Tag Archives: edtech

New EdTech Fund Forges Vital Ties Between Developers and Teachers

Nesra Yannier is a fifth-year PhD candidate in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University whose background includes computer science, design, art, and education. She drew on these skills in creating NoRILLA, a classroom technology that teaches kids the basic physics of balance. Her prototype includes an app, a projector, some building blocks, and an electronic table that shakes. When students use it, an animated gorilla challenges them to build towers on the platform and predict which will fall first when an “earthquake” shakes the table.

Playtesting NoRILLA at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Normally, edtech developers like Yannier would be on their own when trying to connect with teachers and students to test their concepts in real-world settings. But Yannier is part of a Sprout Fund initiative called the Ed-Tech Refinery, which is supporting efforts by ambitious young visionaries to partner up with educators at schools, libraries, and museums in the Pittsburgh region.

Starting this month, Yannier will be working with first, second, and third graders and their teachers at Montour Elementary School to further test NoRILLA and make the product as useful as possible in the classroom.

Mac Howison, senior program officer for catalytic funding at the Sprout Fund, said the Ed-Tech Refinery is rooted in the idea that a city should leverage all its assets to support its education “ecosystem”—schools, libraries, museums, afterschool settings, and the private sector. And though there is a growing edtech cluster in Pittsburgh, it’s not easy for fledgling companies to get the time and money they need to conduct robust testing with educators. As a recent Digital Promise report found, less than half of technology directors interviewed said they were satisfied with the length of time it takes to bring technology to kids. By providing grants to educators who work with ed tech companies, the Refinery makes those connections easier.

By strengthening ties between teachers and techies, the Sprout Fund hopes to bolster education technology in Pittsburgh. Ideally, Howison says, startups will use the partnerships to make products that, once successful, will fuel job creation in the region.

Widespread adoption is certainly Yannier’s goal. For now, though, she has been running tests at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. She found kids learned faster when they saw the blocks tumble onto the table rather than simply collapse on a computer screen. Through her partnership with Montour, Yannier is eliciting feedback from educators about how best to use the platform.

 “A lot of technology gets built but doesn’t get implemented because developers don’t listen to what teachers want.”

“A lot of technology gets built but doesn’t get implemented because developers don’t listen to what teachers want,” she said. “I really want to get the perspective of teachers to make it more usable for them and easier for them to adopt.”

Since August, Montour School District has worked with CMU’s LearnLab to open an educational research center at the district high school. Teachers at Montour have been working with researchers to learn more about technology-enhanced education. Justin Aglio, director of innovation at Montour School District, said so far when teachers work with researchers who are also trying to learn, “it’s a safe way to take risks.”

“We really stress ‘how do children learn best?’ ” Aglio said. “Pittsburgh has amazing resources, so how do we capitalize on these resources to make the lives of our teachers easier and help our students learn?”

The Sprout Fund is accepting applications for a new round of Ed-Tech Refinery partnerships through the beginning of March. Yannier will continue working with teachers throughout the semester.

“I think we are both excited to see our students think like scientists,” Aglio said of the partnership with Yannier. “That’s our biggest goal—to help students experience hands-on learning and having students think critically.”

A Growing Technology Cluster—Whose Products You Can Touch

One afternoon in 2012, Matt Stewart was in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh watching kids play with puzzle pieces. The pieces were part of an exhibit Stewart helped design to teach the building blocks of coding to children as young as four. He soon noticed one young girl taking charge with some puzzle pieces, and showing her classmates how to use them to solve problems. The girl’s teacher told Stewart that the student was usually behind her peers in many areas of learning, but the puzzle pieces seemed to click with her.

Photo/Digital Dream Labs

Photo/Digital Dream Labs

An idea for a company was born. Stewart and his cofounders, Justin Sabo and Peter Kinney, fellow Carnegie Mellon University graduates, founded Digital Dream Labs in 2012. Today, their first product, Puzzlets, uses puzzle pieces and sensors to control video games and teach skills like logic and sequencing in a hands-on way.

“If you’re on a touch screen, you’re in your own zone,” Sabo said. “You’re no longer here.” At a time when so much technology for kids is screen-based, Puzzlets’ physical pieces invite problem solving and collaboration with parents or peers.

