Shared Learning Collaborative – Bay Area Camp
A couple of weekends ago I had the pleasure of attending the Shared Learning Collaborative’s first every Bay Area Camp. I was very excited as I had never attended a codeathon before. The idea of spending a weekend with a bunch of educators and a bunch of programmers, all with the aim of solving educations biggest problems, was inspiring and exciting.
So I dragged my tired teacher behind out of bed at 6:30 am (on a Saturday) and drove from SF down to Mountain View. I had my computer, my book bag, and my coffee. So teacherly. The first morning we were briefly introduced to the mission of the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC) and their vision for the future of educational data. It is so true that much of the technologies educational systems use keep data in silos and it is incredibly difficult to make these silos communicate with each other in a meaningful and productive way. Especially sharing classroom-based data about student performance on the micro-level, or about behavior, never mind if the student leaves the school or goes to another district. SLC imagines a future where all student data is housed in one location and all educational apps communicate to and from this location. Sharron, one of the SLC staff members said that SLC has a “commitment to personalization of learning at scale” She talked about connecting student records, teaching tools, diagnostic assessments, district level data, all of it in one easy to use place. Well easy for programmers.
After the main welcome we split up into two groups, the teachers in one room and the programmers in the other. They got a crash course in how to program to the API and language specifications, and what things needed to be read from and written to the sandbox. The teacher got to talk more about the pain points in their practice. The aim was for teachers to imagine the tool, the platform, the function that would change their life as a teacher. Then we all came back together as a larger group and people got 30 seconds to pitch their idea.
Somewhere between my first cup of coffee and all this talk about changing the world I was pumped up and I lept out of my chair and was first in line. I had an idea, one that was not super flushed out, one that had come to me that morning, and one that I knew my students would use. 30 seconds goes by really fast, and I barely scratched the surface, but it must have been enough to start some fires in other because I managed to gather a great group of people to work with who also thought it was a good idea.
The rest of the weekend was spent fully engaged in product development. It was like project-based learning for adults. We sketched out our ideas on paper, we planned out work time, we assigned roles to the different members of the group based on peoples’ skills. By Saturday night we had a clear outline of our product
“Assignline – a platform that scaffolds time managements and executive functioning strategies while using an environment that is student centered and student driven.” (or some variation on that theme)
We had a good head start on some mock-ups and a vision for what we needed to accomplish by 12 noon Sunday in order to stay in the competition. Here is a picture of the team hard at work. Our major hurdle was for our programmers figuring out how to use the fake data and the SLC tools. But we managed to work out the kinks, pull together a website, and iPhone app, and the mock-ups to support the concept. I practiced my pitch and with the support of my team I made the 2 minute sell, and we were shortlisted as one of the 7 teams to progress. This meant that we had to build more mock-ups, address the concerns of the panel, build some functionalities that exemplified how our product would read and write data back to the mothership, and we had 4 minutes to sell it. Here is a mid-presentation pic.
Long story short: we didn’t win. We had a great concept that would genuinely impact the lives of students, teachers, and families. It was a wonderful process and it was a little disappointing. I learned a lot of tech-talk, I learned a lot about pitching ideas, and I learned a lot about myself as a leader.
As the buzz from the weekend wore off, and I returned to school without having had any time off, I began to reflect on the state of the ed-tech world. It has been a few years now that I have situated myself on the periphery of the industry. I go to meet-ups, and pitches, and ImagineK-12, and I talk to company founders on the phone. I have done my fair share of providing feedback and helping people who have no clue about education, gain enough of a clue so that their product makes sense. The reason I do this is because I have a personal interest and I usually get to work something out where I can have free access to the product for a while. The more I reflect on this dynamic, the more it really seems inequitable to me. Seed money gets pumped into these start-ups, teachers provide the intellectual and experiential backbone, and then the company either flops or makes money. But does any of that money ever go back to the teacher, or the school, or into anything remotely connected to education? I am sure there are example companies who do engage in this way, but there are just as many who don’t. And even if the teacher gets access to the product for free, this does not mean that they will be able to afford it once their time is up, or that their co-teacher (who happens to be really excited about the product too) gets to use it.
I don’t propose to have an answer to this problem, except maybe the following: developers should come and teach class for a few days while the teacher kicks back and develops the mock-ups, the concept, and the pitch. And once the product makes its millions (wink wink) the money should be distributed accordingly. After all, the average salary for a software engineer is $124,000 (according to this article) and the average teacher salary is half that amount tops. I realize there are a lot of flaws to my plan but it would take great steps towards solving some of the problems in education.
Lastly, and to bring it back to SLC and the Bay Area camp, the 3 top projects were awarded prize money. They are all great projects and for the most part they all solve some pain point within educational systems. The top 3 project at the SLC codeathon were all groups who had formed prior to the event, were all very programmer heavy, and whose products (while being really great tech responses to things teachers find difficult) were ultimately just another tech-tool that a teacher uses. This means they have to be trained, or they have to change something about their current routines and habits. The 4 runner-ups projects, including mine – the newest and best way to help students keep track of their assignments, and requires nothing of the teacher – are also great ideas. So please check them out, and if any of the readers feel like supporting education, sending us seed money would be a great place to start.