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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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  • 05/14/12--12:09: Paying to Learn (to Program)
  • Why pay to learn to code?

    With the explosion in the availability of free material online that can help you learn to code – Udacity, Coursera, Codecademy and the like – why pay for a computer science class?

    Sometimes paying is necessary in order to earn college credits. There’s also a belief – right or wrong – that courses that charge tuition are better than ones offered for free. In part it’s the old “you get what you pay for adage”; but it’s also the presumption that formal education (and the credentials that come with it, of course) trumps the informal – not just because the education is supposedly better but because of the status afforded to and by institutions.

    Many of the new learn-to-code-online resources insist that they provide a high quality, university-level education for free. In other words, their free classes are just as good as those you pay for.

    But as I’ve noted based on my own experiences with several of them, the quality of the materials and the instructor is just part of what makes a class “good” (for me at least). And as such, I ask: how do these free learn-to-code sites work to support learners, individually or as a community? How do they help learners succeed? “Success” can mean lots of things, no doubt, but let’s say here it means that those who enroll will achieve their personal learning goals. Of course, it’s fair to ask how much learners are really supported when they pay for courses. But with free online classes there seems to be an expectation that the attrition rate will be high. Most won’t succeed.

    What obligations do learning institutions and companies have to their students to support them? And is “support” something (or another thing) that would make paying for a course worth it?

    (Pay to) Learn to Program with Bloc

    I have been stewing about a lot of these questions in light of a recent pivot by the learn-to-code startup Bloc. Bloc has gone from a free browser-based guide that taught people web-development and app deployment to an eight-week online developer boot camp – one that costs $3000 and has a fairly rigorous application process.

    Read the rest of the story over on Inside Higher Ed...

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. I always find our conversation to be one of the most thought-provoking exchanges I have all week.

    This week, we chatted about:

    0:22 - My new addition to the Hack Education site, where I'm curating and commenting on some of the education blog posts I've read.

    2:17 - Confusion over CIPA, and the growing reach of schools' filters that are now following students and teachers home.

    11:19 - What I've learned about how I learn, thanks (in part) to being a serial MOOC dropout.  (Also, I pronounce Udacity as "you-da-city."  I blame the folks on the Digital Campus podcast, which I recorded earlier Friday morning.)

    17:00 - Mathalicious takes to fundraising on Kickstarter, and I ask "Why?"

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    May 11, 2012

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    One of the cornerstones of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative has been the demand that states improve “teacher effectiveness.” In theory at least it’s hard to argue with such a thing – after all, great teachers have a lasting positive impact on their students, a major study by Harvard and Columbia professors released earlier this year contended. But in practice, it’s not so easy to say what makes a teacher “great” or what you mean by “effective.” For its part though, RTTT wants to measure this through more rigorous teacher evaluation systems, ones that are based in large part on students’ standardized test data, as well as on classroom observation.

    I’ve written in detail and with great skepticism about the first part of that measurement – the emphasis on standardized test scores as the abiter of “what works” and “what matters” in the classroom. There’s no agreement that we can really ascertain a teacher’s effectiveness (or “value add”) based on this data. Great teaching is so much more complex than that.

    But that complexity isn’t always apparent through classroom observation either, and that’s been one of the few other measurements we have about teacher performance.

    This is all one terribly long-winded introduction – and perhaps even a caveat – to situate a new startup called TeachBoost that’s stepping right into the middle of the teacher evaluation maelstrom with its “performance management platform.” That’s a pretty bold step to take for a startup, I think, even if the RTTT rules might indicate that the market for teacher evaluation tools could be big.

    But one thing that struck me as I talked to TeachBoost CEO Jason DeRoner last week was his great humility in building this (potentially) politically-charged product and a recognition that he and his engineering-heavy team (with no classroom teaching experience among the founders) were going to have to take a lot of cues from schools about what the tool would need to do.

    DeRoner also repeatedly stressed the importance of trust – trust in TeachBoost, sure, but also trust among administrators and classroom educators. This isn’t about surveillance, DeRoner insisted, but about “safe feedback” and collaboration: teachers and administrators working together to set and attain professional goals.

    The design and workflow of TeachBoost are geared in part towards mobile usage; the idea is to make it easier for principals to take notes and make ratings during classroom visits. (It’s the old challenge of an app replacing paper.) TeachBoost offers a mobile Web app so that principals can use any sort of device – laptop or iPad, for example – to jot down what they see during walkthroughs. As a Web app, the information is secure in the cloud and accessible via the same interface when they’re back at their desks.

    TeachBoost can be customized so that it includes evaluation rubrics that are required by the state as well as additional questions and goals that teachers and principals establish together. “We don’t want any ‘gotchas’,” says DeRoner. And teachers too are encouraged to submit their own documentation and data to their TeachBoost profiles. Again, a single classroom observation can never really capture a teacher’s effectiveness.

    But observations alone should not be the end-game. In other words, even if a principal does write down notes about a teacher’s performance, then what? So what? DeRoner argues that a tool should do more than just monitor performance  and as such he describes TeachBoost as a “teacher development platform." He says the tool should help match teachers with mentors and help schools develop their own expertise and form their own learning networks based on teachers’ strengths.

    TeachBoost offers free and paid accounts and is a member of the most recent ImagineK12 graduating class.

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    Interactive textbook publisher Inkling announced today that it’s struck a distribution partnership with Follett, the largest college bookstore retailer in the industry. Follett, which operates some 900 college bookstores, says it will make “hundreds of titles” from Inkling available to its customers in the fall.

    Students will be able to buy the Inkling titles online or in their local bookstores, using multiple payment methods including financial aid. They’ll also be able to take advantage of Inkling’s “Pick 3” pricing alternative whereby students can opt to just purchase 3 digital chapters rather than an entire textbook.

    Follett boasts some 5 million students across the campus bookstores it serves, and that number clearly bodes well for Inkling which will now have its brand and app in front of these potential customers.

    But the operative word here might be “app,” as Inkling remains iPad only. The startup does say that an HTML5 Web app is in the works, but until then, its titles all remain bundled with a rather expensive piece of hardware. That’s not to say that college students don’t have or want iPads, of course. (They do.) But nor does that iDevice desire or ownership mean they necessarily want digital textbooks either. (Students’ attitudes towards them remain lukewarm.)

    Read the rest of the story on Inside Higher Ed

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    Inside NYU art professor David Darts’ black metal lunchbox, painted with a white skull and crossbones, is the PirateBox – a tiny Linux server, a wireless router, and a battery. Turn the PirateBox on and you have a self-contained mobile communications and file-sharing device, whereby those in the vicinity can upload and download files securely and anonymously. (See this 2011 Ars Technica story for photos and details.) Built with free and open source software and openly licensed itself, the PirateBox has inspired a number of other projects, including Alan Levine’s Storybox and now Jason Griffey’s LibraryBox.

    The head of Library Information Technology at the University of Tenneessee at Chattanooga, Griffey has built a prototype of the LibraryBox, whose “guts” sit nestled in a carved-out book rather than in a lunchbox, and he’s looking for help in customizing the device to better suit the needs of a mobile DIY library.

    As with its lunchbox ancestors, the LibraryBox generates a wireless network that anyone can join via a WiFi-enabled device. That network isn’t connected to the larger Internet, just to the box itself. But from there, people can access the contents of its file server – and they can do so anonymously as no data is tracked or stored on who they are or what they download. There's also no need for specific e-reader hardware or apps, as even the cheapest of cellphones tend to have WiFi, and e-books can be downloaded and opened in several formats (including HTML, ePUB, PDF, and QiOO Mobile).

