This past weekend, about 100 entrepreneurs, educators, developers and assorted curious parties spent 47 hours (daylight savings) trying to solve the nation’s severely broken education system by throwing a whole bunch of startup at it.
Taking place at HUB Raleigh and organized by the team behind Triangle Startup Weekend, it was the first-ever Triangle Startup Weekend EDU.
Seems like a fabulous idea, right? It is. It’s a solid start, if a little late to the game.
TSW-EDU opened its doors on Friday, the day after Bill Gates gave this year’s closing remarks at South-by-Southwest-EDU, and while various leaders of the Triangle’s public and private sectors were off promoting our area at SXSW Digital, SXSW-EDU would also seem like a natural gathering place for a spot on the planet with world class universities, a healthy amount of entrepreneurial talent, a nice climate, and more than a few Whole Foods.
Except I didn’t know that SXSW-EDU existed until a couple weeks ago. And I can count the number of post-seed-stage Ed Tech startups in the Triangle on one hand.
I guess I can be forgiven for not knowing about SXSW-EDU.
You didn’t either, right? It’s only the second iteration of the conference, and the first attempt by organizers to turn the conference into a “festival.” So I’m assuming there just wasn’t enough church-of-startup style hype to get it onto the radar, if you can detect my sarcasm.
But I’ve been as puzzled as the next guy as to why there isn’t a greater – a much greater – Ed Tech scene here in the Triangle. I’ve been Ed Tech curious since my twin girls hit school age some three years ago, and I’ve been shocked at how little material there is out there that isn’t learn-by-repetition or candy coated with trademarked cartoon characters available for purchase at your local Walmart.
Can Education Be Fixed?
Have you seen “Waiting for Superman”? It’s going to take more than “Dora the Explorer” to solve this fiasco. But at the same time, there’s a reason why one guy with a comfort-inducing voice is covering everything from beginning math to accretion disks and extreme energy in a quasar.
Trying to fix education from the outside is almost as artificially burdened and frustrating as trying to fix it from the inside.
This is the part in the article where I would say ‘Over the last couple years, Ed Tech has experienced a boom.’ It has. But here’s how boomy it is. Over the last couple months, the number of Ed Tech accelerators went from one to five, with entries from Kaplan and Pearson being announced within the same week in February.
Also, much like the healthcare industry, the education industry (and, make no mistake, it is indeed an industry), has been hampered by the lack of structure and availability of the data needed to make improvements. People are still balking at InBloom, the $100-million, Gates Foundation-backed project to create a massive database of student data.
Look, I’m a huge privacy guy, but I’m also a huge data guy, and I believe the baby is somewhere out there with the bathwater. If you took your car to be fixed, but weren’t quite comfortable telling the mechanic what was wrong and how it got that way, then you can expect the repair process to be long and expensive, and you’ll wind up with very little actually fixed.
But the fresh money being thrown at Ed Tech makes it feel like the ice age is starting to thaw. It also makes it feel like there’s a fresh Series A Crunch just for Ed Tech on the horizon, but that’s still at least a week or two away. Right?
Anyway, you can also forgive the Triangle for being behind the curve when it comes to Ed Tech, as it literally sprang up overnight – Thursday night actually, between Bill Gates’ closing remarks and the kickoff of TSW-EDU.
Jump-Starting the Triangle
TSW-EDU organizer Mital Patel agrees that the Triangle should be further along.
“We’ve got some of the highest density of people with graduate degrees and tech skills here,” he says. “But a lot of good teachers leave. On the other hand, places like New York City give startups the ability to test data in the schools.”
When the doors opened Friday at HUB Raleigh, there was solid mix of roughly 40 percent educators, 40 percent developers, and 20 percentdesigners and various others. The numbers were right about where Mital expected, and they packed the HUB.
The idea pitches were all over the place. One that became popular over the weekend was an idea for self-writing legislation that gets forwarded to representatives in Congress. Tweets began flying out about that working beta pretty early on Saturday. Another idea for a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course – where most of the focus of Ed Tech is today) grading program for subjects like writing that can’t be automatically graded seemed competitive as well.
