Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Welcome to the Silicon Bayou

By Chapman Snowden — April 09, 2012 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Note: Chapman Snowden is the founder of Kinobi and an innovator in training at 4.0 Schools.

First of all, thanks to Rick for letting me blog in his absence. I’d also like to thank his readers for allowing me to hopefully entertain and inspire them with my musings over the next five days. Finally, I’d like to thank Stew Stout, the Marketing and Outreach Manager at Kickboard. Stew and I have worked together on this post, so when I say “we” know that I’m not just referring to an imaginary friend.

A tip of the cap is due to Jonathan Plucker, the author of some great posts from last week. Last Monday he wrote on this blog that “everyone has ‘uh-oh’ moments: A flash of insight accompanied by a sense of impending doom.” This week we’ll be focusing a different type of moment--the “a-ha” moment. Both involve a flash of insight, but the “a-ha” is accompanied by a sense of possibility. Most people wouldn’t associate the “a-ha” with public education, but then again New Orleans usually marches to the beat of its own drummers. Down here the two are inextricably linked. New Orleans is emerging as a center for education technology entrepreneurship--a city with a growing number of entrepreneurs driven by “a-ha” moments to solve some of the toughest problems in education.

If you care about the future of education, you should care about the intersection of entrepreneurship and education technology. Call us biased, but we think the case is straightforward. Many schools, and their teachers most of all, have neither the tools they need to do their jobs nor the support they need to understand how to effectively use those tools. Ed tech entrepreneurs can solve both problems by creating better tools and better systems for getting them into the hands of teachers. Entrepreneurs must listen to the needs of those who use the solutions in order to do so. If we don’t, we all fail. It’s that simple.

Now there’s also something you should know about education technology in New Orleans. There’s a steadily growing attempt to brand New Orleans as the next Silicon Valley, and we are appropriately naming ourselves the Silicon Bayou. Let’s get something very clear from the onset--we are not Silicon Valley, and I would argue from the ed tech perspective we don’t want to be. To try and draw the comparisons between New Orleans and Silicon Valley isn’t a great use of your time, mostly because that would presume that there’s only one way to become a hub of innovative technology.

We think the rise of education technology start-ups will soon be known as an incredibly important movement in education. This is why we both moved here. Now Stew’s path was a little more circuitous, starting with a cross-country drive from Washington D.C. to San Francisco, just to send a late email that landed him in New Orleans. I found myself coming from Boston to New Orleans in what seemed like a blink of an eye after a series of conversations with the mad scientists at 4.0 Schools. But regardless the path, Stew and I share the same motivation--to develop solutions for pain points felt by teachers. New Orleans has an educational ecosystem here that is as great a place, if not better, than any in the country to design these solutions.

New Orleans’ incredible advantage for ed tech entrepreneurs is its unique ability to adopt and implement innovative tools. Now let’s not confuse this ability with a thoughtless experimentation or as pro-charter rhetoric. Yes, we have 70 percent of our students enrolled in charter schools here. But the ease of adoption is less a testament to charters and more a wagging of the finger to traditional procurement processes. What is great about adoption here is the thoughtfulness and expediency with which tools are not only vetted but also implemented. Part of this is definitely structural, but it more importantly reflects a common belief held by both leaders and ed tech entrepreneurs. We need to develop solutions that are painkillers and not vitamins. This requires the designers and to be both nimble and responsive to their users’ needs. Please take a second to appreciate that I said needs of those who use the tools, which is not to be confused with the needs of those who pay for it. We need to get our solutions into users’ hands to not only observe how they use the tools but also record the outcomes, whether they be intended or not. New Orleans ed tech entrepreneurs and school leaders certainly share the responsibility of thoroughly vetting the solutions. But our collective ability to understand the needs of teachers and quickly respond to get the right tools in their hands is unique in the education space.

Innovation doesn’t happen occur in a vacuum here: school leaders work with ed tech entrepreneurs to understand what systemically must change to implement innovative tools. Some of you might remember that Philips started making HD televisions way back in the mid-1980’s. They thought they were at the cutting edge of their field, destined for success. However, it ended up in a $2.5 billion write-down simply because Phillips didn’t account for the fact that very few users had access to HD channels, rendering their HD capability useless at the time. Ed entrepreneurs and the school system in New Orleans are incredibly cognizant of not only what solutions are needed but also what it will take to enable those solutions to succeed. Too often schools throw tools into the hands of teachers without consideration for the specific conditions needed for success. While these conditions can be policy based, more often than not they are related to specific processes or beliefs within the school. And they can be changed to adopt and implement innovative tools. Luckily, New Orleans is willing to make those changes.

Things are only getting started here, and while we’ve tasted a little success, we’ve by no means done enough. But we will, and we’d invite you to not only join us but also hold us to our promise to make New Orleans a hub of ed tech innovation.

--Chapman Snowden, Founder of Kinobi, and Stew Stout, Marketing and Outreach Manager of Kickboard

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.