Whoa, Nelly!! Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Raspberry Picademy in Boise, Idaho, and it was the most helpful learning experience I have had in a long time. It was one of those learning experiences that had my mind RACING, and I think it's been YEARS since that has happened.
So, why did I go? In the past two years, my job at iTeach has become more and more associated with the maker movement. As the maker movement has become more and more prevalent in schools, it has become more and more of an interest of mine. It's something that I NEEDED badly in school, and in the past year, I have had been able to bring it to kids through visits to schools, camps, and more.
Part of our collection of tools at iTeach has included Raspberry Pis. For a while, I have been tinkering with them to try and get a few things started with them. I got as far as changing the OS to make it a RetroPie gaming system. I knew there had to be more, and it led me to apply to the Raspberry Picademy.
What I learned is that I have not even scratched the surface of what the thing can do. I also learned that I can code! Learning both an electronic platform and how to code in two days was intense, and I just wish I could have more time.
The first thing we did was get that first LED on. It all starts with using a bread board and connecting the Pi to it. I have seen breadboards before, but honestly, they have intimidated me. The Raspberry Picademy made this easy. They walked us step by step through the process and code, and I was able to get both lights and a button up quickly! There are so many uses for it! Just with that the Raspberry Pi can be used as the brains for a bunch of electronics projects
The bread board was just the start though as the next step was adding the camera to the Raspberry Pi. This component was a fantastic addition. The camera can take both pictures and video, it can do stop motion, and it even has filters. You can do amazing projects with this as it can become things like spy cameras, animal cameras, picture booths, and so much more. I think it's also a great project to get kids started as the coding is not involved, and they see a result quickly.
Then it was time to add some hats. I did not even know that Raspberry Pi had hats. The hats are basically add on boards that give you tons of other functions. The first hat we added was the SenseHat. The SenseHat added both an LED screen and a bunch of sensors. This allows you to do reactive projects where you can use the sensors and then have some type of digital reaction. That digital result could also lead to a physical one if you hook up motors. This gives you a host of possibilities in almost any content area.
The other hat we explored was the Explorer Hat, and this was all about movement. There are a bunch of different things and buttons that come with the Explorer Hat, but we stayed in the realm of using the motors. Off of that, we were tasked with creating an invention in 15 minutes. My group decided to try to do what amounts to football jugs machine for paper planes (two motors rotating tightly together to get a push). While we weren't entirely successful (it worked but did not push the aircraft far), I think the point was to show us that you could;d do this activity quickly with just a small entry into the needed code. Honestly, for me, this helped me gain confidence in my ability to right real code to make a device work.
Finally, our learning on day one concluded with Sonic Pie. Let's just say I need more practice. Sonic Pie is software that allows you to code music to play from the Raspberry Pi, and frankly, it's way out of my comfort zone. I understood the Python code going into it, but it requires you to know musical notes. I am not very versed in musical notes, and so that part is a bit of a struggle. I do however appreciate knowing it is there and knowing the basics. I think if I have a kid who is versed in music, IU can make Raspberry Pi come alive for them.
The second day was all about getting in a group and building a project. From my standpoint, this was a bit tough. My ideas went less to what I could build and more to how I was going to both present on Raspberry Pi and how I was going to offer it with all of our maker curriculum. That means the project idea phase will come down to the KIDS! When it came down to it, I joined a group, and we just brainstormed. What we came up with was using the SenseHat as a random compliment generator with fireworks and compliments on the LCD that are set to music. I think what was amazing about it is there could be so many off shoots. You could build it into mirrors in school bathrooms, a teacher could use it as a pick me up, or you could even manipulate it to being more of a behavior chart device for students.
I think the biggest thing I took away from Picademy was the possibilities. Computer Science does not have to be in specialized courses in schools because we are in the era of digital making. Students can make almost anything tied to their standards for less than $100. I think with a little help from a monitor, mouse, and keyboard; you could even make these students full on computer. Most things are in the cloud now, so why not give them a computer that can also use to build something new. Really, the need for computer science education is here, so why not build it in EVERYWHERE!
Now that I have had a chance to get back to the blog, I naturally think about the start of the school year. This year is unusual for me because I have moved into a role that is very specialized which means the first month of school is off limits to many of the partners I work with. It means after a crazy summer; August can turn into the summer months where I have some time to reflect and some time to build new content. Well, the new content is coming, but this blog is all about reflection, and to tell the story of where I am it all starts with an administrator.
I have always prided myself on being a good teacher, but just like any teacher, I spent my first few years finding my way. I started my career up in Virginia so that I could get married to my beautiful wife. With that start, I did not have the protection of an administrator who knew me previously and was willing to mentor me. I had administrative supervisors who tended to bully teachers into conforming, and when I came up with new ideas, it trended towards a skeptical eye. It was a tough time that I thankfully got through with some of the best coaching years of my life. It made me think that if I were ever an administrator, I would always treat new teachers with respect and love. If a teacher does not want to get better that's one thing, but if they are putting everything they can into it, it makes sense to help them build into something more. Hopefully, if you are an administrator reading this, that's your way of thinking. If not, hopefully, you can move that way.
My next stop in my career was at Wheeler High School in Cobb County., Georgia Thankfully, at Wheeler I had some protection from administrators knowing my family or me, so it gave me some room to grow and try new ideas. The issue became though is up until my last year there, I lacked that mentorship relationship. I was not a problem, so my supervising conferences tended to be check the boxes conferences mostly. There was very little collaboration on what could take my teaching practices to the next level.
Thankfully, in my last year that changed when I changed supervisors to a man named Bob Downs. That year, it became apparent to me that I had an administrator who understood the technology side of teaching and the power behind student creation. With the knowledge that he got it, I proposed getting several MacBook computers to take creation to another level. He found them, and then he gave me room to use them. For that, I will be forever grateful.
My time at Wheeler taught me to make supervising teachers a collaboration. All good teachers out there are constantly looking for new ideas to improve their practice. Most become so busy that they appreciate just the old pat on the back evaluation, and they don't even realize they are missing the collaborative feedback. It does not have to be an adversarial relationship, and I became that teacher who realized I need the collaboration in my next stop.
