Teachers Harness Tech, Classroom Expertise for Education Startups

If necessity is the mother of invention, frustration is a close relative, as educators continue to make use of their expertise and tech skills to address problems in schools. The increased use of technology in the classroom has created opportunities for teachers who are also programmers and software experts, as the demand for Web-based applications in education is rising as schools adopt new policies to use smartphones, iPads, tablets, laptops in the classrooms to aid both learning and teaching.

According to Michael B. Farrell of Boston Globe, teachers with the ability to create technology solutions are perfectly positioned to harness their entrepreneurial skills and move them into the classroom. Massachusetts in particular has become a hub for education technology start-ups; there are more than 150 fledgling education companies in the state.

Molly Levitt was a teacher who took charge of her first classroom in 2010. Levitt, soon after her first class, became frustrated with the bureaucracy, the paperwork, and the structure. She started tinkering and launched BrightLoop Learning, a website that lets teachers more easily monitor student progress to give them more time for teaching.

BrightLoop Learning allows teachers set goals and monitor progress of their class. It enables teachers to review student progress and file insights for conferences, grading and student support teams. Teachers can also plan differentiated lessons and can quickly inform colleagues, parents and administrators on their insights, plans, and evidence based practices, according to BrightLoop Learning website.

“In the classroom, I would see opportunity all over the place, but there wasn’t enough room, space, or time to see a problem and solve it quickly,” said Levitt, who taught first grade at Bridge Boston Charter School in Dorchester. “I think about our start-up in much the same way I wanted to think about my classroom.”

In addition to Levitt, many other young entrepreneurs — many of them former teachers — are creating tools to improve education. LearnLaunchX is the first business accelerator program in Boston for ed-tech companies, which launched in June with seven start-ups. Each business at LearnLaunchX received $18,000 in seed funding, free office space for four months, and access to experts in the field.

LearnLaunchX Co-Founder said that “we have investors, we have the educational institutions, and we have this culture of entrepreneurship, so it makes sense that this is happening here.” Many schools and teachers are showing interest in using school-related technology products. In Boston, the first gathering of LearnLaunchX’s umbrella organization drew some 450 people in February this year.

Still, many entrepreneurs are facing problems with marketing and selling their products. Selling education-related products to school districts is not easy, as school bureaucracies are slow to move and short on money.

Sarah Cherry Rice is founder of a start-up that helps teachers navigate curriculum standards. She said that school districts are “scared to implement new things. People see our product and they are like, ‘Yes, this is what we need.’ But often it’s finding the right person in the district who has the purchasing power to make the decision.”

Still, many local start-ups hope that by appealing directly to the teachers, they can create a groundswell for their products that school administrators cannot ignore. “When we tell teachers we can help them with their workload, they get really excited,” said Parul Singh, founder of Gradeable, who developed a technology for grading papers using a smartphone app.