How to Succeed in Ed-Tech (By James & Adam)

I respect these guys, their company, and their product a lot. They’ve always been generous with their time and expertise – and I’ve learned a lot from them since first meeting Adam at an edublogger meetup in 2006. I’m thrilled to see Adam and James sharing their experience (and their focus on teachers and students) with others working to be successful in the education technology market. I hope this article (a manifesto of sorts) is influential and helpful for many, so I’m thrilled to share it here.

How to Succeed in Ed-Tech
By James Byers and Adam Frey, Founders of Wikispaces, November 2012

Along the way we’ve formed a strong opinion about what success means for us, and the short list of characteristics we believe are crucial for the success of ed-tech companies. We’re sharing what we’ve learned because the opportunity to improve education through technology is vast, large enough for many times the number of companies in education today. Taken in combination, these characteristics run contrary to much of the prevailing Silicon Valley wisdom about how to address this market. We hope that today’s young education startups will consider this alternate path.

Since there aren’t comments on their site, I hope you’ll leave your own thoughts here below. :)

Self Government and Education

I missed the chance to see Obama’s victory speech on the day he won the election, but I went back and watched it two days later, and I’m glad I did. I immediately searched for the transcript and copied it into a Google Doc so I could mark it up. I found a few passages particularly meaningful… and relevant to our mission as educators, particularly in the age of social media.

I often appreciate and respect the president’s realism, which may not be something his opponents consider one of his strengths. I think it is important to temper the “hope” and “change” (which are vitally important) with a more realistic (sophisticated and nuanced) view of the world if anything is going to actually get done – and if hope is not going to be lost in the face of difficult challenges. Incidentally, I think this is true for educational technologists (and perhaps educators… or people… in general) as well as for political leaders. In any case, I think we see an example of that philosophy from the president here:

Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight — and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.

I also think this last point is important in our field. We can be grateful that we get to have the arguments that we do… which device, which policy, which pedagogy. And as much as we may grow tired of our opposition (and resistance to what we see as positive change), at least we’re in a position where the argument is a meaningful one and we do actually have the power to make the future a better place for our students.

I believe one of the president’s other strengths is challenging Americans to see a bigger picture. I think it’s why so many people who oppose his efforts feel he is bringing about an end to “their” America. I’m not one who thinks he is selling out our country to the UN, or Europe, or socialists (or whatever), but if the US needs to one day give way to something greater (perhaps in the wake of the UN), I am unequivocally all for that. A meaningful global government (that allows for great diversity in many arenas) will be a good thing for humanity, and this planet. I think the day has already come when we need to not see ourselves as Americans first, but as Humans… and not as “from America” but as “from Earth.” Sometimes the president’s frankly political rhetoric falls short of this vision… and sometimes it moves from the politically correct toward what ought to be. I saw that here:

We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world; a nation that is defended by the strongest military on Earth and the best troops this world has ever known — (applause) — but also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being.

We believe in a generous America; in a compassionate America; in a tolerant America…

I was proud to hear these words coming from our president. And again, I think this perspective is also important in our field… though I would take it an additional step. If we are a generous, compassionate, tolerant America… perhaps we should be working toward educational systems and tools that not only might benefit the 50 million American k12 students, but perhaps the 750 million k12 students world-wide. And there certainly are people and organizations working toward this aim. As I’m writing this I even find myself feeling a bit proud that I’ve been working increasingly on international professional development events… carrying our message face-to-face to educators outside the US. That being said, I know our team is only scratching the surface… and so far is mostly serving international and private schools with more resources than their local public counterparts. One step at a time… hope and hard work in the face of challenge.

Speaking about this change in America, the president touched again on the theme of hard work hand-in-hand with hope (both are necessary for real change to happen in any meaningful pursuit, especially on a national  – or global – scale):

…progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, or solve all our problems, or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus, and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.

