If you've ever dreamed of a futuristic world where robots take over the role of teachers, and computers create a virtual classroom tailored to each student -- I think I've seen it. Last week I attended the SIIA Ed Tech Business Forum in New York, which brought together top companies and investors from all over the U.S. in the field of education technology. The event featured burgeoning start-ups alongside established companies, as well as corporate foundations, publishers and venture capitalists looking for the next bright idea. And it was encouraging to see that although this was a "business forum", many of the companies had a product that targeted a specific social aim.
One of these companies was mSchool, founded by Elliot Sanchez, with the mission of making communities into classrooms. They target community centers where students hang out after school, and provide access to state-of-the-art technology to teach kids math. The software is so fun the kids actually enjoy using it, and it is essentially an automated homework tool that dramatically improves numeracy. mSchool's stated goal is to eliminate the numeracy achievement gap in the U.S. -- cheaper and faster than anyone else.
Another product targeting the achievement gap is a program of Rice University. You may have heard of the success of MIT's OpenCourseWare platform, which provides free online course material. David Alviar, a manager in Rice University's Digital Learning department, introduced me to Rice's own open-source solution. OpenStax College offers students and administrators free and low-cost textbooks that are peer reviewed and written by professional content developers and education experts. They are currently serving over one million students with access to low-cost textbooks that meet course requirements.
Joe Woo, co-founder of Learn Sprout was an energetic young entrepreneur with some great advice for start-ups. His own company was incubated which really helped their development, and he said he would direct any NYC-based ed tech entrepreneurs to check out Socratic Labs. Learn Sprout is "a universal application interface that helps schools to integrate education applications with their student information systems." Sounds complicated I know, but it offers the promise of making it easier for school administrators to implement new technologies in their school, keeping track of all the student data, which would be pretty useful.
The only Irishman at the Ed Tech networking session (dressed in tweed I have to add) was the CTO of Texthelp, an innovative company that is providing text-to-speech solutions that actually don't sound like a robot. The software captured the rhythm and cadence of the sentences it read, and sounded scarily similar to my fourth-grade teacher (which I guess is modern progress). Their technology could be hugely helpful for children with learning difficulties, and also in developing nations where kids are so eager to learn but often lack basic literacy skills.
HandHold Adaptive creates apps for the differently enabled, in particular, children who have autism. A family-run business founded by the parents of a 4-year old boy with autism, HandHold Adaptive helps parents and carers with a range of tools including an app that tracks behavior, and a picture-based prompt app that helps with language development.
It was really inspiring to see top tech entrepreneurs apply their skills to the field of education. If the SIIA Ed Tech Business Forum is anything to go by, I am excited for the future of education technology -- widening access, border-less classrooms, and innovative solutions to learning for those who are often left behind.