    Griffey says the LibraryBox will “take the 'pirate' out of PirateBox.” That doesn’t mean exorcising the spirit of the larger PirateBox project, which its creator Darts says was “inspired by the free culture and pirate radio movements” and serves as a “playful remixing of the title of the world’s most resilient bittorrent site, The Pirate Bay.” Rather, replacing “pirate” with “library” makes it more apparent, in Griffey’s case, that this is about open access to information and to books. As he describes some of the inquiries he’s received about the LibraryBox, it’s clear that this device could have enormous potential for boosting literacy and education and for opening access to digital educational materials.

    Griffey says he has lots of plans for LibraryBox that will make it a true fork of the PirateBox project (making it easier to install for those folks unfamiliar with the Linux command line, for starters). He’s also pursuing a way to scrape Project Gutenberg for public domain content. Drop him a line to help out.

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    The crowdfunding of creative projects has become incredibly popular lately (and at times, incredibly lucrative), most notably this past week when the Pebble E-Paper Watch crossed the $10 million threshold and shattered the record for most money raised via the Kickstarter platform. Most successful Kickstarter projects raise far less than that, of course only 46% of projects are successful. But there seems to be substantial power in leveraging the power of “the crowd” and the community to finance a number of creative efforts – movies, video games, theater, photography, fashion, books, and as I wrote about last month, academic research.

    Here’s hoping that that bodes well for a new crowdfunding site that officially launches today. hopes to raise money for e-books -- but not, as is the case with platforms like Kickstarter or Unbound, to have these books written. Rather, the funds will go towards paying authors or publishers for existing works, giving them a one-time licensing fee in exchange for their releasing their e-books for free, under a Creative Commons license and without DRM.

    These “unglued” e-books can then be easily accessed and read and shared by anyone, with anyone, on any device. (You know, like how it works with printed books.) As such, is tackling one of the main drawbacks of e-reading – we are finding books locked into a proprietary format, restricted to a specific device, only available through a particular bookseller.

    Read the rest of the story over on Inside Higher Ed...

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    The Market

    The Facebook IPO

    This is one of those news items that you’re welcome to say “Wait, Audrey. This isn’t education technology.” And you’re right. It’s not. But it still matters: Facebook went public today. So what, you ask? Well, certainly this story matters to Silicon Valley and to the new millionaires and billionaires (and investors and entrepreneurs) this will create. And there are any number of reasons why this story matters specifically to education too. It matters because learning is social, and it matters because teens (and you and your mom) use Facebook. It matters because many school districts are saying that teachers cannot use Facebook to reach teens (or, at least students). It matters that Mark Zuckerberg is part of a larger narrative about dropping out of college as a key to entrepreneurial success. It matters too that that college was Harvard. It matters that Harvard claimed no IP rights to what one of its student had built. It matters that fellow Harvard student and Facebook co-founder Edward Saverin has renounced his U.S. citizenship, ostensibly to avoid paying taxes. It matters that, when he made his first philanthropic gesture, Zuckerberg donated to the Newark City Schools. The Facebook IPO matters because this company has defined “social networking” and in many ways shapes how we think about our interactions with one another (and with anything you can “like”) online. The Facebook IPO matters because of what it might reveal about the company’s current business strategy now (ads) or in the future (your data).

    Test Scores

    In the latest standardized test question whackiness, New Jersey 3rd graders were asked as part of their recent tests to write an essay about a secret they had kept. No pressure, kids.

    The test scores of Florida public school students took a sharp nosedive this year after the state adjusted its scoring mechanism. But the FCAT scores dipped so low – just 27% of students passed, down from 81% the year before under the older scoring system – that the state Board of Education has opted to adjust again how what it considers a passing score. And now – presto! – 81% of Florida students are passing.


    An important (350-page!) ruling in a lawsuit by the Cambridge University Press, the Oxford University Press and Sage Publications which charged that Georgia State University had violated copyright by offering library e-reserves. The decision was mostly a win for libraries. Duke University’s Kevin Smith writes, "“In general I expect librarians to be happy about the outcome of this case. It suggests that suing libraries is an unprofitable adventure, when 95% of the challenged uses were upheld. But there will also be a good deal of hand-wringing about the uncertainties that the Judge has left us with, the places where we need information we cannot reasonably obtain, and the mechanical application of a strict percentage.”

    Updates and Upgrades

    On Tuesday, Google released a new feature inside Google Docs calls “Google Research,” letting you tap into Google Search from within your documents. Frankly, it seemed a tad underwhelming. But then on Wednesday, Google unveiled its new Knowledge Graph, a major enhancement to its search capabilities, and you can start to see how the new reach and integration of Google services might work. With the new Knowledge Graph feature (rolling out over to users over the next week or so), you’ll see more search results in addition to just those “10 blue links” for which Google has become famous. These can help hone results (when you search for “Conan” for example, are you looking for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie or for a red-headed late-night comedian?), summarize information and provide related links and factoids. (I’ll have a more in-depth review once the feature is turned on for me.)

    The Australian government has committed to spend $11.7 million to purchase 50,000 XO laptops as pa rt of a 12-month pilot program to support indigenous learning. In other OLPC news, plans to deploy some XO devices through helicopter drops moves forward.


    The 2012 Horizon Report for K–12 won’t have its official release until June. But the NMC is offering a sneak peek this week into what the trends it’s tracking. On the horizon in the shortest of short term: cloud computing, apps, tablets, and collaborative environments.

    According to a report released this week by the Everyone Graduates Center and the Get School Initiative, chronic absenteeism is a significant problem. Up to 15% of students miss school regularly – one day out of every 10. Chronic absenteeism ranges in the states that were studied, from 6% in Nebraska to 20% in Oregon, and as high as one quarter of students in high poverty rural areas and one third of students in high poverty urban areas.

    Financial Improprieties, Dissolution, Bankruptcy, and Debt

    Earlier this month, news broke that the Justice Department was investigating Princeton Review for charging the city of New York for tutoring services it never provided. Now the city’s comptroller has found that another tutoring company, the Champion Learning Center, did a similar thing, collecting some $860,000 for tutoring sessions that officials never certified had taken place.

    I missed this news when it crossed the wire several weeks ago, but it’s too important to ignore: the city of Philadelphia is dissolving or “restructuring” its public schools system (pick your verb. Diane Ravitch suggests “privatizing”), closing some 64 schools. In their place: charter networks.

    According to a press release this week, McGraw-Hill took “further steps” to spin out its education division into a separate company (for those keeping score at home, McGraw-Hill is the parent company of a bunch of textbooks as well as of the financial bellwether company Standard & Poor’s.)

    Textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has filed for Chapter 11 or as the press release calls it “comprehensive financial restructuring.”

    The New York Times addressed the question of student loan debt this week in a number of stories describing a “generation hobbled by the soaring cost of college.” The story profiles a student with $120,000 in debt, but it’s worth pointing out that the average debt in 2011 was $23,000.

    For Sale

    The e-book lending website Lendle is up for sale, reports Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader. It’s not terribly surprising since Amazon, B&N, and (I hope!) your local library have all stepped in to the e-book lending business.

    Bookstore Deals

    In still more e-book news, the University of Minnesota Bookstores (which serve some 70,000 students across 5 campuses) announced a deal with McGraw-Hill to offer bulk textbook sales to its students. Books will be offered at a discount to students who agree to have these fees bundled with their tuition (in other words, they must buy the books assigned for their classes). More details via Publishers Weekly. (I can’t quite reconcile this news with the recent announcement of University of Minnesota’s database of open source textbooks.)

    Inkling announced that it has partnered with Follett, which will highlight the interactive textbook publisher’s app in its store and on its website. See my Inside Higher Ed story.


