Innovation Throwdown (CIC Snapshot)

At AEP’s 2011 Content in Context conference Doug Lynch, Vice Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School, led the Innovation Throwdown, using real ideas gathered through the Penn GSE’s Innovation Throwdown website to explore the opportunities and barriers to innovation and entrepreneurship in the education arena. Panelists included Stacey Childress, Deputy Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Michael Moe, Co-Founder, NeXt Advisors, Co-Chairman, ASU Education Innovation Network; James H. Shelton III, Assistant Deputy Secretary, Innovation and Improvement, US Department of Education. The Innovation Throwdown finalists presented their ideas to the panel and attendees.


Doug Lynch polled the attendees and asked: Which is the biggest obstacle to innovation?

  • The attendees voted None of the Above (32%) and Funding (29%) above lack of good ideas and the regulatory environment. The audience said that leadership, lack of time, and the whole context of the education environment are barriers to innovation. Michael Moe said he thinks it’s an ecosystem that needs to be better integrated–there are plenty of ideas. There needs to be more transparency to bring together the ideas and the funders.
  •  Jim Shelton thought it was all of the above plus other issues, including the fact that education is a hard industry to break into. He said that many companies do not know how to access the available capital. Shelton also said that education is not an area where we can “experiment on monkeys. We have to work with our kids and find out if we can achieve real breakthroughs on achievement.” That is part of the difficult part of bringing innovation into the education landscape.
  • Stacey Childress said she worries less about the regulatory side inhibiting people from creating innovations than about the regulations keeping innovations from moving from pilots to large scale and adoptable programs.

Innovation Throwdown Finalist Presentations and Panel Feedback

  • Quarasan, ZZZONKits: Innovative Get-to-Sleep Kits “Help your kids catch enough ZZZs to reach for As and Bs!”: The goal is to make parents aware of the powerful piece of the night before school and the need for kids to get quality sleep. Their research shows that symptoms of sleep deprivation can be confused with learning disorders, childhood obesity, etc. The program will provide families with positive ways to help kids get to sleep. There would be five kits from Prek to high school. The proposed business model is online purchase and delivery (individual or as part of a PTO fundraiser).
    • Jim Shelton asked if there is data to prove that getting sleep will help improve achievement. Randi Brill from Quarasan said that part of their start-up phase would include research in that area. Michael Moe and Stacey Childress said that in order to invest, a capitalist would need to know more about the research and the ROI, but they think that the product has high interest. In addition, Shelton said to be aware of the parents who need this help but may not have the resources to purchase or use it.
  • Sublime Learning, eTeachables™ for Visual Learning: The company’s research shows that $43 billion is invested in technology every year, but 68% of teachers feel unprepared to integrate technology into instruction. They have talked to thousands of administrators, who say they don’t see ROI on professional development, and teachers, who say they don’t have the time to integrate so many new products. Currently, teacher training is focused on individual products. eTeachables focuses on instructional goals modeling effective teaching. They are 3-5 minute videos that teachers can watch and then download the templates so that the lesson can be used right away in the classroom.
    • Stacey Childress said that she thought a lot of the elements of the product are aligned with the current trends in education, such as Common Core and personalized learning. Both Michael Moe and Childress agreed that when presenting these ideas the company should focus on the potential investors with the key facts and why their solution would work compared to other products. Shelton said the most compelling aspect is that it says teachers time and it makes their lives better, but he thinks that investors would want to hear about how the scalability of the product.
  • Pixton, Pixton Click-n-Drag Comics: The problem the company focused on is how to get kids to write and express themselves, as well as stay engaged, in the new digital classroom. Pixton Click-n-drag allows students, using only a web browser, to create and write comics. It’s a cross-curricular writing tool; for STEM they can create science-related comics, or for foreign language classes they can create pieces with characters speaking in different languages. The resource also includes rubrics for assessments. In addition to the writing and literacy skills, the product allows students to collaborate and learn project management.
    • Michael Moe said he would like more evidence that the product will help kids remain engaged, but intuitively he could see how kids were like it. Shelton agreed that he would need evidence to see what kids would get out of the program, but he saw that sustainability and the scalability would be apparent. He suggested, though, to make that explicit and how to demonstrate more how the product would fit into adoptions. Stacey Childress said she understood the product well, but she would have liked to hear more about how they moved from the consumer world to the education world.
  • Janel Williams, VISUAL ACADEMICS for AUTISM and other learning differences: This program will help students with autism and learning differences understand everyday math. It is pure math shaped to suit individual learning styles. Math is visually decoded into simplistic and literal formats utilizing visual intelligence.
    • Stacey Childress said it was great to have a clear target market, and there are significant dollars in special education. The testimonials were effective, but she would have liked to know more about how the product worked. Michael Moe agreed that the personal stories get attention, but he needs to know more details about the resource. Jim Shelton concurred that this is a growing market with a lot of potential.

