National Education Week: 7 Lessons from America’s EdTech Community

National Education Week: 7 Lessons from America’s EdTech Community

January 14th 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson

Right before the Christmas season, I went to the National Education Week conference hosted by the EDGE EdTech Accelerator in New York City. As one of the directors at Indigo, I spend the majority of my time serving as the boots on the ground in schools throughout Colorado, Arizona and Nebraska. This was a rare opportunity for me to take a break after the 50 workshop I did last fall and see what else was going on in the EdTech world.

The conference exposed me to the heart of action in NYC’s education-entrepreneurism space, and here are the 7 insights with which I walked away.


1. The Education World of Today is Not the Education World of Tomorrow

Chancellor Carmen Farina pointed out that in her 20 years of working in education people spent too little time innovating and too much time reacting. There are great EdTech companies out there, but are they providing services that equip students for the world they live in today or the world they will graduate into tomorrow?

Farina challenged us to think more critically about the schools we serve. Based on your students, and their interests, and technology’s advances, and where the economy is predicted to be in five years, what are the best things you can pass on to your students that will prepare them for the future?


2. Students are “Digital Ready”—Use Those Skills

88 percent of teens have access to a cell phone, and 58 percent of them to a tablet (Growing Wireless, 2016). Some children carry in their pockets more computing power than my entire 5th grade computer lab possessed—and they know how to wield it. We need to see curriculum that leverages that skillset.

Last week I was in a school where the teacher commanded students to put up their phones before the class could move forward. Instead of suppressing the desire to use technology, imagine if we could find ways to redirect it through coding classes, research projects, or even incorporating apps in a blended model.


3. Teachers are – Surprise – Still Important

One of the startups I saw at the conference was an early-stage company that is building an artificial intelligence math tutor. That’s right, despite all the movies about AI taking over the planet, in the real world they are teaching Algebra I. Many companies are looking for ways to remove human interaction from education (Coursera, Khan Academy) by teaching online or removing teachers from the equation.

But General Assembly CEO Jake Schwartz brought up an interesting point. “We’ve have had the technology to spread knowledge for 500 years since the Gutenberg Press—and it still has not replaced our teachers.”

EdTech startups should spend less time thinking about how to work around teachers, and more time thinking about how to work with them. They are the true difference makers in students’ lives, and the ones with power to innovate in the classroom. We need them for successful, long-term change.

At Indigo, we see teachers as the pivot point that bridges administrators and students to communicate, generate ideas and implement new initiatives in schools. Teachers are not just important– they are absolutely critical.

4. We’re Forgetting about Community College Students

Imagine the stereotypical college student. Who do you see? 19-year-old frat star? 17-year-old coding genius? 22-year-old student council president?

How about 28-year-old mother who is working two jobs and taking night classes?

According to Dr. Gail Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College, 50 percent of all undergraduate students are in community college, and most of them don’t look like they stereotype we imagine. Most of the time EdTech companies want to partner with Ivy League universities or similar to boost their prestige—as result 12 million students in community colleges are not getting solutions build for their problems.

For me, this was one of the biggest questions in my mind. How do you create a product that works for community college? How do you create a personalized education that can meet people who, while they may go to the same community college, are in all different phases of life?

This is one area that I think could be incredibly exciting for Indigo in the future. Since we are a strengths-based organization that focuses on the individual strengths of each student, we have the potential to help these non-traditional students find their voice. There will definitely be things to learn from them about the best way to deliver, but being able to impact students that other EdTech companies may be ignoring gives me a thrill.

5. Many Programs Give Only the Illusion of Learning

I have an app on my phone for language learning. I’ll spend 15 minutes jabbing buttons and repeating back words into my iPhone’s speaker, and just like that I’ve got 30 points and have passed the animals and pets lessons. Congratulations, you’ve just pass your fourth German course!

Many education programs take pains to make students’ progression very visible. Tracking points, multiple levels, badges and stars. How many of these types of programs are actually facilitating the learning they claim to provide?

Companies working with schools possess an ethical responsibility to test their products and really understand the impact it has on students. Did students really become better leaders? Are their writing skills truly better than they were last year because of what EdTech companies sold the school?


6. Students > Your Newest EdTech Idea

In an earlier point I mentioned the need for teachers to be involved in education innovation. Another fact that must be emphasized is that students need to be involved in change as well. Too often I wonder if companies are building products that meet the needs of the gatekeeper—an administrator, a district official—and miss the needs of students.

The reality is that students possess the power to drive demand in schools. Not only are there tax dollars associated with each student that chooses your school, but they deserve the highest standard of holistic education that an institution can provide.

If we want to look toward the future of schools, it’s not just in listening to the big picture from administrators. It’s listening to the every day problems of students who are living and learning in the system we have built for them today.

At Indigo, it’s not about the technology. We have technology, and building out our Indigo.Fathym platform will be one of the major developments for the company this spring, but that is not the focus. The focus at Indigo has always been, and always will be, the students. If we aren’t reaching and changing them, then we aren’t doing our job. It’s that simple. 

7. Implementation is Everything

I heard a lot of great ideas while I was at this conference. Seriously, the best and brightest of EdTech entrepreneurs and education leaders were present. However, I think the most poignant quote came from Wendy Kopp, Teach for America Founder:

“Technology is not the answer. Implementation is everything.” –Wendy Kopp

It doesn’t matter how great our solutions are, how innovative our models, how competitive our teams, if we are not going into schools and doing something. Without action, all of our efforts just amount to more tools on shelves that do nothing for education.

The more time I spend in schools working with administrators, teachers and students, the more this truth resonates with me. Schools don’t just want another platform. They want a partner who works with them to help begin the kinds of changes they want to see in their school. It’s one of my favorite parts about the job. When I can look at a school and know that Indigo played a roll in impacting their culture and how they treat their students, it reminds me how much I love my job.

For me, this conference taught me a lot. It gave me a better sense of where Indigo fits in the world of education, and why what we are doing in schools is important. Indigo is not an EdTech product—we’re an EdTech process that can transform schools and spark changes that schools can sustain.

It’s been so encouraging for me to see the impact and hear the stories of changes that are happening in schools. I will go back to that conference one day—and when I do, I want it to be because my CEO is talking about how we’ve changed the way one million students receive education in this country by shifting school culture away from test focus and toward a holistic, student-centered education.

Catch you next time, New York.


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