Also in keeping with this theme was this next segment, in my opinion the most important (and perhaps most audacious) of the president’s speech:

The role of citizen in our democracy does not end with your vote. America has never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

In the context of our work in education this means at least two important things to me. First, it means that we can’t complain about the government’s approach to education (at least not unless we’re actively working to change it). It is our government. In a very real way, we are the government. And, things will not change for the better in education (or in any particular direction at least) until we the people rise up and make it so. This can happen at the local level. School boards have a tremendous amount of power, freedom, and flexibility to do as they please locally… and it is rarely exercised… but most boards serve at the pleasure of the voters – you can have it another way if you can craft a compelling vision and organize support for it. This can also happen at a larger level at the state departments of education (states still maintain a high degree of independence when it comes to education, though they too exercise it less and less), and at the federal level. In short, if we want something radical, like, say, a constructivist educational technologist as a secretary of education… we have to make that happen.

Second, it means to me that we need to prepare our students for a life of self-government. I mean this on a personal level of course… in that students need to be able to govern themselves (it’s a key to success in any field – and in life), but I also mean this in terms of participatory government. We need to prepare students to take things into their own hands… to craft compelling visions and organize support… to demand something different from their local, state, federal, and global governments (in all areas, not just education of course… kids are concerned about the environment, human rights, and civil liberties – and we should empower them take their government into their own hands to improve things in the ways they want). And, in this age of social media and participatory media – with the internet in everyone’s pocket (or glasses!) making widely distributed easily scale-able participation almost ubiquitous (among those who have access), it is not unreasonable to think that these technologies can and should make it possible for more people to participate in government more often. I would never imagine everyone voting on everything; we’ll need representatives for the foreseeable future. But there is no reason more people can’t be involved in organizing and lobbying… and no reason more people can’t be authoring, editing, or otherwise contributing to legislation… and no reason we can’t have voters vote on some more issues. Our government should be far more participatory – and far more transparent. There’s no reason a significant overhaul of our government shouldn’t be forthcoming in the wake of these technological changes… despite all the challenges and hard work (and mistakes) this will inevitably entail. Incidentally, I believe we should prepare students both to be more involved in their government no matter what new technologies bring and to help bring about the technologies to make self-government more of a reality in this country… and around the globe.

Perhaps this is a tall order, but I think it’s the cause we take on as educators (or at least as educational technologists). We have the power to make this happen. I believe we will. And I can’t wait. :)


Reaction to Candidates Education Policies

I started blogging in part as an effort to share the things I was already writing for work and for school. For two years this meant I often was posting to my blog responses I had written for the my class discussion forums as part of my already underway Ph.D. program. Then I was done with classes and spent the next two years completing KAMs and working on my dissertation. For the last year or so, though, the University has created online “classes” for students with the same mentor. There are very few discussion requirements in these “research forums” but one of the last things I needed to finish this quarter was a response to the following question… and since it’s relevant to what I discuss on this blog – and to politics in this country in general – I thought I’d share it here.

The Prompt:

I was once told that two things that are never discussed in a bar are religion and politics. Since we are not in a bar (at least I hope we aren’t…who knows what goes on in e-learning behind closed doors…lol), we are going to venture into politics this month. Review the educational stance of each candidate (McCain, Obama, and Clinton), especially any positions taken on NCLB, and discuss. I stress discuss, be objective and gentle. No flaming and no arguments. I don’t want to know who you are for, just want you to discuss the issues, something that it seems no candidate is very good at nowadays. Enjoy!

My Response:

Hi, all. I’m coming a bit late to the party, but here’s my two cents as an educational technologist. I’ve focused my response solely on the positions stated on the candidates web sites, thus giving them the benefit of judging them by the message they want to be judged by.

I suppose it will come as no surprise to any of you that I found McCain’s position to be the least robust. He supports “excellence, choice, and competition.” Sadly, other than a nod to equity, his position doesn’t address excellence. Five of the eight paragraphs in his position address choice and competition, which go hand in hand for him. It’s clear he supports changes that will make it possible for parents to choose the school their child attends and for schools to compete for parents’ “business.” I suppose some sort of voucher system might make this possible, but his site does not address the specifics. Also, from my perspective, the issues I would care about are not addressed at all. There is no discussion of preparing our students for the 21st Century, of innovative teaching, or of educational technology in any form.