    MIT has named its new president: L. Rafael Reif, an electrical engineer who’s served as the university’s provost for 7 years. There, he’s been the driving force behind MITx, suggests Tony Bates.

    David Coleman, one of the architects of the Common Core, will become the head of the College Board this fall. He wants the SAT to reflect the Common Core, writes Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz. Dana Goldstein examines the Coleman’s arguments about what students should be reading and writing. As the Common Core reflects, it’s less reading fiction and less writing personal experience narratives.


    Q&A site Quora has just raised $50 million at a $400 million valuation. The news raised some eyebrows, particularly due to Quora’s low user engagement numbers. Those numbers might be true, but the quality of the answers on the site remains high. And as GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram argues, the founders (early Facebookers Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever who really don’t need to make any more money. Ever) definitely believe they’re on to something – a “for-profit Wikipedia” perhaps.

    The online learning startup Udemy released some figures this week about the spike it’s seen in usage over the past year: 700% user growth in the past 12 months. It says that the top 10 earning teachers on its platform have brought in a combined $1,654,480 over the past year. According to these figures, the most popular classes on the platform felt into the (you guessed it) learn-to-code and learn-to-startup categories.

    Degreed and Un-degreed

    Lots of back and forth this week about whether or not “everyone needs to learn to code.” They don’t, argues Stack Overflow co-founder Jeff Atwood. Everyone chimes in.

    The Chronicle of Higher Education reviews PurdueHUB-U, Purdue’s venture into online education: “modular online courses with video lectures, interactive visualizations, and tools for students to interact with their peers and the professor.” Purdue’s nanoHUB course charged students $30 for the class and certification (which in turn could be turned into continuing ed credits for a $195 – woohoo for the academic upsell!).

    Peter Thiel is the guy who rages against the “higher education bubble” and offers under–20-year-olds $100K to drop out of college. But if you want to work for him, take note, you’ll need a college degree: “High GPA from top-tier university; preferably in computer science, mathematics, statistics, econometrics, physics, engineering or other highly quantitative," reads his venture firm's help wanted ad. The famed higher-ed skeptic Thiel is also teaching a class at Stanford -- ya know, that prestigious higher ed institution -- this semester. Here are the class notes. And here’s me, alternating between smirking and scowling at the whole thing.


    Congratulations to the winner of the 2012 Doodle for Google contest: 2nd grader Dylan Hoffman of Caledonia, Wisconsin. Dylan wins a $30K scholarship, a $50K technology grant for his school, and gets his doodle featured on the Google homepage.

    Recommended Reading

    From here on out, you’ll find “Recommended Reading” (that is, blog posts written by others but curated and commented upon by me) at

    Photo credits: Iman Mosaad

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  • 05/19/12--21:00: What Is "Ed-Tech"?
  • Classroom

    What is “Ed-Tech”?

    What is “ed-tech”? What do we mean when we talk – or at least, what do I mean when I talk – about education technology?

    I’ve been stewing about this a lot this week, in part thanks to a tweet by Bud Hunt:

    “Ed-tech isn’t a thing,” he says. It’s merely shorthand for something else.

    That could include (and I should note here that I don’t mean to put words into Bud’s mouth): research, reading, writing, collaboration, communication, creation, logic, standardization, compliance, hardware, software, money, policy, privacy, accountability, practice, theory.

    “Ed-tech” is often used too as a shorthand for brands: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Pearson, Intel, HP SMART, LEGO, Discovery.

    In some cases, “ed-tech” is shorthand for some very cool tech,. In some cases, “education” is just shorthand for a category within a larger app market. Sometimes all this talk about a definition of “ed-tech” prompts a great conversation about what we mean by learning in a mobile, networked world. And sometimes when we talk about “ed-tech,” we’re still talking about crappy tech and crappy education and crappy pedagogy and crappy outcomes.

    And at times – particularly lately it seems – when we talk about ed-tech, we are full of an utterly uncritical “OMG WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” as though someone just now figured out that education plus technology could equal the awesome.

    What is “Ed-Tech Journalism”?

    I’ve been thinking about the definitions of “ed-tech” too in light of all the news I read and write and curate and analyze here. (For those who follow closely, last week I added a new feature to Hack Education that curates other ed-tech analysis and news). This question comes up for me repeatedly over the course of any given week – what should I write about? What should I link to? What should I tweet?

    As a self-described “ed-tech writer” (not an “education writer” and not a “tech writer” and yet somehow both and pretty much neither) I do have to ask: what constitutes “ed-tech news”? What do my readers care to read about? What do I care to write about? What analysis should I provide? Who cares?

    There were several stories this week that gave me pause as I weighed including them (or not) in my weekly round-up of ed-tech news: the hazing in Florida A&M’s marching band, for example, and the forfeiting of a state championship baseball game because the opposing team had a girl on it. On the surface, these are clearly not ed-tech stories. And yet we can’t seem to talk about hazing and bullying nowadays without talking about their online manifestations (i.e. cyberbullying); nor can we isolate the hostility to girls playing in “boys’ clubs” to just what happens during state championship baseball games. See: brogrammers. See: patriarchy. (For what it’s worth, I included neither in my “This Week in Ed-Tech News” summary.)

    I did, however, include a blurb about the Facebook IPO – no doubt the biggest tech story of the week but one that might seem similarly tangential to “ed-tech.” Here’s what I wrote on Hack Education’s “Weekly Ed-Tech Roundup” (slightly edited, I confess):

    This is one of those news items that you’re welcome to say “Wait, Audrey. This isn’t education technology.” And you’re right. It’s not. But it still matters: Facebook went public today. So what?

    Well, certainly this story matters to Silicon Valley and to the new millionaires and billionaires (and investors and entrepreneurs) this will create. Congratulations. But as Facebook CTO Bret Taylor remarked “Stay focused. Keep shipping.”

    Honestly, there are lots of reasons why the FB IPO story matters specifically to education too. It matters because learning is social, and it matters because teens (and you and your mom) use Facebook. It matters because many school districts are saying that teachers cannot use Facebook to reach teens (or, at least students).

    It matters that Mark Zuckerberg is part of a larger narrative about dropping out of college as a key to entrepreneurial success. It matters too that the college he bailed on was Harvard. It matters that Harvard claimed no IP rights to what one of its student had built.

    It matters that fellow Harvard student and Facebook co-founder Edward Saverin has renounced his U.S. citizenship, ostensibly to avoid paying taxes.

    It matters that, when he made his first philanthropic gesture, Zuckerberg donated to the Newark City Schools. It matters that Zuck likes Cory Booker. (I mean this in a totally superhero, Avengers kind of way too.)

    The Facebook IPO matters because this company has defined “social networking” and in many ways shapes how we think about our interactions with one another (and with anything you can “like”) online. The Facebook IPO matters because of what it might reveal about the company’s current business strategy now (ads) or in the future (your data).

    The Facebook IPO is not an ed-tech story. But I can’t ignore it. Nor should you. Because it is an ed-tech story, for all those reasons I list above and more. It demonstrates too why Bud Hunt’s contention that “ed-tech isn’t a thing” is particularly important. We cannot simply extract the tech from education – nor from social, nor from work.

    Ed-Tech Et Al

    When I think about ed-tech, I think about:

    multiple choice tests
    essays (essayer: to try)
    lifelong/informal learning
    A Liberal Arts Education
    cognitive development
    local issues
    state issues
    national issues
    global issues

    and stuff…

    Even though my bio reads "ed-tech writer," I figure I'll cover all of this here at Hack Education as all of this is feels relevant -- not just the things we might label "ed-tech."

