The picture above was taken by Jess Gartner at the Education Hack Day in November. Jess is a 7th grade teacher at New Era Academy, a college prep public school in Baltimore that she joined through the Teach for America program. The man in the blue t-shirt above is Joe Manko, a principal at Liberty Elementary. He’s received a lot of attention lately for removing the majority of his administrative staff and using the freed up funds to invest in technology for his students. Because of this investment, Liberty is now a “one-to-one” school which means in this case that they are able to provide iPads for all students for a given class.
I wanted to start this article with two real-life examples of K12 educators that work in one of the most distressed public school systems in the country and are yearning for new ways to engage their students. So much so that they are investing their own free time to consider just what technology might do for their classrooms.
Why Education Technology (EdTech)?
The US is noticeably falling behind in the global race of preparing our youth for the demands of our next generation’s economies. I’m not going to go into detail about my personal views about why I think that is. Instead, I’m going to talk about an opportunity we have to build a metaphorical life boat that can save us. A boat, that if we play our cards right, can have a big stamp on the side that says “Made in Baltimore”. The vessel I’m alluding to is the one that fosters the creation of technologies that are focused on the advancement of instructional and learning theories and practices.
I was following along with Apple’s announcement today as they unveiled their new presence in education. Before showing off what they were unveiling they released a couple striking figures: last year, the US ranked 17th in reading, 31st in math, and 23rd in science. Also, 70% of high school freshman will graduate in 4 years, 60% in hard hit urban areas (like Baltimore).
Like any organism, Classrooms must innovate or die.
I took this quote from legendary Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla who wrote recently about the role technology can play in education.
Why is Baltimore an ideal city to build EdTech?
There’s value in organizing a bunch of like-minds in the same area, especially as it relates to a specific industry. Someone wanting to engage the fashion industry should consider the Garment District in NYC as it has been known since the early 20th century as the center for fashion manufacturing and fashion design in the United States, and even the world. The organization of New York’s Garment District was intentional and planned.
Location is very important. I can’t help but feel discouraged when I think about the possibility of Baltimore being an ideal place to see the next social app take off. Clearly a brilliant idea for a social app can come from any corner of the world but we’ve seen the success rate when those ideas are scaled in extremely dense cultural melting pots like San Francisco and New York City. They already have a generation of consumers and growth resources that will take an idea like Twitter and springboard it into a viral sensation. It would be much harder to do that in a city like Baltimore.
So, if consumer-facing social apps aren’t the niche we go after, how do we identify what industry we could succeed in disrupting? Well, if I was creating agriculture technology, I’d think the mid-west would have a leg up over Silicon Valley. Why? Because that’s where the problem exists. That’s where the customers exist. I know that example can seem a bit obvious but I think there’s takeaway.
1. Does the problem exist?
One of Baltimore’s biggest problems is the performance of our children as it relates to education. Baltimore is the biggest city in Maryland, who, for the second or third year in a row, has been rated as the state with the #1 schools in the US. What’s worth noting is that Baltimore has been rated as one of the worst school systems in the state, and nationally it sits much lower than average. I’m pointing this out only to prove the problem exists.
2. Do we have prior success?
There’s no better way to incite inspiration than by demonstrating success. As I was organizing the Education Hack Day I discovered a treasure chest of successful education technology companies and specialized investment funds for education that happen to all exist right in Baltimore:
Sylvan Learning, Hooked on Phonics / Smarterville, Laureate, Connections Academy (recently acquired by Pearson for $400M), StraighterLine, and Moodlerooms are just a few successful companies that are all located in Baltimore.
3. Do we have funding for EdTech?
Sterling Partners, Camden Partners, ABS Capital, SMC Capital, and New Markets Ventures Partners are some private equity and venture capital firms that are right here in Baltimore and fund some of the top education companies in the world. Maryland’s newly created 70M Venture Fund should also be taken into consideration.
Over the past few months I’ve spoken to a large handful of private investors and angels that seem to all want to fix the education problem, especially as it relates to Baltimore.
The carrot is there.
4. Do we have the talent to build these companies?
For the second year in a row, I’ve heard that Greater Baltimore has the largest concentration of IT professionals than anywhere else in the US — over Silicon Valley, Boston, and NYC. We can all agree that most of these professionals are buried away in their government “bunkers” so most of us in the city don’t feel that concentration. We also know that schools like UMBC are churning out more Comp Sci grads than just about any technology school in the country. Baltimore is literally sitting on an oil field of human capital resources. We need to be doing a better job establishing pipelines from the cyber workforce and the newly minted college grads so that they can easily be pulled into these efforts.
Leadership-wise, I’ve just listed off a handful of successful EdTech companies that could easily have some of their leadership step down and spin out new EdTech companies, comprable to some of Ad.com’s people leaving and spinning out some almost overnight successes.
Now, the real leaders I’m interested in identifying are those that have spent time in the classroom. Baltimore has a large concentration of Teach for America teachers that have spent at least 2+ years in City Schools and know first-hand what some of the problems are that teachers face. A great example of how this plays out is by taking a look at my friend Scott Messinger. Scott is a BCTR teacher alum in Baltimore and has since left teaching to build an online collaboration tool for teachers called Common Curriculum. He learned how to code as a necessity to see his idea take shape (as it turns out, he’s well-respected in the developer community).
Now that we’ve proven to be a fertile environment, how do we stimulate activity?
I’m going to quickly run through some ideas:
- Let’s invite global prospects to Baltimore. Baltimoreans won’t have all the answers but we can plant the flag in the ground as the capital of EdTech and encourage (read: subsidize) passionate foks from all around the world to move here and continue to build their EdTech companies in Baltimore.
- Host prototyping events like Education Hack Day and Startup Weekends that let those government IT folks, educators, and other curious folks bite into the apple and see what it’s like to conceive, build, and receive validation that they’re doing something potentially monumental.
- Designate funding like small, angel investments and venture funds towards EdTech products and allow folks to take their idea a step past the prototyping stage.
- Get the news and media onboard with regular EdTech columns that shine a light on this activity. As I said before, there’s no better way to incite inspiration than by demonstrating (reading about) success.
- Establish testing environments and relationships with local schools, administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Quick, lean, rapid customer development cycles will increase the chance of success so allowing intermediary personel to work within the schools on a regular basis testing these new technologies will prove most efficient.
- Identify forward-thinking, tech-literate teachers and administrators that might act as some of these “intermediary personel”. (In fact, there are 4 teachers that will be making an announcement very soon about their new non-profit they’re starting that will be focused bridging between the schools and the EdTech community, stay tuned.)
- Setup free workshops that can train existing teachers to become more tech literate. (There’s a monthly forum called EdTech Baltimore that brings together a different panel each month discussing different angles of the EdTech movement.)
- Get the City of Baltimore and Mayor onboard with marketing campaigns that plant a flag in the ground as the “EdTech Capital of the World”.
- Consider all forms of technology, not just apps. There are some fantastic teaching methodologies being used around the World like Flipped Classrooms and School of One that we should be encouraging our teachers to practice. Andrew Coy, a Baltimore Teacher and friend has proposed “Rec-to-Tech” centers for our youth so they can learn coding and software development.
There’s a global movement happening to not just renew education but to completely reinvent it, and technology seems to be one of the most likely tools that folks will use to engineer these new solutions. The question is no longer when this will take place but by who. Baltimore has a real chance here to make a visible and global stand and claim this as a problem we solve for ourselves and in doing so, may solve for others.