Clinton’s position focuses on “improving our schools.” She provides much more detail on her background, especially with respect to handicapped education and after school programs. Regarding K-12 education, she plans to end NCLB (a stance that ought to be popular with educators if my experience is any guide). Other policies that caught my eye were her positions on creating “green” schools, multiple pathways to graduation, additional after-school programs, and opportunities for internships or job programs. These strike me as plans that might include some innovative teaching or educational technology, but sadly these things are missing from her position as well.

Obama’s position focuses on “a world class education.” (Personally, I find this phrase tired – and can’t help wondering what it means to the people that use it.) He hopes to reform and fully fund NCLB. His reforms would include new types of assessments (he suggests that teaching to standardized tests isn’t working) and solutions that would support rather than punish struggling schools. He explicitly supports math and science education, but I suspect that isn’t nearly as important as teaching more right-brained skills to our students at this point. He also supports additional after-school and summer learning programs, which again might support more innovative teaching or educational technology. Regarding teachers, Obama describes plans to recruit, prepare, retain, and reward teachers. Again, the issues I am most interested in are absent from the message he puts forth on his web site.

However, unlike the other candidates, Obama also includes a link to more details, a 15 page PDF expanding on the plans he describes on his site. In this, it is clear that some innovative teaching and learning – and some educational technology – plays a role in his plan. For instance, this excerpt struck me as important:

“This [plan for reforming NCLB by improving assessments] include(s) funds for states to implement a broader range of assessments that can evaluate higher-order skills, including students’ abilities to use technology, conduct research, engage in scientific investigation, solve problems, present and defend their ideas. These assessments will provide immediate feedback so that teachers can begin improving student learning right away.”

Though I’d rather see him start from scratch with NCLB, this strikes me as the most substantial and attractive thing I saw on any of these sites. Unfortunately, throughout the rest of his more detailed plan, technology only appears in his discussions of math and science education. Given his general message of hope and change, I would like to see more of each in his education policy. The focus on STEM education is primarily a fear based response to changes in the world. I would rather see a candidate put forth an education policy that strongly advocates major changes in education, including a focus on creating a creative and empowered population of life long learners. But what I would like to see would be a different (and longer) post altogether. ;)

Ultimately, I think the sad truth is that all of these candidates are far removed from the realities of the classroom – and even further removed from the sort of best practice that is supported by research and by the innovations of our colleagues in the field of educational technology.

I also recognize that politics can be a touchy subject, but at this point I’d love to hear responses from any of you as well – I imagine most of you have also given this a lot of though, perhaps even considerably more than I have. And, as my classmate’s responses revealed there is a lot more available regarding the candidates positions than is shared on their websites, and I’d be grateful for anything you all can share here.

A Student Not Engaged…

Walden University provides a “course shell” in eCollege to serve as a resource for all students who have the same faculty Mentor. One of the few requirements of participating in this forum is a monthly discussion. This month the prompt provided was the following:

How can we apply technology to better implement an effective response to intervention (RTI) in the classroom?

Not being familiar with the term, I looked it up on Wikipedia and Google. I then let some time pass before returning to the topic… and found myself writing the following, which I think turned out to be worth sharing here:

After coming back to this topic, I realize that RTI doesn’t seem as if it would be an approach that would resonate with me, and now that I’ve owned up to that reaction it can inform my response.About a year and a half ago I heard a particularly effective director of educational technology say to his lead teachers, “a student not engaged is a student not learning.” This was in a California district stuck in Program Improvement due to low test scores (which were primarily a function of their large population of English Learners). Unfortunately, the additional assessment burdens the teachers were under would do nothing to solve the fundamental problem of engaging their students. This pioneering director urged the teachers to use technology creatively to engage their students – rather than set their technology aside to spend more time on assessment and intervention focused on “the base program.”

He also firmly believed that “a teacher with access to technology who is not using it, is not teaching ‘the base program’ as well as he or she can.”

These two ideas form the basis of my response to this prompt. I believe technologies that engage and motivate students by offering opportunities for self-direction, inquiry, discovery, and creativity are the best way to meet the needs of all students. One of the most significant things I’ve heard said about 1:1 laptop programs is that when you walk into the classroom, you can’t tell who the Special Ed students are or who the GATE students are… because everyone is fully engaged and working at their own level.

