Archives for category: Blog Ed Tech

Startup Weekend Education Charlottesville

Read on

Who knew that picturesque Charlottesville, VA, could be a hotbed for innovation in education? Well, apparently the organizers, sponsors and participants of the Startup Weekend Education Charlottesville this past weekend did. There have been several Startup Weekend events in Charlottesville before, but this was the first focused on education.

This event brought together almost 40 participants, representing an equal balance of educators (researchers and practicing teachers), developers, designers, and University of Virginia business students, most of whom met for the first time at the event. The impressive team of mentors and organizers represented University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, education technologists, the business community, local government, angel investors and the local school district–all focused on building education solutions over the course of 54 hours.

Charlottesville’s Edupreneurs

Charlottesville may be a small town, but it’s got a big heart for education innovation. Here are some of the fine Virginians leading the charge to create a budding community of edupreneurs:

Letitia Green, MBA, M.Ed,  shared why she organized this event: “As an angel investor, I see VC funds investing in edtech, especially as the Common Core State Standards make solutions more viable across states. With a major education policy think tank like University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, Charlottesville is ideal for developing innovative education companies. The structure of a Startup Weekend EDU provided the perfect opportunity to bring the community together around education solutions.”

The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, led by Dean Robert Pianta, Ph.D, provides active support for education innovation and entrepreneurship. In fact, several education companies including CaseNex, another sponsor of this event, were founded within the university, a model more universities should explore.  The Curry School of Education Foundation is currently raising funds for an Innovation Incubator to continue to support the development of education solutions, so look for future announcements.

Startup Weekend EDU Charlottesville also appreciated significant support by the local school system,Albemarle Public Schools, led by innovator Superintendent Dr. Pam Moran, who spent several hours with the teams and attended the final presentations. (Check out her blog.) Chad Ratliff, Assistant Director of Instructional Programs, also generously spent his weekend mentoring the teams. Budding education startups rarely have such unfettered access to a superintendent and district leaders.

The winning team, SpedPort, helps teachers document the progress of special education students more effectively and efficiently through an online portfolio. (Check out SPEDPort founder, Patricia Walker, on the local news!) The other four final teams focused on improving the STEM pipeline for girls (Tech Girls), using eye tracking technology to diagnose early reading problems (EyeKey), developing a platform to search for science experiments (All Experiments) and ways to support informal community learning (UpEd).

How can folks in Charlottesville continue to learn how to build an education company after this weekend? Sign up for the Startup Digest Charlottesville to find out about upcoming events including the next Charlottesville cohort of the newly launched Startup Weekend NEXT program.

I’m sure we’ll be seeing more education companies coming out of Charlottesville! Not near Charlottesville? Look for a Startup Weekend Education event near you.
Katrina Stevens served as the Startup Weekened EDU facilitator.

Every Monday, Tioki interviews a teacher that’s doing innovative  and inspiring work to affect change and make a difference. I was honored to have been interviewed last week!

Click here to watch interview


All photos provided by Michael Rosner

I spent this past weekend coaching at Education Startup Weekend Baltimore and was struck by how much this event said about what’s happening here in my hometown.  From the focus on developing a tech pipeline to the maker community to the generosity of the organizers, coaches and judges—it’s clear Baltimore is blowing up.

Bmore Heard

First, I was awed and inspired that two of the eight final teams were led by Baltimore City Public School (BCPSS) students.  Both teams were articulate, organized and created strong products by the end of the 54-hour weekend. Bmore Heard (3rd Prize), pitched and led by Keimmie Booth, created a platform for student voices to be heard more broadly. I particularly appreciated that they built into the system the need for students to support their arguments to avoid the site devolving into a place to complain. By Sunday night, the team already had 55 students signed up and creating video speeches.

Another student-run group, UnBlockEdTech, created a tool for unblocking websites caught in current school network systems. On Saturday this team spoke with Dr. Alsonso, Superintendent for Baltimore City Public Schools, to find out exactly what would make him buy their service—talk about customer validation! Another one of my favorite moments was when a judge asked UnblockEdTech a technical question about where their service would interact with the current infrastructure, and without missing a beat, BCPSS student Jean Carlos Cedre clearly articulated the answer.

unblock EdTech

Baltimore’s burgeoning maker community was well represented. Though SparkEngine didn’t place, the team leader was able to convince 11 people to join his team! Originally the team focused on creating a “” for makers and educators but as they continued to speak to folks in the community (customer validation!), they realized that the larger issue was a need to begin developing a pipeline for maker educators.

