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“How can we create an environment that increases opportunities for educators and entrepreneurs to collaborate?”

This was the question on everybody’s brains at April’s digiLEARN mini hackathon. More than 60 educators, edtech entrepreneurs, and policymakers joined forces for an afternoon to develop new ways to increase collaboration between educators and entrepreneurs. A hackathon is an intense, coordinated effort to develop as many useful and innovative ideas and solutions as possible in a short amount of time.

The afternoon started with a talk by Governor Bev Perdue about the motivation behind digiLEARN and the vision to ensure all students have equal access to the best digital learning tools and personalized learning options.

She was followed by Liam Pisano, managing director of LearnLaunch, to provide an example of how one organization accelerates digital learning. Liam spoke about how LearnLaunch supports an education technology ecosystem to drive innovation and transform learning. The Boston-based organization brings together a startup accelerator program, physical co-working spaces for entrepreneurs, and an institute dedicated to increasing student achievement through digital solutions.

Though digiLEARN does not currently act as a business accelerator, hearing about the LearnLaunch approach kicked off the conversation about how digiLEARN can increase collaboration to achieve its mission.

Next we dove into the hackathon, which was facilitated by New Kind. In the first phase of the hackathon, we did an ideation session to generate as many ideas as possible.

When it comes to creating an environment that increases opportunities for educators and entrepreneurs to collaborate, what should we:

  • Achieve: What are we not doing now but want to do in the future?
  • Eliminate: What are we doing now but don’t want to keep doing in the future?
  • Avoid: What are we not doing now and never want to do?
  • Preserve: What are we doing now and want to keep doing in the future?

Splitting up into teams, the participants generated hundreds of innovative ideas in under an hour. During the next phase of the hackathon, the group voted to focus on two areas that would be critical for increasing collaboration between educators and entrepreneurs. We then split into pairs to do a deep dive discussion to generate actionable ideas for how to bring each area of focus to life.

Critical Area 1: Physical and digital collaboration opportunities

Educators and ed-tech entrepreneurs ultimately want the same thing: digital tools that make teaching and learning more engaging and effective. To achieve this shared goal, they need spaces where the collaborative process is easy and transparent. The group decided it would be helpful to create more opportunities for teachers, students, and entrepreneurs to build relationships and share ideas so that the solutions entrepreneurs create effectively address the challenges educators are facing. The discussion circled around the following themes and ideas:

  • Build a digital hub for collaboration
  • Create more in-person opportunities to come together
  • Leverage existing platforms
  • Include students, parents, and homeschool families in the digital transformation process
  • Bring companies into the classroom
  • Create incentives to maintain a sustainable community

Critical Area 2: Bring teachers into tech firms as interns

Though they may share a goal to improve education through technology, the daily experiences of entrepreneurs and teachers are vastly different. Teachers work on the front lines of education, doing their best every day to create optimal learning environments for each student. However, teachers are often left out of the decision-making process for the technology coming into their classrooms. Entrepreneurs must navigate both public and private sectors — attracting investors and garnering funding, understanding their market, and selling their products.

Education technology companies can benefit from educators’ deep experience in the classroom. By including teachers in the process of product development, tech teams can create tools that better align with educator needs. Involvement in the process of creating a product can also create more teacher-buy in and ease the process of integrating new technologies for everyday learning.

Photo Credit: Alisa Herr / EdNC
Photo Credit: Alisa Herr / EdNC

So what’s next? The digiLEARN team will work toward developing an actionable plan in order to achieve the mission of increased collaboration between educators and entrepreneurs. A collaboration site is being set up to facilitate continued discussions for a small work team composed of participants who wish to go deeper. They are developing specific strategies to tackle the two critical areas of focus determined by the hackathon.

digiLEARN has an opportunity to bridge the gap between educators and entrepreneurs. This will allow teachers to stay inspired by the possibilities technology can create for learning in their classrooms, give entrepreneurs the ability to build more useful tools and content for teachers, and — perhaps most importantly — improve learning outcomes for all students via personalized learning.

Alisa Herr

Alisa Herr is the former chief technical officer of EducationNC.