    Photo credits: Andrés Monroy-Hernández

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    Usually when I interview a startup’s founders and prepare to write a story about them and their product, I ask for screenshots. I could grab them myself, I suppose, but the ones that founders share can be pretty telling: it’s an opportunity for them to show me what they think are their most interesting or important features, their most eye-catching design, their best use-case.

    The LearnSprout co-founders laughed when I said I was skipping my typical screenshot request in their case. After all, there’s not really an image that can showcase what they’ve built. “We could show off our API documentation,” joked Anthony Wu.

    The lack of imagery here shouldn’t be interpreted as an inferior product. In fact, I think this startup is working on one of the most important challenges facing ed-tech, and with an incredibly sharp founding team, I’m confident they’re up to engineering a solution. (Wu is a former Googler, Franklyn Chien a former Facebooker, and Joe Woo an ex-Microsoftie.)

    What LearnSprout has built is all “under the hood,” if you will – hence this screenshot-less post. It’s an API that allows other developers build education apps that are integrated with schools’ student information systems. It’s akin to a Facebook Connect so that there’s an authorization/authentication process that makes it easier to provision accounts for students (and teachers) without the old process of exporting a roster (a CSV file) and either uploading that file into another piece of software (or worse, doing the manual date try).

    I’ve written before about precisely this problem: the lack of APIs in educational software, for one, but also the resulting data silos. Those silos are part and parcel of SISes. It’s how they operate by design: data is locked down and locked in.

    Chien says that the team first considered building an alternative SIS, one that would rectify this problem. And while this might not have been too tough an engineering challenge, selling schools a new SIS is certainly a tough sales problem.

    Of course, selling an API platform to schools might not seem that easy either, but LearnSprout has a smart way to do so. Their tool is free to schools. (That helps with sales, no doubt). But the distribution and sales is actually driven by the third party developers who want to be able to integrate their apps with SISes. LearnSprout offers its API for free to developers who bring in a new school. Subsequent users of the connection to that school are charged.

    The goal, says Chien, is to be a “Twilio for education” – a reference to the popular telephony API provider which has become an integral building block in many apps. Of course, flipping the switch to turn on SMS and voice mail is arguably an easier task than integrating with an SIS. There’s a lack of standardization with the data that comes out of various school information systems and an unwillingness to offer read/write access (as such, the LearnSprout API is read-only currently), but Chien stresses that his startup is “data agnostic.”

    LearnSprout is in closed beta at the moment, with plans to open soon. In the meantime, it has released a Chrome app that helps educators address login/password fatigue.

    LearnSprout is one of the recent graduates of the ImagineK12 incubator program.

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  • 05/24/12--00:04: Maker Faire 2012, Storified
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    Pinterest and Education

    When Pinterest exploded onto the scene this year, I noticed a lot of teacher-friends following me there (confession: I never use the service but yes I have an account). I noticed too a lot of blog posts about “Top 10 Ways to Use Pinterest in the Classroom” (or in the library as the case may be). It’s not that shocking that Pinterest has been popular in some educator circles. Although the service was initially viewed as a way to share your interior decorating tips or plans with what shoes you’d like to buy, it’s clear that the “bulletin board” model is one that many classroom teachers are pretty darn familiar with: take a topic that you want students to know about, and design a visual presentation around it. Gather a bunch of resources, and pin them up for everyone to see.

    But like a lot of non-edu-oriented tools that find themselves adopted in edu-settings, there are certainly things that Pinterest doesn’t do quite right, or that it could do better – stepping back a tad from an excessive focus on consumption being the least of which, in my opinion.

    Nevertheless, the interest in Pinterest makes for a great opportunity for an education company to build a better version, one that takes advantage of our fondness to pin and share online but that also recognizes that we must do more than just build a visually appealing “content delivery system” if we’re really going to make something that works for teaching and learning.

    Enter Grockit… Or Rather, Enter Learnist

    It’s no surprise to see a startup grab this opportunity (least of which being the $1.5 billion valuation given to Pinterest just last week). It is fascinating, however, to see which one has done so: it’s Grockit, a social learning company that up ’til now has been focused on test prep. Today, Grockit introduces Learnist which it describes as “a way for anyone to share what they know” and which I’m sure every tech blogger, myself included, will use the “Pinterest for education” comparison.

    In many ways, the launch of Learnist marks a substantial pivot for Grockit, which does say it will continue to offer its test prep services but will focus primarily on the social learning aspects of its new site as it moves forward.

    But Learnist isn’t really that big a pivot for Grockit if you’ve ever spent time with founder Farbood Nivi, who’s always far more interested in talking about social learning than about SAT scores. And despite the adaptive learning engine that underlies Grockit’s test prep offerings, the company has always stressed “people” over “algorithms.”

    Like Pinterest, Learnist allows people to pull together various resources from the Web – blog posts, music, videos, imagese, podcasts – and assemble them into lessons. Those resources can be annotated with notes and explanations and then ordered so that the sequence makes sense to learners – remixing plus knowledge mapping. The social element – sharing and commenting – is integrated throughout; you can push “learnings” to your Facebook timeline; you can follow people as well as topics. As learners move through the resources, they can check off the “learnings” they’ve completed. And they can add and suggests new learnings, as well as suggest experts (or, well, “others”) contribute to particular boards.

    iOS apps are in the works too – the iPad app will focus mostly on reading and watching while the iPhone app will be designed around recording “learnings” (taking photos, recording video, and so on).

    The content of the boards created during the Learnist beta give some indication of how this tool can work for both core curricula and for lifelong learning. You can learn about where to get the best pizza in Brooklyn. You can learn about simplifying algebraic expressions. In the case of topics like the latter, Grockit practice questions are included in the boards, and Nivi says that by the time the new school year rolls around, they’ll have boards available for all the Common Core State Standards.

    Learnist is still in beta, and you still need to request an invitation to join (I have a handful to hand out – leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send you one). Attracting a strong user-base to the site will be the first challenge for the site, particularly as the emphasis is on social learning. Although Learnist isn’t really a challenger to a site like Wikipedia, I think there are important lessons to be learned there about the power of volunteer editors and about the struggles to define what constitutes the “right thing” or “right information” – let alone the right learning.

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    I tend to avoid the graduation speeches that seem to go viral on YouTube this time of year. It's not a genre I find particularly compelling. A lot of platitudes. A lot of punchlines. That's not to say there haven't been great ones -- Steve Jobs' 2005 speech at Stanford, for example, is a must-see.

    So is Neil Gaiman's from the University of the Arts, delivered just last week. (Embedded below.)

    I've written some thoughts over on Inside Higher Ed on how YouTube might shape the way in which we approach -- or ignore -- these speeches. If nothing else, these speeches seem to live longer now, with more virality than when they did when it was just up to us to remember that so-and-so local dignitary or such-and-such international celebrity spoke at our own graduations.

    I was also struck this weekend, in listening to Adam Savage's talk at Maker Faire, about the kinds of inspirational speeches that we don't simply deliver to graduates and how good it can be to hear this wisdom and encouragement (and yes platitudes and punchlines) even when you're not graduating, even when you're not a graduate.

    Go forth and make things. That was the message of Adam Savage. It was the message of Neil Gaiman. It's the message that all of us need to hear, whether we're sitting in a cap and gown or not.

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    Maker Faire 2012-43

    Making More Makers

    The Maker Education Initiative was announced at Maker Faire this past weekend. Sponsored by Intel, Cognizant and O’Reilly Media, the Maker Education Initiative will help “create more opportunities for young people to make, and, by making, build confidence, foster creativity, and spark interest in science, technology, engineering, math, the arts—and learning as a whole. We want young people to join—and eventually lead—the growing Maker Movement.”

