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This is for any educators out there interested in participating in DC Startup Weekend EDU this weekend or any others in the future! I plan on continuing to add to this Ed Tech Glossary, so please let me know if I’ve missed something or an idea needs clarification.

Though an experienced teacher and administrator, I was a complete novice when I joined a founding startup team. I didn’t know lean startup from Lean Cuisine. Customer validation was making sure to get my parking validated at a restaurant in Inner Harbor, and an MVP was the “most valuable player.” I suspect that many other educators interested in entering Ed Tech are coming from a similar place, so I’m creating a glossary of some Ed Tech terms, starting with the lean startup concept. For those of you who plan to participate in an EDU Startup Weekend, the founders and many participants advocate a lean startup approach to creating a business, so it’s useful to understand the concept.

Lean startup modelEric Reis turned his blog into a recently published book, The Lean Startup, which was #2 on the New York Times Bestsellers list. (Inc. Magazine featured a condensed version of Reis’s book if you want further reading.) Essentially, Reis developed a business model that encourages startups to find out as quickly as possible whether or not the business idea/product/service is viable. The path to achieving this learning is to create a rough version of your product that goes into a cycle of testing, iterating, testing, iterating, testing, and iterating until the product is viable. An important part of this process is early and frequent customer validation.  The lean startup model came out of a concept in manufacturing where small batches are created so that there is minimal loss of time and money if the market isn’t interested in that version of the product. The same lean process works well applied to technology too. When creating a web-based tool or an app, you can create a mockup to garner feedback without building the actual product or feature, for example.

Minimally viable product or MVP: This is not the same as a prototype! In the Lean Startup model, the goal is to create  a test the smallest piece of a business to see if there’s a market for it. Reis defines the MVP as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”  Essentially, you’re looking for the minimum set of features needed to learn from your early adopters because you want to learn early what users want and don’t want. It limits spending time and energy on products that no one really wants. Most teams try to develop a minimally viable product during a startup weekend, not the whole business. It looks great to judges if you’re able to validate your idea/product during the weekend.   You may be asking, but how do I do that?

Customer validation or validated learning: There are a number of ways to learn about your customers and what they like and don’t like about your product/service. There’s also a big difference between what someone might say they like and what they’re willing to buy or do. The best validation is showing that customers/users will in fact want your product/service and be willing to pay for it.

You first want to see if there’s any interest. For example, if you already have a free product but are curious if people would pay for some additional features, you could add a button to your site that advertises the new version (which you haven’t built yet!). If a number of users click the button, then you have begun validating that customers are interested. If no one clicks, then all you’ve wasted is the time to develop the concept—you haven’t spent excessive money and time on something no one wants.

During a Startup Weekend, you’re likely to focus on establishing general interest in your product or service, and if you’re lucky, getting some users to act. There’s not a lot of time to build significant traction. One way to establish initial interest is to create a landing page.

Landing page: To test the viability of an idea, a single webpage is sometimes created to see if anyone will sign up for the product/service.  There are several pre-built free pages out there. I’ve used and liked KickoffLabs as well as Launch Rock. What’s great about these programs is that they provide data: how many times the page was visited, how many visitors were unique, how many actually signed up. (There are some great programs with more bells and whistles for when your business grows and you need to track more complex user actions. At LessonCast, we use MailChimp).

Here’s an example: I joined the team TeenStarter at Startup Weekend EDU in Seattle. The concept for this youth-only site was to provide both advice on creating a business (how to pitch, how to develop an idea, how to market) and to provide a platform for students to pitch their ideas to get seed funding (micro-financing for teens). Our hypothesis was that a student would post a video pitch and then use social media to send it out to his or her network. Friends of friends might also contribute, until the student received the money he or she needed to launch a business or community project.

Here are the steps we took to validate the concept that weekend:

  1. We created a landing page ( and used social media to blast to contacts of everyone on the team. (KickoffLabs showed 73 unique views and 17 users signed up.)
  2. Again using social media, our team sent out a request for any teenagers who had an idea to pitch. (One 13-year-old relative of a team member uploaded a video late Saturday night!)
  3. Once we had the site minimally functional, we posted the teenager’s video pitch and at uploaded a PayPal donate button. (Our featured teenager needed $60; $40 was raised before final pitches on Sunday night. She had the rest the next day!)

