how much PD is required? what’s real cost of tool? Is it “beta”? How much experimentation do u like?

@hparcher Do we want kids learning Digital Citizenship on the back of the bus or in a classroom with a qualified teacher?                     

We need to devote more, small group, teacher-led PD to integration of good edtech tools. Share lessons that work.  

@iplante play with any tool yourself first..don’t put in students hands until you understand it  

@MrPardalis: Too many tools can equal student and teacher confusion if you aren’t tech savvy. Not necessary to jump ship for every new tool

@engtechwriter Beware the sheen of something new. Not all that glitters is good. Seek to see it in action in your room.  

@ShawnCRubin I hate free that isn’t free! Don’t say free if you only give me enough to test product. Be clear that free is not usable!  


In my dream world there is a room at school where Ts can practice tech on each other, and try things out.  

@RafranzDavis: Don’t tie the tool to the task. Assign the task & let the task guide the tool 

@s_bearden: As a tech director I like to know about different tools so I can support tchers interested in using them. 

@iplante: I learn about so many tools from my PLN…the key to helping others take the Connected road  

@hparcher: device agnostic. no need for S emails. Easy to set-up/maintain/update/whatever & more about creation vs. consumption     

The best tools are naturally intuitive, I don’t have to read a manual to learn them  

A powerful tool is one that helps my students share their voice and for me to witness & document their understanding

As a side note, a few folks mentioned bandwidth as issue: @mrvandersluis: bandwidth is big issue especially for a rural school like mine @techie_teach: bandwidth is huge conversation in Mississippi because of the #CommonCore

Again, thanks to all who joined in. The fun begins again next Monday evening at #edtechchat

Baltimore view

I almost moved to Silicon Valley but decided to remain in Baltimore because I believe it has real potential to become an EdTech Hub. Why?

In addition to truly inexpensive housing, Baltimore has a quirky spirit that believes it can do anything. Baltimore is also home to strong community movements, as well as a whole range of meetups and events for the tech and even edtech community. The model for the Digital Harbor Foundation has real potential for replication in other regions.  Tom Vander Ark’s comments on his recent visit to Baltimore confirm Baltimore’s rising stardom.

But we could go further, become more.

Here are some beginning thoughts on steps we could take to put Baltimore on the edtech map. I’ve been circulating this the past few weeks, so many of these ideas are coming out of conversations with local edtech companies, local investors, and community organizations. This is an attempt to organize and open up the conversation. Looking for feedback!

1. Market Baltimore as an Edtech Hub

If we created one website that featured edtech companies, we might be able to attract investors wanting to focus on a region and edtech companies looking to relocate or open additional offices. The site should also clearly highlight what makes Baltimore attractive—inexpensive housing, lively downtown scene, and a supportive edtech community.  (Apparently Kiplinger recently voted Baltimore the #2 best city for singles for those who might be interested!)

Going beyond the startup scene and including local edtech successes, such

Sylvan, Laureate, Learn It, Calvert Education Services, Prometric, and MoodleRooms, creates a strong tradition of education technology in the region.

How might the edtech community grow if some of these stalwart companies reached out to provide mentoring? What might more established companies learn from startups?

2. Create an Annual Edtech Collaborative Event

Organizing an annual event that brings together edtech startups with educators could strengthen the connections between edtech and the education community, as well as bring attention to Baltimore.  Chicago recently hosted an event, for example, that drew over 600 people, including around 450 educators, and provided opportunities for young edtech companies to showcase their tools and to interact directly with teachers and administrators.

3. Provide Access to Market Research and Related Reports

Most of Baltimore’s edtech companies cannot afford to pay the high fees associated with market research reports to provide them the data they need to make better decisions. Edtech companies coming out of places like Imagine K12, for example, frequently have access to these kinds of reports. It would be helpful if a local entity, a government organization is a logical choice, provided access to education reports, similar to the way the local biomedical community has access.

4. Create a School District Broker

A matchmaking broker could facilitate connections between schools and edtech startups.  This role could help streamline the process for helping startups find the right school partners.