    Mozilla unveiled Mozilla Webmaker this week, “a new program to help people everywhere make, learn and play using the open building blocks of the web. The goal: help millions of people move from using the web to making the web.” Mozilla Webmaker will include tools like Hackasaurus and Popcorn and community efforts like Hive.

    Politics and Policies

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney laid out his education platform this week. (The Washington Post has the complete transcript of his speech.) Among the “highlights,” allowing banks to once again make student loans, loosen restrictions on for-profit schools, offer vouchers that enable more “choice.” No mention of Common Core, special ed, or pre-K education, notes Dana Goldstein.

    More Race to the Top races were announced by the Department of Education this week. This time, the competition for funding will be targeted at the district, not the state level. School districts will be able to compete for some $400 million in funding by creating “plans for individualized classroom instruction aimed at closing achievement gaps and preparing each student for college and career.” (It is without a shred of irony that “personalized learning” is DOE code for more assessments.)


    Judge Berman sentenced former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi to 30 days in jail for using a webcam to spy on his roommate. That roomate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide days after Ravi saw him kissing another man. 30 days is awfully short, but Slate’s Emily Bazelon argues the light sentence is the right length.


    Social test prep company Grockit launched Learnist, a "Pinterest for education." See my coverage here for more details (and for invites).

    The Atlantic’s Megan Garber covers the launch of Civitas Learning, “a digital-education platform that uses predictive analytics to help guide educational decision-making” founded by former Kaplan exec Charles Thornburgh.  Hmmm, folks are moving away from test prep... I don't think I'm going to get my hopes up that less test prep means less testing though. 


    I’m not sure how new this feature is, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless: the learn-to-program site Udacity has beefed up the profiles for its students, enabling them to add more personal information (profile pictures, location, languages, etc), as well as upload resumes and other professionally relevent details. It’s all in the service of helping tech companies identify and recruit students from the site.


    Macmillan New Ventures, the corporate/development arm of the publisher Macmillan, has acquired the assessment company Education Benchmarking, Inc (EBI). The financial details were not disclosed.

    Well, it’s not quite news about an acquisition – not yet at least, but McGraw-Hill held a press conference this week stating that it really wants to acquire education startups. (In other news about how McGraw-Hill wants to “innovate,” see its Forbes op-edabout requiring college students to purchase digital textbooks.)


    A shout-out here that's full of respect and concern for George Mason University history professor T. Mills Kelly whose website and Twitter profile “went dark” this week following the Internet’s outrage and subsequent stupid jerkiness over his Lying about the Past class (in which he has students create and try to perpetuate a hoax online.) See The Atlantic’s coverage last week about the class’s assignments.  

    Research and Data

    Inside Higher Ed’s Steve Kolowich reports on research by Ithaka that found that students enrolled in a “hybrid-format” statistics class (where they met with instructors once a week but otherwise moved through content via AI software) “took about one-quarter less time to achieve essentially the same learning outcomes as traditional-format students.” A win for the robo-tutors, says Kolowich. OMG, says me.

    From The Atlantic, this sobering statistics: for the first time, a majority of the unemployed have attended college. This isn’t the argument that college degrees are irrelevent (see Peter Thiel on this past weekend’s 60 Minutes for more on that line of thinking); rather, it’s a reflection that while lots of students enroll, far fewer actually complete their college degrees.

    The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released a report titled “The Broadband Imperative: Recommendations to Address K–12 Educational Infrastructure Needs.” As the name suggests, the report stresses the importance of high-speed Internet in providing students the educational resources they need in school.

    The digital textbook provider CourseSmart released the results of a study on college students’ adoption of digital tools. Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader dives into the data, highlighting some of the stats – particularly about smartphone versus laptop versus iPad ownership – that point to the importance of cross-platform support for digital content.


    The P2PU School of Ed unveiled a set of free and open professional development classes for K–12 educators that it plans to offer over the summer. Classes include: PhET Simulations for Science and Math, ePortfolios for Teachers, and Making Writing and Literacy Learning Connections.


    Google announced the 90 regional finalists in its online Science Fair, selected from the thousands of entries it received for the contests. Google will announce its 15 Science Fair finalists in the next few weeks. These students will travel to Mountain View in July for the final round of competition.


    Worldreader, a non-profit that sends Kindles and by extension digital libraries to children in the developing world has launched a new campaign to raise funds to send 1 million e-readers to sub-Saharan Africa. Worldreader has partnered with FC Barcelona, not only to raise awareness of the campaign but to send children messages from their football favorites encouraging them to read.

    Mathalicious is going back to the drawing board with its Kickstarter campaign (which I wrote about here). It’s canceled its initial fundraising effort and set the goal for its new campaign much, much lower.  This means fewer Math52 videos, but I've backed this one again.


    In the ongoing battle between Microsoft and Google over who wins school contracts for cloud-based productivity tools, Microsoft has scored a couple of big successes in recent weeks. The company announced on Thursday that it has made an agreement with the Catholic International Education Office to deploy Office 365 to some 4.5 million students over the next 3 years. The news comes on the heels of India’s AICTE deploying the Microsoft tools to some 7.5 million students.

    And in the battle among LMS providers, it was Instructure that could boast this week that it’s landed the contract for The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, whose 34 institutions will replace Blackboard with Instructure’s Canvas.

    Recommended Reading

    Stephen Downes, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks (PDF)

    Photo credits: Patrick Giblin

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    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    I did it! I made it all the way through a MOOC, submitting the final assignment in Coursera’s Computer Science 101 this afternoon.

    I seem to have a penchant for signing up and dropping out of these massive online classes. I never made it too far in the CS 101 course offered by Coursera’s rival Udacity. Oh, I have the best of intention when I enroll in all sorts of open education opportunities, and I start courses with a fair amount of enthusiasm. I follow along for a week or two, and then, for a variety of reasons – life, the universe, and everything – my commitment fades away.

    But I swore I’d stick this particular Coursera class out to the end, and honestly I have to say that that’s what got me through – a commitment I made to myself. It wasn’t the design or the content or the pedagogy or the platform. It was me and my refusal to quit. I tried to be more organized. I added “homework due” to my calendar and purposefully scheduled time to work on the class. All this sounds like a “no-brainer” when it comes to taking a course, but it’s been incredibly easy for me in the past to ignore the requirements of MOOCs as my participation isn’t mandatory, let alone noticed.

    When I tuned in to the last lecture by Stanford CS professor Nick Parlante today, I was actually a little surprised that we'd reached the end of the course. I wasn’t really paying attention to the length of the “semester” (6 weeks in this case), and as such I wasn’t really making a mental map of how much and how far I had to travel to make it from beginning to end. The class was enjoyable and the time in it passed quickly. But I can't help but wonder about my uncertainty about the duration and direction in classes – I felt this before in Udacity. I wonder if it contributes to my feeling lost and rudderless in these MOOCs.

    When I wrote my (admittedly partial) course evaluation of Udacity’s CS101, I said I liked its project-based focus and the short duration of its videos (2–5 minutes in length). I didn’t mind the frequent quizzes. And I liked the instructor, University of Virginia professor David Evans. I said I “wasn’t sure” about the level of difficulty, the forums, or the “robot-grader.”

    I am sure about those those latter elements now: robot-graders can be incredibly frustrating, and forums can make for poor learning communities.

    In many ways, my evaluation of Coursera’s CS101 is similar to my evaluation of Udacity’s introductory CS course: I liked the professor; I didn’t mind the homework.