For a Startup Weekend, this exercise demonstrated a good conversion rate, and was a fairly solid proof of concept! You shouldn’t expect to get this far on most weekend projects.

Conversion rate: It’s one thing to get users to your site; it’s quite another thing altogether to get them to act/buy/participate. For example, if you send out an email directing folks to a landing page, the first conversion rate will be how many viewers actually click on the link to that landing page. Then the next level of concept validation is how many of these users actually sign up. It’s possible to have more levels of increased engagement beyond this, of course. Each increased level of engagement provides more validated learning about what customers will do. In the Teenstarter example, one measure of  a conversation rate would be that out of 73 people who viewed the landing page, 17 actually signed up by providing their emails.

There are other ways to validate what your customers like: interviews are often used

Interviews: Interviews are a great way to gather information during and after a Startup Weekend. Just because you are an educator does not mean that you should assume that you know what all educators will want—still take the time to get feedback from other teachers and administrators. Other participants, organizers and mentors can help you get in contact with people outside your own educator circle. Asking educators on other teams is one good method to gather some immediate input. Showing two or three versions of a product works well to provide you with specific feedback about features.

Mockups: Remember that you do not have to create a full product to get feedback. A mockup can provide the same information with much less time investment. I learned how to use Balsamiq (free trial period!) at one Startup Weekend—it’s great for creating a design of a website or iPhone app.

Traction: Once you’ve validated your concept, you next want to build traction, something that’s unlikely to occur during a Startup Weekend because of the condensed timetable but definitely an area of focus as you move your business forward. Traction means building a set of early adopters and being able to get those adopters to do something. For example, if you’re building a community-based site, then your traction would be connected to how many users are interacting on your site. If you’re selling a product to schools, how many schools have signed? If you’re interested in investors, then they will be interested in your traction.

When you’re at Startup Weekend, learn as much as you can from other participants and mentors about other effective ways to develop your concept into a viable business!

Next blog: Tech Terms for Teachers!

As one of the 3 or 4 educators (who also traveled across the country to participate), I have such mixed feelings about the StartUp Weekend EDU in Seattle. First, I want to be clear that I had a wonderful experience, the event ran well (Thanks TeachStreet and www.StartUp!), and I couldn’t have asked for a better team. My frustration came from the pitches minimal connection to education and the decided lack of educators present, as Audrey Watters aptly stated.

Perhaps sharing my thought process during and directly after the pitches might contribute to this conversation. I decided not to pitch because I went into the weekend with the intent to join another team; it wasn’t the right time to pitch anything for LessonCast, the ed tech startup we launched at an earlier StartUp Weekend, and I didn’t want to convince people to join me in a startup I couldn’t pursue after the weekend. Instead, I thought I’d contribute an educator’s perspective to someone else’s idea.

I almost changed my mind when pitch after pitch was only tangentially related to education. Out of all of the pitches, I liked the texting pitch but there are a number of other folks in this space already with viable products, and it was pitched by an educator, so I didn’t feel like I was needed on that team. Similarly, there are already several online course platforms that have simultaneous functionality like what Let’s proposed. Study Buddy already exists in many forms. Death Math and Babble Math concept were likely to become viable apps, but they weren’t looking for a teacher. Gaming makes sense for skills that require automaticity, such as multiplication tables, and at every StartUp Weekend someone builds at least one app that tries to do that. These apps help engage students in very specific skills, but they’re not solving the big problems in education. I liked that the “Buy a Broom” concept came out of a developer’s desire to help a real teacher; however, I knew about groups like, so it wasn’t a real need. In fact, I shared this information with him, and he followed me to the group where I landed.

Here’s why I finally chose TeenStarter. On my plane ride over, I was working through program ideas (for my day job in education) helping move students toward being college and career ready, as part of our state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards. My county’s in the midst of conversations around how we can have students tackle real-world problems—TeenStarter came closest to this.

