Future of Learning

Student ed tech entrepreneurs argue they know what classrooms need

Most ed tech is made for student use, but it’s all created by adults

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The majority of educational technology is designed for student use. And it’s almost always designed by adults, few of whom consult with kids before they start mass-producing their products and selling them to schools. The disconnect is not lost on Brandon Goon.

Brandon, now 20, dropped out of his high-performing New Jersey high school as a junior. He was bored, and he found himself learning far more interesting things outside of school than inside it. As a student, he saw a lot of products aimed at supporting student-centered learning, but created by adults who only thought they knew what kids liked.

“They don’t really understand that I don’t want to use Instagram for the classroom,” Brandon said. “Some of those things can be more engaging than your traditional, boring dashboard, but at the end of the day, I want to do my Instagram on Instagram.”

He has gone on to create a platform called Be Anything to support project-based learning. It’s a cross between a project management system, like those used in the business world but customized for classrooms, and a learning documentation system, which gives students a central place to articulate what they learn at each stage of the project and build a portfolio of their accomplishments. Teachers can monitor student progress and give targeted feedback when students need it.

Brandon started working on Be Anything right after he dropped out.

“I didn’t want to wait too long until I wasn’t in touch with what was going on in the classroom,” he said.

Brandon has spent the last two years making his idea for Be Anything into a real platform that schools can use. While the app still isn’t available for general use, a handful of schools around the country are already testing out the Beta version.

A group of high schoolers at The Village School in Houston are on a similar path. They’re still in the idea phase, but they won the “Transforming Education through Technology” category in this year’s Conrad Challenge, a global STEM and entrepreneurship contest for students in junior high and high school. Their goal is to develop an app that will help students prepare for class presentations with real-time, comprehensive feedback.

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Olivia Bangs, one of four rising seniors on that team, said they brainstormed ideas based on “pain points” in their own education. She thought about the schoolwork that was causing her stress and realized there were already apps that could help her prepare for Spanish tests or improve her grammar in her papers. But she had no idea how to prepare for an upcoming presentation.

“So many people are afraid of presentations,” Olivia said. “I know classmates who sit in class and are petrified to get called on.”

One of her teammates, Omar Imtiaz, said they could use artificial intelligence and machine learning to help people improve their presentation skills.

Dubbed VoxLion, their app-to-be will use AI to analyze a student’s recorded presentation, assessing hand movements, speaking volume and eye contact. It would then give feedback based on the body language of good public speakers, and track students’ improvements over time.

Olivia and Omar worked with Roberto Martelli and Divyesh Khatri for the Conrad Challenge, submitting their initial idea and then a business plan before the finals at the Kennedy Space Center in April, where they gave an in-person pitch. This summer, they will work on a proof of concept and apply for a patent before starting to develop a functional app.

Other student teams in their category at the Conrad Challenge designed platforms to increase student engagement by emphasizing the “how” and “why” of what they learn, help girls master programming, create virtual reality learning opportunities, and embed SmartBoard technology in students’ desks.

Olivia believes students like her are well-positioned to come up with good ideas for ed tech.

“A lot of these products are made by adults who don’t really understand what kids need,” Olivia said.

Young people have to overcome a decent amount of skepticism from adults in the business world, but the Houston team is already fielding interest from a lab at MIT interested in helping them bring their idea to life. And Brandon Goon is one of many young adults charting a path to market for student creations.

This story about student ed tech entrepreneurs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletters.

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Letters

Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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To the editor:

I tried to hide my outrage when an architect lectured me on how I should be teaching. After working in Los Angeles Unified School District, I had moved to a private school, and the architect was the president of the school’s board. As such, he was bestowed with authority to oversee my curriculum and instruction. At first I was upset that someone with no teaching experience would be dictating how to do the job better, but I grew to expect this mentality. In fact, I realized that education is plagued with it. Even U.S. Education Secretary DeVos lacks experience as a teacher or school administrator.

The disconnect between who’s building and deciding what’s in classrooms and who’s actually using it is a bigger problem than just the one this article presents. No doubt, ed tech companies should be getting input from students while developing their products. But as I argued in EdSurge article, “Why Edtech Executives Need to Go Back to School — as Teachers,” (https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-09-01-why-edtech-executives-need-to-go-back-to-school-as-teachers) educators’ voices are often also excluded and need to be part of the conversation too.

The inclusion of teachers and students also makes business sense. A product can’t succeed with teachers loving it and students hating it, or students enjoying it but teachers finding it ineffective. After years of working in ed tech, I’ve seen that the companies with sustained success are those that keep all users in mind.

- from Colette Coleman, Jun 16, 2019