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Closing the Gap: NYC's Ed-Tech Challenge

The New York City Department of Education launched its Innovation Zone project a couple years ago as a way to band public schools together that are experimenting with novel uses of technology in the learning process. The "iZone," as it is known to the cool kids, seeks to increase student achievement across their lifetime (not just K-12, but preparation for college and beyond!) by supporting personalized approaches and encouraging motivation at the core of learning.

In order to accomplish this, the iZone is beginning to act as a sort of middle man between the teachers and students experiencing headaches in the classroom and the developers yearning to alleviate said head pains from their desks/shared workspaces/local Starbucks/parents' basements/wherever it is that coders code and entrepreneurs entrepreneu. One of the most referenced (and frankly, most legitimate) critiques of the ed-tech movement is the disconnect between the developers creating new tools and the teachers that ultimately drive usage, especially in the all-too-common scenario when a new program is purchased at the district-level and thrust upon the unsuspecting educator with nary an explanation nor introduction. These practices are ultimately harmful to all parties involved. Even the young startup eager to sign a revenue-generating contract will suffer without teacher buy-in. Just about every new company in the education world is banking on the idea that it will iterate off of its proprietary data set, but if administrators are simply force feeding new technologies upon their classrooms then those classrooms are unlikely to generate significant or intelligent usage, especially if implementation support is lacking. The iZone seeks to dismantle these barriers and let those doing the actual teaching and learning communicate directly with those looking to solve their pain points and knock out their inefficiencies.

The latest manifestation of this technology empowerment is the iZone's Gap App Challenge, the winners of which were announced yesterday at DOE headquarters. The "Challenge" is a software development competition launched earlier this year, and the idea is as follows:

There are over 200,000 middle school students in New York City, and they occupy roughly 8,000 math classrooms. However, all middle school math students (and for the purposes of this particular challenge, all 6th grade math students) are not created equal. Approximately 46% are behind by one grade level, and another 14% are behind by two or more. 57% of these students also have trouble reading, which makes word problems an entirely different beast to tackle, and untold thousands simply lack basic motivation to improve. The achievement gap is real and all too familiar to most educators.

So the challenge is, if every 6th grade math student in New York City is to catch up to the proper grade-level by the end of the year, what can entrepreneurs build to help teachers support students in this catch up? A call to arms of sorts - come one, come all, and help defeat the evil giant known as tradition, the lethargical library of stale textbooks and paper!

The DOE expected to receive 40-50 submissions tackling the two categories of note: Best Instructional App (content) and Best Administration/Engagement App (systems). It ultimately received upwards of 200, with 170 of those proving to be eligible for participation and the chance to win over $100,000 in cash and web-hosting space available (thanks to the Anthony Meyer Family Foundation), not to mention the REAL prize: the chance to pilot in some of the country's most innovative classrooms.

From the DOE's perspective, the Challenge is a step toward exploring new and creative ideas through learning to accelerate innovation and creative deployment of technology in the classroom--bringing together experts in the ed-tech community with actual educators, bridging the "gap" between problems and solutions (these experts include not just the applicants, but also the panels of judges that included my partner, Professor Matt Greenfield). At its core, the Challenge is an effort to figure out what an ideal school-developer relationship looks like and how it would work.

"The Gap App Challenge has surpassed our wildest expectations," boasted David Weiner, Deputy Chancellor of NYC schools, before Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced the winners...

Ahh yes, the winners:

The award for Best Instructional App was given to: KnowRe. Based in New York City, KnowRe is an online adaptive learning service for math. The program assesses an individual's strengths and weaknesses, personalizes a curriculum for each student's focus areas and engages students through game-like features, attractive graphics and social learning.

The runner-up in this category was Mathalicious, a company I have previously lauded on this here blog. Mathalicious creates lessons for educators that help teach Common Core-approved math concepts through real-world topics and challenge students to think critically about the world. Examples of this include: Should Nike charge different prices for different sized shoes? Is Wheel of Fortune rigged? Are we alone in the universe? 98% of teachers using Mathalicious say the program makes their students better problem solvers / arguers. 71% of their teachers say they like their jobs more when they use Mathalicious conversations. Motivation yields production.

The Best Administration/Engagement App was awarded to Hapara. This is when I am supposed to provide full disclosure as a blogger that my firm, Rethink Education, is an investor in Hapara, and also where I am supposed to gloat/brag about my tangential involvement in the company's success. Good work Jan and team!

For those unaware few, those sorry souls that have yet to taste its sweet Googly nectar, Hapara is an education management platform layered on top of Google Apps. Its tools address critical regulatory and performance mandates confronting schools and districts world-wide. Hapara transforms Google Apps, among the most widely used content management platforms globally in K-12 education, into a powerful learning and analytics environment, while simultaneously reclaiming teaching time and cutting software costs. As schools, districts, and even nations continue to turn to Google Apps as their software solution to managing the learning experience, Hapara's solution will make this App usage more actionable for teachers.

Runner up in this category was awarded to LiveSchool. This program helps teachers, administrators, and parents communicate and collaborate in real-time to improve school culture. Teachers and administrators use laptops and tablets to record and share information with each other throughout the day. LiveSchool's mission is to help schools work together to improve culture and create great environments for students to learn, and this is done literally through pluses and minuses, subtracting a point when a couple students are noisy during a presentation, or perhaps adding a point for the whole class when an exam is completed with full cooperation. Behavior management for the digital age.

Now that all the judging and poking and prodding is out of the way and winners have been determined, the NYC Department of Education, the Innovation Zone and its corresponding schools and teachers, and the companies themselves will be spending the next few months working together to figure out who wants to implement what. Developers will work collaboratively with partner schools to refine the product and provide teachers with implementation support. With over 250 schools in the iZone, there are plenty of classrooms, mouse clicks and eyeballs to go around. And while the winners of the challenge may get the publicity, the dollars, and the credential as NYC DOE-approved, I was informed by Deputy Chancellor Weiner that the other applicants that made it through the screening process would get access to this band of innovative classrooms, with the potential for pilot programs and contracts down the road.

The winners have been revealed, but the work is truly just beginning. Now it is time to truly close the gap - between teachers and developers, between high-achievers and struggling students, between education reformers and traditionalists. We can do better. Building the next solution of products with the students and not simply for the students will undoubtedly yield more targeted solutions.

To paraphrase my good friend Alicia Keys, now you're in New York, these adaptive math curricula will make you feel brand new, big data-mining dashboards will inspire you.

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