My big issue with groups like and is that teachers have to write the proposals and do most of the work. Teachers are already overextended. I liked that TeenStarter placed the process in the hands of middle and high school students. Our team didn’t have the time to add all of the educational pieces that would have given students more resources for learning how to organize an event or project, or creating a business, but those were part of the vision. I don’t feel badly for having worked with this group—I learned a lot from my team and I feel like they heard my educator perspective and will definitely contact me if they need that voice again. I also know that my students would use a site like TeenStarter, so I hope someone else does build it. It has the potential to help students focus their desire to make the world a better place into tangible projects, and it allows donors to fund small projects in their communities.

I’m still figuring out how to bridge the divide between ed tech and education; I certainly gained more skills and contacts this weekend that will help me understand the tech side. Next I’ll be a mentor at the DC event, and I’m sure I’ll learn even more. Making these weekends really move education forward is a work in progress—that’s why it’s so great that there’s now a whole series. I’m sure they’ll get better and better.

Many journalists have responded to aspects of Matt Richtel’s Sunday article in the New York Times, “In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores,” because it raises so many different issues about the effective use of technology in our schools and our over-reliance on test scores as a measure. My concern with this article and this public debate in general is the lumping together of all technology. Imagine if we talked about books this way—all books are good, all books are bad. The use of books increases or decreases standardized test scores. Clearly some books are crucial to learning, while others, say a romance novel, not so much. We’d never lump together a book of Sudoku puzzles, a spy thriller, a Shakespeare play, an elementary math book and a chemistry textbook, so why do we lump together technology so often when we make sweeping judgments?

Or insert tools into the debate instead of technology—all tools are good, all tools are bad. The use of tools increases standardized test scores. A surgeon, for example, needs researched and tested tools to perform his or her job well, but the best surgical tools cannot replace the knowledge and experience of the surgeon. Technology should be thought of similarly—as a set of tools to be wielded by experts. Not the be all and end all to itself.

Any technology that claims to replace the wisdom of a talented teacher is immediately suspect to me. I’ve written before about my issues with edtech companies who know little about education foisting products that don’t solve real issues, and that often argue that they can work around or replace good teachers. It’s an entirely different conversation to discuss tools that help teachers use their expertise to target the specific needs of students or even that help them amplify their wisdom so that other teachers may benefit.

Richtel incorrectly concludes that the fact that some classroom studies show increases in scores while others show decreases with the use of instructional software should, “not surprisingly, give researchers pause about whether big investments in technology make sense.” The issue shouldn’t be that there’s inconclusive evidence that instructional software is effective, but rather which instructional software is effective and under what conditions.

The research I want to see is an analysis of the effectiveness of specific kinds of technology—sensors used in science classroom rooms should be evaluated completely differently than games that reinforce arithmetic skills or programs that claim to improve reading scores. A document reader is a different kind of tool than a mobile app. In a former job where I oversaw English language arts for a county with over 100,000 students, I reviewed a great deal of useless instructional software, but I did see some great technological innovation as well, always designed by former teachers.

As Cathy Davidson writes in her response, we’re not preparing our students for the digital future—it’s the “digital present: it’s here, it’s now, like it or not.” Our job as educators is to arm our students with the skills they need to function successfully in a digital age. I’m a firm believer in education as a way to level the socioeconomic playing field; if we limit the use of technology in the classroom, then those students who have wide access at home to technology will continue to be more competitive in college and the workforce. Students need hands-on experience with a wide range of technological tools—the issue is which tools best prepare students? And when I say best prepare students, I don’t mean to take standardized tests, but rather for the real challenges they’ll face competing in the global workforce.

Davidson also wisely points out that missing in Richtel’s article is a discussion of where teacher training fits. She argues that “no school should invest in technology without investing in substantial, dedicated retraining of its workforce—which is to say teachers.” She shares that IBM spends the equivalent of $1700 per employee each year to keep them up-to-date on new technology, tools and methods. Anyone who works with educational technology in a school setting recognizes that the success of any technological innovation or tool lies with professional development, yet money and time are rarely allocated here.

