I recently became obsessed with “Shark Tank,” the reality show where entrepreneurs pitch their (supposedly) million-dollar ideas and nascent companies to a panel of “sharks,” high-profile investors who decide whether or not they want to invest in the small companies and get in on the action or pass on the deal. I love watching the sharks, Mark Cuban, Mr. Wonderful a.k.a Kevin O’Leary, that guy who invented Fubu, and the blonde lady from QVC (okay, so I’m not an expert on the show but you get the idea) give the hopeful entrepreneurs honest, and hopefully meaningful but always sassy, feedback on their ideas.
So when EdSurge – the Bill & Melinda Gates-supported education technology news resource and the company that’s now organizing the monthly San Francisco EdTech meetup — used a similar format for January’s Edtech Meetup, “Teacher Tank,” last week, I was stoked. They took the general idea of Shark Tank and made it a hundred times better because the discussion actually mattered. They had edtech entrepreneurs present their startup’s ideas in front of a panel of teachers who gave them honest, meaningful feedback to the entrepreneurs on the pedagogical aspects of their startups and products.
As educators and edtech followers know, this a critical and somewhat paradoxical time in education: with higher education fees as high as ever and K-12 schools across the country facing budget cuts, the education technology business is simultaneously making literally billions of dollars, with VC investors providing millions of dollars in funding every week to various startups. Because of this, some say we’ve found ourselves in the midst of an edtech bubble, surrounded by hype and full of companies hoping to get rich quick with no real long-term business model in an industry that’s notoriously known for being slow to grow. With all the brand-new edtech companies out there — some hoping to make a difference and others hoping just to make a buck — it’s hard to tell which will actually make meaningful, lasting changes in education.
Teachers can make that guess better than anyone, as they’re the ones on the front lines testing these products with their students. So in this paradoxical, hype-surrounded education climate, having a panel of teachers take a look at a few startups and give entrepreneurs advice on how their companies can make those meaningful changes seemed like the perfect idea for a meetup.
During the meetup, four K-12 Bay Area teachers listened to presenters from the companies Bloomboard (a marketplace for educators’ professional development), GlassLab (a game-based learning and assessment, who presented on Sim CityEDU, their latest game), and Meograph (a “four-dimensional” storytelling tool with pedagogical uses). These companies, with already fully developed products being used by students and educators, didn’t pitch their products to the teachers as the entrepreneurs do in the show “Shark Tank.” Instead, they presented on their companies’ experiences in problem discovery, prototyping, and feedback and iteration with schools.
The teacher sharks included Jamey Everett, a fifth grade comprehensive teacher, Rebecca Horwitz, a math lead teacher, Meghan Jacquot, an English teacher, and John Kittredge, a digital literacy and expression teacher. The panel of teacher sharks proved savvy and direct, identifying the strategies that were successful for these companies, while also addressing ways in which the companies could take a different approach in order to improve their products for the classroom. Then, the audience voted on which companies’ problem discovery and feedback processes — with actual teachers and students — were best.
The discussion lasted a little over an hour, and I and several others I spoke with at the meetup would have loved for it to go on longer. The companies were only given around 5-10 minutes to present, and the teacher panel was only given around 5-10 minutes as a whole to provide feedback. As a result, the conversation was sometimes cut off just as it started to get really good.
The concept of the meetup, however, was brilliant and executed quite well by EdSurge. In a time where it’s sometimes hard to tell which budding edtech companies are here for the hype and which are truly here to stay, it was nice to hear meaningful exchanges between teachers and entrepreneurs. I loved that the focus of the meetup was not on edtech companies talking about their business models and how much VC funding they received in series round A but rather the reason their company should exist in the first place: improving education. If nothing else, the meetup certainly hammered home the point that these edtech companies can’t exist in a vacuum without testing their products in schools or communicating with educators. Instead, they need to be constantly engaged in a dialogue with teachers and students in order to make their products as effective as possible and make a real difference in the classroom. If can they do that, and do that well, the business model and financial success will follow.
SF Technapex readers, did any of you attend the meetup? Share your impressions below, or tweet them to @Technapex or @ce_doyle.