Where Can an Edtech Startup Find Early Adopter Teachers?

There are several places an edtech startup can go to find early adopter teachers:

  • Conferences, like ISTE (the largest education technology conference in the US). This conference tends to attract a lot of tech-savvy early adopter teachers.
  • Local Edcamps, which are “unconferences” set up by teachers for teachers. They don’t always cover technology, but the very nature of an unconference tends to attract progressive teachers.
  • Twitter, especially hashtags like #edtech and #edchat (there are many, many more). Early adopter teachers are good sharers of information and communicate fairly frequently here.
  • Blogs, which many tech-savvy teachers use. Some blog regularly, others wax and wane as their workloads change. Many are former teachers that still have colleagues in schools.
  • Tumblr, using the hashtags #education or #edtech. There is a pretty dedicated group of teachers here, somewhat similar in demographic to those that have standalone blogs.
  • Pinterest, which you can find if you do some relevant searches. Hashtags exist here, but not all teachers use them. This community is vibrant, but does not always have the same early adopter mindset as those from other sources.
  • Local meetups, which you can find from Meetup. Not all cities have such meetups, however. And most edtech meetups attract more entrepreneurs than teachers.

The Most Important Issues in Edtech Right Now

Someone asked me what I thought were the most important issues in edtech right now. This was my answer.

The debate of whether or not technology really aids learning

The dirty secret of edtech is there has yet to be an unbiased scientific study on how technology has quantifiably changed the learning outcomes of learners. I even know a tech-savvy teacher who once conducted a study of edtech that was as scientific and controlled as possible. He didn’t find a significant difference in the learning outcomes of his students. And if you ask a random sampling of teachers, you will probably get as many anecdotes of the benefits of technology, as stories of the detriments of technology.

In my view, technology is a tool that is meant to augment human interactions, not replace them. We are still in the very early days of understanding the effects and consequences of technology, especially social media. So naturally, there is and should be trepidation and caution. Hopefully, as a society, we can continue down this path in an enlightened way while continuing to study technology’s holistic effects. Efforts to teach digital citizenship to parents, children, and educators is a step in the right direction, as are plans to study the actual efficacy of edtech in the classroom.

I look forward to reading these studies and seeing more of these efforts. If technology is determined not to be a game-changer in education, I hope it is relegated appropriately while new methods continue to be explored.

The tension between raising investor capital and doing good

Being in the startup world, raising investor capital is a frequent topic. I get emails almost every week from edtech entrepreneurs about this. Which is ironic because I didn’t raise funding myself. Just about all of them go into the education world with the intent of doing good. But many aren’t aware, or are naive about the tensions between offering value to their investors vs doing good. The way investors make money is if your startup is acquired for a large sum or you have an IPO. So far, only a handful of edtech companies have had an IPO, with many more going the acquisition route. This means only a certain kind of edtech company can get funding; if you aren’t the kind of company that can have an IPO or acquisition, you likely won’t attract investors. And if you do, you’d better show progress towards one of these goals eventually.

Investor capital isn’t the only way to finance an edtech startup, however. Many bootstrap their startups with their own money, or build a revenue plan from the beginning. For those that sell to schools, they can rest easy knowing that most, if not all learning institutions want to see an edtech company that is making money. This is an indicator that the company will be around for a long time, and they care about longevity more than price, because the total adoption and deployment cost of using an edtech product includes the training and support costs. Also, selling to learning institutions is an enterprise play, which means requiring an effective sales strategy. This is something that may be too expensive or impractical for most cash-starved startups.

My preferred approach isn’t a glamorous one. To make it in edtech, I prefer the slow and steady, “in it for the long haul” approach. Bootstrap yourself in the beginning and start with a revenue plan that can cover your monthly operating costs, then grow from there. That way, you can concentrate on making sure you are constantly listening to educators and learners without the distraction of investors, and can explore features that help them, rather than features that might make you more “acquirable.”

The ethics of advances in technology

This is a broad topic that covers many areas, not just edtech. Within edtech, concerns include student data privacy. Fortunately, more and more companies are beginning to self-police and address these issues, but it still remains a concern for many. This coincides with the general consumer market’s concerns over data privacy as well, especially with social media.

Outside of edtech, concerns include artificial intelligence, artificial superintelligence, or at least artificial intelligence in weapons. Or “simple” miscalculations in algorithms that may lead to biased conclusions. And many others, of course.

I mention AI specifically because such advances are already being applied to edtech. In some cases, it can help make great strides in offering an adaptive learning environment. In others, it may contain unintended biases and errors that may lead to a poor learning environment. Uncovering such biases might be difficult, even expensive. Would a technology company be responsible for any such consequences a learner may face? Should they? How would such consequences even be tracked and determined?