    I did really miss the project-based focus that the Udacity class offered (it had students work towards building a search engine). The Coursera class felt very much like a traditional lecture-based class, just one broadcast online. Indeed, some of the videos were Professor Parlante’s lectures at Stanford, although most of them involved him talking into the camera, sharing a split-screen with his lecture notes. That’s a different filmic techique than the Udacity CS101 lectures, which were shot over-the-shoulder so you can see Professor Evans write and code. The videos for the Coursera class were much longer than Udacity’s too – 20+ minutes of lectures sometimes. (Ugh.)

    One of the questions I had about the Udacity CS101 class was what exactly constitutes an introductory computer science class. I admit here to no disciplinary knowledge of what that should be, and perhaps there’s no right or wrong answer. But for me the Coursera class struck the right cord. It covered a lot of fundamentals: bytes, bits, networking, security, variables, strings, Boolean logic. It tied these concepts to manipulating images, sound, and spreadsheets. It covered a lot of material over the 6 weeks. A survey course, sometimes I felt it ran through too many topics too quickly. Maybe that’s a good thing though: I want to learn more now.

    Professor Parlante noted in his final lecture that there isn’t a clear “next step” for me. At least, there isn’t a Coursera CS102 for me to enroll in. He made some suggestions of what to pursue next: working with spreadsheets, perhaps, or HTML5. Perhaps an introductory programming class. My first thought when he said that? Perhaps it’s time to try Udacity CS101 again.

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    Arguments (in 140 Characters or Less)

    A week or so ago, education historian Diane Ravitch and Department of Education spokesperson Justin Hamilton got into a bit of a sparring match on Twitter over the role of entrepreneurship in education.

    Their argument followed a tweet from Ravitch in which she posited two opposing forces struggling to shape the future of education: entrepreneurs versus educators. “Which side are you on?” her tweet implied.

    Hamilton responded “both” and suggested that to frame it this way – entrepreneurs versus educators – is a “false choice.” Ravitch in turn blasted the DOE for promoting educational for-profits at the expense of educational equality. When Hamilton said he thought Ravitch’s work as a passionate writer and speaker was itself entrepreneurial, she said she was insulted to be compared with the likes of the for-profit cyberschool corporation K12.

    Ed Week’s Jason Tomassini did a great job of storifying their back-and-forth, capturing the tweets and providing some of the backstory to their disagreements. It was a disagreement played out on Twitter, of course, and perhaps we should just let it slide that in 140 character-snippets, we tend to type crude proclamations rather than nuanced explanations.

    Education Shorthand and Dichotomies

    But we avoid the nuance too often, I think.

    Much like the term “ed-tech” is simply shorthand for a broad set of topics around “education” and “technology” – teaching, learning, budgets, policies, hardware, software, privacy, community, and so on – “entrepreneur” seems to have similarly muddied meaning (albeit a meaning that becomes somewhat clearer when placed in opposition to “educator.”)

    This opposition is related to other dichotomies often invoked in education debates:

    • For-profit versus not-for-profit
    • Exploitation versus collaboration 
    • Private versus public 
    • Proprietary versus open 
    • Elite versus equitable 
    • Risk versus security 
    • Free market versus government 
    • Individualism versus community 
    • Institutions versus individuals 
    • Corporations versus individuals 
    • Corporations versus startups 
    • Selling versus sharing 
    • Industry versus teachers 
    • Innovation versus inertia 
    • Bosses versus unions 
    • Money versus mind 
    • Extrinsic versus intrisic 
    • Bigger bottom line versus greater good 
    • Bad guys versus good guys 
    • Outsiders versus insiders

    I don’t mean to imply here that these oppositions all map neatly on top of one another – that all things teacher-ly live in that right-hand column while all things entrepreneur-ish stand in the left, and from there emanates all things good or bad, stagnant or transformative. Nor do I mean that these nouns and adjectives and verbs (and professions and people and institutions and values) are always and necessarily in opposition.

    Clearly it’s much messier and more complex. Although sloppier, the shorthand, the caricatures, and the dichotomies are easier to invoke -- particularly online.

    The Entrepreneurial Polis

    There have been two stories in the news this past week about entrepreneurs that I think are worth highlighting here – examples of just this sort of complexity when it comes to private and/or public endeavors and our expectations surrounding risk-taking and the greater good.

    The first is the story of Elon Musk, co-founder of the online peer-to-peer payment site Paypal, the electric car company Tesla, and the space transport company SpaceX.

    Last week, SpaceX became the first private company to carry a cargo load, via its Dragon spaceship, to the International Space Station.

    While, sure, space travel is of a different magnitude than education, I do think of it as a public good – not even a national public good, but as the International Space Station suggests, a global one – one that matters for all of humanity. (These are my Star Trek roots showing, I do realize.)

    But NASA’s budgets (that is, "your tax dollars at work") have been trimmed in recent years – manned lunar missions, let alone trips to Mars, have ended; the Space Shuttle program shuttered. If the government does not maintain funding levels, if it cannot foster (fund) innovation, then what? If we as a nation (or at least, our elected representatives and their control over federal funding) cannot dream big and build big, who will? 

    Make what you will of comparisons between SpaceX, NASA, and public funding for "innovation in education."

    But I wish the world had more Elon Musks, certainly not fewer. I wish the tech and the education and the public sector had more Elon Musks. I wish too that the big dreamers and visionary builders like him would focus on education – and in the ways that are as truly disruptive as Tesla, SpaceX, and PayPal have been. I’m not talking more educational iPad apps here. I’m not talking about the LMS v2.0. I’m not talking taking offline systems and simply digitizing them and calling that “innovation.”

    I am talking about big, big thinking and big, big risk-taking -- what Paypal did to the banking and credit card industry, what Tesla could do to gas-guzzlers, and what SpaceX could do for human space flight.

    See, I’m talking entrepreneurship.

    The second story from the past week or so is a very minor footnote in comparison. It doesn’t involved space travel, manned or un-manned. It involves ClassConnect founder Eric Simons, featured in a CNET story about his squatting at AOL HQ. See, Eric didn’t have the money to pay rent in the Bay Area. He opted to scheme more to protect the future of his startup – Entrepreneurship 101 – over a comfortable place to stay.  He figured out that his key-card gave him all-hours access to his offices; and he decided that he'd just stay there rather than find another place to live.

    What’s been interesting – and I should note here, that I’ve known Eric for a while now and have written about his startup twice (here and here) – is that none of this recent press about his couch-surfing has brought up the fact that he’s building an education startup, one that is free “for now and always” for teachers. None of them really talk about race or gender and who can get away with camping out in the offices of AOL either. Eric was 19 at the time he spent couchsurfing at ImagineK12 (he’s 20 now); but he's always spoken clearly and passionately about the teacher who intervened in his disinterestedness in high school, and who helped put him on the path to build technology solutions to help solve that.

    Squatting at AOL is, of course, a different sort of risk than sending a rocket to the International Space Station. It’s a different scale. It’s a different vision. But it’s a risk nonetheless. It’s a risk that entrepreneurs are expected to take. And it’s something that I admire, even when the space (not the intergalactic kind) in which they’re innovating is one that we think of as “public,” even if they make money doing so. I’m interested in the mission, even if I don't care much about the money.

    The Blogger’s Apologia

    Following Ravitch and Hamilton’s Twitter spat, New Schools Venture Fund penned a response praising education entrepreneurs and contending that the villainy assigned to them by Ravitch was a complete mischaracterization. Entrepreneurs with “big eyes for profit and little respect for teachers,” writes NSVF partner Jonathan Schorr – “These are not the education entrepreneurs I know.”

