Imagine K-12 in Silicon Valley

Founder Tom Ravenscroft travelled to San Francisco in April 2013 to share Enabling Enterprise’s work, and to learn more about the ed-tech space in a visit organised by Teach For All.

There’s no end to the buzz about how technology and education might intersect. From child-led learning, flipped classrooms and virtual school, the potential ideas are wide and engaging. You could use technology to train teachers, coach school leaders or share ideas. Surely there’s an app for marking, writing school reports or managing behaviour.
With all these exciting new ideas and opportunities, we wanted to get to the very heart of it, to find out where this buzz was coming from. And nowhere on earth is so much at the centre of that buzz as San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Bringing Technology and Education Together

During our trip we were privileged to meet a lot of educational start-ups.

• Class Dojo are developing a simple tool that teachers can use to monitor and reward good behaviour in their classrooms.

• Edthena are creating a teacher observation tool building off a web cam, so that teachers can be observed remotely or at a different time and feedback provided.

• Accredible have their sights set on a more reliable way of accrediting online courses and learning. This will enable learners to build up a much stronger educational portfolio that can then be used when applying for jobs.

• Learnboost have created an online gradebook for teachers, making it easier to track and support students’ progress.

Each of the entrepreneurs leading these ventures were excited about the potential of their work, and among the most driven people I have ever met.

San Francisco Bay

Those Supporting the Start-Ups

But it would be naïve to assume that this concentration of start-up activity was simply driven by coincidental co-location. Instead, a significant ecosystem supports and nourishes these early ventures. We were lucky enough toof meet a couple of them

Imagine K-12 Incubator particularly targets high potential education ideas and supports the founders for a couple of months while they develop their ideas. They provide mentors, contacts and support before a “demo day” which gives the new ventures the opportunity to gain higher levels of funding and support to grow further.

Similarly, Hub Ventures work to accelerate the potential of great ideas, including through providing a work space where the founders can work intensively on their ideas.

What struck me about both of these incubators though was the definition of success: Essentially demonstrating an exponential increase in the number of users, and key metrics around how engaged users were with the service provided. Financial viability did not feature here – the assumption being that a large user base can later be “monetised” and turned into profits.

Another surprise for someone who developed Enabling Enterprise in the social enterprise space in the UK was that impact on students didn’t seem to feature. While I consider impact an integral part of our work p there was an implicit understanding that usage must imply value, but this was never part of the discussions.

Stanford University

Putting it into Schools

Exploring education innovation without visiting a school would have been pretty futile though, and fortunately it was a trap we avoided. We really wanted to see what difference this eco-system of ed-tech innovation was having on the ground, and the experiences of the students.

We were warmly invited, indeed sung in, to Rocketship School in San Jose, about an hour south of San Francisco at the bottom of the Bay. Here, the school have started to shift their traditional approach from teacher-led instruction to bigger classrooms where students complete tasks at their own pace, and carefully calibrated to their level. They can use literacy and numeracy computer programmes to support this, and then the teachers become facilitators and coaches.

Later in the week, we visited the Summit Public School in San Jose. Similarly, this school has been working closely with the Kahn Academy to bring a very different approach to learning. In what felt more like a corporate open-plan office than a classroom, sixty students worked independently or in small groups on computer-based activities. As they completed activities or needed extra support they went to the bank of tutors at the front of the room, got what they needed, and then got straight back on task.

It’s early days to know what the impact has been. Teachers were broadly enthusiastic, but it is worth noting that these are outliers – the schools are used to regular visitors and see themselves as pioneers.

The teachers themselves saw some of the frustrations and limitations in the approach, with competing software making it more challenging to “join-up” the different tools into a coherent approach. The students though were enthusiastic, and professed a much greater sense of ownership over their learning.

San Francisco

Is it all Hype?

My feelings about what I saw fluctuated over the week. There were some neat ideas, that I could imagine using as a teacher in my own classroom, and which might support the strategies I already use.

But I didn’t really feel anything was revolutionary. And I think part of that challenge is a lesson we’ve learned at Enabling Enterprise – that you cannot simply package something out, give teachers access to it and expect it to support their work without providing any hands-on engagement. Learning from our experiences we decided that we would no longer simply offer lesson-time projects in isolation – we’ve seen that supporting the teachers to make the best use of the materials is vital.

Also, I was left wondering about the motivation behind many of these ventures. Certainly, the eco-system is maintained by Facebook-esque stratospheric IPOs (Initial Public Offerings – where shares are sold to investors). The incubators are there to invest and provide a return.

Another thing that surprised me was that so few of the entrepreneurs I met were teachers or educators themselves. Certainly, I set-up Enabling Enterprise directly out of my school experience and my sense as a teacher that there was a lot more than could be done in developing students’ enterprise skills, experiences of work and aspirations. Should developments in the education system really be a focus of those with no relevant educational experience and perhaps no personal interest in it?

When setting up Enabling Enterprise I didn’t imagine a stream of profits, or a magnificent scale or IPO.. A not-for-profit would hardly be the best structure for any of those.

Instead, a stream of research and thinking from across business and social enterprise highlight that having a clear mission that is beyond profit is what makes a great company and a great impact. That’s why we invest so much in impact measurement – so that it drives our programmes and ensures that we are working towards our mission.

Lessons Learned

Reflecting on my trip to San Francisco and Silicon Valley I certainly learned a thing or three.

Certainly, Enabling Enterprise is no ed-tech start-up. We are a teacher-led approach to transforming the potential of enterprise education in classrooms. While we’ve grown from 30 students to 20,000 in four years, that would be considered tardy by most tech start-ups.

Similarly, we don’t aim for an IPO or a stream of profits – we’ve actually always made a modest surplus that we plough back into our work but this is just to sustain us.

But we can take away the sense of ambition that drives start-ups to want to reach millions of children and young people. And the drive to keep trying again, learning from mistakes quickly and then trying to create a better version of what we do.

I left feeling that education technology could have something meaningful to add to the debate – but only if it was driven by impact in the classroom, not with an eye on the IPO.

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