Startup Weekend: Let’s Teach Teachers To Speak Ed Tech

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By Katrina Stevens (Co-Founder, LessonCast)

When I went through the pitch process at the Mega Startup Weekend in Mountain View (see article in Fast Company for description of event), I initially felt frustrated. Coming into the weekend, I was hyper-excited about being there because I loved my first experience of Startup Weekend SF EDU.

When pitch after pitch had little to do with teaching, and two pitches advocated horrible pedagogy, I was running a bit hot. I felt like we were facing the same issue as we did before: a real lack of understanding in the tech world of true needs of education.

I was fully prepared to write extensively about why this needed to change, and then I realized that my perspective was fairly narrow and wasn’t giving me room to grow personally. It’s easy to rant about something, but harder to work toward a solution.

When I stepped back and allowed myself to pay more close attention, here are some of the lessons I learned over the weekend:

  1. Most people go to Startup Weekend to have fun -— and that’s okay. Not everyone needs to save the world over the weekend. (Think about what we could do though if we tried!) I shouldn’t have been mildly irritated when one developer told me that he chose another group because it sounded like more fun, even though he knew it wouldn’t have any real impact on education. While making an impact is really important to me, it’s not why everyone comes to Startup Weekends. It’s also about developing a community, learning about startups and having a great time with interesting and talented people.
  2. When someone who has listened to thousands of pitches, like Scott Case, gives you feedback on your pitch, you should listen closely. We had recently made a significant pivot and thought we had committed to it, so when Scott told us that our pitch reflected ambivalence, my first response was defensive—why didn’t he recognize that we had already just decided to change direction? The more I ruminated on his comment though, I realized that he was right. Our first product was our baby and it was hard to leave it alone while it was still in its infancy. Though we had started working on a new LessonCast product, we hadn’t fully planted our feet, turned our backs and completely faced the new direction we needed to go. We were still trying to drag our first baby along with our new project. Case’s comment probably pushed us forward a few months in terms of our own mental framework of where we were.
  3. Keep it simple! What we’re trying to do to improve teacher effectiveness is fairly complicated and nuanced because teaching is complicated and nuanced. However, as Ahmed Siddiqui, one of the organizers and founder of Go Go Mongo, the pitch needs to be simple. If we can’t boil our explanation of what we do down to a couple of sentences, then others won’t be able to share what we do with their friends and colleagues. It’s our job to find some simple explanations -– as a teacher I do this all the time. In the classroom I often start with a big overview and easy analogy and then build the nuance in as we pull something apart or build an idea. It’s the same concept for our pitch. I believe we finally have our pitches down.
  4. The next time I go to a Startup Weekend, I’ll probably join a team instead of working on LessonCast because our startup is further along than what Startup is designed to do. Besides I now having something to contribute beyond adding a teacher perspective: I can do mockups in Balsamiq, throw around business plan models and think through a validation process. A year ago, I would not have been comfortable with any of these tasks, aside from recognizing what works in a classroom. Most teachers can learn how to do these skills as well. Which leads me to my next realization:
  5. When teachers can speak some of the language of tech and/or startups, then we can have more impact because we’ll be taken more seriously. If we understand an ed tech perspective, then we can move tech in directions that will support what we’re trying to do in the classroom. Bringing non-teacher, tech startup skills to the table also allows us to be a more active drivers of the conversation.

The good news is that LessonCast was asked to help organize the first Startup Weekend EDU on the East Coast in Washington, DC, so there’s an opportunity to nudge Ed Tech startups in the right direction in my own neighborhood. Startup Weekend and Grockit recently announced the launch of a series of Startup Weekends with an education focus starting in Seattle, which means there will be more opportunities for Ed Tech communities to develop around the world and teachers should be part of it.

I firmly believe bringing teachers to the Ed Tech process will make better products that both serve the needs of educators and allow Ed Tech Startups to succeed. The next challenge is to figure out some concrete ways to have teachers participate meaningfully in DC’s Startup Weekend EDU. If there are any teachers in the DC area, block out October 21-23 because we’re going to need you!

This post was originally posted at Mega Startup Weekend’s blog.

About the guest blogger: Katrina Stevens is co-founder of LessonCast, a company formed out of Mega Startup Weekend in the Education Track on September 9-11, 2011 in Microsoft (Mountain View, CA).