Identifying Teaching Moments at the NYC DOE Shark Tank

On Friday we were invited to present at NYC DOE’s Teacher Shark Tank, one event in a series where three edtech startups get 30 minutes each to present and answer questions from DOE teachers.

The Teacher Shark Tank is hosted by iZone, NYC DOE’s Office of Innovation…which supports schools in personalizing learning to accelerate college and career readiness among our students.

Ponder is running in many schools across the country this semester, but in our hometown of New York, we are in one NYC DOE school (Stuyvesant H.S.), as well as one NYC Charter (WHEELS) and one NYC private school ( Trinity School). This was our first opportunity to formally present to DOE educators at a DOE-organized event, so we were excited to be there!

Other presenters included Quill, who has figured out a way to blend learning grammar into an interactive reading experience and Fast Fig, a word processor for math that enables teachers to cleanly and easily create equations and graphs online – a long sought after solution with many applications!

We had a late start, but this didn’t deter the great group of interested and engaged teachers who are clearly the vanguard of technology users at their schools (City as School, High School of Telecommunications Arts and Technology and P.S. 64 the Robert Simon School)

We wanted to impress this audience in particular. Fortunately, over the past two years of watching classes use Ponder (first graduate business classes then undergraduate philosophy classes then 12th grade English classes and 9th grade global studies classes and now 2nd grade ELA classes!!) we’ve evolved how we present and explain Ponder.

In our presentation Friday, Ben and I focused on one key concept: the speed at which a teacher can review student micro reading responses. How fast can a teacher review Ponder micro-reading responses you ask? Real fast. Fast enough that teachers can encourage their students to make as many responses as they’d like, knowing they will have time to grade them all and provide meaningful feedback. In fact, our conceit (which has proven true in higher ed and is starting to prove itself in K12 as well) is that not only will the instructor be able to review everyone’s responses, they’ll be able to do so *before* class starts, and actually use their students responses as the basis for in-class discussion.

To prove my point, Ben and I put up four different Ponder micro-reading responses from a single 8th grade class in the Chicago Public School system and asked the teachers in the room how quickly they could assess each one.

Number 1: A solid response.

No. 1 Coherent and appropriate.

No. 1 Coherent and appropriate.

The excerpt that the student chose is coherent, though it’s not making a particularly controversial or insightful point. The sentiment s/he applied is appropriate though not particularly nuanced (I empathize.) nor does it exhibit a deeper insight or independent thinking.


Number 2: Exemplary!

No. 2 Real insight and independent thinking!

No. 2 Real insight and independent thinking!

The excerpt is coherent and interesting, making a surprising, counter-intuitive argument.The sentiment applied is spot on, demonstrating the student clearly understands the author is making a claim and now needs to substantiate it with supporting evidence.

Number 3: Red Flag!

No. 3 Incoherent and inappropriate.

No. 3 Incoherent and inappropriate.

The selection itself is incoherent. And the sentiment is clearly inappropriate. Either the student is completely lost and doesn’t understand the point of the assignment or is simply not trying at all.

Number 4: A Teaching Moment.

No. 4 What is there to agree about?

No. 4 What is there to agree about?

This is where things start to get interesting. This is an opportunity for what would pedagogically referred to as a “teaching moment,” an invitation for further discussion in class. First of all, the selection itself is interesting. The author describes an interaction that is clearly intended to provoke some sort of emotional reaction from the reader. However, the student chose to agree with it – not the reaction the author probably intended! So, why did you concur? What are you agreeing with? What is the idea that you thought emerged from this quote? Or, perhaps, you’ve identified a moment in which the student wasn’t reading very carefully at all, which is valuable in and of itself.

We maintain a long list of ideas on how to better support this process of evaluating reading responses. It changes week to week as we watch our K12 classes settle into how to use Ponder while discovering new uses for it as well.

Still, I think we’ve reached an important milestone in delivering on the promise of providing a way for students to “practice critical reading” while giving teachers a way to respond to and build on that practice.

And, let it not go without saying, we are lucky to have such thoughtful students and teachers using Ponder that we can so easily find a mountain of interesting responses!

EdSurge Silicon Valley Summit: Gameify the Conversation

For better or worse, the Valley has become a rather glam place, in an Iron Chef! kind of way.

The grumpy old man in me is often wistful for the days when credibility was measured in the age and wear of your company t-shirts (and when everyone got the same tent-cut XXL Hanes t-shirt regardless of the size and shape of the wearer).

