LearnLaunch Across Boundaries Conference 2016

LearnLaunch Conference Sets Stage for EdTech Landscape of 2016

Last week, we traveled a whole 4.1 miles to Harvard Business School for the 4th annual LearnLaunch conference. Entitled Across Boundaries: From Digitizing Past Practice to Personalized Learning, the conference kicked off the new year by weaving together a rich tapestry of speakers, panels, and exhibits that gave us a glimpse into the edtech landscape of 2016.

The hub of the Boston edtech ecosystem, LearnLaunch is composed of three parts: LearnLaunch Accelerator, LearnLaunch Campus, and LearnLaunch Institute. The Across Boundaries conference is hosted within the LearnLaunch Institute,  a non-profit that provides meetups, classes, and additional support to those in the edtech community. According to LearnLaunch partner Eileen Rudden, over 850 people were in attendance, a significant uptick from last year’s headcount of 700 attendees.

The increase in popularity may be in part of the conference’s growing reputation, an indicator of the growth of the edtech industry, or a little bit of both.

If there’s one thing that LearnLaunch really aced this year, it was the lineup of keynote speakers. They all possessed the usual combination of expert knowledge, eloquent speech, and impressive qualifications that you would expect from conference speakers, but even more importantly, they had a sense of humor. The structure of the keynotes was relatively traditional and the subject matter (neuroscience, investment banking, student loan debt) was heavy, yet the presenters certainly took a page from the innovative educational practices we all preach and created engaging, interactive presentations about the future landscape of education technology.

Keynote speakers present included:
Victor Hu, Global Head of Education Technology and Services at Goldman Sachs
Larry Berger, Chief Executive Officer, Amplify
Rob Waldron, Chief Executive Officer, Curriculum Associates
Stacey Childress, CEO, New Schools Venture Fund
Todd Rose, Director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program, Harvard Graduate School of Education & Founder of the Center for Individual Opportunity (CIO)
Paul LeBlanc, President, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

Stacy Childress Presenting at LearnLaunch 2016 Across Boundaries Conference

Stacy Childress presenting at Across Boundaries 2016.

Stacy Childress, CEO of the New Schools Venture Fund, gave us a glimpse of what to expect in K-12 education for 2016 and beyond. Calling for a massive institutional change, Childress expressed that, “The gap between the aspirations our young people have and what our school system is preparing them to do is massive.”

Childress noted a few potential building blocks of future schools, included the optimization of instructional methods for the sake of efficiency, the encouragement of soft skills like problem-solving and self-control, and the seamless integration of technology into the learning environment.

Childress also emphasized the emergence of personalized learning in the classroom.

“I think […] we’re going to continue to see the real excitement and enthusiasm move from more traditional classroom models that try teach all kids about the same level of stuff to much more personalized learning experiences.”

The event’s featured keynote speaker was Todd Rose, perhaps the most down-to-earth educational neuroscience expert you’ll ever meet. Both a professor of educational neuroscience at Harvard and the founder of the Center for Individual Opportunity, Rose has spent his career searching for a way to even the playing field, so all learners have the opportunity to reach their maximum potential.

Todd Rose Signing the End of Average

Keynote speaker Todd Rose signs his new book The End of Average.

Rose brought the flaws of the traditional one-size-fits-all educational system bubbling to the surface by discussing the concepts published in his new book The End of Average.

“Our entire system right now is based on average and deviation from average. That’s been a good industrial model, but now […] we want to understand kids and develop them.”

Rose used a number of scientific experiments and historical anecdotes to prove the fallacy of using average as a benchmark. One story revolved around Norma, a scale model built using an average of women’s measurements in the 1950s. After the model was designed, a contest was held to find “Norma,” the perfectly average American woman. Women from across the country sent in their sizes, but even the winner wasn’t an exact match.

The statue of Norma, the "average woman."

The statue of Norma, the “average” woman.

Rose applied the inferences from such examples to stress the importance of the personalization of learning, and how it relates to the use of technology in education.

“If we can get our mindset away from average and appreciate the individuality, we will be able to use these technologies to our advantage.”

Breakout panels

Not the kind of conference where people skip panels to network, Harvard Business School’s circular, lecture-style rooms were packed during every session available. The topics addressed covered pressing matters relevant to edtech today: personalized learning,  educational gaming, K-12 coding courses, learning science, adult education, and of course, edtech startup funding.