My final stop before joining the Kennesaw State iTeach team was at North Atlanta High School, and I had the best supervisor I ever had in Laura Brazil. One of the reasons I left Wheeler for North Atlanta was the technology that would be available to me. The only thing I did not know was what the administration would thing of practices that were starting to move away from the high school norm.
Thankfully, Ms. Brazil was an administrator who just plain got it. I remember many of conference and talk with her that started with "I loved what you did here, but have you ever thought..." To me, it meant a collaboration. She was open to my ideas but also had ideas that really helped me because she got what I was trying to do. I can't ever thank her enough because she gave me that room to grow and experiment.
It did not stop there. Ms. Brazil was the one who encouraged me to get out in the ed tech community. She was the one who encouraged me to join the districts teacher tech team, get out there and speak at GAETC, and get out there and share what I was doing. I can honestly say, that my career would not be where it is today without her. She was that administrator who changed things for me.
I think when you look at administration many look it as a running business. Some folks even see it as having to be a ruthless business.
That's just not true. Administration should be just as a teacher in a classroom. It is a collaborative relationship where you can both learn from each other, and your job as an administrator is to help those teachers grow. My hope is that in the new school year we can have administrators that don't bully and that don't just check the boxes. It should be always be all about collaboration.
Well, this blog has been neglected, hasn't it? It's not for lack of want to. It's simply been a lack of time because of my summer of making. My cup has been filled all summer long running maker camps, and I think this is a great forum to discuss what those camps look like, what we learned, and what the future holds.
The first camp that I led was the on campus middle school maker camp for Kennesaw State University iTeach. This camp was a first for us at iTeach, but in the long run, I think it was an incredible experience. Last summer we did an elementary camp, so a middle school camp was a big step.
Thankfully, with the camp, we had a great group of students! They loved doing things like building Hummingbird robots, Bloxels games, and Little Bits inch worms. What was amazing is that we could give them a project, and then it turned into watching them go. As they got deeper into projects, you could see their imagination at play, and you could see the benefit projects like the ones mentioned above had on students. I wish groups of middle school teachers could see the students reactions. We might have better middle school curriculum!
My next camp was a twofer in Cobb County. We had both a maker camp going on at the same time as we presented a maker space to their summer STEM conference. I spent most of my time with the maker space to talk with teachers about iTeach support in schools, and I left the camp in the hands of one of my most trusted colleagues. From everything I could tell, the camp went incredibly well, and we were lucky enough to have all kinds of teachers come through our space and experience some of the activities we could offer in our mobile maker lab. I think the only thing I would change would be to have the camp and the maker space next to each other. If they were, teachers would be able to see what a difference a maker culture makes.
Even with those two camps out of the way, the biggest two were yet to come. They were the two full weeks of out of town maker camps in July. The first occurred in Wheeler County Schools in Georgia, and the second was at Forest Hills Elementary in Florence, Alabama. They were two very different camps, but both were successful in their own right.
The first camp was the one in Wheeler County. This camp saw us do both the elementary age group for 3 hours and the middle school age group for 3 hours. We had kids doing all sorts of projects including coding with Dash, building chariots, making Bloxels games, Green screen projects, and more. The middle school students also added projects like building Hummingbird robots. The kids loved the camp (many had not had chances to work with robots yet), but I think in the future I would add some more structure to this camp.
Because our numbers were below 20 in each version of the camp, we gave them free maker time. This meant students could go where they wanted, and what we found is this caused a massive bounce around effect. Students who had little experience with tools like 3Doodler, Little Bits, Bloxels, and others were not super willing to put in the effort to learn what they did. I think in the future, I would make them do more of a station rotation the first few days to understand the possibilities of what they can create, and that making takes time.
My last camp of the summer was the biggest and the scariest to plan. It was in Florence, Alabama, for Elementary, and there were 70 kids in the camp! The big number forced my hand into making the camp the station rotation that we needed in Wheeler County, and it worked great! The idea was that students got to participate in a project that everyone did in the morning, and then in the afternoon, they got a station rotation between many different projects. The first couple of days they had to go to the station assigned, but by the end of the week, they got to choose!
We had all kinds of stations Osmo, Finch Robot drawing, Dash Paths, Breakout, 3Doodler, Crafty Stations, Coding Robots for the Younger Ones (BeeBots and Code-a-pillar), and much more. One of our most successful stations though was the one that had been staring us in the face for a long time that we had never done. For many of the camps, we had played a video for inspiration called Caine's Arcade. The basic concept is that a little boy made a full arcade set of games in the front of his dad's store. We had never let students build those games, and it finally hit me that it would be a good idea. The kids loved it! The only thing that I need to do differently next time with it is have more cardboard!
I think our biggest challenge in the camp was chaperones. To save on cost for the school, we only brought two coaches from iTeach, and the school provided the rest of the chaperones. Just like anything, we had some that were incredible, while others we could have gotten a little more out of. I think in the end, that rests on me. Our biggest need for counselors was in the afternoon at the station rotation. There were several stations where we needed them to be at the station and offer a brief explanation. In the future, I need to have my stations decided way in advance, have tutorial videos for them to watch before our arrival, and have them assigned to a station that they can go in deeper with the kids. It's one of those where you learn by doing!
The other learning experience that benefited our future work was knowing which stations kids are interested in and which ones they aren't. With a camp as big as the one in Alabama was, we got to throw a bunch of things at the wall. Some stuck, while others didn't. The audience we had, had been exposed to some coding and robotics especially as they moved into older grades. It made things like drawing with the Finch robots somewhat boring, but it meant that something like the Kano computer kit was incredibly popular. I think in the future, we need to get an understanding of what kids have already been exposed to and structure our stations from that.
Overall, I think there are some key concepts that any teacher or media specialist can take from our experiences, and that is the whole reason for me to write this post.
Those key concepts
If you are interested in having a camp next year, see below!
