Startup Weekend Delivered a Magical Weekend in the Magic City

Florida International University was the site of some incredible magic as Startup Weekend EDU saw one of its most diverse group of people come together to learn and practice critical entrepreneurship skills in order to take ideas from concept to creation in less than 54 hours!  It could not be more fitting that Miami, Florida also known as the Magic City was home to a magical experience for a diverse group of aspiring entrepreneurs that included: students from elementary, middle, and high school; university students; university professors; K-12 teachers; parents; ex-convicts; developers; entrepreneurs; and local professionals.  The youngest participants at this event were 8 years old and they both presented with their respective teams!  

SWmiami2Startup Weekend EDU is a 2.5 day event whereby educators, developers, designers, and entrepreneurs come together to pitch ideas to solve problems in education and form teams around the selected ideas.  Teams then spend the weekend taking these ideas from concept to creation, culminating into a final presentation to a panel of all-star judges from the community.  Judges assess pitches based on clearly defined problem statement, prototype design, validation of problem and prototype, and finally, the business model. This theme was critical for a region that is home to some of the largest school districts going through difficult challenges.  

Having facilitated over 16 events around the country, I thought I had seen it all.  However, nothing could have prepared me for this incredibly diverse group of people and all of the challenges and possibilities that would manifest over the weekend.  To be honest, I was concerned about whether the event could be a success and if everyone would figure out how to work well together quickly enough to deliver a final presentation by Sunday evening to a panel of all-star judges from the Miami community.

SWmiamiOn opening night, participants have the opportunity to pitch ideas that eventually serve as the context for work throughout the weekend.  The youngest person to pitch was a 6th grader from a local school and the oldest was a gentlemen in his 60’s.  After 30+ pitches, rounds of voting and team formation, we had 8 teams.  On one side of the room we had an 8th grader, leading a team of 5 people that included a university professor, on a quest to start a company that could customize, build, and deliver personally designed eyeglass frames to match any outfit or mood.  On the other side we had a team comprised of a middle school student, a high school senior, a local entrepreneur, led by two former convicts who pitched an idea to deliver high quality education into prisons.

On Saturday morning when all of the teams began their work for the weekend, I sat down with a young man from an underserved community and school whose idea was selected Friday night.  His team had not yet arrived so I sat down to have breakfast with him and he told me about his idea.  His goal was to reinvent the grading system to reflect student growth and development instead of simply an average of periodic assessments.  He believed that how a student’s grade changes is a more valuable indicator of learning than an average of test scores.  His passion moved me and as the weekend went on, I had the incredible pleasure of watching this young man open up and become a confident leader on his team.  On Sunday afternoon, my co-facilitator, Paula Celestino, and I listened to his team’s practice presentation; when he spoke, he left us speechless.  He did not speak from notes or slides, he did something more powerful, he spoke from his heart.  

His team would not go on to place, however, the judges were so moved by this young man’s passion and the potential game-changing impact of his idea that they asked to create the Education Impact award for this team.  The team that would go on to place first was the team led by an ex-convict as they effectively built a case for the need to solve this problem and how their solution prototype could begin to address the problem right away.  This weekend was nothing short of magical.  To watch people from all walks of life come together to work on teams, respect each other, listen to each other, work collaboratively, and bond was nothing short of magical.  I could not have had the pleasure of facilitating a better event that weekend and I will always remember Miami as the Magic City.

What if IBM’s Watson Was Your Co-Teacher?

Picture the following scenario…

Students walk in for 8th grade math class on Monday morning at 10am.  They are scheduled to have a test on linear functions that day.  There’s a camera in the front of the classroom that scans the room and notices Linda and Emma are not in class at the start time.  It scans again 5 and 10 minutes later and still no sign of Linda and Emma.

