by Julia Steiny
Social studies teacher Dawn Casey-Rowe has a power plant’s energy packed into a petite frame. Her students at Davies vocational school come for the hands-on learning of marketable skills. Last spring she started exploring ways to intrigue disengaged students with jazzier lessons, while aligning her work more closely to Common Core. Her meteoric rise through the EdTech landscape began then.
And it culminated a week ago Sunday when she won first-place honors at the East Coast’s largest Startup Weekend Edu. Startup Weekends are global events where entrepreneurs gather for 54 hours, competing to see who can build the most viable business plan. So many entrepreneurs were interested in education technology, the EdTechies broke off into their own events. Think: Iron Chef or Project Runway for nerds and teachers, without TV. The judges at the March 1 were technology rock-stars, district superintendents and the like.
Casey-Rowe gave her two-minute pitch for a business called BetaMatch, worked with a team over the weekend, and flat-out won. Meteoric.
Her story starts with an outdated textbook. “Rather than charging the taxpayer to replace old textbooks, these days I can make my own. I think that in the digital age, that’s my job.”
Fortunately Davies had just installed much new technology, opening up a cyber world of resources. While asking friends’ advice about online learning, Casey-Rowe was invited to beta-test Learnist, which helps anybody, including educators, “curate” their own materials. It was love at first site.
“Curating” mimics museum curation. Instead of collecting hardcopies of Picasso’s early work, Deco artifacts, or treasures from ancient Mesopotamia, teachers can electronically collect them, along with supporting materials.
See Casey-Rowe’s unit on Protest for an example, with its documents, videos, songs, and links to other Learnist collections. She wrote an excellent outline of the advantages of this electronic textbook strategy in “10 ways to use Learnist in the Classroom.” Number 3 is “Make it Real,” which notes that the “boards” — curated collections — can include answers to kids’ time-worn question “Why do I need to know this?” The board can show how the information is essential to certain real-world jobs.
It’s very cool; check it out.
But 66 percent of Davies’ students are low-income. Won’t kids lacking smart technology at home fall further behind? Casey-Rowe is emphatic, “I’m sick of using the digital divide as an excuse not to assign work that needs technology. When students have absolutely no access to technology out of school, I’m flexible. They can take extra time, or come in early in the morning, use the library, or borrow. You can’t just let them not use technology. The expectation of technology skills is industry standard for any industry. If I’m not getting my kids ready to be hired, what am I doing?”
So refreshing. Especially since the kids are loving this way of learning.
And when they and their teacher run into problems with Learnist, company officials call to pick Casey-Rowe’s brain for solutions. “Learnist was using Facebook as their log-in. Are you kidding? Schools don’t allow Facebook. (A hotbed of cyber bullying.) But everyone else uses Facebook. So without talking to a classroom teacher, how would they know? They need to understand my needs in the classroom and to get feedback about how their product is working. I call them up; they make it better.”
If only the rest of the education industry were so responsive. Not that she’s complaining; I am.
In any case, that was the seed for her great idea: Couldn’t we use technology to connect EdTech entrepreneurs to real classroom teachers — with something like a dating service? Thus: BetaMatch.
Yearning merely to immerse herself in the EdTech world, she decided to go to New York’s Startup Weekend. But another friend urged her to go ahead and pitch her idea. Ooooo. Challenging. Well, oka-ay. On Friday night, Casey-Rowe was one of almost 50 people — teachers, entrepreneurs, developers, marketers — who got two minutes each to pitch their ideas.
Hers was among 18 ideas chosen for further development. “I was really lucky. Four developers joined our team; two marketing people, a front end designer.”
Late Sunday afternoon, the teams got four minutes to make a final pitch. Then they waited, anxiously, eating dinner while the judges decided which was the best. “Frankly, I thought our idea was the most boring. Everyone else’s was about games and flash.”
When the time for the final verdict came, she and her team sweated through hearing about the Honorable Mention, the Second Place winner, and finally: themselves. They won!
“I was so honored they liked my idea.”
Amazing, isn’t it, that working classroom teachers are so isolated and undervalued, no one had previously thought to connect them to the hoards currently making educational apps?
“EdTech is awesome, but it has to be employed correctly. It does not substitute for quality lessons; it augments them. Whatever happens, I will continue to reflect about how it can improve my teaching. As far as my future in EdTech, this year was such a whirlwind for me in terms of gaining access, falling in love, and realizing that I, one person, can make an impact here.” She’s pretty sure she doesn’t have time to start a new business on top of teaching.
But keep on trucking, girl. We need so many more like you.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.