Dr. Octopus interviewed 22 educators over the weekend as they created a focused search for relevant content that can be shared with students (more customer validation!). Similarly BOLD spoke with a number of organizations and schools as they designed a streamlined process to support students through the college process, with a focus on students with learning differences. Nominote, which helps college instructors learn students’ names, has use cases beyond education.

The judges’ decisions and support also reflect the local commitment to EdTech in general and to nurturing young talent in particular.  It’s always wonderful to see judges give up their Sunday evenings to watch pitches, provide feedback and determine winners. What made this event different is how these judges went beyond expectations and offered their access, time and funds to help several teams move forward. Chris Tonjes, for example, the Chief Information Officer for Baltimore City, offered to build Bmore Heard, recognizing the potential power of their platform and demonstrating a commitment to Baltimore City’s young people.

Another judge offered to reach out to his colleagues to secure pilots for CourseFly (2nd Place), a product designed to simplify the registration process, in several universities.

The winning team, Challenge Box—which I love!—was also provided helpful feedback on their business model by the judges. Challenge Box provides a choose-your-own-adventure story with a hands-on component. Young people literally receive a box of materials that they use to create elements to move the story forward. I was also impressed with how the Challenge Box team went out into the community to gather feedback at different stages. They even had a local upscale toy company owner tell them she’d buy it and at what price she thought parents would pay. Sign up for their mailing list to find out when they launch.

Challenge Box winning team

One of the main sponsors and organizers, the Digital Harbor Foundation, also reflects a significant movement in Baltimore for developing the technology pipeline, creating an EdTech community and supporting Baltimore’s young people.  Students in DHF programs don’t simply learn about technology, they do technology, as clearly seen by the student presence at the event.

Perhaps Harold Eckmuller said it best when he tweeted, “So, after just one weekend, Baltimore already managed to be a more exciting city than NYC. Damn fine job.”

trustChris Lehman’s call to arms for those of us in education to remember that we have a responsibility to hold the public trust resonated with me. As a co-founder of an edtech company, LessonCast Learning, and curriculum and professional developer in a large district, I take this responsibility very seriously. I share Chris’ disappointment when this trust is violated, and unfortunately, as Chris indicates, it seems to happen too often.

Of course, cheating scandals, and covering up cheating scandals are clear-cut violations. However, when we’re not thoughtful about finding the best deal on buying simple supplies like markers, we’re also not taking the best care of the public’s limited resources.  When we waste teachers’ time by not carefully preparing professional development opportunities, we’re also not honoring precious resources.

Our work in edtech focuses on providing real solutions for real education problems because we care deeply about impacting schools.  I entered and have remained in education because I see it as a social justice issue.  I could have joined the business world and risen the ranks with an accompanying high salary. There are also significantly larger markets than education—for me, they’re just not as important, which is why I’m discouraged when folks enter the edtech community who care little about solving real problems in education. Too many see edtech simply as an emerging market with potential for high profits. (There are many notable exceptions! I’ve been deeply impressed with the integrity and dedication of many of my colleagues.)

For example, instead of thinking through how the new Common Core State Standards will impact student learning, the focus of some companies is on how this can be made into an opportunity to make money.  Schools are frightened and confused about how to meet the new demands and are too often willing to try anything that claims to be the solution.  If as an edtech company, we can support schools by providing meaningful services and products, then we are upholding the public trust. If we haven’t thoroughly researched and thought through our services, then we are not upholding that trust and essentially have become snake oil salesmen.

Now, I believe that edtech companies should make money—the value we contribute to a learning community should be compensated fairly. On a practical level, companies need to pay their bills, and we need funds to continue to improve our services to better meet the needs of schools.  Also, when schools pay a reasonable price for a product or service, they’re able to demand more from their partners and they’re able to depend on the product remaining available. Free services have no obligation to make adjustments to meet a school’s needs or even to remain free.  It’s important for a partnering company to have a genuine relationship with the school community it serves.