Also: Will advances in technology be bound by ethical considerations? Should they be? Who would determine what these ethical considerations are? How would they be taught, monitored, and enforced? Many computer science programs offer an ethics class, or at least have it in their curriculum. I hope these classes are kept up-to-date, so programmers will have the right frame of mind when building these innovations. Technology can be a powerful tool, but a bad tool is still a bad tool.

The most important issues in edtech right now

In my humble opinion, these are the most important issues in edtech right now. What do you think are the most important issues?

Reading True North: Introduction Exercise

I’m reading another great book right now. True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership by Bill George. He is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and well-respected former corporate executive. Along with coauthor Peter Sims, he wrote a great book on leadership as a follow up to his first, Authentic Leadership.

Each chapter of True North is preceded by a set of leadership exercises. I thought it would be fun to post my answers here as I went through this book.

The first exercise helps you “think about the basis for your leadership and the process you need to go through to become an authentic leader.”

The True North exercises:

  • Introduction Exercise
  • Chapter 1: Your Story Exercise
  • Chapter 2: Losing Your Way Exercise
  • Chapter 3: Your Greatest Crucible Exercise
  • Chapter 4: Knowing Your Authentic Self Exercise
  • Chapter 5: Practicing Your Values and Principles Exercise
  • Chapter 6: Your Motivations and Motivated Capabilities Exercise
  • Chapter 7: Building Your Support Team Exercise
  • Chapter 8: The Integrated Leader Exercise
  • Chapter 9: The Purpose of My Leadership Exercise
  • Chapter 10: Empowering Other Leaders Exercise
  • Chapter 11: Honing Your Leadership Effectiveness Exercise

What leaders, past of present, do you admire most?

  • What is it about them that you admire most?
  • Which of these leaders do you consider to be authentic leaders?
  • What can you learn from their leadership?

Damn. Those are tough questions. The leaders I admire are:

  • Jack Welsch – I admire the advances he’s made in the field of management and his dedication to the craft, as well as his desire to share that knowledge and encourage others to succeed, as evident in how often General Electric (GE) executives were sought after by other companies.
  • Warren Buffet – I admire his sensible & long-term thinking about the investment industry and his desire to give back & teach the community.
  • Bill Gates – I admire the fact that he was able to build one of the most powerful & impactful companies in the world, become the richest man in the world, then dedicate his life to humanitarian causes. Criticize him all you want, but his philantropic efforts have been enormous.
  • Joel Spolsky – I admire his dedication to his craft and the thought leadership he provides through his blog. It’s obvious he loves what he does and is always challenging himself and his company to do better.
  • Matt Mullenswag – I admire how he built a viable business on open-source software and attracted a huge community of developers & evangelists around something he personally cares deeply about.

To me, they are all authentic leaders. Looking at this list, I also notice that they all:

  1. love what they do
  2. believe in what they do
  3. give back to the community

Those core facets are what I admire most about them and what speaks “authenticity” to me. Hopefully I can emulate them and be half as good a leader as they are.

Thinking back over all your leadership experiences in your lifetime, which ones are you proudest of?

I was once the president of a cultural community service club in college. One of our activities was a street carnival that required a tremendous amount of work, especially for a busy college student with a double-major, two jobs, and officer responsibilties for a second club.

On the day of the carnival, I overslept, exhausted from my schedule. When I woke up in utter panic and rushed over to the street, I saw the carnival operating as scheduled. It was my job to meet the vendors and get them set up. So what happened?

My officers happened. They saw that I wasn’t there and stepped in to take over. At the time, I saw this as a failure of mine, but when I look back, I’m deeply proud of my team and what we did. The event also raised a lot of money for a church and their efforts to help the homeless.

During my time as an engineering manager at Yahoo! (YHOO), I had the pleasure of working with a large team of talented developers. There are dozens of seemingly small but important incidents that occurred over my time there.

For instance, there was the developer we considered a long-shot who floundered in his role for a while. Despite his performance, I always felt he was destined for more. I tried to give him as many opportunities as I could to shine in the form of side projects. One day, he was offered the perfect role for him by a team who had seen his side projects. He is now flourishing in that role.

There’s another developer who was a rock star, but didn’t realize it. Fortunately, neither did our competitors, with whom he was also interviewing. I was able to attract him to our company. I wasn’t even hiring for my team; I just knew he’d kick ass and wanted him in the company somehow. And he has definitely kicked ass.

Then there was the developer who didn’t have the solid experience we needed, but had an extra quality that intrigued me. Since hiring him, he’s risen to one of the top developers in the company. People try to woo him all the time now.

I wish I could go on – the developer who had the aptitude and eagerness to be a leader herself, and with some training, is now leading an important project; the developer who flailed nervously in his first role, then left to start his own successful company; and the developer who wanted to learn a different role and with some encouragement, training, and the right opportunities, has made it there. All of these are moments that fill me with pride whenever I think about them. I’m smiling right now as I type this.