    Of course not.  And New Schools Venture Fund is hardly an impartial observer here. It’s an investment firm – albeit a non-profit “philanthropic” one – that funds these very entrepreneurs. As such, it’s hardly going to say that it’s investing in a bevy of Snidely Whiplashes, scheming to tie public school educators to the train tracks to be crushed by the engines of Progress and the Free Market. These entrepreneurs are “heroes outside the classroom.” (Schorr’s words). Dudley Do-rights all ’round (mine).

    More cartoons and caricatures, I realize, but deliberately so.

    Like the folks at NSVF, I know a lot of education (startup) entrepreneurs (although I know them through my work as a journalist and not as an investor – both roles color relationships, no doubt). They’re neither Snidelys nor Dudleys (they are mostly men though.) They’re neither villains nor saviors. Their intentions are good – “improving education” sounds meaningful in theory, if not always following through in practice – and even if sometimes they have little depth of knowledge or theoretical sense about what “improving education” means, they’re willing to listen – to me and (more importantly) to teachers.

    NSVF insists that “for the folks we talk to every day, mission is the most important thing, and few expect to end up rich.” Perhaps they do; perhaps they don’t. Will some of them some day become multimillionaires? Yes. Will some of them join or lead corporations? Yes. Will some of their startups be acquired by Pearson (and break my heart)? Probably. Is there investor pressure to think about the education system in certain ways (and build accordingly)? Yes. Of course. Can we customers and educators and supporters and critics offer pressure too? Yes, at this moment in time more than ever before.  We should seize that moment.

    And yet, when Schorr says that Ravitch’s “comments seek to drive a wedge between teachers and those who work to improve public education through entrepreneurship and advocacy,” it’s clear the call for a more nuanced approach to thinking about education entrepreneurship still involves opposition and divisiveness. Again, “Which side are you on?”

    Entrepreneurial Ambivalence

    Me, I’m ambivalent. Passionately so.

    I’m not sure I’d ever use the word “entrepreneur” to describe what I do. I’m a writer, I tell people. I did quit my day job several years ago in order to work for myself, and I’ve since incorporated a business. By some definitions, I guess, that makes me an entrepreneur.


    If you define “entrepreneur” as someone focused on profits, then I’m definitely not one. I don’t make much money doing what I do, let alone turn a profit, let alone fixate on doing so. The money doesn't drive me to write. Rather, I’m driven by a mission: to document and analyze education technology developments – the industry, the technologies, the implementations, the learning processes and outcomes – and to move the conversation forward in a way that supports individual learner agency and the greater public good.

    It’s important to note here that when I quit my job back in 2010, I worked for an ed-tech non-profit, one with (ostensibly) a similar mission to promote “excellence in education” through the advancements in technology. But I left in part because didn’t feel like I was making much of a difference. Before that, I left higher ed (I was working on a PhD) because I felt that the institution just wasn’t well-suited to what I needed to do in order to make a difference, in order to support my family, in order to have autonomy and integrity and voice.

    I had to go out on my own. I had to be unfettered by bureaucracy and hierarchy and institutional inertia. I had to be nimble and hard-working and brave. I had to be loud. I had to take risks.  

    I had to be entrepreneurial.

    The problem with risk-taking around education entrepreneurship, of course, isn’t just one of money, although that’s probably what most investors (and many public officials who make schools’ budgets) care about. When we talk about risk-taking and education, we are talking about children.  We're talking about human lives. And when we talk about risk-taking and a public education, we’re talking about all of us – about the public good.  

    But take risks we must.  Otherwise -- with a nod here to Elon Musk -- we're stuck in the same orbit that's kept us close for millenia.  And we shouldn't be satisfied with the status quo.  Nor should we accept the arguments made by those in power -- in power in both the private and public sector -- that our complacency is right or good or better than the alternatives.  Of course, nor should we assume that innovation and risk-taking are necessarily an improvement or necessarily transformative.

    Entrepreneurship and education are far more complex than that -- in no small part because we aren't just talking about systems and control.  We're talking about people.

    Photo credits: SpaceX,

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    I typically write that "every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down for our weekly podcast."  But in this case, it's been two weeks.  As such, we blasted through a bunch of content, covering Maker Faire and the Open Education Summit -- two events we both attended -- as well as a couple of weeks' worth of education technology news and reviews.  That includes thoughts on the definition of ed-tech too.

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    May 26, 2012


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    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    The interactive e-book publisher Inkling has finally released an HTML5 version of its app, meaning that its 150 titles are now available on both the iPad and the Web.

    Maybe it’s unfair to say “finally.” It has only been 2.5 years since the iPad was first unveiled and since Inkling, founded by the former Apple education exec Matt McInnis, came out of stealth with a textbook app that really highlighted the potential for re-engineering -- not just digitizing -- educational resources for these new tablet devices.

    Then again, it’s been 2.5 years. I’d argue that Inkling’s app and vision remain at the forefront for reimagining textbooks and building the technology to support that. But technology moves pretty quickly. In those intervening years, the iPad has seen rapid adoption, but digital textbooks -- particularly ones that aren’t available across devices or across platforms (as has been the case with Inkling up ’til now) -- really haven’t. McInnis told me in an interview last week that he couldn’t have pitched Sequoia Capital (one of its investors) back in 2010 “to put educational content on the Web behind a paywall.” Digital textbooks needed the iPad then to pique people’s interest. They needed the Apple App Store. But now, they need the Web in order to escape the control of that very Apple ecosystem. They need the Web to gain more widespread adoption.

    Inkling also needed some of the advancements that Web technologies, namely HTML5, have made over the past few years. The Web standard has reached a point of power and stability, and the new Inkling HTML5 Web app can have all the features of the very slick iPad app, but with no Flash and no Java and no plug-ins -- just HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. McInnis says proudly it may be the “most sophisticated HTML5 app ever written.” (It’s worth pointing out here that that sophistication relies on using an up-to-date webkit-enabled browser -- in other words Chrome or Safari.)

    By making a feature-rich interactive textbook app that works across platforms – on the iPad and on the Web -- it may well be that Inkling has tackled here one of the major complaints that students have had about digital textbooks: students want to have access to their books across multiple devices. (Other obstacles to student adoption remain, including cost, of course.)

    Inkling has taken care to think about what the reading experience is like depending on different devices too. What appears in a mobile Web version isn’t simply resized, but it’s redesigned from what you see reading that book on your laptop. Indeed, how do we read differently when we’re reading on a mobile device (particularly when we too are “mobile”) versus at our desks? Do we still prefer to highlight and take notes into an e-book on a laptop than it is on an iPad? Do we prefer to re-read those notes -- review, study, cram -- on a mobile device? Do we prefer to have access to the Web and to other apps (multi-tasking still sucks on the iPad, after all)? I’m not sure – it likely depends on the student, I suppose.

    Perhaps a better example here is the way in which Inkling’s Frommer’s Guides can work -- after all, how you plan a trip with a guide when you’re sitting at home is very different from how you utilize a guide when you’re on the road.

    Inkling’s recently released Habitat means that publishers will be able to “build once” and design their content for all these platforms. That may well be a big draw for publishers.

    But again, we will see if this is a big draw for textbook buyers.

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    I’ve been weighing whether or not to re-institute a new monthly feature here, something that I used to write for MindShift: a post highlighting some of the new and updated educational apps that have been released over the past 30 days or so. I say “or so” here as this is the first time doing this in about six months, and I’m including below a few apps that were updated in late April rather than in May. Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list of new apps – it’s “some” of them. I’ve picked 7.