The big question each edtech company needs to ask itself is the product or service it’s offering worthy of public funds? Will it have enough impact on learning to warrant a school allocating precious funds from its limited budget?

If not, we’re abusing the trust placed in us by taxpayers, and more importantly, we’re essentially stealing from children who deserve a high-quality education. We’re not willing to do that, which is why our team keeps these questions at the forefront as we strive to make sure our services truly impact schools.


On our return trip from ISTE, our LessonCast team stopped over in San Francisco for an EdTech Meetup featuring Eric Reis. Wayee Chu from New Schools Venture Fund and Alan Louie from Imagine K12 began the event by introducing companies that launched through their respective incubators—great to see friends from Junyo, GoalBook, ClassDojo, and Remind101 all in the same room.  Also reconnected with friends from MySciHigh, Kidblog and Plickers. (Missed my friend from!)

Jennifer Carolan, from New Schools Venture Fund and longtime friend of Eric Reis, interviewed Reis before opening the floor to questions from startup teams.  This was the 3rd time I’ve heard Eric speak, so though the fundamental philosophy was not new, it was good to hear his theories applied to EdTech.

Reis began the event by sharing that “magazine profiles are all lies—they make it seem like a founder has a great idea and boom it takes off,” and his case is no exception. It’s what I call the movie montage effect—all of the hard work blurs by moving the audience from great idea to success. Social Network implies overnight success through its mid-movie montage–when in reality all of these ideas take work, sometimes years of work. (The same effect exists in music; bands routinely do the circuit for 2 years before they’re “discovered” and become an “overnight success.”) Americans are in love with the mirage of rags to riches stories.

Assuming a basic understanding of lean startup thinking, here are a few of my takeaways from this chat:

1. Do we have enough courage we need to maintain our laser focus and not get distracted by good ideas?I love this question because I’m prone to being pulled by lots of intriguing ideas, which can distract from an absolute focus on testing our main idea.  Jason Fried, cofounder of 37signals recently shared a similar strategy in the July/August edition of Inc Magazine as his company decided to retire some profitable ventures because they took away from their main focus. Sometimes the decision to put aside a fabulous idea is the prudent call.  Keeping a board with cool ideas to test later has helped me maintain focus without feeling like I’ll forget an idea I want to remember later.

2. No matter what you do, you will be embarrassed by your first product. Reis further stated that “if embarrassment bothers you, then you’re in the wrong business.” Reis clarified that an MVP does not mean low quality however. Instead it’s more about releasing a product in its simplest form. Reis somewhat jokingly argued that early adopters essentially have mental illnesses or defects, though he acknowledged that sometimes it’s more because the problem is too big and they’re willing to try anything. The traditional early adopters actually prefer a product that isn’t quite perfect because they want to feel special.  The MVP is more about creating opportunities for real learning than it is as much about releasing a product. Reis argued that any work that’s beyond what early adopters require is a waste.  You should have released it sooner if it has more than the early adopters required.

3. People are “predictably irrational,” which means we have to submit everything to empirical testing, even if logic dictates a particular response.I was particularly struck by the discussion around business models. Too many companies, especially in EdTech, believe that if you get teachers and students on board, then the districts will buy it. Reis acknowledges that this is logical, but asks is that how it really works? Does the district care what teachers and students think? It’s important to test the question.

Working in the central office of a large district (with over 100,000 students), I know from personal experience that this kind of logic does not dictate district-buying decisions. The process is far more convoluted and often disregards what teachers want entirely. Companies that are relying on a student/teacher adoption to lead to district adoption don’t truly understand how the system functions in reality.

Reis stressed that we have a mental model of how the world should work/does work but that’s never based in reality. We must ground our work in reality without abdicating our responsibility to hold our vision as entrepreneurs. We need to hold two contradictory ideas in our heads. Great entrepreneurs can one day believe they have the best idea ever, then the next day share the data and realize “they’re doomed.”  Well, I’ve certainly felt both, sometimes all in the same day!

4. We don’t need viral growth across everywhere. We really only need to put pressure on one school, one district to see if the premise holds. Then test from there.