Working with Baltimore City and Baltimore County Public Schools, we could identify a dozen or so schools that are willing to partner with edtech companies. Those schools would understand what is expected from them and what they will receive in return.  Startups would understand the process for engaging and partnering with schools.

Schools are wary of startups for a range of completely legitimate reasons:

  • They are afraid that a startup could disappear or pivot after the school has invested time in the product.
  • Principals are cautious of the perception that their students might be part of “experiments.”
  • Losing instruction time has significant consequences, so educators are protective. Stakes are high for students and educators.
  • If something does not work, principals have to explain why they chose an untested product or service. If a district understands that a set of schools has  been identified to try edtech innovations, less risk exists for those schools.
  • Schools need to trust that the adults who enter their buildings have the best interests of their students in mind.

Ideally, this school district broker should not be limited only to startups coming out of particular accelerators or other programs.  Any legitimate edtech startup should be considered. There is also no reason why the Baltimore Edtech scene cannot partner with other school districts beyond the city and county.

5. Develop University Partnerships

Stanford feeds the Palo Alto tech community in similar ways that Boston universities feed its tech community. The Baltimore region has many high-caliber schools that would make excellent partners in developing an edtech pipeline of talent as well as providing research partners. Public education stresses the importance of only using research-based programs, and we have a number of universities known for research. We just need to make the connections.

MICA offers intriguing possibilities, especially with its recent branching out into new design and business programs. Talented user experience (UX) folks are difficult to find and yet the user experience is crucial to developing a successful edtech product. Partnering with MICA could lead to a significant design talent pipeline. If Baltimore were to establish itself as an edtech hub that truly understands UX, talent and money could flow to Baltimore. University of Maryland at Baltimore County also has several established digital design programs.

With Presidential Scholar Dr. Nancy Grasmick making Towson University (TU) a leader in teacher education, Vince Talbert on the TU Board of Visitors, and Frank Bonsal, Jr., of New Markets Venture Partners and Bonsal Capital, serving as interim director of the TowsonGlobal Business Incubator, Towson has real potential for supporting the edtech ecosystem.

Johns Hopkins University and Loyola University are other obvious potential partners, as well as many other strong institutions in the region.

6. Broaden the Baltimore Edtech Community

Expanding the region beyond Baltimore City opens up possibilities. The San Francisco scene really extends through Palo Alto, Mountain View, and even down to San Jose.  By narrowing our vision of Baltimore edtech simply to the city, we are potentially limiting our potential base, making it harder to compete with established and burgeoning communities.

Even if we simply developed more relationships between Baltimore City and Baltimore County, we could position ourselves more strongly. Expanding beyond Baltimore is also definitely worth a conversation about the advantages we could gain from a broader base.

7. Create Paid Internships for Developers

Creating a paid internship program could bring much-needed talent to Baltimore. Baltimore’s inexpensive housing and downtown scene, as well as supportive edtech community, will help keep them.

8. Consolidate Community Efforts

Many individuals and organizations appear to be invested in moving Baltimore’s edtech community forward.  For example, while the Emerging Technologies Center  (ETC) is not strictly focused on edtech, the ETC is nurturing an edtech cluster whose CEO’s meet regularly to learn from one another and to strategize how to foster Baltimore’s edtech ecosystem.

The Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore recently released a market research report on the potential for Baltimore to become an edtech hub, as well as hosted an initial discussion about how to move Baltimore forward.

The Maryland Incubator Company of the Year Awards recently added edtech as its own category. Clearly there is a growing awareness of the potential for our community.

How might we consolidate community efforts to be more effective? To truly put Baltimore on the map, we all need to work collaboratively.

9. Attract Seed Money

Simply put, more seed money investing in Baltimore edtech is necessary for the region to grow.

In addition, while there is a small group of local investors who have an appreciation of the complexities of edtech, helping a larger pool of investors understand the industry could expand investments.

10. Innovate the Foundation Model

Are there ways to be more innovative with foundation funding models? For example, the Abell Foundation has funded betas within the Baltimore City schools, providing nondilutive capital to help edtech startups.