Some technologies that might be readily available to most teachers and which might help provide this sort of individualized engagement include commercial off the shelf videogames with educational value (such as the Sims series, the Tycoon series, or the “Age of…” series of games), read/write web tools (such as blogs, wikis, and podcasts), and multimedia creation programs (for editing images, audio, and video). These things are nearly free and ubiquitous and ought to be used creatively in support of the base program.

I wonder how some of you might react to this prompt or this response… and I particularly wonder if any RTI experts might take me to task over the approach I took. In any case, I look forward to any feedback you all might offer.

UPDATE: Scott Smith of Visalia Unified School District is the director in the story above. He is also the current board president of Computer Using Educators.

Be Subversive: A Message From The Future

Though my coursework for Walden University is complete, each faculty mentor has an online “class” for his or her mentees. We, the mentees, are expected to participate in a few online discussions (and other progress reports) per quarter. For this quarter, Dr. Nolan, my advisor, put out a call to the participants for discussion prompts. I was thrilled that he chose my suggestion for our first discussion: “If you could deliver ‘a message from the future’ to the educators of today, what would it be?”

It was great to read the wide variety of perspectives in my colleagues’ responses, and though I can’t share all of those here I realized that my response might make another good blog post. Obviously, I’m indepted to Tom March for this response, too.

Hi, all. I’m thrilled Dr. Nolan decided to use this question. It comes from a welcome activity I started doing with principals (in a technology training for administrators). I finally put it down in a blog post a few months ago after a particularly powerful version of the discussion. Here’s a link to that post, which also tells the story behind the question and includes some others’ messages in the comments:

For my answer in this discussion forum I think I’ll tell another story. When I was at NECC in 2006, I was in the live audience for a webcast interview panel with Will Richardson, Tom March, and others – moderated by Chris Walsh. At the end of the session, Chris asked for questions from the audience, and I decided to ask what message the panelists had for teachers who felt they were unable to use the technologies the panel advocated (blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc) because they were not allowed by their superiors or their organization. It was a response from teachers I was encountering often at the time. Tom March gave a response that struck me at the time and has stayed with me. He said simply, “be subversive.”

He elaborated by suggesting that teachers should try these technologies (and new pedagogies) anyway, and then show their superiors what their students had accomplished. Hearing Tom say that validated my feelings on the subject and made me feel empowered to pass it on. I’ve repeated the story (or just the answer) for many educators I’ve worked with. And if I were to send “a message from the future” to the educators of today, that would be my message: “be subversive.”

The fact that today some educators are not afraid to try new things and then share them with others will be critical to building the educational systems of the future.

I’d love to read any comments responding to the “be subversive” message… or responding to the “message from the future” prompt.

A Message From The Future (For The Principals of Today)

Last Monday I led a technology workshop for administrators. Specifically, this was the Orange County Department of Education’s AB 430, Module 3, Day 2. Among other things, this day now includes an introduction to the read/write web for administrators. This was added when I re-wrote the OCDE version of the curriculum in early 2006. Last week was the first time I significantly updated the segment since that time. Day 1 with this cohort was my favorite administrator training yet, so I needed to step up day two to match.

As in day 1, I moved the introductory slides into a Google Docs presentation and invited folks from around the world to participate (via a post on twitter). In order to engage any potential visitors I created a “discussion prompt” based on one of the introductory anecdotes I usually tell on Day 2. One of the anecdotes is based on excerpts from Lary Cuban’s (2001) “Over Sold and Over Used” – but that tends to generate some negative responses and is beginning to be a bit dated. So, I turned to the other segment, “A Message From the Future.”

And it’s time I tell this story here on the blog…

I begin by telling the participants that I’m a big U2 fan and that back in 2004 the band released the song Miracle Drug on their latest album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. I explain the history of the song in person, but the wikipedia article captures it well:

It was written about Irish writer Christopher Nolan, with whom the band attended Mount Temple Comprehensive School. Bono said of Nolan:

“We all went to the same school and just as we were leaving, a fellow called Christopher Nolan arrived. He had been deprived of oxygen for two hours when he was born, so he was paraplegic. But his mother believed he could understand what was going on and used to teach him at home. Eventually, they discovered a drug that allowed him to move one muscle in his neck. So they attached this unicorn device to his forehead and he learned to type. And out of him came all these poems that he’d been storing up in his head. Then he put out a collection called Dam-Burst of Dreams, which won a load of awards and he went off to university and became a genius. All because of a mother’s love and a medical breakthrough.”