Sabo and his cofounders are part of a small scene of entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh who are creating hands-on educational technology, toys, and games, and in the process are helping to create a cluster of entrepreneurs, designers, and manufacturers that could situate Pittsburgh as a hub of edtech hardware production. The scene is small but seems poised to grow into the type of industry cluster that characterizes maker-oriented Pittsburgh.

Evolving Hardware Industry

In 2012, Digital Dream Labs got a big boost—support from startup accelerator AlphaLab. If they were starting out today, though, they would have applied to AlphaLab Gear, AlphaLab’s newer spinoff. The newer accelerator, in Pittsburgh’s West Liberty neighborhood, is specifically for technology startups that make hardware. AlphaLab Gear funds several “cycles” of 8 to 10 companies a year—providing $50,000 as well as mentorship from hardware experts in exchange for 9 percent common stock equity in the company.

Chris Millard, program coordinator at AlphaLab Gear, said hardware startups were cost-prohibitive until recently. And although some aspects of hardware development are still complicated, it has become more feasible and profitable. Simple sensors are cheaper and more sophisticated, and equipment such as 3D printers can create prototypes of a product quickly, saving many months and thousands of dollars. (Several years ago, one investor said he flat-out did not “do” hardware. Millard said that same investor recently led a $2 million round of funding.)

Clusters can make regions uniquely competitive for jobs and investment in niche industries like edtech or robotics.

Plus, when it comes to hardware startups, Millard said Pittsburgh has a lot going for it, including hundreds of regional manufactures that will produce small batches, access to millions of dollars of prototyping equipment at nearby TechShop, and a rich pool of talent coming out of CMU, the University of Pittsburgh, and Duquesne University.

Tom Lauwers, founder of BirdBrain Technologies, which makes Hummingbird Robotics Kits, said finding a circuit board manufacturer right outside Pittsburgh was helpful because it let him see the progress in person.

Even more helpful, he said, was tapping into the city’s manufacturing knowledge base. In his early days, he visited 4moms, a robotics company that makes swaying baby seats, and Bossa Nova Robotics, which is building a fully autonomous robot. Both shared invaluable knowledge about warehousing, international trade regulations, and other issues.

The above features—groups of related designers, builders, and idea people plus on-the-ground manufacturing—is a classic illustration of “cluster development.” A cluster is a regional concentration of related industries, according to the Cluster Mapping Project from Harvard University. As they grow, clusters can make regions uniquely competitive for jobs and investment in niche industries like edtech or robotics.

Today, Lauwers is giving the same advice to young entrepreneurs and technologists who are coming to him with the same type of manufacturing questions he once had.

Students use Hummingbird Robotics Kits in a workshop. Photo/ BirdBrain Technologies

Retaining Talent

Despite signs of growth in Pittsburgh, developing hardware is no easy feat, whether designing for kids or not. And the amount of venture capital in the region pales when compared with Silicon Valley.

As Millard said, “It will take some more ‘big exits,’ ” or large acquisitions of tech companies, “to really get Pittsburgh on the map.”

One small company is AE Dreams, which recently graduated from a cycle of AlphaLab Gear. The company’s first product, Turtle Mail, is a wi-fi-enabled wooden mailbox that prints messages and puzzles parents send to their kids from their smartphones.

The idea came to cofounder Alysia Finger about three years ago while she was sitting in her daughter’s room as two electronic toys screamed from across the room, begging one-year-old Aedren to come back and play with them. Sitting there after a long day, Finger noticed how her daughter was content playing with simple wooden blocks, despite the expensive electronic toys’ pleas for attention.

An early play test with a Turtle Mail prototype. Photo/AE Dream

Why, she wondered, did so many companies want their toys to be a distraction for kids? Then it dawned on her. Why not design tools that help kids interact with the world and people around them, not just the toy itself?

Turtle Mail is available for pre-order, and the company is planning to attend one of the country’s biggest toy conventions next year. Finger said other support beyond seed funding would help new companies take flight. Though she said her company wasn’t quite the right fit for it, she pointed to the EdTech Refinery from the Sprout Fund, which pairs technologists with educators to help entrepreneurs refine their ideas.

Digital Dream Labs is selling Puzzlets in Toys ‘R’ Us and online. Still, Sabo said the hands-on-technology-for-children scene is still in its infancy, and he emphasized the need to retain more local talent from the universities.