5. How do we learn in a high stakes environment like classrooms? So glad that this issue was raised! As a lifetime educator, it’s important to me that companies recognize that students are not simply laboratories to be exploited. In addition, public school teachers are also under a very trigger-happy gun with the increasing federal expectations for student achievement. As NCLB moves to 100%, schools are panicking and will be reluctant to deviate from established practices. (Charter and independent schools offer opportunities for EdTech, as long as we recognize that the results may be entirely different in a public school environment. The charter and independent school market are limited.)

Reis suggested that one option is targeting the students who are already not fitting into the system.  When early on in my career, I first began teaching in a low-performing school in North Philly, I was given essentially free reign with my students because my particular students had been unsuccessful in traditional environments. The school administration really only cared that my students weren’t disruptive. Anything beyond that was a plus. Within this context, I was able to be creative about reaching these students—this early experience makes me believe that the strategy of targeting students on the margins may work because the risk is lower for schools.

At first glance, it might seem that what you’re really testing would only apply to high-risk students but the reality is that much of what is successful in alternative education programs is really just good teaching. These practices are just effective, if not more so, with “traditional” populations. The real difference is that many traditional students have been trained to put up with mediocre teaching, so they don’t resist.

6. Be wary of the false sense of familiarity with the education market because we all went through school. Reis acknowledged that if you’re actually a domain expert in one of these education markets, then you can skip some of the steps because you know the answers.  As an “actual domain expert,” I still recognize though that what is true of the districts/schools where I’ve worked may not be true of districts and schools across the US. I still learned much from testing our ideas with a wide range of folks.

Reis also reminded us that we need to know all three groups really well—students, teachers and administrators, for ex. It’s a complicated model and to be successful we need to know all components well, not just one or two.

If organizations don’t have insider knowledge, outsiders can sometimes use this outside perspective to advantage by playing the “naïve questioner.”

7. Avoid the trap of success theater by “only making promises to investors about things you care about—be specific about what you want to learn, and then be clear about what you did learn.”   Too often entrepreneurs aren’t clear about setting realistic goals and measurement accountability posts, then find themselves wasting time and energy making themselves look like they’re meeting the expectations they set.  Just be realistic and specific from the beginning.

8. Don’t repackage bad ideas within lean jargon when pitching to investors. It doesn’t work, and you’re missing the point.

9. Khalid Smith, my cofounder of LessonCast and global leader for Startup Weekend EDU, raised one of the most important questions for me: Are students learning? In the education space, we should not simply be concerned with customer acquisition, but our focus should also be on whether or not we’re making things better.

Reis acknowledged this issue in other domains as well—too often businesses simply focus on whether or not their customers are happy, not necessarily if their services are making them more effective. In other businesses, this may not be as important, but in education children are the end users, so we can’t simply make them happy or make their parents happy or make their teachers happy. We can’t lose sight of the goal to make teachers more effective and to make sure that what we’re offering helps students learn. Otherwise, we’re failing our kids.

10. Final advice: don’t listen to Eric Reis or any other expert.  As Reis shared, most advice is anecdotal; experts who suggest a theory are more useful because the theory can be tested in on a micro-scale. Everything we do should be based on real data, real empirical evidence, not simply someone else’s advice.

Thanks again for all of the organizers of this event!

Some great takeaways from an Edtech event with Eric Reis, expert on lean startup thinking.

About 26 minutes into his weekly podcast with Audrey Watters, Steve Hargadon asks the astute question: Are there times when we’re tricked into thinking that technology is going to solve problems that are not easy to solve? As much as we want to believe, the perfect tech tool is not going to be developed that will solve all of our education problems. Why not?

Because changing teacher practice is hard work; changing practice on a school level is even more difficult.  Education companies that promise to solve all student achievement problems without consistent change in practice truly don’t understand what it takes to transform a school.  Fundamentally, they don’t understand what makes great teaching.  If the public believes that technology can bypass a teacher or make learning “teacher-proof,” then we’re devaluing the incredibly difficult craft of teaching and of leading a school.

It takes years to become a good teacher, even more years to become a great teacher.  Every classroom is different, every child is different. Teachers must plan for and adapt to the changing needs of students, often on the spot when a lesson takes an unexpected turn. Technology cannot replace this accumulated wisdom.

So, What Can We Expect Technology to Solve?