11. Tap into the Gaming and Maker Communities

Hunt Valley is one of the four big hubs (San Francisco, Boston, Austin) for the gaming industry, and gamification continues to be a trend in education.  Can we tap into the local gaming community before they all exit the region?  The maker community also has a strong presence here that could partner with edtech development.

12. Gain Access to Influencing Policy

Many established education companies have resources to influence policy decisions; small edtech companies do not have these kinds of resources or access. Is there a way to pull resources or create a forum that could influence policy to be more beneficial to edtech companies?


Appeared inEdsurge on July 12 

This is what edtech should be: teachers, administrators, and even students, and edupreneurs participating in the same conversation.

On Thursday, July 11, hundreds of teachers and administrators from public, private and charter schools from the Chicago region spent a day of their free time learning more about the 30 edtech startups and trying out their products. The beautiful, light-filled Harold Washington Library, imbued with a long history of spreading knowledge for all, provided the perfect backdrop for these lively interactions.

The brainchild of Eileen Murphy, former teacher, curriculum developer, and district-level administrator for Chicago Public Schools and now founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, the Education Technology Startup Collaborative User Conference facilitated many informal interactions among tech-savvy educators and startup teams building the tools.

Samuel Dyson, Director of Hive Chicago Learning Network, masterfully kicked off the event with a rally call: “learning as a lifestyle,” which many teachers took to heart as they volunteered a summer vacation day to learning from and helping entrepreneurs.

Chris Liang-Vergara, Chicago native and Director of Instructional Technology for Personalized Learning at FirstLine Schools, opened his keynote with a quote from John Dewey, squarely reminding participants that the focus is on education and not the technology. In both his opening and comments during the closing panel, Liang-Vergara emphasized that educators should first identify what they hope to achieve or the problem they want to solve, then determine the best tools to use–and not the other way around. “If the technology fits, make it fit. But don’t force it to if it doesn’t.” Liang-Vergara also asserted that the feedback loop between education technology and the educators using them is fundamental to the future of education.

The takeaway message of the day: educators recognizing that they have a crucial voice in the development of technology tools that meet their needs. With so many of the edtech startup teams founded by former educators, it became even more apparent that teachers have the ability to identify their needs and participate in finding and creating solutions. Not all teachers can or should become edupreneurs, but all can play a critical role in the conversations about how to develop and implement the best tools to support student learning.

The morning and afternoon format mixed 3-minute company demos with hour-long open sessions for educators to spend time with individual startups of their choice. Startups also solicited feedback during these informal sessions. Many teams took advantage of the opportunity to identify educators who were interested in continuing conversations later. One grammar-focused startup, NoRedInk, shared a link to a poll which allows educators to vote directly for the next features and topics they’d like added. (Want to add your vote? Click here!)

Teach Plus, a national non-profit dedicated to improving outcomes for urban students, also polled participants on a range of topics related to educational policy, preparedness for online assessments, and important issues in education. Projected instantly on large screens spread throughout the space, participants were able to see the room responses in real time. (Look next week for EdSurge’s recap of the poll results!)

The lunch panel’s star was a 13-year-old from Chicago Quest who offered a much-needed student’s perspective on all the technology being built. He shared that it was better to “be a protagonist than a student,” he said, illustrating his point that he preferred building technology than simply consuming or learning how to use it. (Many of the edtech startups wanted to hire him on the spot!) Fellow panelist, Neal Sales-Griffin, CEO of The Starter League (formerly called Code Academy) echoed this when he shared that “growing up, I did not know that I didn’t have to just use computers. I did not know then that I could BUILD computers.”

As Liang-Vergara reiterated, we are “entering an era where digital tools can enable teachers to guide children through curricula and experiences unlike ever before.”  He used an analogy of maps to illustrate his point about the important role of teachers. Map directions are suggestions, he said, but only an educator knows best on how to guide students through a journey of self-exploration.

Discussions are already underway for similar events to be held in the SF Bay Area and in Baltimore. This user conference may be signaling a shift in edtech conferences altogether.