As an Education Technology Specialist and someone who loves sharing out to the broader education technology community, you have to things that allow you to communicate your message. You have to have places where you can exchange ideas and put yourself out there. To do it, though, you need some great tools. This blog is meant to showcase the ones that I use consistently in my work. I love them all, but if you find just one that works for you, it makes this blog worth it!
Now you may be reading this and thinking, "Well I am just a teacher." That does not mean you don't have anything to share. Many of the best ideas, resources, and tools come from teachers who tried something cool in their class, so maybe this will help you to get that idea out there.
I think you could also look at this regarding your classroom. The easiest way to get in good with your parents is to be good at public relations. All of these tools can be great ways for you to communicate with parents and let them know what's going on in your class. You could even use them as the basis for your student digital hub.
My 3 Favorites
I am a massive fan of this app. It's an Ipad only app, but it is my absolute go to for video production. It's one of the apps I still use consistently, and both my successful Google Innovative Educator video and my hopeful Apple Distinguished Educator video were both made on this tool.
The idea behind this tool is to bring video and the web together. It does that by first giving you a secure video platform to record, and recording is as easy as pressing the record button. I have found the video quality to be pretty good, and if you use a mic plugged into the headphone jack the audio is crisp and clear.
It brings the web part into the app by using their innovative Vapps. These are seen within the platform as video apps, and it puts interactive web content in your video. Those Vapps show up in your video as new style graphics, and they allow the user to use things like websites without ever leaving the video. You can have these Vapps be websites, online video, photos, cloud services, and much more. It makes the video a box of internet content that only requires the user to go one place.
What's even better is that Touchcast is a video tool that has every other thing that you would want in video production for free. Touchcast has annotation features built in. It as a green screen built in. It has a teleprompter built in, and it also has several other functions built in.
From a standpoint of what you can do in the classroom, this tool is so multi-use. To start, it can be an excellent way to share awesome strategies. I use it as my main video component on my site, and with it's Youtube one button touch I can publish higher quality videos to Youtube easily. I think from a classroom communication standpoint it could be an amazing way to do a PR show for your parents. It also is an excellent way to do a flipped classroom type presentation, especially when you take the teleprompter into account.
Finally, Touchcast is ideal for students. It's easy to use, which makes it fantastic for video projects. Students can easily record, use the teleprompter, and best of all have green screen all for free. Even young students can use it because if you don't sign into the app, you can just download the video to the camera roll with no broadcast options.
Of course having a website is an amazing way to communicate. It gives people a place to land on and access resources that they know will always be there. This can be a way to get your ideas out there, and it can also be an excellent way to do that Public Relations that you know are becoming so important. Last but not least, I actually prefer this over a learning management system because it gives me more control.
From a delivering ideas standpoint, the way to start is with a blog. Blogs allow you to provide long-form explanations of your idea in a narrative format. I think the biggest thing that throws people on this is a lack of Grammar confidence. Well, my secret (I am doing it right now) is to use Grammarly which allows me to check my grammar quickly. I also highly suggest paying for the upgraded version as it lets you check things like overused words. You can use Grammarly through the app, or you can use it with a chrome extension that checks your text online.
The other piece I use all the time on Weebly is HTML embed. HTML Embed allows me to grab a gobbledygook code from another tool or site and embed it where it shows up directly on my site. I use this all the time to both organize and bring in tools that I use as a model. One of my favorites is Symbaloo because it allows me to put an organized tile based format with things videos.
From a student standpoint, I prefer this over every LMS because it gives me amazing control. I can organize things in the way I want, and I can create different pages for different groups. One of my favorite pieces was to put a page on my student site with all the pertinent information for parents. It made that PR piece easy as they knew where to find what they need. The other piece is that I can embed almost any learning tool into the site where it cuts down places for students to have to go. Some of those tools include Symbaloo, Touchcast, Nearpod, Padlet, and much, much more. LMS's can't do that.
As I try to get my message across, I need a tool to both expand my scope and deliver short-form messages. That's where Twitter comes in. There are so many social networks out there, but the education community on Twitter is HUGE. There are also several ways to connect with people. It can also be an excellent way to connect with both students and parents. The Twitter can drive your short form communication, and we all need that right?
When I look at Twitter, the first thing I use it for is to get my message out. This all starts with building a community. You have to get out there at conferences and other events and meet people. Not only can they become connections, but they can also become fast friends. You also can meet folks through Twitter chats. These are set times on a hashtag (usually a topic or region you are interested in) where a moderator has a discussion. You then make those connections through discussions. Start with Cybaryman's Twitter Chat Schedule (Click this link) to find a chat that works for you.
The second step to me in crafting a message using Twitter. I think this goes to two steps. The first is establishing your unwritten Twitter rules. Will you add things that are political? Will you use the account as your personal account and tweet things such as replies to companies and sports? I think there is no perfect answer for this; it just depends on you and your audience.
The second step that I use is tagging people and hashtags that will help me get the highest reach on whatever my message is. My first step in that process is creating an image that allows me to use the picture tagging feature on Twitter. Adobe Spark is a great way to create those images. It can give you well done beautiful images quickly. You then add that to your post, and then you use the tagging feature to add ten friends. This is a significant step to expand your scope because many Twitter users don't even look at their timeline. They just look at notifications, and this puts it right in that stream. Of course, you can also add hashtags to expand that scope even more.
While those steps work well to get you edtech message out, they could also be applied to your classroom. You can use Twitter a short form place to connect with both students and parents. You can have a class account which publishes all the great things in your classroom, but I would make sure that you don't put student faces in the account just to ensure privacy. Another way yu could use it would be to have a class hashtag where you could post assignments, reminders, and much more. I used to use to post my Bell Ringer and Exit Tickets as Google Forms to make data collection easy.
I think with Twitter people get overwhelmed by trying to learn it. They also get overwhelmed with the bad of Twitter. I think if you are just getting started on Twitter, sit down with an educator who knows the platform. They can help you cut through the weeds and get things to where you want them to be!