Knowledge acquisition and knowledge production are also completely different tasks, and the use of technology should be reviewed differently for each. Students should be able to do more knowledge acquisition independently so that teachers can spend more classroom time helping students make sense of what they’ve learned. Tom Vander Ark, a vocal advocate for blended learning, argues that Richtel’s article leaves out online learning entirely. Richtel only cursorily discusses the shift from “sage on the stage to guide on the side” without untangling when this approach is appropriate. Do teachers need to waste precious time pushing knowledge acquisition on their students? No, their time is better spent working with students in analyzing the information they’re learning, and helping students share their own knowledge. Using instructional software to guide at-home reading and reporting that understanding (or lack of) to the teacher so that she is better prepared to respond to her students the next day could be a great use of technology. However, do I want a chemistry teacher to be the “guide on the side” the first time students interact with dangerous chemicals? Of course not. If great technology exists though that helps students understand the data they analyze during this experiment, then I want that teacher to use it.

The debate about the use of technology in the classroom should be more focused on what we want students to be able to do and to know, and then which tools are worth the time and money spent to achieve these goals.


When I went through the pitch process at the Mega Start-Up Weekend in Mountain View (See article in Fast Company for description of event), I initially felt frustrated. Coming into the weekend, I was hyper-excited about being there because I loved my first experience of Start Up Weekend SF EDU. When pitch after pitch had little to do with teaching–and two pitches advocated horrible pedagogy, I was running a bit hot. I felt like we were facing the same issue as we did before— a real lack of understanding of the true needs of education in the tech world. I was fully prepared to write extensively about why this needed to change, and then I realized that my perspective was fairly narrow and wasn’t giving me room to grow personally. It’s easy to rant about something, but harder to work toward a solution.

When I stepped back and allowed myself to pay more close attention, here are some of the lessons I learned over the weekend:

1. Most people go to Start-Up Weekend to have fun—and that’s okay. Not everyone needs to save the world over the weekend. (Think about what we could do though if we tried!) I shouldn’t have been mildly irritated when one developer told me that he chose another group because it sounded like more fun, even though he knew it wouldn’t have any real impact on education. While making an impact is really important to me, it’s not why everyone comes to StartUp Weekends. It’s also about developing a community, learning about startups and having a great time with interesting and talented people.

2. When someone who has listened to thousands of pitches, like Scott Case, gives you feedback on your pitch, you should listen closely. We had recently made a significant pivot and thought we had committed to it, so when Scott told us that our pitch reflected ambivalence, my first response was defensive—why didn’t he recognize that we had already just decided to change direction? The more I ruminated on his comment though, I realized that he was right. Our first product was our baby and it was hard to leave it alone while it was still in its infancy. Though we had started working on a new LessonCast product, we hadn’t fully planted our feet, turned our backs and completely faced the new direction we needed to go. We were still trying to drag our first baby along with our new project. Case’s comment probably pushed us forward a few months in terms of our own mental framework of where we were.

3. Keep it simple! What we’re trying to do to improve teacher effectiveness is fairly complicated and nuanced because teaching is complicated and nuanced. However, as Ahmed Siddiqui, one of the organizers and founders of QwikMind and Go Go Mongo, the pitch needs to be simple. If we can’t boil our explanation of what we do down to a couple of sentences, then others won’t be able to share what we do with their friends and colleagues. It’s our job to find some simple explanations–as a teacher I do this all the time. In the classroom I often start with a big overview and easy analogy and then build the nuance in as we pull something apart or build an idea. It’s the same concept for our pitch. I believe we finally have our pitches down.

4. The next time I go to a Start Up Weekend, I’ll probably join a team instead of working on LessonCast because our startup is further along than what StartUp is designed to do. Besides I now having something to contribute beyond adding a teacher perspective: I can do mockups in Balsamiq, throw around business plan models and think through a validation process. A year ago, I would not have been comfortable with any of these tasks, aside from recognizing what works in a classroom. Most teachers can learn how to do these skills as well.

Which leads me to my next realization:

5. When teachers can speak some of the language of tech and/or startups, then we can have more impact because we’ll be taken more seriously. If we understand an ed tech perspective, then we can move tech in directions that will support what we’re trying to do in the classroom. Bringing non-teacher, tech startup skills to the table also allows us to be a more active drivers of the conversation.

