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School & District Management Commentary

Why We Need to Foster Innovation

By Phoenix M. Wang — November 08, 2011 5 min read

This fall at NBC’s Education Nation summit in New York, a pair of young entrepreneurs from Southern California competed in the Innovation Challenge with Truant Today, a new text-messaging service that informs parents of students’ attendance records in real time. They didn’t win the competition, but they might as well have. The audience gasped in wonder when Tom Brokaw revealed that they were still in high school. When the two teenagers were asked why they founded the company, the pair simply shrugged and said, “It’s a problem, and we know how to solve it.”

And consider these examples from elsewhere in the country: Two sophomores from the University of Texas at Austin realized that their friends were mostly using Facebook to ask each other homework questions, so they launched a more efficient study-group service this summer called Hoot.me. Frustrated by his school’s professional-development options, a Teach For America alumnus in St. Louis built Edthena, a video-based professional-learning platform. In Indianapolis, a 20-something entrepreneur wanted to know if he could persuade his sister to become an active reader, so he created Pocket Tales, a social-reading game platform for which he recently won Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Global Education Challenge.

The national call to action to reform and invest in K-12 education has taken on a grassroots dimension. Young innovators are participating in the sector’s transformation in the way they know how: by solving problems that are immediate and relevant to them and to their communities. And they are doing it with the technologies and tools they know. They don’t wait for someone else to tell them what to do. They build it. They don’t strive for perfection, only iterations toward a vision of what is possible. They are optimistic, tenacious, and resourceful.

They have help, of course. Online do-it-yourself websites—Codecademy, Lynda, and Quora—offer easy-to-learn options for how to code, design, or troubleshoot technical projects. Technical infrastructure, such as Web-hosting services, now costs less than a latte a day. Distributed networks of creative freelancers, such as 99Designs and eLance, connect pipelines of flexible, on-demand human capital. The convergence of these lower-cost tools and resources has enabled innovators to move from idea to product relatively quickly. Many, but not all, aspire to be edu-tech entrepreneurs. Certainly the conditions are ripe. The recent acquisitions of education technology companies, such as Wireless Generation and Schoolnet, have attracted investors to the sector who are actively mining for the Next Big Thing. The emergence of edu-tech startup communities—including my organization Startl; Imagine K12; and Startup Weekend—offers young innovators places to hone their product ideas and business skills. Media companies and organizations, such as NBC, the New York Times Co., and Austin’s South by Southwest festival, compete to showcase these talents in front of national audiences. And in January of this year, President Barack Obama launched Startup America, which added momentum to the movement.

It would be easy to dismiss the ideas of these young innovators. Their solutions might seem insignificant given the scale of the problems that we face in education. We are used to a research-and-development model that costs million of dollars and years to build. We expect technology to address multiple aspects of education reform, and all at once. In contrast, these products, built in months, seem too lightweight, and the innovators seem too inexperienced to tackle gnarly, systemic problems. But we might be missing the point.

Likely these innovators’ successes and failures will create fertile ground for the eventual transformation of the sector. Their small innovations contribute to an environment in which the next breakthrough will become possible. They may or may not uncover the Next Big Thing in education, but their ideas are essential to the evolutionary nature of innovation.

In the August issue of Wired, Clive Thompson wrote about the “long nose” theory of innovation: "... [P]aradigm-busting innovations are easy to see coming because they’re already lying there, close at hand. ... Big ideas poke their noses into the world very slowly, easing gradually into view.” Before Khan Academy could exist, we needed the familiarity and infrastructure provided by video-sharing sites like YouTube and the widespread sharing of open educational content. Before the children’s book Olivia landed on the iPad, we experienced Leapfrog interactive books and a decade’s worth of online children’s media. Neither example solves big, systemic problems at this moment; however, both are likely necessary to spark other digital-learning innovations in the near future. Innovations that will seem fresh, yet are familiar.

For this evolution of edu-tech innovations to have the transformative effect that we expect, we must guide the process and make the best use of it. We can experiment by testing and giving innovators feedback about what is useful and what isn’t. We can cross-pollinate by connecting innovators with others working on similar problems. We can invest by contributing our time, resources, social capital, and brainpower to help them get to the next level.

In the late 1990s, a real estate developer met a pair of young men with an idea for an edu-tech venture. The idea didn’t sound great in the first go-around. But when the pair returned with a better idea, he got involved. That idea became Wireless Generation. In recalling the encounter, the angel investor mused that as someone who had no direct experience in education, he simply saw something interesting, acted on instinct, and caught the right opportunity.

It may be too early to tell where these innovations will lead us. But we need these young innovators as much as they need us in shaping the future of learning and ensuring the sector’s vibrancy. Not all of us can or will aspire to innovate like them, but we could still participate in the innovation process. To paraphrase a slogan from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s public awareness campaign: If you see something, do something.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as If You See Something, Do Something

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