“Graduates get the fever and they go out to the Bay Area,” he said. “There needs to be a way to retain that talent.”

In the meantime, companies hope their own successes will act as a magnet to talent and help build a stronger cluster down the line.

“It will take companies like ours, who go through the trenches, to able to bring that to Pittsburgh,” Sabo said.

In the Digital Age, Young Teachers Need Tech Support Too

Nichole Dobo of the Hechinger Report was covering the 2015 conference of the International Society for Technology in Education in early July when she met Lauren Midgette, a 25-year-old teacher from Hartford, Connecticut.

“I’m the youngest one in our group,” Midgette told her, “and I am the least tech savvy.”

As Dobo described it, Midgette’s situation might not be especially unusual. A survey from the Software and Information Industry Association found that older teachers were more likely to say they felt ready to use data from digital learning tools while younger teachers rated themselves as less ready. But across the board, teachers reported feeling “inadequately prepared” to use technology to enhance teaching and learning.

The survey measured how teachers described themselves, not how often or how well they integrated technology or data. It did not tease out causes for the age gaps, and similar research finds mixed results.

But the survey reinforces a key point about meaningful technology integration in classrooms: it’s not just knowing how devices and apps work. If it was, younger teachers might have a leg up on those less familiar with smartphones and tablets. Rather, powerful technology integration comes from a pedagogical foundation that supports hands-on, interest-driven learning—something that takes backing, education, and resources for teachers from all age groups and experience levels.

Powerful technology integration comes from a pedagogical foundation that supports hands-on, interest-driven learning.

A recent EdWeek story found that this kind of integration remains rare in American classrooms. Another story reported that although 43 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards going back five years, a lack of core-aligned material poses an added challenge for teachers trying to adapt to the standards while also incorporating digital tools.

The lack of material has fueled the “open education resources” movement, in which teachers around the world share lessons and curricula online, often for free.

Here in Pittsburgh, teachers helped BirdBrain Technologies build a library of lesson plans involving Hummingbird robotics kits that address specific Common Core standards. From dancing dog robots to robotic theater, the lessons give step-by-step instructions for guiding students through their creations.

Although both EdWeek stories highlight the obstacles teachers face, educators in Pittsburgh and elsewhere are tackling the challenges one by one to integrate technology in more powerful ways.

In a recent interview, Derek Long, an English teacher at Pittsburgh Perry High School, described how his school uses technology to help students reach core standards that require collaboration.

“I think [we are] being more focused and intentional about why we are using the technology,” he said. “We are focused on not just using [iPads] to watch videos and read text on the screen but actually using the apps and websites to create, which aligns to Common Core and allows the kids to collaborate.”

This deliberate approach to technology, which does not simply take analog activities and transfer them to screens, is a goal of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s TransformED space. With professional development workshops and unstructured “play time,” the space lets teachers explore how technology can spur deeper learning. Through the summer and fall, TransformEd is hosting “Tech Up Your Teaching K-12” events, where teachers can practice redefining traditional lesson plans to bring in digital tools “with pedagogical insight.”

The phrase “digital native” cropped up a few years ago to describe kids who never knew a nondigital world. But the term is used less often now as educators realize that knowing how to work the technology does not mean students have an innate ability to turn it into something more powerful.

The same applies to younger teachers, who also need help to transform technology into powerful learning tools.

Has EdTech Truly Changed Teaching and Learning?

Today’s classrooms might be filled with computers, smartphones, and tablets, but that does not mean teaching and learning have been transformed. So says a recent Education Week article, “Why EdTech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach.”

Edtech proponents (and companies) predicted technology would help teachers give students control of their own learning, connect them to the world beyond the classroom walls, and turn them into creators rather than simply consumers of media and technology. Education Week finds much of that utopic vision is unrealized.

For the most part, EdWeek writes, educational technology is most often adopted to make teachers’ work more efficient—not to change the dynamics of the classroom.

But the article also discusses the root causes for why meaningful technology integration continues to be such a difficult challenge:

Researchers have found, for example, that even innovative teachers can be heavily affected by pressure to conform to more traditional instructional styles, with a teacher as the focal point for the classroom. Newer teachers inclined to use technology in their classrooms can also be deterred by experienced teachers who feel differently.