As an instructional technology coach, it's so easy to go into a teacher's classroom with good intentions, and then feel like you completely overwhelmed them. It takes some maneuvering and a relationship to get a teacher trying something new, but what also helps is a tool that has an easy level of entry.
An easy of a level of entry with an education technology tool usually stems from one of two things. The first is that the tool has a simple platform that is easy to understand and use. A great example of this would be many of the assessment platforms. They try to do everything they can to make it intuitive for a teacher to use the platform.
The second is that the tools resemble something the most basic teacher has seen before. When we talk about technology in the classroom, most teachers have seen and used something like PowerPoint as an example. A tool that takes much of the same setup of PowerPoint, and adds some incredible other layers to it can be an excellent way to start.
Honestly, that ease of entry is meant as an excitement piece. By using a tool that a teacher can quickly put their mind around and can easily use, you get a teacher excited about what instructional technology can do. You also build that relationship for the future.
An excellent example of a tool that goes the other way and entry is difficult is Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook. Class Notebook is a great way to create a shared notebook for your students, but the setup takes time to understand, there are several ways to set it up, and the sync does not always work the way you want it to. So for this to work in the classroom, you either have to have someone who is willing to sit with the teacher or a teacher who is willing to work through issues. Most teachers aren't ready to work through issues, so without that hand holding a teacher can become frustrated and often sour on the whole instructional technology experience.
5 Tools that are Easy Entry Points
This is my go to entry point for many of the new teachers I work with. The idea behind Nearpod is that is similar to a PowerPoint on steroids. It's meant as a way to deliver digital content, but in reality, it can be used many different ways, and above all, it's ease of use revolves around its similarities to PowerPoint.
The idea behind Nearpod is that instead of presenting your slide deck in the front of a classroom, the presentation shows up on a device in front of the student. You can then add a bunch of interactive content to the presentation including assessments. It compares to power point because you can actually port a power point over to be the content slides in your deck, and adding content is added just like it would be in a PowerPoint. The similarities to PowerPoint make it a go to starting spot for me as I work with teachers.
2) Kahoot and Quizizz
I know, ALOT of people have already seen Kahoot. You would be surprised though how many people have not heard of it. Quizizzz is very similar, but it can be used a little differently because of the way it's structured. Most people have not heard of Quizizz, so it makes it a great place to get folks started.
These platforms ease of entry all starts with the intuitiveness of their platform. Both of these are assessment/review type platforms, and once someone figures out how to add questions, they are off and running. While these are simple, you would be surprised how many people get so excited about them.
Now if you're reading this, you probably already know what Kahoot is, but if you don't, Kahoot is a multiple choice quiz platform that gives users points based on how fast they respond. It's very teacher led, as the teacher has to change over the questions. Quizizz takes that concept but puts the entire question on the student device. The student changes over the questions which also means you can do them for homework!
Now when you are starting with a teacher, assessment and data are usually a good place to start. Teachers are willing to listen to a tool that will grade things automatically for them and give them data they can use. That is the reason you see lots of assessment tools on this list, and Plickers is our next in line.
Plickers does something that helps so much in getting a teacher on board by only requiring a teacher device to assess. The idea behind this is that you give students a paper card that looks like a QR code. On the middle of each side of the QR code is a letter for a multiple choice response. When they hold that letter on top, that is their answer to the multiple choice question you are showing them. The teacher then scans the room with their app to pick up the answer.
To me, Plickers is that toe in the water for the super reluctant teacher and the device behavior hawks. For the super resistant, this can get them on board with an intuitive platform that does not require them to have to troubleshoot student devices. For the behavior hawks, this gives them a tool to prove that heir life will be better without giving students devices
4. Google Forms
Google is a deep, deep rabbit hole, and forms are no exception. They can also, however, be an easy entry point for teachers. They are easy to create and relatively intuitive to use. The best part though is that if you can hook a teacher on them, they can keep going deeper and deeper on the same platform.
The idea behind forms is to create a survey or digital assessment simply by putting a question underneath the one before it. They can be great ways to both assess and survey, and you get data you can kick into a spreadsheet. Forms can be a perfect place for Bell Ringers, Exit Tickets, Quizzes, and just surveying your students.
You can make Forms more, though. You can use it as the platform for differentiated instruction using the move to sections based on the response. You could use it as digital breakout using the data validation feature, and you can add features using add-ons. All of this makes forms an ideal entry point because you can start small and build.
5. Google Classroom
Yep, it's Google again. When you talk starting places and easy entry you have to have a way to do a digital hub on the list, and Google Classroom is the most accessible starting point of the bunch.
Google Classroom is Google's version of an LMS. It's intuitive to setup in the fact all student's need to join is a class code. It also is intuitive to add assignments to as everything can be accessed by the plus sign in the bottom corner. The teacher then just adds what they need.
Previously, Google Classroom was only accesible for teachers and students that had a Google domain at their school. That's changing! Google just recently announced that they will be adding classroom support for private accounts, so you can soon use it with anyone no matter what the school has.
"Why can we not get teachers just to see education differently?" It's the question that drives my Google innovator project (with my partner Savannah Denning), and this blog serves as sort of a soft launch for it to my PLN and my community.
I have walked through many schools in the past three years, and everywhere I look the traditional is still king. By traditional, I mean that sit and get culture that gives students no opportunity to create, to make, to think critically, and most of all to just be engaged. This culture even exists in districts that have access to devices and have opportunities to do things differently. So, why is that the thought process? What are the pain points that keep teachers in the way of doing things that have been proven ineffective? That's the question we are attempting to answer with seeedudifferently.com
See Edu Differently is a crowd sourced blog that asks teachers to post about what they are doing that is not traditional. We want to hear from the creatives. We want to hear from teachers who think differently, and it's easy to get involved.
All you have to do to be part of the site is fill out the Google Form on the site. We will review your submission, and if it's the awesomeness we expect you will then have the opportunity to post!
Now, what about those pain points or reasons for the traditional....
1) I can't be creative because they don't do that at the next level.
