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How Edtech Developers Can Benefit From Teacher Testbeds

04/14/2015 10:37 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

Motion Math co-founder and CEO Jacob Klein is among the most accomplished and successful educational game developers around today, with seven hit titles (and number eight on the way!) available to download on iOS and Android devices.

A former KIPP Charter School teacher and award winning journalist, Klein employs a team of engineers, data scientists and former educators to churn out games like Motion Math-branded Hungry Fish, Zoom, and Pizza! for elementary and middle school-aged students. His company's philosophy is that "all learning involves frustration", and kids will become increasingly engaged when they are challenged to solve problems beyond their comfort zone.

While Klein and his colleagues regularly solicit feedback from active educators as to how to improve Motion Math games, last fall the company was one of a handful of edtech developers selected to participate in the Short Cycle Evaluation Challenge (SCEC) managed by the New York City Department of Education's iZone incubator. Testbed programs like the SCEC - and others run by LEAP Innovations in Chicago and the Silicon Valley Educational Foundation - are designed to introduce teachers to cutting edge educational technology while simultaneously providing developers with teacher-driven product evaluations.

"We always want more actionable data to allow us to iteratively improve how well our games teach," Klein said.

Three complementary approaches
iZone started nearly five years ago with a mission to make sure area schools were Future Ready, said Kara Chesal, a director at Innovate NYC Schools at the NYC Department of Education. Chesal participated in a panel conversation focused on "Connecting Schools and Tools: The Emerging Network of District Testbeds" held on April 7 at the ASU + GSV Summit in Scottsdale. There, she discussed testbed structures, best practices and future opportunities with LEAP's Phyllis Lockett and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation's Muhammed Chaudhry. The conversation was moderated by Sara Allan of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports each organization.

iZone's mission is "to validate if a product is meeting a need for our end users" of teachers, Chesal explained. This includes 16-week semester pilots for developers who participate in regular office hour briefings and Shark Tank demos. iZone partners with Johns Hopkins University to understand and provide student engagement feedback to developers. The developer then chooses if and what to degree this input is incorporated into their products.

"You always have to have a smart filter as a product designer to know what customer feedback is vital," said Klein, who added that "this kind of dialogue is crucial."

Chaudhry said that although he represents a region that is an epicenter for digital innovation, "there are really two Silicon Valleys". Many Bay Area schools face the same challenges as others across the country. Accordingly, his mission is to steer local talent and resources towards education while simultaneously training teachers to "make them more comfortable with technology."

Ultimately, he wants "Silicon Valley to be known for great educational innovation" alongside other technological transformations.

LEAP's operations are based in Chicago's 1871 accelerator hub for digital startups, an ideal and accessible place to introduce teachers to blended learning and digital innovations.

"A lot of technology fails because educators are not willing to adapt," Lockett said.

Through a pilot network, LEAP works with teachers and principals from an assortment of PreK-8 schools across Chicago to identify their needs and then structure blended learning environments to support them. Concurrently, edtech developers that specialize in math and literacy are invited to present their products to LEAP for professional feedback and exposure to Chicago's public, charter and Catholic Schools.

Beyond helping educators build blended learning environments and connecting them to qualified developers, testbed networks like iZone and those run by LEAP and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation are focused on creating a community of stakeholders. The goal, through positive collaboration and systematic feedback, is to create and make universally available breakthrough educational innovations that will be used in the years and decades to come.

"You can't build somebody's capacity without having the culture to support it," Chesal said.