And the current test-based accountability system isn’t exactly supporting the transition to student-centered, technology-driven instruction, said Ms. [Wendy] Drexler of ISTE. “We’re telling teachers that the key thing that is important is that students in your classroom achieve, and we’re defining achievement by how they do on [standardized] tests,” she said. “That’s not going to change behavior.”

 Perhaps the most obvious—and overlooked—barrier to effective edtech use is that totally changing the way you do your job takes a ton of time and work.

Despite the slow pace of change, there are many teachers who are doing amazing work integrating technology into their classrooms in ways that impact learning. And there are a number of teachers doing that here in Pittsburgh, where technology is just part of the educational innovation happening in schools and informal learning spaces.

Edutopia recently highlighted Hampton High School in Allison, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh, for the way educators have tapped all kinds of technology to engage students. For a trigonometry “assessment,” teachers created an activity called “Disaster Mission Relief.” Students in one room took the role of air traffic controllers with cellphones and headsets, giving “pilots” in the school gym directions using angles to tell them where to go next. Everybody on each team received the same grade, encouraging collaboration and teamwork.

Hands-on learning with technology is about to become more widespread throughout the region. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit recently announced 28 STEAM grants, totaling $530,000, which will fund projects and spaces that integrate educational technology in ways that go far beyond simple use of tablets and projectors. (STEAM stands for the fusion of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics in the classroom.)

For example, Montour High School in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, plans to use its STEAM grant for a Virtual Immersion Lab created with a type of virtual reality computer called zSpace. While wearing 3D glasses, students will be able to pick apart organs and pieces of complex human anatomy that appear to float in midair.

But as the EdWeek story pointed out, those pockets of innovation do not mean change is widespread.

That’s one reason we created the Remake Learning Playbook. The recently released playbook focuses on the successes and lessons learned in building Pittsburgh’s learning innovation ecosystem. Through a network of more than 100 schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, community centers, higher education institutions, private sector businesses, and philanthropic organizations, educational advocates in the Pittsburgh region are working together to support learning wherever it happens. The playbook is a field guide full of ideas and resources for supporting learning innovation networks like the one here in Pittsburgh. It is filled with practical and actionable information to help other communities build on the Pittsburgh model.

Edtech may not have transformed teaching on a large scale yet. But that does not mean there aren’t early adopters in Pittsburgh and around the country already doing great work and paving the way. Hopefully, with the right support and guidance, these learning opportunities reach all kids soon.





Peering Into the EdTech Crystal Ball

Remember Stickybear ABC, the 1984 computer game that taught kids letters? Or The Oregon Trail? Or Apple’s 1990 prediction that one day teachers will send “cyberlinks” to each other?

History shows us that technology does not always play out in classrooms the way one might predict. http://cdn.nmc.org/media/2015-nmc-horizon-report-k12-interim-results.pdfBut every year, the New
Media Consortium (NMC) gives divining edtech’s future a valiant shot. NMC recently released the preliminary results of its annual Horizon Report, which explores how emerging technologies and trends are intersecting with education, and how lingering challenges will be addressed.

This year, makerspaces made it onto the list as an innovation that will be adopted into the mainstream in “one year or less.” Makerspaces are among the many homes of the maker movement. In libraries, schools, or community spaces, they come complete with tools and software that kids (and adults) can use to build whatever they dream up. As creativity, design, and engineering make their way to the forefront of skills needed for a 21st century economy, the report finds, makerspaces are helping “renovate or repurpose classrooms to address the needs of the future.”

Notably, in Pittsburgh, makerspaces like those at Assemble and MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum dot the city and serve as places for rich hands-on learning in informal spaces.

Interestingly, last year, makerspaces were barely mentioned in the Horizon report. And while they may have made the short list this year, one of the report’s listed “challenges” worth noting is scaling teaching innovations. “A pervasive aversion to change limits the diffusion of new ideas, and too often discourages experimentation,” the authors write.

A makerspace takes plenty of planning and resources—although some schools have gotten creative with mobile makerspaces on carts. Meanwhile, several experts have critiqued parts the maker movement for a lack of inclusivity and heavy focus on tech. Any movement making inroads in education comes with its fair share of challenges.