EdSurge's Tony Wan, Making things happen

EdSurge’s Tony Wan, making it look easy!

I’m happy to report that this past Saturday the get-your-hands-dirty pragmatism I fell in love with when I first arrived in the Valley was out in full force in Mountain View, CA, albeit with better fitting t-shirts. The t-shirts were green and they read: “Keep Calm and Read EdSurge.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a courageous first effort at enabling real educator-edtech conversations in Rhode Island. There were problems, potentially event-killing catastrophes, but by thinking on their feet, EdSurgers, Highland Instituters and EdTechRI-ers adapted and iterated “in real-time” and pulled off a successful event. There were clear lessons coming out of that first event, and I was excited to see how “agile” EdSurge could be with how they ran events.

This was the basic setup…

Ready to Ponder at 8AM.

Ready to Ponder @8AM

  • A generous room of large round tables, one for each company, each surrounded by chairs, loosely grouped by product focus.
  • Power strips for each table with tape for the inevitable cable undergrowth.
  • Surprisingly solid wifi, especially given the attendance
  • Efficient Lightening talks in a separate, yet adjacent auditorium

These structural changes got the whole thing moving…

  • No parallel workshops!!! More on this in a moment.
  • A team of easily identifiable green-shirted people assigned to specific companies to match-make educators with technologies.

One final stroke of genius put it over the top…

A raffle for teachers, with real prizes (a bunch of Surfaces, iPads, Chromebooks, subscriptions, no keychains, no squeezyballs). But this was no fundraising raffle. The way teachers obtained raffle tickets was by providing feedback to the companies. Let me just repeat that so you can fully absorb what a great idea it was. (I’ll make the font size really big too.)

The way teachers obtained raffle tickets was by providing feedback to the companies.

Technically the way it worked was I was supposed to give them 1 ticket for filling out a short 1-2 minute survey at my table, and then they could get three tickets by filling out a longer survey at the main EdSurge table-Island in the center of the room.

In reality, EdSurge had successfully game-ified cross-discipline conversation. Once the game was clear, everyone knew how to play.

Gone was the awkward mingling, the Who’s-going-to-say-something-first? interactions. Everyone had a non-stop flow of teachers coming up to them with a clear agenda: “Tell me about your product. I teach ____ to grades ____ and I want to hear how you think it could be relevant to me and my students.”

Really, no workshops?

One of the concerns I had as the event planning was coming together was the ballsy decision to not have any PD-type workshops at the summit. I had a secret fear that without that incentive many teachers would not make the trek to come to the conference at all. My fear was all for nought. I’m curious what the final EdSurge numbers will be, but I spoke with well over 100 educators in a constant stream from 9AM to 4PM with just one break for the lunch panel. I’m not sure how to extrapolate that over the 30 vendors, but the place was packed and filled with energetic voices and enthusiastic discussion.

My admittedly self-serving theory is that by putting a stake in the ground and saying:

“This event is dedicated solely to bridging the communication gap between educators and edtech so ‘Conversation’ is going to be its sole activity.”

EdSurge showed everyone involved that they really mean it. And in my experience teachers are some of the best Do-you-mean-it? detectors out there. Still, I think that took guts and it paid off – “Conversation” was center stage the whole day.

The kids will be alright.
There’s just one last thing I need to sing the praises of and then I promise I’ll get more critical. The lunch panel featured 10 kids from roughly 1st through 12th grade. It’s a “stunt” which I have seen attempted at various other events and I call it a “stunt” because that’s how it often comes off. EdSurge however managed to pull it off. The moderator Chris Fitz Walsh from Zaption did a great job of asking questions, and the kids they picked provided real insights beyond the usual “I like to tweet so schools should tweet too.” Judge for yourself:

“My teacher has a little microphone clipped to her shirt so everyone can hear her clearly even when her voice is tired.”

Huh, I would never have thought of that.

So, no room for improvement?

