On Tuesday, September 17, VLAB kicked off the 2013-1014 season premiere with an evening program on the Education Technology Tsunami: Common Core Disrupts K12. The event started with a one hour networking session, with demonstrations by six up and coming startups.

The main highlight of the evening, however, was the debate and insights provided by the panel moderator and panelists featured. Tina Barseghian, a pioneer in her own right, led a panel of pioneers as they provided their insights on education, the widespread acceptance (and denial of) the Common Core, as well as the implications of technology usage on education.

Tina Barseghian serves as the senior editor for KQED and editor for the blog Mindshift, a blog focused on covering cultural and technological trends, innovations in education, and groundbreaking research in educational policy.  As a proponent of progress in education, she formed the blog in 2010.  Tina started off the conversation by bringing up the topic of the moment: Common Core Standards. These standards are the biggest thing to hit the second biggest industry in the US.  The purpose is for all the states to adopt a common set of guidelines, in place of the previous state standards, that allows for teachers and students to creatively get through the curriculum, culminating in online assessments used to demonstrate mastery.  While it is true that 45 states have accepted this curriculum, in addition to some US territories, 5 states have not.  And they aren’t the only detractors.  Some states and commentators believe that the Common Core Standards are too complex, while others say that their existing curriculum is more complex than the proposed common core.  Other detractors cite lack of technology access. Teachers, in particular, did not have a hand in creating the Common Core and do not want to be held accountable for the initial low results.  They believe that this change is being forced by corporations and government.

With this introduction, Tina proceeded to direct the focus of the conversation, not on the promises or pitfalls of the curriculum, but rather on the business opportunities available in education . Her final question to lead the instruction was  “What criteria are being used to make sure that these advances are actually helping?”

Rise_in_Ed_InvestmentsWith that, one of the panelists, Mick Hewitt, CEO and Co-Founder of MasteryConnect, took the floor.  As a tech savvy entrepreneur hailing from a family of teachers, his interest in education began at an early age.  He began his speech with an anecdote about a lunch he had with the one and only Bill Gates.  Bill Gates stated that only 1% of venture capital in the last 18 years has been invested in education.  But over the last 5 years, a gradual increase has occurred.  Mick said we have seen early surges in the past, but this surge is supported by today’s relatively low, variable cost to start a company.  The widespread acceptance of the Common Core is causing a paradigm shift, even with some naysayers.  “Common Core is a catalyst for change and a common unifier.” Mr. Hewitt brought this central point up, but qualified the statement by asking, “How do we know the students know it

[knowledge of the topics taught]?’ There are two main questions overall that come up.

1.       What do we want students to know?

2.       How do we know they know it?

Dr. Benjamin Bloom, the father of mastery learning, noticed this very problem back in the 1960s. That is where products like MasteryConnect come in.  MasteryConnect allows for a positive shift from defining students as letter grades, to promoting conversation between teachers and students about what they learned.  Teachers are able to use a centralized computer system to log in grades, save students’ work to create a portfolio, post information about their classes, and create a forum where students, teachers, parents, and administrators can interact. “Our approach to education is teacher collaboration around mastering of standards and collaboration around data.  We want teachers to engage with each other and with their students.  We want them to be able to compare formative and summative data. It is an interesting space for entrepreneurs right now.”   Mr. Hewitt furthered his point by stating that, for him, charging teachers is not a winning strategy.  It is important to MasteryConnect that teachers are allowed to use their free learning community and adapt to the system; when they see all the benefits, they will help foster a relationship at the district and admin level, which can pay for software and services. Building from the bottom up, and creating demand at a lower level is essential to keeping an edtech business afloat.

EdTech Event PanelThe rest of the panel included similar high ranking, and ground breaking entrepreneurs and education enthusiasts.  Lane Rankin began as a teacher, and was able to use his experiences as an educator to become a highly lauded innovator and entrepreneur, working at various companies, and creating start ups, all culminating in his current venture as CEO and president of Illuminate Education.   Mr. Rankin does not see his company “as a tech company, but rather as an educational company, using technology as a vehicle.”  In response to Ms. Barseghian’s lead off question: “What piece of this complex puzzle does your company address and how does Common Core fit in?” Mr. Rankin provided a solid answer.  Mr. Rankin’s Illuminate Education set out to solve data problems found in schools.  Schools deal with data in the form of health, discipline, assessments, and so much more, but previously, all this data was stored in separate databases.  Illuminate created a program that stores all this varying, but important data, that also has its own Student Information System incorporated that includes SIS functionality, analytics, a unique Special Education platform, as well as the normal gradebook and email functionality.  The goal of this software is to be able to input any information regarding the student, and improve the availability of the information to teachers, students, parents, and administrators.  Common Core is providing the very platform needed to implement this change.  With the prevalence of Common Core and the online assessments associated, the importance of a centralized data system becomes necessary.  Because of the changes, educators using older, more arcane methods of record keeping are forced to change their system, and so are looking to new platforms that are easy to use, yet all inclusive.