Think about the basis for your leadership and the kind of leader you would like to be as you answer these questions:

  • What qualities do you bring to leadership?
  • What leadership qualities would you like to develop further?

My leadership style is that of a teacher. One of my former developers even called me his therapist and our one-on-one meetings as his therapy sessions.

I also regard myself as someone who is able to identify talent and harness it, through encouragement, reframing, training, discipline, and proper positioning. Wearing this hat, I told my team I was their agent and they, my rock stars.

While that’s great and all as a people manager, what I need to build now are my business management skills. Although I believe being good in business is largely a product of one’s knowledge of psychology (dealing with employees, customers, vendors, and other stakeholders is an interpersonal art), the ability to read a company’s key metrics is important in determining its financial & operational health.

Although I’ve always believed that I could hire someone who is smarter than me to do that, I feel I should also have that skill to some extent.

Asses yourself against the five dimensions of an authentic leader:

  • Do you understand your purpose?
  • Do you practice your values?
  • Do you lead with your heart?
  • Do you demonstrate self-discipline?

I understand that the search for a purpose can be a long, philosophical, and even spiritual journey for many people. For me, I believe a person can also choose their own purpose. I’ve already chosen mine – to improve our society fundamentally through education. The road is tough and I have a long way to go, though I’m thankfully not alone.

Everyday, I apply my values to my life. I believe that being a parent is one of the most difficult, important, and rewarding roles a person could ever play. To be a good parent, I need to be a good role model. To be a good role model, I need to live my life with honor, compassion, understanding, adaptability, discipline, and values.

Although I tend to be a cerebral thinker who decisively weighs all alternatives, if I don’t believe in an organization or goal, I cannot work in or towards it to my full extent.

Back to being a good parent, the overall sentiment is one of self-improvement. Self-kaizen, so to speak. Included in such a personal journey is constant self-discipline, the pillar for a strong mind and strong body. I don’t believe you could be an effective parent, or business owner, without self-discipline.

Do you feel that you are more effective as a leader when you are authentic, or does being authentic constrain your leadership effectiveness?

Being authentic is vastly more effective. If you are true to yourself, you’ll be able to lead with your most effective skills & talents, therefore making you a more effective leader.

Are you consciously developing your leadership abilities at this time?

I’m developing my leadership skills (as a business owner, father, etc) all the time. Also, I’m reading this book, aren’t I? Wink wink.

How would you answer these questions?

The True North exercises:

  • Introduction Exercise
  • Chapter 1: Your Story Exercise
  • Chapter 2: Losing Your Way Exercise
  • Chapter 3: Your Greatest Crucible Exercise
  • Chapter 4: Knowing Your Authentic Self Exercise
  • Chapter 5: Practicing Your Values and Principles Exercise
  • Chapter 6: Your Motivations and Motivated Capabilities Exercise
  • Chapter 7: Building Your Support Team Exercise
  • Chapter 8: The Integrated Leader Exercise
  • Chapter 9: The Purpose of My Leadership Exercise
  • Chapter 10: Empowering Other Leaders Exercise
  • Chapter 11: Honing Your Leadership Effectiveness Exercise

Amazon Kindle for Textbooks

Amazon Kindle 2 Wish I could say I called it first, but it was an obvious idea from the start.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Amazon (AMZN) “plans to unveil a new version of its Kindle e-book reader with a larger screen and other features designed to appeal to periodical and academic textbook publishers.”

Beginning this fall, some students at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland will be given large-screen Kindles with textbooks for chemistry, computer science and a freshman seminar already installed, said Lev Gonick, the school’s chief information officer. The university plans to compare the experiences of students who get the Kindles and those who use traditional textbooks, he said.

Five other universities are involved in the Kindle project, according to people briefed on the matter. They are Pace, Princeton, Reed, Darden School at the University of Virginia, and Arizona State.

Lucky students! I wonder how they picked these universities.

Not everyone feels this way though. Frederic Lardinois of ReadWriteWeb doesn’t think students will use a Kindle for their studies, mainly because taking notes is different (he says “clunky”) on a Kindle and laptops exist as a viable electronic alternative. He’s made good points, though I respectfully disagree. Here is how I think it will play out:

Some students will rush to buy it, some will totally avoid it, and some will watch their friends use it and perhaps pick one up after an intelligent evaluation. As the Kindle becomes synonymous with education and books, these students will graduate and continue using their Kindles outside of college.

Hey, that strategy kind of sounds familiar. Apple (AAPL), ahem.

Who will avoid it?

  • Students who like the tactile feel of a heavy textbook and using a highlighter & pen to take notes
  • Students who don’t want to pay the upfront cost of a Kindle
  • Students who just don’t like the device (too ugly, too unusable, etc)

Who will buy it?

