Finding the Balance in Ed-tech: Network Alumni Entrepreneurs Debate the Future at the ASU-GSV Summit

Richard Wilson, Teach For Australia alumnus and Co-founder of Maths Pathway

Last week, four Teach For All network alumni participated in the annual ASU-GSV Summit, a leading education and workforce innovation conference. Alumni ed-tech entrepreneurs from Teach For America, Teach For Australia, and Empieza por Educar (Spain) discussed how their classroom experience inspired them to launch their scalable innovations on a panel hosted by Teach For All’s Co-founder and CEO, Wendy Kopp. Wendy also participated in a fireside chat with CityBridge Education’s Katherine Bradley in which she reflected on the past 30 years working in education. Below, Richard Wilson, Teach For Australia alumnus and Co-founder of Maths Pathway, shares his experience at ASU-GSV and what he’s taking away from the summit:

Coming to the US from Australia is not only a long trip in distance and time, but in some ways in culture. I’ve spent the last three days saying “math” instead of “maths” a lot, for example. To a large extent though, that is what I love about the field of education—my time in San Diego at the ASU-GSV conference has convinced me that despite the cultural and linguistic differences, educators the world over are united by a desire to improve the lives and outcomes of the students in their care.

As an alumnus of Teach For Australia, and Co-founder of the social enterprise Maths Pathway, a holistic Learning and Teaching Model for Mathematics that enables schools and teachers to completely transform the mathematics experience of their students, I was invited by Teach For All to attend this year’s 10th anniversary edition of ASU-GSV. The conference is a massive global gathering of ed-tech companies, investors, and innovators across the “Pre-K to Gray” spectrum (early childhood through adulthood).

I joined three other Teach For All network alumni “teacherpreneurs” at the event, as we formed a panel to discuss the apparent disconnect between ed-tech startups and actual schools. My fellow panelists included Teach For America alumni Miriam Altman, Co-founder and CEO of Kinvolved, and Xiaohoa Michelle Ching, Founder and CEO of Literator, as well as Quim Sabria, an alumnus of Empieza por Educar (Teach For All’s partner organization in Spain) and Co-founder of EdPuzzle. The panel was moderated by Teach For All’s Co-founder and CEO, Wendy Kopp.

The discussion covered some fascinating ground, including the challenges teachers like us faced in launching a startup; the dearth of teachers in ed-tech companies, and whether it might be appropriate to encourage more teachers to join existing ventures as opposed to starting their own; and whether venture capitalists could be encouraged to judge ed-tech investments with a similar focus on outcomes and time to investments in healthcare. While we didn’t really solve any of those issues (not that you can in a 45 minute panel session), they certainly triggered some new thoughts and discussions in the audience and the panel itself.

For me, it was a rare opportunity to connect with other alumni entrepreneurs, at a level simultaneously more strategic and deeper than any of our own organisations. It is uniformly the case that, when talking to alumni of Teach For All network partners, there is a much greater focus on student outcomes and actual impact, rather than just the commercial imperative, even when their initiatives are for-profit ventures. With a few exceptions, this has not been my experience when talking to other “ed-tech” companies, so the alumni entrepreneur network is really quite a unique opportunity to get down to discussions about what really matters, without egos getting in the way.

For example, I have sometimes been judgemental about educators who don’t (in my opinion) take sufficient risks in pursuit of improving their schools or systems. On the panel, Miriam shared the insight that, while not all teachers would feel comfortable with a “startup” level of risk, there is value in and a need for them to join existing ed-tech organisations—simultaneously contributing towards more systemic solutions and bringing the experience and knowledge of a teacher into organisations that may otherwise lack that viewpoint. As Michelle said, there really shouldn’t be any ed-tech companies that don’t have any teachers on their staff. Maths Pathway is staffed largely by former teachers already, but I think we could do even more to involve teachers from our different states and cultural backgrounds in our pedagogical design processes.

Experiences like this mean that I can think about Maths Pathway’s own position in the education ecosystem while not being constrained by the day-to-day operational requirements of running a company. It was a particularly timely trip, as we are at the start of a strategic planning process that looks at opportunities to expand our impact outside the borders of Australia, where we started. I was struck by the fact that even though there are regulatory and cultural differences between our different countries, our education systems share the same underlying structural problems. The inequity, and poor student outcomes, that flow from those problems are very much the same in countries around the world. The last decade of ed-tech “innovation” hasn’t solved these issues.

However, one of the things that really stood out for me at the conference was that at least some people were thinking at a much bigger, more holistic level. The keynote presentation by Michael Crow, president of ASU, was particularly inspiring. He talked not only about the radical diversity of roles that higher education institutions should be playing in the system, but also how K-12 education can be refocused to produce a more “prepared” learner. Some of the other conference participants had clearly put thought into how the ecosystem of education should work towards developing lifelong pathways of education—not just in a tokenistic “take an online course” way, but respecting the rapidly changing nature of education and the workforce.

More than just presenting on a panel, this trip was an opportunity to immerse myself in some refreshingly new ways of thinking, in an environment where I would not normally expect to find such perspectives. I look forward to continuing to be part of Teach For All’s ever-deepening alumni network and engaging with peers in countries around the world in pursuit of educational equity and excellence.

Watch a video of the Teach For All network alumni panel discussion

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