Technology can offer solutions to time-intensive processes that are less about teaching and more about administrative tasks. Technology can provide easier access to a wider range of resources, including human resources. Data that can be used to drive instruction can be collected and displayed more efficiently with tech tools. Technology can provide tools to help facilitate tasks.

While I was turning over these ideas in my head, the podcast conversation turned to innovative approaches to professional development, my deep passion. Steve Hargadon shared that he loves the idea of teachers filming themselves, but recognized that this could only really work well in a focused community, such as a school, that would provide safety and the time to do this. (Our research shows this to be true; in fact, most teachers are very uncomfortable with seeing themselves on camera.)

As I was nodding my head in agreement, Audrey advocated for technology to help shift professional development from lecture style to more hands-on, and then—pleasantly surprising– she mentioned LessonCast as one edtech company innovating professional learning.  She nailed our belief that professional learning must be consistent, job-embedded, tied to clear initiatives, and chunked so as not to become overwhelming.

Audrey also shared one of our secret learnings: the process of creating a lessoncast is a form of professional development in itself because what makes great teachers and great instructional leaders includes time for thoughtful reflection and collaboration.  Creating a lessoncast fosters reflection, and sharing a lessoncast provides a compact focus for collaboration with meaningful conversations about how strategies can be adapted for the specific needs of each set of students.

Technology becomes transformative , not when it replaces the work and the relationship building, but when it facilitates what we already know to be good practice.

Individualism in Education

I’ve been returning recently to a conversation I had in January when walking to dinner with Steve Hargadon during EduCon.  We were discussing Finland’s high performance on the international benchmarking assessment, the PISA. There was initial puzzlement when Finland was announced as one of the top 5 scoring countries because so much of their educational structure was quite different from the other high scoring countries. What became apparent though is that the one theme the Finnish could agree on collectively was a narrative of equity.

We’d like to believe that Americans could gather around this same call of equity, but in reality Americans prefer a narrative of meritocracy. We tell rags-to-rich stories of folks such as Bill Gates, for example. This so-called poor man who came from nothing and built an empire attended one of the most privileged boarding schools in the nation, the college he dropped out of was a small university– Harvard. Gates had access to a computer when few people even really knew what computers were. The reality of his narrative is really one of privilege, connection and access.

What might be a narrative Americans could rally around? Perhaps individualization is the answer. Somewhat tied to the American focus on meritocracy is our country’s rich history of “rugged individualism.”  Parents certainly want to see each of their children as “special,” so parents will support efforts to a tailored approach to education. As teachers and administrators, we’re moving on a trajectory toward individualization with our shifts toward differentiation and universal design for learning.

What will it take for education reform to rally behind individualization? At the very least, we must shift from being  an educator being “the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.”  Teachers will never become obsolete—this movement is not about replacing teachers with Khan Academy-like videos and gamified instruction. Clearly these are tools that can support instruction. How we teach must change significantly.

In the end though, it’s most often the relationship between the teacher and the student that impacts student achievement. One of the most powerful elements of a move towards individualization is that students will feel increasingly more that their teachers really understand their needs. When students feel that someone cares about them, they begin to care more about what they’re learning.


When Vinod Khosla asks “Will We Need Teachers or Algorithms?,” of course the answer is both.  Really, TechCrunch’s title is misleading because Khosla doesn’t argue that algorithms should replace teachers.  I had the pleasure of meeting Khosla when Mike Arrington was interviewing him as part of StartupWeekend EDU in Seattle, and he comes across as passionate about seeing technology’s potential to change education.

Many of Khosla’s points I agree with wholeheartedly—our system of fixed class time for graduation credit needs replacing, online learning has the clear potential to change the nature of teaching, gamification holds possibilities, and big data has much to teach us about student behavior.  I also love that Khosla sees the potential for each of these new online systems to become “a customizable playground for low-cost experimentation.”

Khosla’s issues with our traditional “fixed time, variable learning” model, for example, as opposed to a more flexible “fixed learning, variable time” model are on track.  Algebra is a good example—some students can learn algebra in a semester while others need two years. Instead of providing slower instruction for these students, we often make them take the course twice. Not an effective method of learning. Similarly, we’re holding back students who could fly through the material and move on to more advanced work.  Currently all diplomas are certainly not equal.  Four years of high school can look very different from one student to another, but they’re all required to sit through the same amount of credit hours.