  • Students who determine that a Kindle and its e-books are cheaper than purchasing used textbooks
  • Students who like the latest tech gadgets and toys (don’t underestimate the size of this group!)
  • Students who have to carry around enormous textbooks and don’t want the added weight

I suspect that those who buy a Kindle will adopt new ways of note-taking as well. Students are adaptable and sharp that way. Maybe they’ll use Kindle’s built-in note-taking features. Maybe Amazon will add more features to improve this. Or maybe they’ll adopt other practices, like writing down important points in a notebook. I often did this because the act of writing helped me memorize information.

Point is, any shortcomings the Kindle has with note-taking features will probably be easily overcome by students who like the device for its price, portability, and weight.

They’ll most probably have a laptop too and see both devices as complementary instead of competitive. I can see students carrying both. They may even have both on the desk simultaneously – the Kindle with their e-textbook, their laptop with a few chat clients (procrastinators!), and perhaps some pens and paper for notes. Swap out the Kindle with a stack of textbooks and that’s the typical study set-up.

And that is a point I suspect is more important than Lardinois realizes. I don’t know which classes he took, but if you had classes with a ton of heavy textbooks, you’d probably do anything to relieve yourself of that burden. A Kindle is the perfect answer.

One more quick point: the Kindle’s Wikipedia and dictionary integration could be hidden gems. Students use sources like those often for research reports. While a laptop might still be easier to capture long paragraphs from Wikipedia, being able to look up a quick fact would be sweet awesomeness.

All Amazon needs is a few key students (read: connectors and social hubs) to enjoy their Kindles. Word of mouth marketing is huge on college campuses. It’s a great target market in a great WOM environment.

Man, thinking about all this kind of makes me wish I had a Kindle when I was a college student.

Digital Ethnography and Students Today

Digital Ethnography I’m jealous of the students at Kansas State University.

In their class “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology”, assistant professor/cultural anthropologist/media ecologist/student of the world Dr. Michael Wesch has put together some amazing videos derived from what must have been some very interesting discussions in his classes.

He’s known most for his award-winning video The Machine is Us/ing Us which made its rounds in the blogosphere a few months ago. His site, mediatedcultures.net, houses all of his digital ethnography projects.

A recent project, which began as a brainstorming exercise about “how students learn, what they need to learn for their future, and how our current educational system fits in”, culminated in the stirring video A Vision of Students Today:

Here are some of the statistics shown in the video:

  • My average class size is 115.
  • 18% of my teachers know my name.
  • I complete 49% of the readings assigned to me. Only 26%… relative to my life.
  • I will read 8 books this year, 2300 web pages, and 1281 facebook profiles.
  • I will write 42 pages for class this semester. And over 500 pages of email.

These numbers come from the collaborative effort of his 200 students, a shared Google Document, 367 edits, and a student-created survey that 133 of them answered. While not entirely scientific, it’s a fascinating snapshot.

And it sounds like a fun class too!

Via: Scobleizer

Stupid in America

The education field is one that is near and dear to my heart. Ideally, I’d love to create a business in the education (or environmental) fields. While my first business may not be education-related, that’s my ultimate goal.

So from time to time, I collect information and research on America’s education system. Here’s an interesting video from ABC news show 20/20: “Stupid in America” by Josh Stossel. It’s a 40+ minute segment that covers some frightening (though potentially biased & sensationalized) issues about American public schools.

It doesn’t just cover unruly classrooms and low grades; it also covers the difficulties of school budgets, public schools vs private learning centers, the shocking number of bad teachers, the harm of teacher’s unions, the school system as a monopoly, the politics of the education system, and charter vs non-charter schools.

(Thanks for the link, Sandy!)

Three Reasons to Become an Entrepreneur

I’ve been talking to many aspiring entrepreneurs lately. The question of Why usually comes up. Why do you want to become an entrepreneur? Why do you want to give up a steady, full-time job, to enter the uncertain world of business ownership?

From the responses I get, the answers seem to boil down to these three fundamental reasons:

  • To Be Independent

    You want to be your own boss, an employer, not an employee. You don’t want to work for The Man anymore. You want the flexibility to do what you want, when to do it, and how to do it.

  • To Be Wealthy

    You want to make a lot of money, to make millions. And you can’t do that with your 9-to-5. You’re aiming higher than financial security; you want financial comfort or financial wealth.

  • To Be Idealistic

    You want to change the world, to make a positive impact. You want to follow your dreams and do something you’re passionate about. You want to truly care about what you’re doing.

Each entrepreneur seems to be some combination of the three, in varying degrees.

Me, I’m mostly an idealist. I want to change the world, to fundamentally improve it. Being financially wealthy wouldn’t hurt either, especially since money is necessary for the kind of change I’m envisioning. Being my own boss isn’t as important, though it’s the ultimate test of my decision-making abilities.

How about you? Why do you want to become an entrepreneur?