There’s a line in the song that says “with science and the human heart, there is no limit.” That line, and the suggestion that positive social good can come of the marriage between these two things, captures much of the reason behind why I am involved in educational technology.

But the following story captures it even better…

I saw several of the shows from the following Vertigo Tour, and I was lucky enough to hear bootlegged recordings of a few others. In many of the shows Bono would use the introduction of this song (while Edge, the guitarist, played a beautiful and echoing guitar riff) to express his appreciation for doctors, nurses, and others in the medical field. In one particular show (in Toronto, if memory serves), he told a story instead. He said that the beautiful riff was the sound that Edge’s spaceship made when they first met him over 20 years ago. Bono seemed to make up the story as he went along, sort of chuckling along the way. In the story, Edge descended from the sky and stepped out of the space ship. Larry Mullen, the drummer, asked him where he was from and he said “the future.” Adam Clayton, the basist, asked him what it was like there, and he said “it’s better.” At that moment the band launched into the anthemic song about science and the human heart.

It was an emotional goose bump raising moment for me. And it also perfectly captured why I’m in educational technology. I believe that brining new technologies to bear on education can make the future a better place for our students.

This segment was much better fodder for inspiring edubloggers to share with principals! I decided to ask them to share “a message from the future… for the principals of today.” I was thrilled to have a few edubloggers drop in and give thoughtful responses to the question. David Warlick gave his two cents, as did Darren Draper, Chris (Betcher I believe), and Susan from Virginia (I didn’t catch her last name). A few others popped in and out. The messages really had an effect on the principals and inspired their own answers when I turned the question to them next. After the fact I went back and used Jing to capture the Google chat in the side bar. Click here or on the picture to watch the screencast.

We usually spent our discussion time on the Larry Cuban material, but this turned out to be a much more moving discussion. I plan to focus more on this segment in future AB 430 Module 3 Day 2 workshops… and I expect I’ll use it in other workshops as well. I’ve told the story often, but never asked for others’ “messages from the future.”

So… if you had a message from the future for the school principals of today, what would that be?

Build A Better Browser (CUE Tips Submission)

This is the last CUE Tips session I submitted for the upcoming CUE conference. Unlike the others, it’s not really read/write web focused, but I’m hoping it might be just the thing for a quick 20 minute session. The idea is to help teachers setup and customize Firefox in a way that supports (and even invigorates) their work. Let me know what you think in the comments.


Build a Better Browser: An Overview of Firefox Themes & Extensions for Educators


Rediscover the web! Firefox is now faster, more secure, and fully customizable. Learn how themes and extensions can be used to turn your web browser into the ultimate learning machine.



Graduate Student Survey About Online Syllabi Creation

I also received this email recently, and since the survey still seems to be open I thought I’d be kind enough to pass it on:


Hi, I enjoy reading your Ed. Tech. Life blog. I like the new look.

I’m a graduate student at UNC-CH working on an online service for creating and using course syllabi. I’m conducting a survey about student and faculty needs in this area to help me design the service.

I’d really appreciate it if you could post a small blog entry inviting your readers to participate in the survey. Here is the link to include:


With any luck this passing on referrals won’t get out of hand… and perhaps some of you will be interested. :)

Link: Yahoo Teachers

I got an email from Jenith Mishne pointing this out. As she said in her subject line, it looks like Yahoo is jumping on the bandwagon. (We’re preparing for the third Google Teacher Academy, which will be here in Southern California.) Of course, this is one tech company trend I won’t complain about. Free services and resources for teachers is always good.

Here’s Jenith’s message:

Have you all seen this….

Hmmm…interesting…..who’s next?


Somehow the video was weird to watch. They’ve built a good lesson sharing tool, from the looks of it, but otherwise it doesn’t seem that… innovative. I guess Flickr is Yahoo!, though, and there are probably a handful of other cool tools teachers can (and do) use. It’ll be good to keep an eye on. Thanks to Jenith for the heads up.