How these edtech CEOs are paving the way for education of the future

At the 43rd annual Future of Education Technology Conference, four CEOs from the most impactful edtech companies shared their insights on how their entrepreneurial journeys have shaped the future of K12 education.

Ask any educator why they got into teaching or administration. Nine times out of 10 they would respond: “the kiddos.” Being in this profession for the right reasons matters now more than ever, and that’s also true for those responsible for ensuring students have access to equitable education through the power of education technology. Thankfully, we can rest assured that these prominent edtech leaders understand their mission and the value of the student perspective.

At the 43rd annual Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC), four CEOs from the most impactful edtech companies shared their insights on how their entrepreneurial journeys have shaped the future of K12 education in a panel titled “How Entrepreneurship and Edtech Innovation is Improving Education for the Future.” During the discussion, one prominent theme emerged: the significance of equitable education.

Phil Cutler, co-founder and CEO of the free 24/7 online tutoring company Paper, reflected on his experience as a classroom teacher.

“When I was in the classroom, one of the things that just became really apparent to me over and over again was what having access to support really meant for families,” he says. “The students who have access to resources and support tend to get ahead.”

And, without fail, the students of families that simply can’t afford a tutor inevitably fell behind. Early on, Cutler realized how important it was for each student, regardless of socioeconomic status, to have access to a tutor.

Once that barrier is broken down, according to the panelists, the next step is getting kids engaged and excited about learning. And, adds Adam Bellow, CEO and co-founder of Breakout EDU, a tool that gives students gamified learning experiences, that’s their secret ingredient.

“The secret sauce is that they’re working together,” he says. Achieving engagement in the classroom is crucial in enhancing the student learning experience. He adds that getting students to collaborate to “solve fun problems” is their number one priority.

Collaboration is the key to unlocking innovation, at least that’s the goal, right? Unlike many other sectors, edtech is unique in that its future relies heavily on the input of its target audience. And for most of them, it’s the students.

Alefiya Master, founder and CEO of MAD-learn, a web-based mobile app development tool for students, explains that the idea for the company came from kids, and every product release is based on insight gained from both students and educators.

“My great idea was I wanted to figure out a way to have an easy, cheap way to make an app for a school. And we did that, and we had a lot of schools that we worked with. And kids said, ‘why does our app do this,’ and ‘why does it look like that? That’s not the right color.’ And we came back and put our heads together and said, ‘Guys, we need to not be the ones building the apps. We need to teach the kids how to do this.’”

If you’re talking to a company that isn’t listening to you, she adds, find someone that will.

Similarly, Andy Rahden, co-founder and CEO of Shmoop, an edtech solutions company that provides digital classroom tools and solutions aimed to ease the stress of the learning environment, speaks of how they use students’ feedback to design a product that directly meets their emotional and academic needs.

“The importance of innovation and collaboration has been instrumental,” he says. “We created a product four years ago called the Shmoop Heartbeat, and the Heartbeat is really utilizing questions to understand where students are at from backgrounds and emotional perspectives, very similar to what our test prep products do, which is to understand where learning gaps are.”

For students, having someone to look up to is another crucial component of successful learning. That’s why focusing on creating diverse and reflective schools is so important. And in the edtech business, that’s the goal as well.

“I’m not a typical CEO of a company,” says Master. “I don’t look like a typical CEO. When I tell kids that I am a CEO of a company, they go, ‘Huh?’ Because they haven’t seen people that look like me in this role. We have been very intentional—and we’ve experienced firsthand people laughing us out of the room, people thinking we were too young or too naive—so we’ve been very intentional with the teachers and the students that we’re working with and focusing on making sure our product can be used by anyone at any point, but also within our team.”

“We’re actually a majority-minority company,” she adds. “I think that kids need to see what they can potentially think of being. They need to see people from all kinds of backgrounds.

So as you and your district collaborate with edtech companies, consider their mission and their intentionality. As for these companies and CEOs, you can rest assured that your students and teachers are put at the center because, without their insight, edtech will inevitably lack reflectivity and accountability.

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Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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