Just to shore up my plummeting credibility, here’s a list of complaints:

  • There were so many teachers that it became unrealistic for them to both talk to me and then fill out the 1-2 minute survey at my table in exchange for more raffle tickets, so I simply started handing them out to whomever I spoke with. I like the idea of eliciting more frank, quantifiable feedback through the survey. But there simply wasn’t enough room for teachers to fill out the survey without creating a bottleneck for conversations. Perhaps if the raffle ticket was attached to the survey itself, then I wouldn’t need to play “enforcer” for whether a teacher “earned” a raffle ticket. The problem with that would be people filling out the survey without even coming to the table…maybe there isn’t a solution.
  • We were almost shouting over one another to be heard. (I know a good problem to have!) It was definitely a function of attendance levels, but paying attention to the acoustics of the room might have helped manage noise levels. Still a noisy room is an energetic room, so in the end, it probably did more good than harm.
  • I didn’t have a great way of keeping track of all the teachers and schools who came by to talk other than giving them hand-outs or having them scribble emails on a sheet. Because we’re still in pilot-mode for K12, we’re trying to be extra hands-on with our teachers and I was worried the whole time I wouldn’t be able to follow-up with all the people I was talking to. This seems like a very solveable problem though.

So what’s next?

Now that EdSurge has a template for this kind of event, I’m hearing whispers that lots of other cities around the country are requesting their own version, and my guess is that EdSurge will deliver. But what about new templates to address other gaps in edtech? Creating a “conversation space” where educators and technologists can talk is just a first step.

Chatting afterwards with Idit Harel Caperton from Globaloria and EdSurge’s Mary Jo Madda, Idit suggested a principal/administrator/budget-decision-maker focused event, which at the very least this edtech startup would find incredibly useful.

We are a few weeks from sending a survey out to our K12 pilot schools about our pricing plans. We’re still struggling with the conundrum of: Teachers love the idea of using Ponder, but rarely have any personal budget to pay for it at a price that would sustain the service longer-term. I’m sure we’re not alone.

Unlike professors in higher-ed, K12 teachers lack personal agency to purchase tools. Yet, they more than principals and administrators know which tools would actually be useful. I also suspect edtech companies need to address structural issues to be convincing to budget-decision-makers:

  • We need a tidy answer to the question: Does it work? In the form of objective efficacy validation! We’re working on it now!
  • We need tried and true best practices to help manage the risks of trying new technologies in classrooms that have little room for wasting time.
  • We need to reward teachers and schools for taking risks and being open to experiment. From our perspective, we learn far more from failures (e.g. the technology made no difference) than unmitigated success.

I know, this should really be a separate post.

I’ll just wrap up and say: Thank you EdSurge, your hard work and attention to detail showed. We’re not just reading, we’re looking forward to more, and following your lead!

Facilitating Conversations with Educators: Learnings from EdSurge RIDE 2013

This past Saturday was the 2013 Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Technology Conference at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, RI. It promised to be and, through the intervention of several individuals, became a unique forum for highly interactive ad-hoc discussions between educators and technologists.

In the days leading up to it, the logistics of the event sounded downright awful: 700 teachers already signed up for sessions parallel to the discussions, uncertain wifi, no electrical outlets, and we would have to close down our table for lunch, because the discussions were to take place where everyone was going to be eating and trying to watch the lunch panel.

Fears of an empty, electricity- and wifi-free room

Overblown fears of an empty, electricity- and wifi-free room (via instragram)

It’s worth noting that at Ponder we have long since learned that trying to talk to a teacher meaningfully about their classes and students while mousing around on a tiny laptop screen really doesn’t work. Instead, we have a screencast that walks through some of the core functionality of Ponder on a fairly short loop, which we run on a 24″ display. This way, it is possible to have a conversation with someone and point out functionality to answer their questions when it comes around on the loop. So, the whole no-electricity issue meant that the conversations would be much less productive.

Even my educator friends who long to bridge the gap between educators and technologists asked me why we were bothering to go.

I explained that as crazy as it sounded, this was one of the best opportunities we had gotten to meet with a lot of teachers in a setting where we could actually learn about their classes and try to brainstorm how Ponder could fit into them.

Optimistic, I ordered a big battery pack from Amazon that promised 3.5 hours of running the screen, which was more than my dying laptop battery promised, and hoped for the best.

When I arrived, I walked around the third floor of the convention center, which featured the big company vendors’ displays, some schools talking technology integration, and the main “keynote” stage and seating area. Teachers were seated with coffees listening to the first panel. The wifi was working despite expectations to the contrary, but the seating was in a giant open convention space, no walls or power outlets in sight.

At the end of that first panel, Shawn Rubin from the Highlander Institute made a valiant attempt at explaining that if the teachers stayed where they were, they would get the opportunity to provide feedback to the edtech companies that had come to talk to them. Sadly, when he had finished, almost all of the teachers stood up and left to go to the workshops upstairs they had previously signed up for. Disappointing. There were a few hold outs who had us to themselves, and some teachers who waited at the periphery of the hall, seemingly unsure of how to engage.