I’m fortunate to know several folks who are working through these big data problems to understand how students learn better, and I do see them as becoming real game changers in education.  Recognizing how long students remain working on specific problems or reading particular passages can tell us more about where students get stuck. We can begin to find patterns that will enable us to support students more quickly. I can only imagine what tomorrow will bring in terms of better understanding student behavior and learning patterns.

Still, this article shows a lack of full understanding of what it takes to be a skilled teacher, aspects that cannot be replaced by algorithms and online programs. While Khosla does acknowledge the need for human interaction between a teacher and a student—and we know that a single adult, such as a teacher, can make the difference between a student’s success or failure, the teacher relationship goes further, or any caring adult could serve the same role, not only trained teachers.

Being a great teacher does not mean being a great lecturer. Khosla seems to believe that most teachers lecture, which is not the case for good teachers. Sure, there are some teachers with a gift for explaining topics clearly. Programs like Khan Academy have the potential to be able to offer multiple explanations of concepts with the hope that a student will find one that makes it all click. However, the role of a teacher should not be seen as a conveyer of knowledge—if a teacher practices this way—“sage on a stage,” then he or she is not a great teacher.

One of the greatest skills a strong teacher has is to be able to guide a discussion or activity so that students discover what they think, believe and want to know. Great teachers can also provide students opportunities to learn empathy and compassion. Skills a computer can’t teach. A skilled teacher can push student thinking further than most computer programs.

Twentieth-century skills such as collaboration, creativity and innovation can’t simply be learned by playing an online game or earning a badge. Different skills are involved in collaborating online than collaborating in person, for example.  Can a computer program teach innovation? Creativity? Inquiry goes beyond researching online.

The one advantage that most teachers would jump on– the potential for help with the time-consuming task of grading—Khosla doesn’t even mention.  Many great teachers become administrators or leave education entirely because of the sheer volume of grading. Though I worry that a machine can’t replicate a teacher’s encouraging comments, artificial intelligence could certainly screen for content or math problems. A computer could comment on a student’s code in a computer science class, as another example.

Khosla and I both agree that online learning has the potential to change the nature of the classroom and the role of the teacher, but algorithms and computer programs will never replace skilled teachers.  With the advent of better targeted online programs a teacher can be allowed to spend more time teaching her students how to be critical readers, writers and thinkers, prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.

Becoming an ed-tech entrepreneur has not only taught me to think differently about creating a business, but it’s also changed how I approach being an educator. For example, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

1.  Don’t wait for “someone else” to solve a problem. You know the issues that need solving because you live and breathe them, which means you’re in the best position to articulate and perhaps even develop the solution. You are also surrounded by other education experts who may also have workable ideas.

2.  Connect to an online community. You are not the first educator to encounter the problems you’re facing.  Others are trying, often successfully, to solve similar problems. We learn from the successes and failures of others. I also rely heavily on my online ed-tech community to help me discover new resources and keep up with ideas and policy changes.  This same strategy works with becoming a better educator.

3.  Develop relationships with mentors with different kinds of expertise.  Too often educators only find mentors in their specific discipline. While this makes sense on many levels, talking with others who have different perspectives can lead to more creative thinking.  English teachers can learn from biology teachers, for example, and there’s a whole world of professionals outside of the world of education!

4. Test your product effectively and efficiently.  During discussions of pilots in schools, I now find myself planning differently, advocating a more agile approach, so that we have a better understanding of how the individual components are working.  It doesn’t make sense to test too many “features” at once because there’s less clarity in knowing what’s led to a success or failure.

Also, instead of rolling out a program for the whole district with a single, final evaluation at the end of the pilot, advocate testing an idea in a handful of classrooms with frequent points of data collection. Make sure to know exactly what is being tested, so that the results provide the most usable feedback.

5. Think about scalability. Being an entrepreneur has taught me to think about scale differently. What works in one classroom/school may not work in all classes/schools. We’ve all heard the “hero” stories where a teacher or principal has turned around a class or school. The problem with these stories is that they’re difficult to replicate because the success story essentially relies on charisma rather than proven strategies. Before implementing a strategy that works in one classroom (or one school), make sure that it works in several others before implementing it district-wide. This extra step can save significant time, money and goodwill.