This camera isn’t just any camera, it is powered by IBM’s Watson or another artificial intelligence system and it is connected to the teacher’s calendar, the grade-level calendar, and the school calendar.  It immediately knows by cross-referencing all calendars that there was a test scheduled for that day and that Linda and Emma will need to schedule a make-up test.  Since the AI is also connected to Linda and Emma’s class and extra-curricular activity calendars and cross references their availability with the teacher’s availability, it knows that Tuesday between 2-3pm and Wednesday between 3-4pm are the optimal times for a make up test.  Taking it another step further, it also looks into the room schedules and knows which rooms are available during those two time slots.  Next, the AI sends out emails to the teacher, Emma, and Linda to offer the two optimal make-up test time slots in a format where all the students have to do is click on a link or button to select one of the two time slots.  This action automatically creates calendar entries in all parties involved, books the room, and sends out a reminder 1 day, 12 hours, 1 hour, and 15 minutes before the scheduled make-up test. Continue reading

The Problem with Technology and How to Fix It

At some point, many of us have purchased a cool new gadget or downloaded an awesome new app that is supposed to enhance our productivity, help us achieve some awesome goal, or help us do something we’ve never done before.

Perhaps we and/or our organization purchased an expensive set of golf clubs, the priciest software (i.e. SaaS) solution, or the best audio/video editing software in the market.

State of the Art TecThe problem is that state-of-the-art tools don’t do much to help people unless they already possess the underlying skills and understanding to make the greatest use of it. Unfortunately, due to some pretty incredible marketing, we end up convincing ourselves we need the absolute best tools in order to be successful. What often ends up happening is we get overwhelmed by the technology, distracted, and end up using less than 20% of its capability. This leads to a waste of money and/or failing to achieve a goal.

A tool is only useful if you have the understanding and underlying know-how to use it adequately.  Furthermore, you have to have a purpose first, then a strategy/model/plan to achieve your goal, and finally can you then begin to consider the appropriate tools to employ. Then and only then do tools take on a clear meaning, become easier to learn, and stand the chance of delivering results.

This problem is evident in education where districts prematurely commit to major investments in technology and in corporations that purchase or acquire new processes or tools without a clear problem to solve. Organizations end up training people on the tools or integrating the processes first and then try to find places to use it, thus putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Problems and opportunities must drive our need for tools. Tools are developed in response to and in order to solve problems. Purchasing a tool without a problem to solve or an opportunity to pursue is like buying a hammer and not having a nail to hit.

Consider these steps next time you are faced with this dilemma.

  • Identify the problems and opportunities in your organization that you intend to address.
  • Ensure you have or design a model/strategy/plan for solving the problem or addressing the opportunity.
  • If you don’t have a model/strategy/plan, then learn more about your problem or opportunity and understand it in depth.
  • Identify and evaluate the tools available to help you reach your goal.
  • Finally, select and employ the tools that best fit/align with your particular plan and be open to switching tools when necessary.

In the case of opportunities, there may be a great deal of learning to do before tools are even considered. For instance, education has yet to understand how technology truly enhances learning outcomes. According to a report published by the OECD, “there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.” Before education can even make effective use of education technology, it will need to identify the opportunities and goals it wants to pursue.

Lastly, do keep in mind that most tech tools today come and go rather quickly, so while you are learning about your problem or opportunity and designing a plan, new and better tools may emerge that you will be better positioned to enjoy.

Is EdTech an Epic Fail?

First of all, let me start by saying I love tech!  I embrace it and always stay on the lookout for new apps and new devices that can add value to my life, business, and activities.  Many of my friends ask me for ideas on what tech solutions might be a best fit for them.  This is precisely why I am writing this article.  The key to what I do for my friends is finding what tech solutions are a good fit.  The fit I am looking for is that which exists between lifestyle, habits, needs, and solution attributes.

Which brings me to education and edtech.  School staff and faculty often ask me how they can integrate technology into their curriculum and classes.  In some of those cases, they already have the technology purchased and need to know how to integrate it.  Unfortunately, this is often already doomed because the wrong question was asked.  This creates the proverbial problem of putting the cart before the horse.

ipad-schoolThe question we need to be asking is how can we best leverage technology to meet our objectives.  This question is radically different from the one that is most often asked because it suggests that technology is simply the tool driven by the existing objectives of the school.  Not only does this question position schools to enjoy the benefits of technology in alignment with their particular needs, but it also positions edtech entrepreneurs to develop and deliver more effective solutions. Continue reading