There were also some that, not unexpectedly, didn’t show much differentiation. I’ve actually seen, fed back on, and judged a number of Ed Tech ideas at the very early level, especially those coming out of the universities themselves through programs like the Carolina Challenge. I can tell you that far too many of them focus on building some kind of localized social network – an idea for which, even if there is a clear winner, there may not be a need.
There are also too many ideas in the Ed Tech space that focus on the logistics of university or high school life – like finding a job or a tutor or even a place to sit with your friends in the cafeteria (no lie). While these may or may not be valid startup ideas, they’re not Ed Tech ideas.
It says something about the participants at TSW-EDU that those kinds of ideas were weeded out prior to presentations. TSW-EDU had 15 pitches that produced 10 five-minute presentations.
The presentations were all solid, and they ranged from passionate to fiery. Seriously, Ed Tech entrepreneurs, and especially the educators who get involved, are some of the most driven people I’ve ever met.
Coming in third was TeacherGrowth, which provides a feedback loop for teachers to reach goals and stay engaged in their jobs. This is based off of the statistic that most teachers don’t leave the profession because of pay, but because of a lack of support in their growth.
Finishing in second place was Path2Code. Aimed at high school students, but not limited to them, they devised a series of tests and checks to show employers that non-traditionally educated coders possessed the skills those employers needed. The team recruited two principals over the weekend who agreed to put it in their schools this fall, and two businesses said they’d hire based on it. They also showed a sensible revenue model.
The Winner Is …
The winner was Coursefork, an open-source GitHub for course design. Elliot Hauser came up with the idea six months ago and turned it into a serious effort one month ago. I’ve seen Elliott around the entrepreneurial scene, and he also teaches courses at UNC. He got together with developers Rick Martindale and Matt Hoffman, and by the time they presented they were able to use Coursefork to explain Coursefork.
I’m glad they won, because they have a viable idea with a solid model, even if it is open source, maybe especially because it’s open source.
Overall, the vibe of something like a TSW-EDU is catching, from an entrepreneurial perspective, from an education perspective, and from a citizen perspective. You see a lot of potential, a lot of energy, even more so than a traditional startup weekend. It’s great to see people firing the entrepreneurial rocket with a purpose.
But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t offer a caveat.
One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve researched Ed Tech (over the years, not just about TSW-EDU), is that there’s a little bit of a ready-fire-aim in the idea phase. In other words, ideas are sometimes proposed and defended because they’ll do good things in an area that desperately needs good things to happen.
Yes, this happens in all forms of entrepreneurship, but more so in Ed Tech, you’ll hear statements like, “We don’t have to incentivize students/teachers/parents to use this app. They’ll use it because they want to,” and “Ours is better because what’s out there now sucks,” and “I know so many of my friends who would totally use this.”
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that type of thinking. But unfortunately, that seems to be one of the reasons the education system remains unfixed today. Education does an overwhelming amount of good things because those things are good. But we don’t like to measure, and we don’t like to fail something when it doesn’t work effectively, because removing it would make things even worse.
In that sense, I go back to my auto repair analogy. You can replace the tires in an effort to fix an engine. It won’t hurt, and in fact it will provide an incremental benefit to overall performance. But if you keep replacing things that don’t fix the problem, you’ll spend a lot of money you can’t unspend and still have a car that won’t run.
But it you look at the Triangle, here’s a vertical where our no-nonsense, vanilla, let’s-hit-some-doubles past might actually be a positive in the startup game, not a detriment. We like to fix the engine, no matter how unsexy that work may be.
And in an odd twist of serendipity, the People’s Choice award at TSW-EDU was a dead heat between the two teams that eventually won.
So welcome to Ed Tech, Triangle. Hope we crush it.
Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resource ExitEvent. Follow him at @jproco or read him at http://joeprocopio.com