Also on the list of edtech phenomena that the report predicts will be adopted in a year or less is BYOD, short for Bring Your Own Device, in which students bring their devices to school and connect to the school network. The report predicts cloud computing, or using apps and programs that make collaboration easier, has a one-year-or-less time to adoption, as does mobile learning, a concept that places no limits on where and when students learn with mobile devices.

The report also cites the rise of STEAM learning and cross-disciplinary learning at schools as other means for edtech to be effective and useful.

Finally, NMC predicts trends that are five years off or more. This year, the report says, microcredit and badges may be used as a way to grant credit for informal learning opportunities. (Some of Pittsburgh’s organizations, like the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, have already done so.) It also predicted the potential of drones for educational use and pointed to a school in Norway where students map out geometric shapes in the air.

Equally fascinating is examining the past and the forces that make educational trends fizzle. The NMC retired games and gamification this year from the list. The CEO of NMC, Larry Johnson, said the trend “is just out of reach for most people” and the developments that gaming experts saw coming have not materialized.

While technology and other promising trends may be eye-catching, questions usually arise once they are brought into the classroom. At the recent CoSN conference, where the preview of the NMC report was released, CoSN’s CEO, Keith Krueger, stressed the importance of considering the context of successful integration of new technologies into classrooms, according to EdTech Magazine.

“Emerging technologies always draw a crowd,” he said. “But as leaders we need to focus on solving real educational problems.”

In Pittsburgh, many organizations keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s new while emphasizing how to use innovations to remake learning. There is really no predicting what the future holds for kids today, but giving them an education that helps them love learning and adapting will prepare them for whatever is next.

When Designing EdTech for Schools, Get Back in the Classroom

Last month, the federal Office of Educational Technology published “The EdTech Developer’s Guide: A Primer for Developers, Startups, and Entrepreneurs,” a free guide written by educators, researchers, and developers. The guide is a Rosetta Stone for entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the über competitive and fast-changing educational technology (edtech) marketplace. Plus, it includes nitty-gritty details on how districts make purchasing decisions, updates on data privacy laws, and other information.

More importantly, the guide points to opportunities for engineers to design technology that can have a true impact on teaching and learning. The guide outlines 10 specific opportunities, among them improving educators’ professional development and helping students plan for future education opportunities. The 67-page document underlines the fact that better, more useful products emerge from collaborations with teachers and students.

“Assuming you were not recently a teacher yourself, I suggest that you work hard to get inside the school, inside the classroom, inside the day-to-day lives of the educators you want to help,” writes Steven Hodas, former executive director of Innovate NYC Schools. And, he says, that can mean bringing pizza to the teachers lounge, cleaning up after lunch, and attending school board meetings.

“Until you’ve done these things, it’s arrogant to write code, let alone attempt to sell,” Hodas explains. “Unless you’ve done these things, the likelihood that you are aiming at something big is small.”

As we wrote earlier this year, several technologists and entrepreneurs in the Pittsburgh region have echoed the importance of collaboration among educators and students when designing edtech products. The RemakeLearning Network facilitates these connections by hosting events where educators and tech developers can rub shoulders and swap ideas.

“There are people who are developing technology for a classroom that have never set foot in a classroom,” Courtney Francis, cofounder of the Meetup group EdTech PGH, which connects technologists and educators, told us in January. “Working on the tech side, I’ve seen clearly that there needs to be 360 degrees of support for developing this kind of technology.”

The guide points out issues that developers need to consider long before beta testing. Schools cannot use products that are not accessible to differently abled kids. The guide explains that when developers design with accessibility in mind, they “facilitate school district compliance with civil rights laws” while also making apps more user-friendly. Ensuring that the text on a site is legible to a visually impaired student using a screen reader, for example, helps that student while improving the searchability of the entire site.

The guide identifies 10 ways for edtech developers to close the opportunity gap. Schools with slower internet access, for instance, should be able to use the same apps as schools with cutting-edge technology.

“The best companies are those that engage in conversation with teachers,” writes Vicki Davis, a Georgia teacher and blogger. “Add your moving part to the engine of positive change rather than trying to siphon off valuable resources for a need that doesn’t exist.”

The EdTech guide does not map out an easy route to success for technologists. It is filled with extra steps that take time and might require a change in course. Technologists who pay attention, though, will succeed in resolving persistent problems in education technology.