I call this the UGA argument. Talking with high school teachers in Georgia inevitably leads to the conversation that they have to lecture to prepare students to sit in the 600 seat psychology class at UGA. Frankly, that argument is BS, and what's interesting is that primary school change agents have the same reasons for doing sit and get in elementary school.
We should not be preparing students for the next level in school. We should be preparing them for life, and frankly many times those preconceived notions of what the next level looks like are just plain wrong. Changing those notions is one of the major goals of our blog. If we can have a blog where teachers are posting their innovation at the primary, secondary, and university level, then those doubters can see that there is innovation at the next level. Call it proof that those notions are just plain wrong.
2) My standards are just too much
This is another BS argument. The beauty of technology is that you can use to increase productivity and create time within your class. For some teachers, though you can tell them this a hundred times, they need to see it. That's where our site comes in.
Our hope is that the site will give teachers who are stopped by the standards argument a place to see teachers in their same category who are not stopped by it. Again, it's all about that proof.
3) I just won't get enough support
I think there are two aspects to the not getting enough support argument. The first is that your own school won't support you in doing things differently. I think teachers can come to a school with great ideas, but they can succumb to the peer pressure of doing instruction like everyone else Hopefully, this site can change that conversation to giving folks ideas they can take two others with real results.
The other side of the no support argument is not having people in your building who can help get you better. One of the best ways to improve practice is to see others innovative practices and have them help you improve yours. That is so hard most of the time though because that innovative teacher maybe only one of a few, or they could even be just the one. Hopefully, this site can serve as a connection point for others!
Please Consider Being Part!
I am fascinated by the education technology business. I don't think there is any business like it. It's a business where you have to have a free aspect to get adopted, you compete against the big boys of technology, and startups can kill it and then die ultra quick deaths. The most fascinating fact may be, though, that the modern ed tech business has only been something that has emerged in the last ten years of technology.
The question, though, is why do you care? My guess is that most people reading this blog are just regular classroom teachers. You have so much to worry about that you just want things that you can get and things that work. Who really cares about the business side?
If that's your train of thought, you might better start caring. By understanding the business side, you can gain three advantages: you know how to evaluate tools that will stick around, you have a leg up on getting that pesky administrator to buy in and get you the resource, and if you wanted to start your own business you know what it takes.
The first and most important part is the evaluation part. Many ed-tech tools come and go every day. If you want to add something to your everyday routine, you want it to stick around. Naturally, you are going to gravitate towards a tool that is free, but is that really the best option? Eventually, that tool is going to have to make money, and so eventually that free start can become an issue that weighs heavily on the tool. It even sometimes leads to a close of the business. Whenever you use a tool, their monetization plan should always be part of the evaluation because, without a plan that makes sense, you may be grasping for a new tool in a few years.
The second reason to know the ed-tech business is that it can aid you in convincing an administrator to adopt the tool that you want! When you go to an administrator, what is the first thing they always ask you? Well, it's always, "How much does it cost?" If you can go into that meeting with a knowledge of what you are getting for the cost and why it cost that much, that conversation becomes much simpler. If you know what the business is it also becomes much simpler to navigate their structure and find what you need.
The third reason to understand the business is that one day, you might be the business. Teachers run into problems and issues every day that they think, "Well, I can solve that." Well, why not start something that does. There are amazing edtech businesses like Plickers and ClassCraft that were the ideas of former teachers. You could be that next person!
As I look at ed tech businesses, I think five aspects make businesses successful. Hopefully, by understanding these aspects, you can find success both in the classroom and maybe even with your business.
The 6 Aspects of Ed Tech Business Success
1. An Innovative Product:
The first thing you have to have for success in edtech is an innovative product. It all starts with the product. For a company to be a success, they have to have a product that is different than what is already out there. It's just like anything else, you need to be first to market, and then pray that the big boys of tech (Google, Apple, Microsoft) don't get in your field.
A great example of this would be the innovative app Touchcast. Touchcast is quickly gaining users in schools because it takes a current concept, video production, and it adds a great twist to it by allowing you to put interactive web content in the video. No other tool out there does anything like it, and it's so innovative that they are even licensing the technology out to news companies to monetize which means it will be able to stay free for teachers
2. Ease of Entry
The second thing businesses must do is find a way to give their product an easy entry point. Many edtech businesses fail because they come up with the idea that is hard to get a beginner involved in. Most teachers are beginners and need a concept that they can understand. Sometimes that idea can be something that is an improvement that they already know.
A perfect example of this is Nearpod. Nearpod's success starts ith the fact that it's an easy entry. Nearpod is an app that is kind of like PowerPoint on steroids. It has two big differences 1) It syncs the presentation on student devices instead of the front of the room 2) It has all kinds of interactive in it. It's set up similar to PowerPoint makes it an easy entry point for teachers, and then it can be used as a jumping off point for a teacher's next step.
The third thing that makes edtech businesses works is relationships. To really, make the business successful you have to have a place to test your product. You have to be able to take that product into a classroom setting, and you have to see what happes with kids and teachers. Without that prototype phase, you will have issues with your product in the future.
Finding a school or district to test your prototype in is all about the relationships you build, and those relationships take time. When you start a business, it may be effective to actually go to the local school or district and just ask them to do some research. This starts the relationship, and it helps you define the problem. Then hopefully eventually they will let you come back in and do some test with the product.
Relationships also become important when you talk about funding. You have to be able to build relationships with angel investors in order to get some funding to expand the business. One of the greatest examples of this is the startup incubator, Imagine K12. Imagine K12 is the startup incubator that birthed tools like Class Dojo, Remind, Plickers, Blendspace, and many others. Being part of that incubator opens doors to those relationships that you need, and it gives companies a set of similar companies that they can grow together with
To be successful in the edtech world, you have to be a grinder. You have to push and push and push to get your business off of the ground. That grind can mean consistent updates to your product, but you also have to go where the teachers are. Edtech is a weird business where startup growth is very word of mouth. You have to control that conversation which means you have to grind to edtech events big and small.