The good news is that LessonCast was asked to help organize the first Start-Up Weekend EDU on the East Coast in Washington, DC, so there’s an opportunity to nudge Ed Tech startups in the right direction in my own neighborhood. StartUp Weekend and Grokit recently announced the launch of a series of StartUp Weekends with an education focus starting in Seattle, which means there will be more opportunities for Ed Tech communities to develop around the world and teachers should be part of it. I firmly believe bringing teachers to the Ed Tech process will make better products that both serve the needs of educators and allow Ed Tech Startups to succeed. The next challenge is to figure out some concrete ways to have teachers participate meaningfully in DC’s StartUp Weekend EDU. If there are any teachers in the DC area, block out October 21-23 because we’re going to need you!

Too often large media outlets don’t pay much attention to education startups, but there’s more that we can do to promote ourselves and to educate the media on what good ed tech products look like. I started thinking about this issue while reading an article in a major magazine that was comparing different methods of accessing college textbooks and was surprised to find that Inkling, a great startup company that provides digital textbooks, wasn’t mentioned. So, I wrote to the magazine and am hoping they get a shout out. Why? Because Inkling has a great product, and I’d want them to do the same for LessonCast.

When Michael Staton of Inigral railed against the media for giving up on software for education , sharing his frustration with limited coverage of smaller startups, I started thinking more about how we’ve gone about garnering coverage for LessonCast. As a teacher and administrator, I know the education world well, including the media outlets to reach, but those are often quite different than those that the tech world reads. Very few folks live in this crossover space.

Audrey Watters is one of those rare folks who does live in the educational tech space, and we were fortunate that she wrote a great MindShift piece on us after our launch at ISTE but there aren’t many journalists like her. She, like Michael Staton, is a former teacher, so she understands the value of what we’re doing and she has the language to speak to both worlds.

Audrey’s response to Michael’s article, Why the Education Technology Press Ignores Ed Tech Startups/What We Can Do About It, was dead on when she said that ed tech startups rarely contact her. We can’t blame journalists if we’re not sending them information and letting them know we exist. Why aren’t we contacting bloggers? As a teacher, I’m not used to contacting media outlets to advertize what I do. It’s funny because I “sold” ideas every day to my students and I’m continually selling teaching ideas when I provide professional development for teachers. So why was it such a jump to sell LessonCast in the beginning? Teachers aren’t used to thinking of themselves as entrepreneurs or self-promoters, so it was a bit of a shift for me. Believing that what we’re doing can truly help teachers inspires me to figure out how to get our message out.

Audrey Watters’ MindShift article on LessonCast provided us with a great tool for initiating conversations with professors, superintendents, principals and teachers. When the ASCD SmartBrief picked up the article, we had another piece to share with potential partners; I believe the articles provided us with some highly valuable legitimacy despite our youth as a company.

There are other issues. Teachers trust other teachers, not tech companies. Many tech companies claim to be able to simplify teaching by providing a program that will fix all ills in education. These claims feel disrespectful to teachers because teachers recognize that the craft of teaching is difficult, often messy, and highly nuanced. Educators also mistrust top-down initiatives, so winning over a university president or a district superintendent may be wonderful but might not make any difference at the classroom level. If professors or teachers love an idea, they’ll run with it and share it with colleagues.

The tech world doesn’t always understand education well. When we were at the Education Startup Weekend in San Francisco (highly recommend for anyone wanting to launch an ed tech startup!), there were very few true educators in the room. The handful of us participating all quickly agreed on the same 5 projects we felt would genuinely be effective in the classroom. What was striking was the fact that most of the other participants and investors didn’t always agree with our choices. In fact, they were enamored with a few projects that all of the teachers knew would not work.

As ed tech startups, what can we do?
• Draw attention to other ed tech startups in the press—create our own buzz.
• Reach out to bloggers in education, education technology and tech spheres. (Audrey’s right—as a group we don’t do a good job of this.)
• Develop a media outreach strategy.
• Learn to speak the language of the tech world.
• Encourage more educators to participate in ed tech startups.
• Educate non-educator journalists on what good teaching looks like and what kinds of tools teachers/schools need or want.
• Keep building a good company!

I know this weekend that I will be spending some time identifying and reaching out to education tech journalists, especially those who have asked for article ideas. Thanks Michael and Audrey for inspiring me!