When Ed Meets Tech, Both Fields Win

When Nikki Navta, founder and CEO of edtech company Zulama, was testing Zulama’s login system in classrooms five years ago, there was a hiccup right out of the gate.

The company included the standard username and password login, but schools blocked students from logging into personal email accounts to retrieve an activation link—and logging in through a social media account was out of the question. Plus, students had a difficult time remembering their passwords. Zulama wasn’t able to get students into their system at all.

“There are people who are developing technology for a classroom that have never set foot in a classroom.”

“We thought, ‘Wow, we’re operating in a whole different world here,’” Navta said. “‘We’re not going to make any more assumptions.’”

The company started asking teachers for their input, beginning a close collaboration with educators. Today, Zulama is used in more than 50 schools throughout the United States and internationally, including Elizabeth Forward High School in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, and West Allegheny High School in Pittsburgh. Matched with a thorough teacher-training process, Zulama’s Entertainment Technology Academy teaches students the principles of game design through hands-on projects with the goal of recharging their engagement with school.

Zulama grew alongside Pittsburgh’s expanding edtech scene, which is forming around a small hub of startups popping up in new coworking spaces and tech incubators throughout the city. Like Zulama, several key players in the city’s tech scene have found that listening and collaborating with the people who will use their products—teachers and students—are invaluable in building products that work.

Growing Scene

Photo/ EdTech PGH

The EdTech PGH Meetup Group. Photo/EdTech PGH

Ever since Tom Lauwers, founder of BirdBrain Technologies, started commercializing the Hummingbird Robotics Kit in 2010, which he originally developed at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, he too has witnessed the edtech scene in Pittsburgh grow around him.

Lauwers said he has used Pittsburgh as the “test bed” for new products before scaling nationally, partnering with educators almost every step of the way. BirdBrain recently started shipping its new Hummingbird Kit Duo, which was shaped by the feedback from a number of Pittsburgh teachers who have been using the product for years.

“Many of the same teachers who have worked with us in the past have provided us tons and tons of advice in terms of how could we improve,” he said. “Most of those people [who have been giving me feedback] have been in Pittsburgh, because I see them around and at Kids+Creativity Network events. Because the events and network exists, that’s what helps me connect more easily with people who are, in a way, my customers, but also my co-developers.”

A similar idea exchange happens monthly during the meetings of the Meetup group, Ed Tech PGH. Courtney Francis, the organizer of the group and co-organizer of the upcoming Startup Weekend Education Pittsburgh, has worked in the edtech field for 10 years. She said the group’s 241 members are fairly evenly split between educators and technologists and that the goals of the group speak to each group’s unique interests.

“It’s such a complex ecosystem,” Francis said. “There are people who are developing technology for a classroom that have never set foot in a classroom. There’s such a complex system around doing this effectively that I think people really want to do it right. Working on the tech side, I’ve seen clearly that there needs to be 360 degrees of support for developing this kind of technology.”

“I’ve seen clearly that there needs to be 360 degrees of support for developing this kind of technology.”

For example: At one open forum, technologists had the chance to showcase their work and receive teacher feedback.

“There were a lot of lightbulbs that went off,” Francis said. For one thing, technologists weren’t aware of the really low budgets for tech in the classroom, and some didn’t understand how many schools’ sluggish internet connections can’t run web-based applications well. Others weren’t aware of how difficult implementation can be.

Although getting ed and tech in the same room can be eye opening for the tech side, the reverse can be true as well.

“The collaborative aspect is really important,” Francis explained. She said introducing teachers to the process of development can both broaden their perspectives and introduce new tools to teachers who are interested in using different technology in their classrooms.

Sales vs. Learning: Can Goals Really Align?

Although there’s a healthy back-and-forth between educators and technologists in the group, Francis said some educators have been “burned” before by poor implementation or products that don’t serve their needs. Not all of the estimated $7.9 billion pre-K–12 edtech market in the United States is made well. Seeing gaps or becoming frustrated, many teachers have struck out on their own to develop products. But Francis believes that teachers’ priorities of learning outcomes and technologists’ goals of creating great products can be aligned. Ideally, products are going to sell better if they really work.

But collaboration across sectors isn’t just key for tech to work better in schools. As Jesse Schell, founder of Schell Games, told Barbara Ray in an interview, collaboration across sectors is how new ideas pop up in all disciplines.