Perhaps most importantly, maintain a curiosity about the world! We can’t expect our students to be intellectually curious if we don’t model this curiosity for them.

Often Startup Weekend organizers will encourage participants to place different colored stickers on their nametags to indicate the skill sets they bring or the role they want to play over the weekend. For example, a green dot may designate an educator, while red would be a developer. This helps immensely if you have the beginning of a team but are missing a key role; you can actively seek participants with the color sticker you want.

Educator: This category includes K-12 teachers, administrators, higher ed professors and administrators, and occasionally other kinds of educators. Startup Weekend EDU is encouraging more educators to participate in the Ed Tech world, so that products developed will solve real problems in education.

Nontechnical: Some participants will have non-technical backgrounds such as business and/or marketing. Once I had a fabulous startup attorney on our team! Often non-technical participants can create financials and help with the business model. (I’ve found that many educators, including myself, are so focused on wanting to provide a service that helps teachers that we don’t worry enough about the business model.) I’ve more than a few fellow participants who already run their own startups and have invaluable advice to offer.

There can be significant overlap between the role of a designer and a developer. In the startup community, this can be amplified because an individual many need to take on more roles and will have a wider range of experience.

Designer: A designer is someone who basically creates the look and interface of a website or app; a great design appeals to its intended user and is easy to navigate. There are primarily two kinds of designers: graphic designers and web designers.

    • graphic designer is highly skilled at making the application look beautiful but may not have experience in making the application functional.


    • web designer may or may not have a graphic design background but has experience in making a site intuitive and functional for users. (A web designer will sometimes say they do front-end development.)


    • You may also hear designers/developers share that they have experience in UI or User Interface design, which means they’re comfortable balancing technical functionality and visuals, e.g., deciding where to place a button on an iPad app and making sure that it works.


Developer: The role of developer covers a wide range of tech folks. Essentially a developer or “dev”is someone who is willing and able to code, though developers usually take on more roles than simply coding a project to spec. Most developers have a mixed skill set so they don’t fall neatly into categories, but here are some terms tossed around to describe different technical expertise:

    • Front-end developer: A front-end developer creates the visuals and makes sure that they function. Some front-end developers also call themselves web designers.


    • Back-end developer: Most of the work a back-end developer does is invisible, but crucial. A back-end developer builds databases and infrastructures that support websites and applications.


    • *Looking at the creation of a website registration process provides an example of a function that needs both front-end and back-end work: A front-end developer/web designer would make sure that the registration button was in a logical place and clearly directed users to register. Aback-end developer would create the database that would connect to the front-end, so that all of the registration information was logically stored to allow users to log-in and interact with the site under their registered name.


    • Hacker: In the Ed Tech community, hackers are not malicious programmers trying to illegally break into computer systems. In fact, a hacker is someone who has high-level coding skills and genuinely enjoys understanding, creating and changing computer programs and infrastructure to make them do something different than originally intended. The title hacker is usually given to someone by the larger community as a sign of respect, rather than claimed by one’s self.


    • Coder: The term coder is a bit dated because writing software has become more sophisticated, but it can apply to anyone who writes software. Coders tend to focus on doing specific tasks well, whereas hackers are known for liking to explore what a program can do.


    • UX/User Experience: Someone who oversees UX or the user experience is responsible for the whole experience of the user from the first moment of clicking on the iPad, mobile phone or program through all of the facets of the user moving through a program, app or game. The goal of the UX designer/developer is to drive the user toward what you want. During a startup weekend, you won’t have time to iterate enough times to have a perfect user experience but folks with experience with creating effective applications can jumpstart the process.


    • Gamer: More and more gamers are joining Startup Weekends for Education because there’s a movement to make some kinds of learning more game-like, particularly skills that need lots of practice until they become automatic, such as basic math computation.


  • Information architect: There may be some developers who are information architects, which means that they have experience developing large-scale infrastructure. You won’t be building information architecture during a Startup Weekend—the lean startup model calls for continual iteration on a small scale and architecture implies larger structures. While you don’t necessarily need these specific skills, architects tend to have experience with other forms of development and design as well.

In the end, don’t worry if you’re not really sure what each job description means; just ask people what skills they bring and what they were hoping to do that weekend. Everyone’s usually friendly and happy to explain what they can and are willing to do!