    Move the Turtle

    Remember Logo? Yeah, me too. But the Turtle has had a bit of an upgrade in this iOS app that teaches basic programming concepts (loops, variables, conditional statements). The app takes you through levels that introduce increasingly complex commands; there’s a free-form “compose” feature; and there’s a set of code libraries – “projects” that you can copy and re-use in your own programs. See GeekDad for a more in-depth review.

    iOS, $2.99 (iTunes link)

    Mozilla Thimble App

    Thimble is browser-based Web-builder from Mozilla: “Write and edit HTML and CSS right in your browser. Instantly preview your work. Then host and share your finished pages with a single click. Easy, huh?” The side-by-side layout lets you see the code and preview what you’re doing. I really like how the different elements are all explained or defined – as in, what does “” do? Thimble offers several templates too, so you don’t have to start building from scratch but can re-use and re-mix others’ pages.

    Web, free (link)

    Motion Math: Wings

    The latest game from Motion Math, a startup that makes consistently smart and fun math apps. This latest is a multiplication game that – just like the startup’s other apps and just its name implies – involves motion -- use the mobile device’s accelerometer by tilting the device to send your bird chasing after the correct answer.

    iOS, free to try and $2.99+ to unlock more levels (iTunes link)


    The Rover app was created by the folks at iSwifter, a startup that enables Flash content to work on the iPad. (See my ReadWriteWeb coverage from last year for more details). The startup originally wanted to make Flash-based games playable on the Apple devices, but quickly found a great demand from teachers to make educational content available too. The Rover app is a browser that makes accessing this content possible, but as it’s designed with schools in mind, it also features content-filtering.

    iPad, free (iTunes link)


    Storypanda’s team has a lot of experience in the video game industry (including working on the first-person shooter Turok – it’s funny how priorities change when you have kids). Storypanda is now focused on making interactive storybooks for young readers, with an app that lets lets them read, remix and rewrite various elements of the stories, as well as share them with family members.

    iPad, free, with in-app purchases for new stories (iTunes link)

    Logarithms Lite

    Another math app, this one from Vancouver-based startup Mathtoons. The animations here are really great – a little wacky, sure, but purposefully so, as the app hopes to help students remember the difference between the exponent and log forms of equation.

    iPad, free (iTunes link)


    Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is my favorite novel. I love it for its themes. I love it for its (and Mary Shelly’s) political and literary connections. I love it for its pervasiveness throughout pop culture – how we think about misbegotten monsters and scientific creation. I love the story’s malleability – how it’s been retold in a variety of ways, whether in film or now in an app. To call this app by Dave Morris a “choose-your-own-adventure” doesn’t feel quite right, even though you do get to walk through some of the “choices” along with the young Victor Frankenstein. The app is a “re-telling” of Frankenstein and is nicely illustrated and conceived. It also contains the complete text of the 1818 version of the novel.

    iOS, $4.99 (iTunes link)

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    Politics and Policies

    8 more states received No Child Left Behind waivers this week from the Department of Education – Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island. That brings the total number of waivers to 19, with 18 states’ applications still under review. These waivers are part of the Obama Adminstration campaign to trade George W. Bush’s standardized-test-focused education reform policies for its own. Yay?

    Seattle schools are preparing a $11.5 million tax measure to take before voters in February that would put wireless Internet in all of the city’s public schools.

    The California State Senate has passed Senate Bill 1052 and Companion Bill 1053, which would help create a library of open source digital materials for 50 of the most popular college courses in the state. The legislation heads next to the state’s General Assembly and then to Governor Jerry Brown. But even if passed the laws must wait for funding to move forward. The state of California currently has a $16 billion deficit. Some, ya know, eventually this will happen.

    Policies & Markets

    The Common Core State Standards are either going to cost up $16 billion (according to the Pioneer Institute) or save us $927 million (according to the Fordham Institute). Or somewhere in that range, ya know, give or take a few hundred million dollars.

    You know what happens when cellphone ownership among kids is ubiquitous and yet we ban them from bringing the devices to school? Mashable has the answer – well, it has a story about the growing market for “gadget storage trucks” that park outside of schools and charge kids money to safely store their devices while they’re on campus.


    A judge has decided to drop a truancy charge against a 17-year-old honors student after jailing her for 24 hours. Diane Tran, who works 2 jobs to support herself and her younger siblings after their parents abandoned them, has been unable to make her morning classes consistently. I sure hope she's learned her lesson.  (Ugh.)


    Google unveiled new Chromebooks this week. I realize this is the point where I’m supposed to eat crow as I predicted the company would axe its Chromebook program, and hey, look! There are upgrades! And hey, I’m glad for it. Give me the open Web over a closed app ecosystem anyday. And frankly, I don’t think Chromebooks are as bad as some people would paint them out to be – particularly for putting a low-cost laptop into students’ hands. Interesting in this week’s announcement: a Chromebox – a desktop version (but one I’m thinking could be the new Google TV…)

    Khan Academy has now made it possible for parents to create accounts for their under–13-year-old children. The new feature gives parents control over who can coach their child via the site and what kids can post to public forums there.


    The University of Oregon student paper, The Oregon Daily Emerald, will no longer be a daily print newspaper. The ODE announced that after 92 years in print, it would end its daily publication, moving to online versions more akin to some of the alt-weekly newspapers we love here in the Pacific Northwest. The Emerald will have a strong digital presence but will print papers in conjunction with special events, like oh say, football games.

    Research and Data

    Student motivation may be the key piece that education reform efforts are overlooking. So says research from the Center for Education Policy.

    One in 5 people stopped last year by the NYPD was a teenager between the ages of 14 and 18. 86% were Black or Latino. Most were boys. Read some of their accounts and see a map of where NYC teens are stopped and frisked here.

    A hearty congratulations to the United States of America for coming in number 2 in a recent ranking of advanced nations – I know how very much these sorts of competitive figures matter to pundits and politicians. The US is now ranked number 2 in child poverty, second only to Romania. Go team. 23.1% of children in the US live in poverty, but let's all point fingers at teachers as why schools are failing, shall we?

    Not directly related to education technology, I realize, but interesting and important data nonetheless: the Pew Research Center has released its latest stats on US adults’ Twitter usage. It found that 15% of online adults use Twitter, which isn’t too different from a year ago. What’s changed is the number of adults who say they use Twitter on any given day – that’s doubled since 2001 and quadrupled from the year before that. About 8% of online adults in Pew’s February 2012 survey say they use Twitter daily.


    Techcrunch reports that Echo360 has raised $31 million in funding – “As the old school gives way to the new, technology has begun to play an increasingly active role in the learning process” is the story lede. Well, active up to a point, I guess, since Echo360 is a lecture-capture technology. But hey, throw the “flipped classroom” into your slide-deck and investors clearly eat that up.

    InstaEDU has raised $1.1 million in seed funding, according to Techcrunch, for on-demand video tutoring.

    Techcrunch reports that educational app-maker Mindshapes has raised $4 million in funding.

    Hot on the heels of his “squatting at AOL HQ” story, it seems as though Eric Simons of ClassConnect has secured more funding for his startup. Nothing like a little virality to make folks pay attention, eh? (Sigh.)


    General Assembly, one of my picks for the top education startups of 2011, has just hired Courtney Boyd-Meyers, formerly the east coast editor of The Next Web, to lead its expansion efforts in Europe. Smart, smart, smart – all ’round.

    The Gates Foundation has hired Daniel Greenstein, currently the vice provost for academic planning, programs and coordination at the UC system, to head its higher education initiatives. More details over on Inside Higher Ed.


    Udacity has listed five new classes that’ll begin summer, all of which greatly expand the breadth of the startup’s offerings. These include physics, discrete math and statistics. It’s also made the official announcement of its partnership with Pearson testing centers where people will be able to take an optional final exam in order to be put into the Udacity job recruitment pipeline. How’s that MOOC revolution lookin’ now, Thomas Friedman? (Good grief.)

    Photo credits: Rob Brewer

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