“Interdisciplinary collaboration is where the best and newest innovations are coming from,” said Schell.

Zulama’s Navta sees the growth of the city’s edtech scene, and the emerging partnerships, as running parallel to an overall renaissance of Pittsburgh.

“Along with this revitalization, there’s been a lot of opportunities to imagine what Pittsburgh can be like in the future. And I think that’s carried over into our educational community,” Navta said, adding that the same is true in the edtech field, where new coworking spaces—like the one Zulama is in—have helped form a community that works off one another.

“Now we have the physical spaces for very small companies to set up shop, talk to each other, and share successes and failures.”

PA Kids Win Federal Grant for Early Learning

The first day of kindergarten is a milestone in any kid’s life. And while it might look like the antsy, bouncy kindergartners who fill a first-day classroom are all starting off on the same page, research shows that a startling gap already exists between low-income kids and their more advantaged peers. An Annie E. Casey Foundation report finds that this learning gap starts well before school does. It’s evident as early as 9 months, in fact, when research shows a gap in cognitive development between babies in low-income and higher-income families. And these early differences in cognitive skills compound as kids go through school and even into adult life, as kids with low school readiness can get stuck in a perpetual game of catch up.

As a Brookings report notes, children with high levels of school readiness at age 5 “are generally more successful in grade school, are less likely to drop out of high school, and earn more as adults, even after adjusting for differences in family background.”

Closing this gap right from starting gate is the one of the aims of the federal government’s Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which announced a total of $280 million in grants to Pennsylvania and five other states last month.

Part of Pennsylvania’s $51.7 million grant will go towards creating 50 “community innovation zones.” These zones will serve the lowest performing elementary schools in the state with the goal of boosting family supports and strengthening relationships between early childhood education programs, school districts, and networks of community organizations. It will also fund high-quality professional development for early learning educators.

The Race to the Top grant is an exciting development for the state’s early learning system, but several Pittsburgh organizations have been hard at work serving youngsters and their families long before the state’s win.

The Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, or PAEYC, supports care and education for kids from birth until age 9 by providing professional development, community resources, and advocacy. PAEYC also looks for creative ways to promote digital literacy in early childhood education. It recently partnered with the CREATE Lab and the Children’s School of Carnegie Mellon University to create Message From Me, a project that places small, hands-on kiosks equipped with microphones, video cameras, and email into classrooms. These let kids ages 3 to 5 send recorded messages about their school days to their parents.

“The technology is great,” Michelle Figlar, who leads PAEYC, told Remake Learning last October. “But the goal of the project—to increase communication among parents, teachers, and young children and improve language development—is what’s primary. Especially in very low-income neighborhoods, where we know from the research that learning vocabulary is very important—that is a beautiful way of using technology.”

Like Figlar noted, vocabulary is a critical aspect of the school readiness gap. An often-cited study published in the 1990s observed 42 families across different socioeconomic backgrounds and found kids from low-income families heard about 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers by age 3. The kids’ language skills at 3 predicted their skills through when they were 9 and 10.

“Once children become independent and can speak for themselves, they gain access to more opportunities for experience,” wrote the study’s authors. “But the amount and diversity of children’s past experience influences which new opportunities for experience they notice and choose.”

A summer project from the Kingsley Association, Baby Promise, introduces parents and their young kids to new experiences with technology and familiarizes them with how technology can be used meaningfully for learning. The project offers instructional home visits for kids ages birth to age 3 and summer day camps for kids 3 to 6. Like Message From Me, tech is a key component of the Baby Promise project, but more important are the connections educators make with parents well before their kids are enrolled in school.

Carnegie Science Center is also to exposing young kids to experiences with meaningful technology. The Center’s Hello, Robo! program brings a full set of kid-friendly robotics to 132 Head Start preschool classrooms. (Head Start is a federal program that promotes school readiness for kids from low-income families.) The program also includes visits from Carnegie Science Center staff, who spark kids’ curiosity about the kid-programmable, bumblebee-shaped robots.

Learning begins much earlier than the first day of kindergarten. Ensuring kids start school with a good footing, through both Race to the Top initiatives and the work of Pittsburgh organizations, will help them start school with the skills they need to stay on track for a secure economic future.


Photo/ Sarah Gilbert