Classroom Technology

Competitions Connect Tech. Startups With K-12 Educators

By Sean Cavanagh — January 29, 2013 7 min read
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Many education-technology developers are convinced they have great ideas. Many schools have great needs, and are convinced that technology can help meet them, if they can find the product or tool tailored to the challenges facing their students.

Now, some state and local education agencies are bringing an age-old concept—competitions—to unfamiliar environments and audiences in an effort to close what they see as a disconnect between ed-tech developers and schools. The goal is to encourage technology entrepreneurs and companies to think more closely about how they can craft products to meet the specific demands of schools, as opposed to coming up with devices that look or sound great in theory but are of little practical value to educators or students.

The architects of those technology competitions liken them to contests that have brought together public and private sector interests in other fields, such as science, aviation, and transportation, with the goal of producing innovations.

One of the most ambitious of those contests is being staged by Innovate NYC Schools, a program within New York City’s department of education that has asked developers of apps, games, and devices to come up with their best ideas for tools that can help students conquer middle school math.

Ideas and Inspiration

That competition, called “The Gap App Challenge,” is the first of what could be many such contests and activities meant to prod technology developers to build products that address the most pressing challenges facing schools, district officials say.

“There can be a moat, a communications gap, between the problems schools need to address, and the problems that vendors work on,” said Steven Hodas, the executive director of Innovate NYC Schools. The goal is to prod developers to work “real problems” in schools, “that people will put real money toward solving.”

Applications for the New York competition are due by April 10. Entrants can expect to be evaluated by judges with a strong understanding of school needs: A panel of teachers and principals will evaluate their work, along with a separate panel of city officials and others familiar with technology, media, and design.

Teachers and principals judging the competitors will have one question to ask, Mr. Hodas said: “Would I use this in my classrooms?”

New York City schools drew ideas and inspiration from a number of public- and private-sector competitions in piecing together the Gap App challenge, said David Weiner, the city schools’ deputy chancellor for talent, labor, and innovation. Those contests included the X-Prize, a competition, focused on science, exploration, and other areas, and the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s “App Quest” competition, designed to spawn technology tools that can help customers navigating through the city’s massive public transportation system.

Individuals and companies submitting bids aren’t competing for a lot of money: The winners, which will be announced later this year, will be eligible for a total of up to $104,000 in this round of the competition, and can receive technical support from sponsors of the competition. The Innovate NYC Schools program is supported through a $3 million Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education, and has received about $500,000 in private contributions, including foundations, Mr. Hodas said. The gap-app competition, he added, is funded through private sources.

The prize money isn’t necessarily the biggest hook for developers to take part, Mr. Hodas said. All applicants in the competition will be considered for pilot projects to be conducted in schools within New York City’s Innovation Zone, a network of more than 250 schools established to test and implement new ideas in teaching and learning.

New York City’s school system is the nation’s largest, serving 1.1 million students, and it has a yearly operating budget of about $20 billion. The competition is a break from the city schools’ traditional process for procuring technology, one that tends to favor large companies capable of making polished pitches to officials and of serving large numbers of schools immediately, Mr. Weiner said. While that process typically draws companies responding to the school system’s request for specific products, the competition is a more open-ended search for new ideas, and as such is likely to draw many more small entrepreneurs, he said.

Competition in Virginia

In Virginia, state officials are supporting a series of ed-tech competitions meant to address a different set of needs. One such contest, sponsored by the state and the Center for Innovative Technology, is inviting individuals and businesses to create apps using at least one data set from the state’s student longitudinal-data system, which collects academic, demographic, and other student data over time. A second contest asks high school students to come up with theoretical software applications using K-12 data. The state is awarding $25,000 in cash and prizes through its various tech competitions, with funding coming from the federal Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems grant program.

The competitions are designed to produce tools and ideas that will make education data more understandable and useful for educators, researchers, and the public, said Paul McGowan, the vice president of consulting services for the center, a Herndon, Va.-based nonprofit that supports technology-based economic development in the state.

In addition, the state has joined with the center to support “hackathons"—events in which computer programmers, designers, software developers, and others build software or other tools collaboratively—as well as competitions for startup ed-tech developers.

As with New York’s gap-app challenge, one goal of the Virginia efforts is closing the disconnect between what ed-tech developers produce and what schools need, Mr. McGowan said.

“There isn’t enough interaction and communication between the stakeholders—educators, developers, investors, entrepreneurs, and researchers. These groups simply don’t talk to one another,” Mr. McGowan said. “We wanted to get the word out—we’ve got the data” and invite developers to help the state and schools make wise use of it, he said.

“We know we’re not the smartest people in the room,” Mr. McGowan said. “We wanted to find the smart people, and have them apply their talents to our data.”

While it’s possible that competitions among developers could produce innovative and useful tools for schools, Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said that kind of payoff is a long shot. To succeed in serving K-12 schools, developers need a sophisticated knowledge of how schools operate and use curricula. That is knowledge they are not likely to gain from taking part in contests, he said.

“This is not a scalable, sustainable strategy,” Mr. Soloway argued.

Time will tell. But for now, Chris Cooper, a Web developer in Glen Allen, Va., is an early beneficiary of those competitions. This past fall, Virginia’s department of education and the center hosted four, 24-hour, simultaneous hackathons over a weekend.

A newcomer to hackathons, Mr. Cooper, attended an event in Richmond on a Friday, worked on his idea—a tool that uses demographic, academic, and other data to assess students’ risks of dropping out—and went home for the evening, returning the next day to finish it. (Some of the hackathon entrants camped out at the various sites all night, center officials said.) Mr. Cooper was impressed with his competition—one idea called for a mobile app that helped donors locate Virginia classroom projects; another came up with a way to simplify queries that people use to search the data system.

But on Saturday, Mr. Cooper learned that his project, titled “Predictive Outcomes,” had won a grand prize, worth $1,500. All told, more than $6,000 in prizes were awarded across the state.

Mr. Cooper, who owns a company called Daymuse Studios, said that when he has worked with K-12 systems in the past, he has occasionally grown frustrated when his proposals to improve school technology systems don’t mesh with the desires of district technology staff. “You’re kind of competing with their internal services,” he said.

He said that competitions like the hackathon could encourage developers who had never considered producing tools for K-12 systems to give it a look.

“You think of education as a government institution that’s always behind the ball,” Mr. Cooper said. But the competition, he said, sends a signal to developers who would “love to apply their skills to areas that aren’t for profit.”

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Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Competitions Connect Tech. Startups With Educators


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