A good way to tell the grinders is to go to ISTE and pay attention to the way companies market. The major grinders start off guerrilla marketing. They use the power of social media to say where they are, they have conversations, and they do everything they can to get their product out there. The ones that aren't grinders are the ones who just kind of hang out at booths or are not at ISTE at all. Edtech success takes that effort and the ones that don't put it in quickly die.
5. The Right Business Model
The other thing that is tricky in ed tech is the business model. You have to have enough of your tool that is free to really hook a teacher, but you can't have too much that's free because you won't have anything to monetize. The other thing that can throw a monkey reach in the free scale is competitors that come out, and they offer an aspect you were going to monetize for free. It's a business where you have to get that balance just right, and that's very hard.
A company that I think has it right is Nearpod. From a free perspective, you can use Nearpod in teacher directed mode fairly efficiently with the free. The key for them though is that they have several features that make you quickly realize you want to pay for it. Basically, they have enough to hook, but they have features to get folks ton paid.
The other key point for them is that they priced the paid version in that sweet spot where they are not giving it away, but a teacher can still afford it. I think most teachers look at the below $125ish range as a possibility if they are going to use it all the time. By pricing it in that range, Nearpod can get a few teachers to buy in, and then the tool naturally spreads. Eventually, the school buys it making the business a success.
6. A Community
As the business and users grow, you can't necessarily hire staff at a rate to service the business in the way it should be. To answer this question, many companies have turned to the creation of an ambassador program. The idea behind the ambassador program is to give teachers some incentive to advocate for the product. This does two things to benefit the company: 1) It helps build that word of mouth as teachers talk to another teacher 2) It extends the staff as you now have a group that you can trust to train new users.
All ambassador programs are different as different companies have different needs. Some companies pay teachers to do training for them while others just give them things like t-shirts. Most of the time it all depends on the budget, but carving out a piece to support teachers in advoacting for your business is worth every penny.
This post starts with my experience in grad school. I am currently finishing up my instructional technology specialist, and I have become a bit frustrated by the inherent problem with a degree in a field that is innovating so quickly. That problem is course work that is just not up on the latest and greatest innovations in the field. I can even understand why it's not considering. Education technology has changed at a frenzied pace in the last 16 years.
That frenetic pace of innovation has brought us to a place where we have two generations of people, companies, and thoughts in the education technology field. You can see that separation in degree programs, classrooms, and conferences every day. The most obvious place is in conference exhibit halls because products are sitting side by side, and I term that split the smart board generation vs. the mobile generation. I fall squarely in the mobile generation, and I think to make education technology a game changer we need to move others to mobile as quickly as possible. It’s going to be a long hard road though as most teachers still fall directly in the smart board generation.
The SmartBoard Generation
The SmartBoard Generation is typically the older generation, but the influence of this generation over college programs and new teachers has put many younger teachers squarely in this generation. As innovators and thought leaders, we have to start advocating for this generation to change their thought process. The Smart Board generations view on education technology is what is one of the main factors leading to the backlash we tend to see against technology spending.
When we talk about this generation, Education Technology sits squarely in consumption. This is the generation that grew up with student creation being difficult when you moved outside of Microsoft Office. This is the generation where having a smart board and annotating over it in teacher driven instruction matters. This is also the generation where many of their creation projects are with analog (think tri-folds) or super basic technology like power point.
Unfortunately, I believe that this generation is still winning when it comes to how technology is used in the classroom. It’s incredibly obvious when you visit big conferences like ISTE. Who has the big booths? Smartboard makers and textbook companies. The size of the booth means they are still making boatloads of money with districts. Even when you look at smaller booths, they are filled out many times by digital consumption companies. The businesses that are truly for the mobile generation are typically either in small booths or not on the show floor at all. It is changing though as companies such as Nearpod have seen enough growth to see their booth slowly expand.
When talking the Smart Board generation, the easiest way to see it in a classroom is through the prevalence of things like digital content. Many school districts are spending boatloads of money on platforms that supposedly measure where the student is in their understanding, and then they try to ask the students questions to raise that level of understanding. These platforms include things like IXL, ST Math, Imagine Learning, and much, much more. These platforms sit squarely in the Smartboard generation though because they are all about consumption. Most of them accomplish their goals by asking what amounts to multiple choice questions and students sit passively in front of a PC just clicking away. Many times the curriculum within these platforms is also preset.
I honestly think these platforms are doing more harm than good. I can see their use somewhat with young children to learn and support things that are necessary rote memorization such as sight words and math facts, but these platforms, want a bigger piece of the pie. Many platforms have a curriculum that goes much higher in grade level and some cases content. We are also starting to see digital platforms that focus on content outside basic literacy and math, and that has caused students to spend more and more time on them. I have two elementary age children who have 3 to 4 digital content logins. Another issue with these platforms is the fact heir curriculum is present. This is intended to make the teacher's life easier, but is it what is the best course of action for students? I would argue it is not because it is never going to match up to exactly what students need.
I am going to take heat for this, but I have come to the conclusion that Microsoft OneNote sits squarely in the Smartboard Generation. OneNote is gaining in popularity with schools because it is paired as a free tool with a district email solution (Outlook) and it gives you many of the same functions that an LMS would. While I have some issues with the product on the technical side (the way it syncs is just crazy), the biggest problem I have with it is the false sense of high-level technology use it brings to many. I have seen too many folks who have gotten on there, moved their classroom to a paperless vision, and then thought they had achieved that high-level use. Student creation then becomes stuck at a level where students are annotating and recording a little bit of audio. Most of the time this is in response to something that is pushed down by the teacher. Some outliers have found surprising, creative ways to use OneNote, but the majority of use cases do nothing for student creativity and originality. If you come to this conclusion and move to just using OneNote as a conduit for teacher turn in, you then sit squarely in a camp that makes Google Drive the better option because of its deep integration with Google Drive and the superior experience it gives the user over OneDrive.