Overall, the panelists felt that each finalist brought forth concrete, specific ideas to tackle a well-defined problem and space in the marketplace. “The difference between entrepreneurs and everyone else is that entrepreneurs do it,” said Shelton. He added that we need more entrepreneurs and more places to share ideas. Stacey Childress observed that innovators have the willingness to fail and the doggedness to try to not fail. They take action and try to move their ideas forward.

4 Responses to “Innovation Throwdown (CIC Snapshot)”

  1. 1 book designer June 14, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    it is kind of sad to see that the UPenn’s selection of finalists is totally based on a popularity contest, rather than an objective evaluation of the proposals of the applicants. For example, one of the finalist did his/her work on autistic children. Granted that autism is a serious problem, but there are several times the number of non-autistic children who fail to understand the important issues of the day, and there were several applicants who did address them, but were ignored because they were “not popular” enough to be voted on.

    If you want to solve problems in education, the “celebrity” approach, or the popularity contest of proposal submitted is definitely not the way to go. No wonder our American educational system is falling behind, because other countries tackle the real issues first, and not by voting. What is more disconcerting is that the panelists themselves paid little attention to the proposals that were submitted, and ignored the ideas that were presented. As always, the sad state of our education system continues..regadless of the efforts of the finalists of the innovative throwdown!

  2. 2 edpublishing June 15, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts, “book designer.”

    You bring up a great point, and one with which I don’t think anyone with a vested interest in education can argue. In fact, part of AEP’s mission is to ensure accessibility to quality, professional resources for teaching and learning; clearly we don’t believe this can be achieved through “popularity contests,” as you put it.

    First, it should be made clear that the main thrust of the Innovation Throwdown was to generate serious discussion about the opportunities and barriers to innovation in the educational resource market. Based on feedback we’ve received through session evaluations and word of mouth, I believe we were extremely successful. It’s difficult to tell from your post whether or not you attended the session, but if you did, I think you would find it hard to argue this point.

    Second, the online vote was open to the general public, and yes, some–if not all–of those entered a product or idea in the program probably encouraged their friends and family and people they met on the street to vote for them. However, the voting was also marketed aggressively to professionals in the educational resource industry, whose interests and insights extend beyond just voting for their friends. So I think the voting population itself added a layer of expertise to the selection process that may not have been readily apparent.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the online vote was not the only method by which finalists were selected. There did exist a behind-the-scenes process of vetting and certifying the four finalists.

    Regarding your observation that the panelists paid little attention to the proposals submitted–I’m struggling to figure out how you arrived at this conclusion. Perhaps the panel’s feedback wasn’t captured entirely or accurately in the above session summary, but I felt each presenter received some great and valuable insights not just into the viability of their ideas, but also in how to pitch them.

    Again, I appreciate your feedback, and I’m glad you felt strongly enough about this to voice your opinion. This provided me with the opportunity to clarify some points that we didn’t realize had slipped through the cracks until now.

    I hope this answers your concerns, but if you’d like to discuss this further, please feel free to give me a call at 302-295-8350.

    Charlene Gaynor
    CEO, The Association of Educational Publishers (AEP)

  1. 1 Reflecting on Content in Context « Educational Publishing Trackback on July 21, 2011 at 3:52 pm
  2. 2 Lessons and Questions About the Impact of the Digital Classroom from the CIC « Educational Publishing Trackback on July 28, 2011 at 9:07 am

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June 2011


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