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The SIIA ETBF: I laughed, I cried, I fell in love (with a few start-ups)

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of partaking in one of the major education conferences in the New York area: The SIIA Ed-Tech Business Forum. Some education conferences bring out the teachers and admins; some bring out the young entrepreneurs and techies; the SIIA ETBF (ed-tech is heavy on the acronyms) brings out the real heavy hitters in the business of education (plus myself).

The conference was hosted at the McGraw Hill office (coincidentally, McGraw Hill was finalizing the sale of its Education business to Apollo at the very same time), and featured numerous panels debating topics like new sales strategies, new marketing opportunities, the role of mobile in the learning experience: all that good jazz. As with most every ed-tech meetup these days, the conference also featured a start-up competition with demos and judges, and culminating in an audience vote.

As described on its website: "SIIA's Innovation Incubator program identifies and supports entrepreneurs in their development and distribution of innovative learning technologies. The program began in 2006 and has provided incubation for dozens of successful products and companies in their efforts to improve education through the use of software, digital content and related technologies."

So, let's take a look at some of the finalists, starting with the day's big winner, voted both most innovative and most likely to succeed:

Clever: I doubt there were too many people in the building that had not heard of Clever, as they have received significant attention in 2012 after coming out of Y Combinator. The idea behind Clever is that when we add software and various ed-tech services to the classroom, we are also creating extra work and additional logins for teachers to keep track of. Clever seeks to be the layer sitting between the various external software vendors and the student data and information systems.

While the company is already in use at over 2,000 schools, the team is comfortable that its platform is built to scale way beyond that. Clever's model is built around vendor partnerships; licensing the Clever platform to legacy vendors in order to leverage existing relationships and sales forces and speed usage across the country.

One of the real problems with the current ed-tech landscape is that it is a jumbled, complicated mess; and, because of this, teachers are often rightfully wary of adding new systems or sources of content to their classroom offering (who would want to track 15 different logins for 20 different students? That adds up in a hurry). Yet, at the same time, there is an explosion in quality web-based products being generated by corporations, start-ups, nonprofits, and individuals alike. We cannot afford to water down the web-based curricular offerings to our students simply because of what boils down to a difficult accounting practice. Clever provides the layer to simplify this process and allow myriad vendors to easily communicate with the SIS. In other words, Clever creates the opportunity for teachers to explore dozens of unique systems that could be helpful solutions to their students, all while maintaining a consistent level of operational upkeep.

The next logical finalist to dive into is LearnSprout: after all, when one types "LearnSprout" into a Google search, the very first auto-fill option is "LearnSprout Clever." It's basically impossible to read an article about one without encountering mention of the other (I suppose I just continued this trend), and this is because they are tackling what amounts to the same issue: easing the communication between central data systems and new vendors, and allowing student information to flow from source to source. When teachers find software that excites them, they want to start using it immediately. Unfortunately, this often requires creating and managing accounts for each student that already exist in the SIS, which takes a fair amount of time to accomplish. LearnSprout wants to be the universal API for K-12 education (like Mint has become for finances, or Twilio for communications).

Where LearnSprout and Clever truly differ in is implementation strategy and business model. While Clever is attaching itself directly to the vendors and leveraging existing networks, LearnSprout is going directly to schools to implement its platform and then having vendors pay directly to get LearnSprout's API support.

LearnSprout used the Business Forum to announce two major additions to its applications offering: LearnSprout Dashboard (which will provide instant visual analysis of data stored within a school or district's SIS) and LearnSprout Messages (an alternative to outbound phone messaging systems providing school-to-home voice, text and text-to-voice messaging in English, Spanish, French and German).

Mathalicious: This is a company I find particularly cool, mostly because I think they are hitting the nail on the head when it comes to integrating passion into the learning experience (something I have spoken about previously on this here blog). Mathalicious rewrites middle school and high school math curricula (Common Core approved, of course!) around real world topics (or at least concepts that are both familiar and engaging to an aspiring young math student).

