At LearnLaunch Annual Conference, EdTech’s growing pains the hard lesson

Mayor Marty Walsh's chief of staff Daniel Arrigg Koh spoke at Learn Launch's annual conference over the weekend.
Mayor Marty Walsh's chief of staff Daniel Arrigg Koh spoke at Learn Launch's annual conference over the weekend.

LearnLaunch held a two day conference this weekend where more than 500 educators, students, investors, and vendors gathered to answer the event’s overarching question: “How Can EdTech Scale Student Success?”

Mayor Marty Walsh planned to speak at the event, but a last minute change put Chief of Staff Daniel Arrigg Koh on the podium. Koh spoke about the mayor’s visit in February to the LearnLaunch campus in Back Bay where startups participate in a three-month accelerator program. He also mentioned the mayor’s enthusiasm toward startups Brightloop and Skaffl, two of the conference highlights.

Skaffl, a company building apps to “simplify the mobile classroom”, joined the LearnLaunchX accelerator program this winter, temporarily moving their operations from Pennsylvania.

Brightloop, founded by former Dorchester charter school teacher Molly Levitt, focuses instead on teachers and helping them manage day-to-day stressors by streamlining organization and repetitive tasks.

Koh highlighted plans to convene educators and entrepreneurs. That event, tentatively slated for the summer, aims to give educators exposure to products being built by entrepreneurs while providing startups with teacher feedback.

Deespite Koh’s optimism, the conference still highlighted the gap between a fully rebooted education system and the current state of affairs: Presenters fumbled, often leaning heavily on recycled Silicon Valley rhetoric even as most vendor tables peddled attempts at a textbook rehash in HTML 5 or products that would require every child in the United States to come prepared with a Chromebook in tow.

Ultimately, education felt unprepared to answer the event’s main question.

“A lot is rubbish,” conceded Marco Morales, a product designer at Brightloop.

Crummy products that wouldn’t survive in any other sector get through in education because the buying power sits far away from the end users and education remains unscalable, according to Morales.

Morales called the Common Core — guiding K-12 principles adopted by every state but Texas, Nebraska, Alaska, Minnesota, and Virginia — a good start to scalability “despite its downfalls.”

Scaling student success with education technology might take some generational phaseout — waiting for tech fluent educators to overtake the less savvy — while many current educators seem reluctant to imagine ways they might integrate such powerful devices as the laptop or smartphone and instead fight personal technology’s presence in their classrooms.

But while the institutions might resist embracing technology, students shared that it was already there.

At one point, five teens from Massachusetts high schools fielded questions about the use of technology in the classroom.

Addressing the issue of pushback against technology, all the students agreed there would always be something to draw their mind from the lesson — be it an iPad or notebook full of doodles — and that writing off technology missed an opportunity to use powerful tools.

“I spent a lot of time playing Candy Crush in Chemistry but I still got an A,” Bethany Rogers of Plymouth High said. “Every student is different.”

Jake Greenberg attends Westwood High School, a “1 to 1” school, the term educators use for institutions that provide every student with a laptop.

Taking teachers in the room to task, Greenberg said he works on other things during classes that fail to engage him. He also noted laptops offer the ability to have a thought, transfer that thought to your fingertips, and pull up additional information relevant to an assigned text.

“Before 1 to 1 we were limited by what’s in this 300 page book,” Greenberg said.

“Depending on how you use it, it will become your friend or your enemy,” added Erica Oh, also of Westwood High School.

Divyahans Gupta, attended LearnLaunch less as a student and more as an entrepreneur. Gupta took the day off school, flying all the way from southern California to show attendees his startup, Stoodle.

Stoodle is a whiteboard web app that engages educators and students in collaborative study sessions. Under the wing of CK-12 — a California-based open source education content provider — Stoodle has landed heavy hitters like Menlo Ventures’ Karl Mehta and Harvard Innovation Lab’s Gordon Jones to their advisory board.

And so despite educators skeptical of tech, particularly after bungled tablet rollouts and fierce funding fights, hope remains strong.

“Demand is so high,” Levitt said, citing overwhelming enthusiasm for initial versions of her product.

And the even better news for entrepreneurs hopeful of making a positive difference: Potential customers will only get more tech savvy with time.

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at
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