NY EdTech Week Brings the Art and Style of New York to Education Technology

Not every edtech conference starts with an African drum circle. But in New York City, where break dancers are part of the daily commute and world-famous violinists can busk on a platform without a single papparozzo snapshot, ordinary isn’t exactly the status quo.

This is just one of the many ways that NY EdTech Week, a collaboration between StartEd and NYU-Steinhardt, was designed to break the mold of the traditional education conference.

“Good pedagogy in education isn’t often used in conferences,” said Jonathan D. Harber, co-founder of both StartEd and NY EdTech Week.

“If we’re here talking about the next generation of education, sitting around watching people talk on a panel is probably the worst pedagogy.”

The event, which took place in NYU’s Washington Square campus December 19-21, also included a rap about the layers of the Earth and a live performance of Broadway tunes. But the musical numbers weren’t the only thing different about this event. The programming also included bite-sized Ted Talks (dubbed “StartEd Talks”), interactive panels leveraging the Socratic method (called “Think Tanks”), and excursions to local educational spaces called “Open Labs.”

According to Harber, the event is intended to be more of a show than a conference.

“It really is meant to be a global festival for education innovation. And much like what Fashion Week is to the fashion industry, that’s what we would like to see NY EdTech Week grow into.”

Just as New York is the global center for fashion, Harber hopes that New York will also become known as the hub for edtech. After all, aside from having the most fashion designers, artists, hot dogs, and humans in the U.S., New York City also has the most students: 2 million, to be exact.

On this note, representatives of the city, like Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, stressed the importance of using New York as both a breeding ground for entrepreneurship and a testing ground for educational innovation.

Fariña particularly, lauded the city’s initiatives to implement universal pre-K, universal literacy by 2nd grade, and “Algebra for All”—a math program designed to have all students complete algebra by the 9th grade. Next step: college access for all.

Other speakers included Andrew Hamilton, the President of NYU, Larry Berger of Amplify, and of course, StartEd Co-founders and NY EdTech Week hosts, Ash Kaluarachchi and Jonathan D. Harber.

Also taking the stage was Gerard Robinson, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, a former Virginia and Florida secretary of education, and last but not least, a key player on the Trump administration’s education transition team. Robinson discussed charter schools, school choice, and educational innovation, setting the stage for the upcoming changes in the Department of Education.

“I remain a policy optimist because I believe in the betterment of the human condition, and I also believe in the philosophy of encouragement,” said Robinson, calling on the audience specifically to embrace an optimistic stance toward the impending Department of Education changes.

The following “Think Tanks” covered the full spectrum of education, divided into early learning, corporate learning, K-12, and higher ed, and featured renowned experts in each department, such as Noodle CEO John Katzman, the superintendent of Newark Schools, and Rahul Varma, CLO of Accenture. The concurrent “Open Labs” included a drumming workshop, the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, and even a One World Trade Center architectural tour.

To correspond with the Think Tanks, Wednesday was full of Shark Tanks, featuring the pitches of the fall StartEd accelerator cohort as well as the graduates of 12 edtech accelerators from around the globe.

Overall, the conference pulled in about 1,200 attendees total. What was seen as most impressive was not the quantity of attendees, but rather the quality of the educational minds in attendance, the conversations had, and of the event itself.

“The team over at StartEd in collaboration with NYU-Steinhardt I think has really put on a fantastic event, showcasing some great panels, and getting thought leaders who have incredibly busy schedules right before the holiday season into the new year. I think just the timing is perfect,” said Nasir Qadree, Economic Opportunity Lead at Village Capital.

According to Qadree, the impressive turnout just before the holidays is just one sign of the passion those in education technology have for the field.

“I look at this work as often frustrating, never boring, always worth it,” said Qadree. “And i think this convening is an indicator of that.”

Certainly, Qadree wasn’t the only person at the event who felt this way.

“I believe one of the best bits of feedback I’ve gotten over the past couple days is that most folks [have] had more relevant conversations over the past two days than they have over the past few months,” said Ash Kaluarachchi, co-founder of StartEd and producer of NY EdTech Week.

But of course, like a good founder, Kaluarachchi wanted to remind everyone that the event was just the icing on the cake of the StartEd accelerator and the work they are trying to do in New York City and beyond.

“While this is probably the biggest part of the iceberg above the water, everything that came together is the result of running a three-month accelerator program, investing in companies, and then bringing a community together in a physical space on campus in Washington Square,” said Kaluarachchi.

Jonathan D. Harber directed the focus to an even greater mission, of building an edtech ecosystem.

“We created StartEd with the belief that in order to solve some of the world’s most challenging education problems, that we wanted to to create an army of entrepreneurs,” said Harber.

Between the conversations addressed at NY EdTech Week and the refreshing days off over the holidays, hopefully those movers and shakers present have a renewed passion for moving education forward in the new year.

Welcome back to work, folks.

Listen to the full interviews with Jonathan Harber and Ash Kaluarachchi:

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.