To an audience of largely other edtech companies, the first half of the companies took turns giving three minute presentations about their technologies.

But then the organizers stepped in to fill the gaps and things started to turn around.

As lunch approached, Dana Borrelli-Murray from Highlander Institute came around to the companies and told us to ignore the plan to shut down our tables for lunch. This was a huge time saver, and allowed us to engage teachers in the gaps during lunch and the lunch panel.

The second half of the companies, which we were lucky enough to be part of, were scheduled to present after lunch, and due largely to another impassioned plea from Shawn to the crowd of teachers, many more teachers stayed to listen. Also helpful was EdSurge bringing up one of the few teachers who had met with many companies in the morning to speak briefly to the crowd about her (positive) experiences meeting with us.

Working from what he had seen in the morning, Shawn spent the second half of the day personally corralling and categorizing teachers, then bringing them in small groups to see companies that were appropriate to their subject areas, grade levels, etc.

For the remaining 2-3 hours of the day, every company was engaged in discussion with group after group of teachers. HUGE SUCCESS.

And as luck should have it, I found an outlet inside the stand for some nearby speakers and snuck an extension cord to it to extend my power setup.

In the end, the event worked so well, that combined with the learnings around the logistics, I think EdSurge RIDE provides a template for future events. (Perhaps even the upcoming EdSurge Silicon Valley Summit.)

Here is my template:

  • Dedicated time in the conference schedule for company-educator conversations (ideally not in competition with PD workshops)
  • A large room with discussion tables for each company clustered near the rear, with a presentation stage at the front and rows of audience chairs facing it
  • Each company table should have a sign visible at a distance
  • The tables might even ideally be organized by subject area and/or grade level
  • Lightening-talk style presentations to the audience chairs at the front of the room, with volume adjusted to not stifle the discussions in the back.
  • Power outlets at each table and working wifi
  • Last, but possibly the single most important: A troop of Shawn Rubin-style matchmaking valets to take uncertain teachers from the audience chairs or the edges of the room to specific, appropriate companies.
U of Minnesota's Active Learning Classroom

U of Minnesota’s Active Learning Classroom (MPR Photo/Tim Post)

Bonus points for a setup along the lines of the University of Minnesota’s active learning classrooms.

And yes, the EdSurge RIDE Summit was absolutely worth attending. I met with teachers from at least a couple dozen schools, some of which were great fits, others that were not. I usually had several minutes to explain to 2-3 teachers at a time what Ponder does and what sorts of schools, levels, and subject areas we were looking to collaborate with. The teachers then took 5-10 minutes to ask questions and talk about their classes and the tools they had tried using.

Key pieces of intelligence from the field:

  • There are still Internet Explorer only schools (I tried to give teachers some arguments to provide to their IT departments for trying Chrome or Firefox.) Internet Explorer no longer allows most types of extensions, and developing extensions for older versions is a huge pain.
  • There are also no-browser-updates-allowed schools – teachers had already run into issues where some sites wouldn’t work because they were stuck on old versions; (an issue which I wrote about a few weeks ago); and
  • We also discussed issues around complying with COPPA when doing class list management for younger students

New and noteworthy Pondering:

  • Content area literacy: I think we found our first K12 teachers interested in using Ponder for Math and Science literacy!
  • Latin! A Latin teacher is interested in using Ponder with his Latin students to help break apart Latin grammar. Looking forward to brainstorming about this further.

All in all, thank you Rhode Island Department of Education, thank you Highlander Institute and thank you EdSurge, for a great effort in bridging the educator-technology gap and allowing us lots of great conversations!


Ponder at Columbia Teachers College

At the end of the summer, we had the pleasure of presenting at Columbia Teachers College’s EdLab. TC professors, students, and staff as well as fellow entrepreneurs listened to us explain our vision for Ponder and our guiding philosophies. Audience members embraced the opportunity to test out Ponder on their own, and they asked us terrific questions. As much as we love interacting with all of our Ponder users nationwide via Skype, email, and phone calls, there’s nothing like working them in person. We wish we could do the same for all of you! In the meantime, we hope watching this presentation will give you a clearer picture of who we are, why we work so hard building this tool, and where we hope to see Ponder go in the future. Check out the video below, and test out EdLab’s awesome Vialogues video commenting platform as you do!