Even though the mobile generation is what we desperately need teachers and education as a whole to move into, it's going to be a very hard road. The teacher-centered, consumption culture of education technology is still a major focus of university programs, and because there is still such a focus on experience in the education field, it's what is pushed on young teachers when they get out into schools. It's high time we change that; it's time to move everyone into the mobile generation.
The Mobile Generation
When you think of the mobile generation, we typically think of the younger teachers that have grown up in the smartphone world. While much of that is true, there are still plenty of older teachers who are intrigued by the vast changes in the technology landscape and have put themselves out there with amazing work that allows students to create and make. It's high time we moved everyone to this space.
When you look at this space from the business side of things, it usually centers on companies that are innovative start-ups. Often these firms look at an issue at education and the devout all of their resources trying to solve that problem and iterate on that design. In fact, I think you could do a fantastic case study with students on some of these companies reasons for existing, consistent iterations, and models that they have used to be successful.
When I look at a company that has been around for a while but sits squarely in the mobile generation, Nearpod comes to mind. Nearpod saw an issue, utterly boring content delivery, and they used mobile innovation to make the delivery more personal for students and give them the opportunity to interact with the content in new ways. They took presentations away from the front of the room put them on a device in front of the student, and they allowed the teacher to personalize content by putting students on different presentations at the same time. Nearpod can be used to enable teachers to create their own digital content.
You might look at Nearpod, and say what is the difference between it and a tool like OneNote? I think it all comes down to knowing what you are. Nearpod knows that it is strictly a content delivery device. It adds interaction and chances for students to do things like creating original drawings within that content delivery. In OneNote, you can create original drawings, but most of the use cases focus on annotating and recording over teacher delivered documents. It also gives that false sense of high-level use, while Nearpod is just a tool utilized in the broader toolbox of the mobile teacher.
The mobile generation also sits squarely in the student creation camp. If you want to be considered part of the mobile generation, the best way to start is to get your students using the power of their device to do things like make videos, audio, websites, games, animations, and much, much more. To do it and ensure learning, you need to design both a process and scenarios that put students in real-world situations. An example could be something like creating an audio commercial for the new products of the industrial revolution. Students will never forget that invention if they have to act as if they are selling it.
Another key aspect of student creation in the mobile generation is giving students a process of learning that they have to undertake with each project or assignment. I see teachers all the time who decide to do a project, and it comes down to just telling students to give them a final product. If you develop a process that allows students to both plans, create, and reflect the learning becomes much more powerful. A great place to start with a process is the steps of the STEM design process.
The biggest area of progress though for the mobile generation is the frantic pace and amazing products that are coming out of the maker and coding movements. In the last few years, there has been a push to get kids to create and make in places like makerspaces and classrooms. Making can focus on so many things, and because of that, it has become a massive area of innovation in education technology. New products and services come out every day to push students into the making space.
One of the biggest focuses in the maker movement is on coding. For years, teaching coding on schools got down to having to type the real code into a terminal. Now there are tons and tons of both programs and toys to teach kids how to code from a very basic level all the way to complex code that will truly create something unique. A few of my favorites include Dash robots, Spheros, Swift Coding App from Apple, and Ear Sketch. These can be fantastic ways for students to learn and create their own mobile experience!
To close, think about what you truly are? Think about your colleagues. Where are they? How can we move the needle into what students truly need with the Mobile Generation and student creation? We are going to face push back as an education technology community until that shift happens. Outsiders (including our wonderful politicians) will continue to not understand the use if we stick in that Smartboard Generation. They will see it as a waste of money because student learning and achievement may not move that much. If we move students to the mobile generation with student creation, student achievement will more than likely move, but best of all we will be preparing our students for the world that wants them for the mobile generation.
So, Betsy Devos got confirmed. It's a sad day for public education. Ms Devos comes into office with absolutely no experience in public schools and a lifetime of advocating for them. From a personal standpoint, seeing my Senator Johnny Isakson vote for her might have been the saddest part. I worked as an intern for Senator Isakson, and I was hoping he would be willing to stand up for the right thing in education, rather than the party thing.
Through Senator Isakson, I saw one of the biggest issues in public education: politics. All too often we are letting members of both the Federal and State Congresses make education decisions based on what their party says. It does not matter if it's a poor decision for kids.
I have seen some say that Ms. Devos will get the federal government out of the education system and return local control to the states. If that were the case I might be more for her, but for those that think that I ask, "How do you figure?" Ms. Devos has spent her life working on education from a government level. Now she sits in a seat of power to push that policy through. If anything, my guess is we are for more politics in education.
As I have contemplated the reasons behind some of our Republican Senators votes, I have come to the conclusion that the voice of teachers was just plain not loud enough. Teachers are just not heard. Yes, there are teachers union groups in Washington to lobby, but they have been delegitimized over and over again. At this point, no matter what good they do, they can't help.
We need a grassroots organization made of educators that can be mobilized to lobby for education policy. From the little bit I have seen, this group does not exist. I, of course, may be wrong, and I would love to help if it does.
Again, this group should not be a teachers union. To keep it legitimized they should focus completely on the policy that affects kids, and they should ignore the things that focus on things like teachers job benefits. As soon as a group moves to discussing shared benefits, there is a certain group of the country that does not listen.
With an advocacy group like this, all of the educators putting their views out on Social Media could have had a unified front. A group like this can also make powerful statements with Marches on Washington and State Capitols. It could be a powerful way to say we won't settle for the status quo of politics entangling education.
Not matter what party you associate with, I think you can agree that teachers really don't have a say in education policy. Education advocacy is fragmented, and teachers unions hold no weight with a certain group of politicians. It's time we change that. Who's with me?
For years, one of the major spaces of competition in the education technology space has been Learning Management Systems. There are several companies big and small that have gone from startup to major player in the ed tech space, but I think we may be soon in for a bubble burst. LMS's may go the same way as most things in technology....they may be controlled by just a few companies.
So, what is a learning management system or LMS? It's basically a place that organizes your classroom into a digital hub. You can post assignments, assessments, content, and more so students can access it digitally from anywhere. Almost everyone in education needs a space like this so that if a student gets lost, doesn't know where to go, is absent, or just generally confused they know where to start.