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One breakout session, The New Universal Language: Coding had more than its fair share of teachers present, a sure sign of the topic’s growing importance in the K-12 world. Panelists from Pegasystems, Google Expedition, and Somerville High Schools shared a few options with the the educators eager to bring their classrooms into the 21st century.

One math teacher in the audience, Kate McAlarney, of Cohasset High School, expressed her desire to expand her students’ access to coding education with an after-school program. She said that year after year, she would ask former students what they wish they had learned in high school, and one answer outweighed most: coding. But how would she, a teacher with years of experience in math but little experience with coding, be able to spearhead the coding education program her students so desperately needed? The panelists talked her and other teachers with similar concerns through different options with a more accessible point of entry for teachers and students alike, listing Scratch and other online tools, many of which we covered last week in “Top 5 Coding Games for Kids That They’ll Want to Play.”

Classroom of the Future

What better way to see the firsthand results of educational innovation than with face-to-face conversations with real life students? The Classroom of the Future showcase featured 16 teachers and teams from innovative K-12 programs from across the country, presenting learning models for the future from Makerspaces to a student-run help desk to after-school robotics competitions.

While many of the students were from Massachusetts, a few came from as far way as Georgia. Some were in high school, a few in middle school, and even one from a home school co-op program. All the students had one thing in common: active involvement in a class or program at school that took an innovative approach to learning.

One group from the Andover High School Innovation and Ingenuity Lab attracted quite a crowd with their “Virtual Sandbox,” an over-sized sandbox that looked straight out of a sci-fi set. Blue lights were set up around the perimeter, shining on recesses of sand like pools of water, and shifted when you moved around the sand.

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The “Virtual Sandbox” by Andover High School at Classroom of the Future.

The contraption combines Linux programming, a Microsoft Kinect camera, and a “basic” projector (because projectors are low-tech now) to produce a topographical image on top of the real sand that creates the illusion of dimension.

It might sound a little bizarre but boy, does it looks cool.

Even more impressive than the project itself were the students grinning ear to ear about what they created, describing how they used engineering and technology to create the Virtual Sandbox.

One student brought up the importance of everyone playing a different role. “My thing is coding,” he said.

I asked the other student what his “thing” was, and he surprised me by saying poetry. He went on to describe his idea for a multimedia poetry project, and how he could use the skills he learned in the Innovation Lab to pursue his other passions.

This love for learning wasn’t exclusive to the Andover booth—all the students presenting and tabling at the Classroom of the Future exhibit gushed about the way their school programs to create something worth bragging about.

See the full list of Classroom of the Future participants

Pitch competition

On the second day of the conference, a pitch competition between 10 edtech startups from around the globe took place. This included a few past graduates of the LearnLaunch Accelerator program in Boston, as well as startups from as far away as Singapore.

The full lineup of startups pitching:
Cram Fighter
Education Modified
Gnowbe
HSTRY
Junior Explorers
Kaymbu, Inc
PledgeCents
Shearwater
Thinksy
Zulama

Based on an audience vote, the winner of the pitch competition was Education Modified, a comprehensive, research-based, special education tool designed to improve the education of students with diverse needs in the K-12 space.

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LearnLaunch partner Jean Hammond (center) with the founders of Education Modified (left) and Zulama (right), first and second-place winners of the pitch competition.

We spoke to Education Modified CEO Melissa Corto (pictured above), who was humbly excited that the audience shared her enthusiasm for helping students with special needs.

“What folks don’t seem to understand is that there are small islands of excellence that are doing differentiation and individualization well, but the vast, vast majority of schools, particularly in urban areas like Boston, are still really struggling with how to meet the needs of diverse learners.”

Corto believes her product can solve this problem by providing the tools diverse learners need on a wider scale. Clearly, the audience agreed.

Expressing her excitement for the future, Corto said that the next step for Education Modified is growth. “We look forward to working with more and more teachers and providing them with a comprehensive solution.”

Corto wasn’t the only one to take away something of value from the LearnLaunch conference. A busy, information-packed event, the lessons learned and opportunities for networking were certainly a good value for all attendees present.

“We’re so happy with the conference,” said Eileen Rudden at the closing reception, expressing her excitement at the event’s success and large turnout, even despite an approaching snowstorm. She added that if the popularity continues to grow, LearnLaunch may have to move the event to a larger venue in Boston.

Hannah Nyren

Hannah Nyren

A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.