While Mr. Hewitt and Mr. Rankin represented the sector of smaller companies invested in education, Scott Drossos, Senior Vice President of 1:1 Learning of Pearson North America, represented the large business sector.  Over the course of his career, he has worked over 45 different jobs, and seen the industry grow and change from various viewpoints, aiding him in his efforts to provide a more well rounded and personalized education for current and future students. In response to Ms. Barseghian’s query on Common Core affecting 1:1 strategy, Mr. Drossos responded that Pearson, being a large publishing company, has the ability to be involved with every aspect of education, with his group focusing on “the convergence of technology with Common Core. There has never been a time as now where there is such progress and change in education.”  Because of the changes Common Core has brought along, 1:1 strategy has been seeing progress, and has helped bring a change in education.

An important addition to the panel came in the form of Karen Lien, Director and Partner and Imagine K12.  She became interested in education through childhood dinner table conversations on current events, as well as through her experiences as a high school teacher.  Imagine K12 is a edtech startup incubator, working with pre-seed companies to provide an enriching environment to build their products.  Imagine K12 supports 53 different companies right now, including ClassDojo, an innovative behavior management tool, widely used and lauded by educators. So, what is the secret to creating an edtech start up?  “Smart founders who are passionate about education and have the ability to build their ideas” was Ms. Lien’s immediate response. They should be passionate enough that their ideas can catch the eye of venture capitalists and ultimately make an impact on education.  She also agreed with Mr. Hewitt that monetization has to be thought of early on, but has to have a solid base to open up doors at the admin and district level.  While larger corporations have the infrastructure and rapport to go directly to the district and make their case, smaller companies have to use grassroots efforts to build their base at the teacher level, and gain the support of the teachers themselves.

The panel was rounded out by someone who is directly involved in education currently: David Reilly, the Sequoia Union High School District Assistant Superintendent, who was also a former Principal and Teacher in the district, amongst many other roles over the years.  By having the experience of holding a variety of positions in the district, Mr. Reilly was able to provide a unique perspective on the Common Core. He was able to take into account the implications at a teacher, admin, and district level. He stated that the “challenge ahead is to make sure we do not widen the achievement gap.  Tech alone won’t solve all problems in education.  There is no silver bullet or one solution that will solve all problems.” What stood out to me the most however, was the need he presented for students to improve and engage.  Through using technology as a support for education, a balance can be created, and students can move at their own pace, allowing them to learn more, rather than cram if they are behind and relax if they are ahead. For example, students are not engaged and don’t really care about final examinations, other than the fact that they have to do well.  By creating a separate task, such as depicting a social science topic through creating a documentary, students can become engaged and really delve into a project.  The new Common Core removes the need of low level crude assessments in the form of multiple choice tests, and instead allows for a merge with technology creating a higher level of assessment, with a synthesis using concepts.  Learning becomes more rapid when teachers can provide feedback at all times.

All in all, being a proponent for education and technology myself, and someone highly interested in education, I thoroughly enjoyed this VLAB experience, and enjoyed the opportunity to talk to each of the panelists at the end. Each of the panelists and the moderator were able to bring their own vast expertise and perspectives to share the positive impact that technology is having on the progress of education. Education technology companies, according to Tina Barseghian, have revenue potential upwards of $60 billion, and the sky is the limit to the way we use technology to shape the future of education.

(Written by Dipti Kanthilal, VLAB Marketing Committee Blogger. Dipti is a National Science Foundation GK-12 Fellow at Santa Clara University.)


Other Related VLAB EdTech Event Articles:
* Online kindergarten? Tech bets on K-12 disruption | 2013-SEP-18 Silicon Valley Business Journal, Lauren Hepler
* VLAB Presents: EdTech Tsunami | 2013-SEP-19 The Dish Daily, Janet Rae-Dupree
* Can EdTech Ride the Common Core Waves | 2013-SEP-20 EdSurge, Christina Quattrocch
* 7 #EdTech Takeaways from VLAB Event on Common Core Standards | 2013-SEP-25 Innov8Social, Neetal Parekh