I think when you look at the LMS space there are four distinct categories: the big boys, the upstarts, the virtual school platforms, and the build your own with a website. From a death standpoint, I think the one that is in real danger are the upstarts, but the virtual school platforms could also be a development in the future. Let's look at each category to understand the space.
The Big Boy Group
The big boy group is the newest category, and it's the scariest for the upstarts. Basically, it's Apple, Google, and Microsoft's solutions for an LMS, and they are scary to the upstarts because they can offer total solutions that districts seem to be moving in droves.
Google started the trend with Google Apps for Education, but they soon realized they need a simple LMS type solution. This brought about Classroom. Smaller LMS companies struggle to compete against it because it integrates everything on the Google side: email, drive, and the LMS. It makes it easy to turn in assignments and deliver feedback. That ease of use is always a winner.
Microsoft soon realized Google's lead, and they began pushing out their own with the 365/One Note Universe. When you look at their LMS, it revolves around One Note. One Note is a Note taking an app that syncs across multiple devices, and teachers can also set up Class Notebooks within the system. It's adoption hinges on the fact that many schools are moving to Office 365 to provide their employees access to email and Microsoft Office in the cloud.
This is a space that Apple falls a little bit behind the others, but you are starting to see Apple have signs of life. The closest thing they have to an LMS type system is Itunes U. It gives the teacher all they need to set up an online class, but their format to switch classes can be a little different from the typical LMS. Their advantage over the little guy though goes back to their hardware. Itunes U works incredibly well on Ipad, and if that's the avenue a school goes it's likely that's what they will pick.
The Little Guys
There are lots of little guys out there, and I think with Apple, Microsoft, and Google's entrance into the game you are starting to see signs of death. When we talk little guys these are your platforms such as Edmodo, Schoology; It's Learning, Canvas, and a host of others. I think you see many schools who would much rather pick the all in one solution that also provides things like email and office rather than one that is just an LMS.
The interesting one of the bunch is Canvas. Canvas started as an answer to the problems of the others. Canvas is an open-sourced platform that is both feature packed and integrates well with other apps. Schools are seeing those integrations and jumping on board. They also market the product almost like the virtual school versions do which has allowed them to sit in a nice sweet spot between and LMS and virtual school platform.
Canvas seems to be growing, but are they soon going to be come tapped out thanks to the big boy solutions? Solutions from Microsoft and Google give you more then just the LMS, and I always wonder if schools will just use their versions to accomplish that digital hub. I think we already see the decline of some of the others because of the "Big Boy" versions. I have seen several schools in the past couple of years shift from one of these little versions of One Note or Google Classroom, and I think that trend is bound to continue. The little guys seem to be doing everything they can to hang on to their existing user base, but growth is a slow go. If you are thinking about one of the Little Guy solutions, I would proceed with caution.
The Virtual School Platforms
The Virtual School Platforms are a whole different ball game entirely. Many school districts are being virtual school programs that are fully online for students to do things like summer school and grade recovery. To do so, they need to have platforms which are not just supplements but are the full class online. This has led to a rise of feature packed platforms such as Blackboard, D2L, Edgenuity, and more. The interesting thing is watching districts try to adopt them to regular classrooms. The thought is that if we are going to spend a whole bunch of money on a virtual school platform, then why not have a uniform LMS across a district. Almost universally, this has been met with pushback from teachers, and in many instances rightfully so.
The differences between these platforms and an LMS is all about features. Most LMS platforms are meant to be supplements to class instruction, while these are supposed to be the entire class. Typically, it means these platforms have features and integrations that others don't. Things like having a virtual conference, email, and gradebooks come with these, but don't typically come with an LMS because there are usually other solutions for that. You are also starting to see some of the platforms come with pre-loaded content so that a virtual class is standardized.
While these features may be great for virtual school, they can overwhelm teachers.
They are so feature packed that teachers get lost. They also can be convoluted when it comes to students finding things within the platform.
From a leader standpoint, I think I would have to go with D2L. The interesting thing is that I might have said Blackboard less than a year ago. D2l has made inroads in the avenue by starting with Universities and expanding out. They are my graduate school platform, and now I am starting to see them move into K-12 school districts. They are gaining traction because they have easy integrations with other apps. That easy integration is the real key to making these platforms stick.
These platforms are also in an interesting place in the grand scheme of things. Lots of districts are starting virtual schools, and they see these platforms as a need. Will it continue? I don't know. I think asking these platforms to transfer over to everyday use is a major stretch, and are virtual schools going to stick to being a major district thing? I also think you might see the virtual schools switch to something like Google Classroom as it adds more features. That all in one solution may end up winning out if the features come up to the Virtual School Level
The Build Your Own
Personally, my preference to the digital hub solution is to build your own website. I think it's the most customizable, and it allows you to get the most out of learning tools by using HTML to embed them. To use websites as solutions though, you run into two major issues: 1) It's hard to standardize 2) It's not an easy entry.
The idea behind a website is that you take one of the free builders like Weebly or the New Google Sites, and you design what your digital hub looks like. You can then customize it by adding other learning apps such as Padlet, Nearpod, Touchcast and many others through the magic of HTML embed.
The issue here starts with the fact that this is a hard entry. For many teachers, asking them to build their own website is a lot. It takes planning and a deep understanding of the website platform. This typically is a project for the "techie" teachers, but I think you could implement school-wide with high expectations.
The other issue that comes with a website is that it is hard to standardize and control from a broader perspective. Many districts are so freaked out by laws relating to student digital use that they want you to be on the district level domain. Websites might be the best solution for kids, but other factors mean that you may never see a wide spread use.
The LMS question is going to be an interesting one for years. It's one that as of now looks like it's going to go similar to smart watches. Startups start the movement (like Pebble in Smart watches), but when the Big boys get in (like Apple and Google), the little guy dies. What we know more than anything though is that the need for a digital hub is just going to increase. Every school and every teacher needs to have a solution. Schools just need to have high expectations for them.