Monday, December 12, 2011

On a New Edtech Community

Growing up in the Baltimore of the 80s and 90s, my personal heroes were the folks who developed their own way in the DIY community. From music to art to literature, it seemed like these DIY'ers could do what ever they wanted -- and they could. Down in DC, Dischord Records went against everything the "record industry" of the time stood for; they made their own records their own way and instigated the same throughout a DIY culture that found itself sprouting up in every nook and cranny where young people were sick of the corporate status quo. Here in town, art co-ops and radical bookstores challenged the ideas that you needed a commercial gallery to make it as an artist or that you needed a publisher to make it as a writer.

This was all before the Internet, of course. And it had deep roots going back into the 60s, the 50s, and earlier.

The DIY movement of the 80s and 90s flourished at that moment because it had to. Like the Beats in the 50s who found that Big Publisher wasn't going to touch their work and instead they had to do it themselves, the hardcore kids of east and west coast alike realized that they were going to have to do it themselves. Like the avant-garde NYC filmmakers of the mid to late 1960s developing their own community to create, show, and distribute their films beyond the reach of Hollywood, the weirdo Baltimore poets and zine writers of the 80s and 90s developed their own community to print, share, and distribute their chapbooks, comics, and Xeroxed masterpieces. And this sort of thing happened all over the place, from New York to San Francisco to Toledo to Lincoln, Nebraska.

I think we find ourselves in this type of situation once again.

Coming up through the edtech of the 80s and 90s was to come up through the era of hardware. Schools that did tap into the tech current did so by purchasing ridiculously expensive computers and software. In a way, those schools that wanted tech were then beholden to computer companies and the companies who repair computers. That underlying structure is still at the heart of so much that goes on in tech acquisition. There was relatively little room for DIY to flourish in edtech because DIY'ers didn't have the capacity to keep up with the sort of demand everyone thought they needed. Sure, there were always Open Source heads and hackers making cool stuff -- usually for their own schools/use; but there was no major flourishing of local DIY tech communities that could really put a dent into Big Software.

How things have changed.

Back in November, Mike Brenner brought to Baltimore.
The mission was simple: listen to problems sourced by teachers from around the world, pick a dozen or so to tackle, and form teams around those problems that would each come up with and execute a creative solution to solve them.
Teams comprised of teachers, developers, and designers then spent two days creating apps specific to classroom needs. The results ranged from a school-specific mobile browser to teacher-customized video software to an image-to-speech app designed for special needs students. And one of the most interesting things to develop out of the event: teachers and technologists starting businesses based around their collaborations.

I see this as indicative of the way forward. Whereas big legacy operations like Pearson may have the money and the capacity, they don't have the feet on the ground -- i.e. the people creating their products aren't the people using their products. In that way, they will always be behind the curve. They will always work with the "input" of teachers rather than "with" teachers. Ed Hack Day showed a different model. A model not unlike those DIY companies that developed and in doing so gave something meaningful back to the local community while creating a global ecosystem of DIY networks.

That's what I see as a viable and sustainable way forward in edtech and entrepreneurship. With the advent of an Internet that revolves around the Cloud and apps that are cost-effective and purchased as-needed (rather than as a big Office-style package), we find ourselves in a situation where local entrepreneurs can be successful in tapping into big need -- and need driven by need rather than by greed.

Alas, there is a catch. (And as we all know, with edtech there is always a catch...)

The catch is that the Ed Hack model only works because a teacher is involved. There are numerous edtech start-ups (they are seeming to pop up every day). They see a fantastic market opportunity created by common core standards, 1:1 mobile, and dis-satisfaction with the state of schools. I recently talked to a guy who has created an entire LMS that he is selling to school districts and he ensured me that his LMS is the future. The only problem I saw with his LMS is that from a teacher-perspective it sucked. The entire time I was demo'ing the software, it felt like I was being forced to think like an engineer as opposed to thinking like an educator. While the basic idea of the program made a lot of sense -- and certainly could be sold to districts -- when it came down to the brass tacks, it felt like something created by someone who had no sense of what it was actually like to be in a classroom.

That is why the teacher perspective is so important. That's why it is so important to have a teacher leading the design. But there is something else going on as well...

Those Ed Hack projects came out not only of the experience of real teachers in real classrooms, but they were intended to be used by those teachers in their classrooms. In other words, the designer had a real stake in the usability of the app. This is at the heart of DIY. And it is at the heart of the developing DIY edtech ecosystem. Teachers making stuff for themselves and for other teachers like them. Designers thinking hyperlocal and through collaboration and community extending opportunities to the global.

I love Baltimore. I grew up here and I have lived here most of my life. I've seen the best the town has to offer and I've quite literally seen the darkest stuff. In my experience, the most rewarding thing about the city is the real sense of community that has developed amongst the seemingly fractious parts of the creative community. In a way, Baltimore is a city of misfits. NYC and Philly dwarf us to the north and D.C. reminds us on a daily basis that we are not "serious" enough. If the east coast were a high school, Baltimore would be the drama club.

But because of this, we've developed interesting collaborations that may not make as much sense in other places. Collaborations between visionary art and antique carsbeatboxing and symphony hallslocal politics and swimwear. And we may be on to something with edtech in the hands of educators and technologists working collaboratively.

I would love to see Baltimore develop into a Silicon Valley of edtech. Not a city of behemoth mindless corporations, but a city where every classroom is a garage. I'd like to see edtech bring opportunity to city kids and their families. I'd like to see high school seniors start businesses based on their ideas and experience using and developing technology in the classroom rather than watch them struggle to stay out of the street economy. I'd like to see non-profits flourish -- advocacy and community training corps who would bring the digital age directly to the communities most people ignore. I'd like to see small and mid-sized businesses flourish and bring pride back to neighborhoods that have all but been given up on. I'd like to see edtech explored in dramatic ways not only as a means of bringing kids up to speed on STEM subjects, but as a way to empower students to create and publish literature, art, movies, music.

I'd like to see an edtech community develop whose goal was local but whose reach could be global. I'd like to see an edtech community develop whose eye wasn't on bringing up the bottom line, but in bringing up those students who have been on the bottom for too long. I'd like to see an edtech community develop that doesn't threaten teachers' jobs, but that rather empowers teachers to go farther with their students than they ever thought possible.

I'd like to see an edtech community that flourishes around the idea that we really are connected. And we really can do it ourselves -- together.


  1. Agreed. =)

    The vision is here and the time is now -- and I'm excited to see who will stand up and be counted as one willing and able to make this dream a reality.

    Thank you Shelly for all you constantly do to move us all forward towards a better tomorrow.

  2. Sometimes there are factors which can be past my manage for example the routine of my college day.


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