Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Tool-Hungry Teachers Swim With Developers in Shark Tanks

April 12, 2016

What do teachers have in common with venture capitalists? More than you might think. Just as venture capitalists have a keen understanding of gaps in the market and what will fly with customers, teachers have a strong instinct for the tools that they need in their classrooms and which will be a hit with their students.

So it makes sense that developers of education technology products should seek the perspectives of teachers, just as they pitch their products to investors. This is the idea behind a recent series of virtual “shark tanks,” inspired by the ABC TV series and organized by the education technology-focused website EdSurge. In each event, three developers present their edtech products via webinar to a group of expert teacher “sharks,” who decide whether the products sink or swim—in other words, whether they meet their and their students’ needs.

The focus on her students’ needs was what made Raye Wood, who teaches third grade at Sibley Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, jump at the opportunity to communicate directly with developers of literacy tools to determine how well each product supports English language learners (ELLs). Several of her students are learning English and read below grade level, so she’s always on the lookout for products that can support students regardless of their skill level. “Any tool I plan to use in my classroom can't have more hurdles for the students to jump over,” she says.

Wood signed on to play “shark” at a February 2015 ELL-focused shark tank, along with Esther Garcia, principal of Liberty Elementary School in Riverside, California, and Ricardo Elizalde, a doctoral student and educator in the San Francisco Unified School District. For two weeks prior to the webinar, the sharks tested three literacy products: ThinkCERCA, Lexia Reading Core5, and Istation. In addition to using a common rubric, the sharks drew on their classroom experience and knowledge of their students to judge how well each tool would support ELLs. According to Wood, “An ideal tool for me is one that provides support in all areas of literacy—particularly phonics and phonemic awareness—without making students feel like the program is for students much younger than they are.”

So how did the products fare with the sharks? Each one had appealing features, but LexiaCore5 earned the highest marks for its impressive graphics and focus on helping students develop the core areas of literacy. And among the nearly 200 audience members who also voted on the presentations, Istation came out on top, with 71 percent of the audience saying they would use the tool in their classroom.

The shark tanks are a great way to bring together teachers and product developers, but they aren’t the only way. Edtech pilot networks are catching on around the country, and Raye Wood would like to see more product developers engage teachers through platforms like Google Hangouts, Facebook groups, and Voxer. These types of two-way conversations enable teachers to learn about new digital instructional tools, and they help developers create new tools—or improve existing ones—to better meet the needs of teachers and students. Says Wood, “In my experience, a teacher who is thrilled with any kind of support system in their classroom, be it tech-based or not, is more than willing to share what they love about the product.” Efforts like shark tanks are helping ensure that there are more tools out there for teachers to love. 

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