The problem with most math lessons is that they present the content in what is more or less a bubble. We supply students with a bunch of random skills but do not do a good enough job of incorporating these skills into applicable life situations. Mathalicious presents seemingly straight forward mathematical assignments that wind up tapping into higher order, critical thinking skills and spark legitimate dialogue. The questions don't even necessarily have concrete answers attached to them as much as they allow students to take theoretical concepts and attempt to apply them to tricky, puzzling circumstances. Lessons include the Nike Shoe Color Combination assignment: how many combinations of colors can be created on the Nike custom shoe design website? While the assignment has a fairly straightforward mathematical lesson accompanying it (combinations), the true power comes in the discussion of the real world application, as students wind up discussing the psychology of commerce and how having over one hundred million options of shoe coloring at their disposal can actually lead to paralysis by analysis in the context of a shopping experience. We often talk about curriculum being "cool" or "engaging" for students, but mean it in comparison to the rest of K-12's offerings. Well, these Mathalicious problems are legitimately cool and engaging, no comparison necessary.

The company does not seek to replace core mathematical curriculum, but instead to become the best supplemental curriculum there is (unfortunately, there are simply not a lot of great real world applications to much of the most basic mathematical skills that must be developed first).

mSchool: "Making communities into classrooms," or so sayeth the homepage. mSchool is focused on creating classroom experiences outside of the classroom, transforming community centers into what they call "microSchools," or blended learning environments with a focus on math.

The company provides hardware, software, training, and administration to transform after-school programs across the country into top-of-the-line blended learning facilities. Students are already spending their free time at these centers; now mSchool is providing superior and personalized tutoring help to them while they are there. As No Child Left Behind provisions for school choice have expanded for individual courses, these blended environments in community settings can offer unique courses to more students than ever.

C8 Sciences: Designed by neuroscientists at the Yale School of Medicine (modest upbringings are for the birds), C8 offers what they call a "cognitive cross-training system" to help improve functions like attention, memory, self-control, and general core skills. This is accomplished through a series of both computer-based and physical exercises (who knew that the human body could be integrated into ed-tech?).

The system is adaptive and automates the process of moving a child forward as it tracks successes, failures, and improvements in the student's cognitive abilities. Unsurprisingly, these neurological gains have been found to significantly improve test scores. As one of the judges on the panel surmised, it feels a bit like lumosity for young students, but with a clearer educational focus. As more evidence continues to pour in pointing to the importance of early childhood cognitive development and the dangers of falling behind at a young age, C8 Sciences may provide a path to evening the playing field and raising achievement across the board.

Handhold Adaptive: Last, but certainly not least, Handhold Adaptive offers a suite of mobile applications to help manage the life and development of children with special needs. iPrompts is the most mature of the company's app offerings, and has been the #1 app for medical products on the app store on multiple occasions. The app seeks to leverage the ability of autistic children to respond to visual stimulation; using different pictures to create associations with things ranging from calendars to alarms to multiple choice questions. Users can even customize visual supports using a smartphone or web downloads. Another existing app offered by Handhold Adaptive is AutismTrack: a portable data tool for parents or teachers of kids with autism to easily track any behavior, therapy, medication, diet or supplement.

The company recently launched two new apps: StoryMaker (where users can create stories using a packaging of text, audio, video, and photos to create a stimulating experience for the student) and SpeechPrompts (which offers exercises for volume, pitch, and other functions of speech). These apps are generally priced somewhere in the range of $20-40.

While each of these competitors offers plenty to be excited about individually, I came away from the presentations more excited about the macro-view. As usual, I continue to be blown away by the creativity, high-level user experience, and proven pedagogy that courses through the veins of each of these ventures. As we continue to merge technical talent with the brightest minds in the education space, the results build upon each other and are launching a legitimate revolution in not only the way we teach our students, but also the manner in which we learn from them.

My thanks to Karen Billings and everyone at the Software & Information Industry Association for hosting a great day of events.

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