As part of our ongoing series of interviews with people making a difference in the education and technology fields, we spoke to Mike Lee, founder of edshelf, a website designed to help teachers find the best technology for their needs. He spoke to us about ed-tech start-ups, the effect of web technologies, and why he loves Codeacademy.
You can check out edshelf at edshelf.com
SMATOOS: Can you give us a little background on edshelf – when did it launch, what inspired you to start it, what’s the function?
Mike Lee (ML): My team and I are a group of software engineers who’ve worked together and wanted to do something meaningful, something that had a positive impact on the world. We realized that education is the best way to do that. We may not be able to cure cancer ourselves, but we can lay the foundation for a student somewhere to go and cure cancer. This means doing what we do best – build software – and providing a solution that can scale to billions of people. Then the question become: What do we build?
Late last year, in 2011, we serendipitously met a couple of passionate teachers who shared with us numerous frustrations they faced in their classrooms. We identified one of the most egregious frustrations – finding the best technology for their specific needs – as a problem we know how to solve. Using that kernel of an idea, we applied a methodology known in the startup world as “customer discovery” or “lean start-up” to determine whether there was a viable market here. And in speaking to educators in over twenty school districts, observing countless classrooms, and performing many market validation tests, we realized there was.
Through our research, that kernel evolved into solving the workflow problem of getting the most effective technology into the classroom. This means helping educators find the right technology, buy it efficiently, and use it easily. Our current website only has 10% of what we plan to build. There’s lots more coming.
Also, we are 100% free to educators. Our business model involves a monetization plan with the developers in our directory. We aren’t limiting ourselves to paid tools though; our directory includes both free and paid tools. The goal is to allow the best tools, no matter their price, to bubble up to the top.
SMATOOS: Do you have a background in education?
ML: I don’t have a formal background in education. I’ve been a tutor and mentor, and many family members (parents, aunts, cousins, etc) and friends are K-12 teachers. Others on our team also have relatives who are teachers, and one even plans on getting his teaching credentials one day.
We also have two formal advisors who are high school teachers and a number of informal advisors throughout the K-12 spectrum. Their guidance has been invaluable.
SMATOOS: How are you publicizing the website? How many users have you got so far?
ML: We’ve done no formal marketing yet. Other than some social media accounts, like Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest, we’ve only told friends and family. The rest was all word-of-mouth, generous blogs such as yours, and mentions on Twitter. My favorite tweet so far comes from @MsClosson: “Just signed up for #edshelf. Might be love at first click.” Love it!
We were also part of the ImagineK12 program, a startup accelerator for education technology companies. They, along with our advisors, gave us great exposure to local educators.
Though we’re still a beta product (which means we’re still testing out some features), in just a month after our launch in April, we made it into 600 different schools. And the growth is still zooming exponentially. It’s amazing how quickly educators will spread things through their PLNs.
SMATOOS: edshelf users are encouraged to create “networks” and “follow” other teachers. Why did you decide to make these parts of the site?
ML: While observing teachers, we saw the process of finding and interacting with technology as a highly social and collaborative one. Teachers don’t work in a vacuum. Technology is discovered via immediate colleagues or PLNs. And in many cases, there’s a technology maven that is the key influencer in which technologies get into a school. We wanted to make sure the teachers on edshelf had an opportunity to follow such mavens, no matter where they are: school, district, city, state, or country.
We just released a new feature that allows teachers the ability to create collections of tools. These are similar to boards on Pinterest or lists on Yelp, and are essentially a way to crowd-source the curation of tools by teachers. Computer algorithms only go so far; sometimes it’s better to have a person decide what is best for other people.
SMATOOS: How does a developer get their product on the site?
ML: We will soon offer developer accounts, where developers can create a company profile and list all of their products. Until those are available, developers can submit their products through our site and we’ll gladly add them ourselves. We have a bit of a queue at the moment, but will add them as quickly as we can.
SMATOOS: Each tool has ratings for Learning Curve, Pedagogical Effectiveness and Student Engagement – what’s the system for assigning ratings?
ML: We don’t come up with these ratings ourselves. Educators that have an account on our site can rate and review all of the tools in our directory, including a rating for these three dimensions.
Eventually, all of these ratings and reviews will be personalized. That means you will only see ratings and reviews within your own PLN, or sub-group within your PLN. Not all ratings and reviews are created equal. What a high school teacher says about a tool may not be relevant to a third grade teacher, for instance. Nor from one school population to another school population. This kind of personalization will help teachers find the right tools for their specific needs.
SMATOOS: What technology advance do you think has had the biggest impact on education and, thereby, edtech start-ups?
ML: I’m going to echo Alan Louie here. He’s one of the partners of ImagineK12 and has said this before. On a macro level, web technologies in general have made the most significant impact.
Several years ago, education technologies were largely client-server and desktop-based. That meant IT personnel were required to install and maintain servers dedicated to specific software, then go out and install copies on all the desktops in a school district. Upgrades were infrequent and problematic. Education technology companies couldn’t iterate and improve their products quickly. To make one small change meant asking the IT personnel to re-deploy their software manually across hundreds of computers. Yikes.
With modern web technologies, we can now deploy small and big changes instantaneously. We can offer products that work on multiple devices. We can test new designs and features quickly. We can react much faster to feedback from teachers. And we can do so in a more cost-effective manner for school districts.
On a more micro level, open source technologies have also made a significant impact. I may be biased because our team is heavily involved in open source projects, but I strongly believe in this movement. For education technology providers who use it, this means being able to start companies on a shoestring budget. And for schools, it means free software!
SMATOOS: Finally, what’s your personal favorite edtech tool?
ML: As an independent learner who’s well out of K-12, I love Codecademy. I am someone who learns best by doing, and I love the premise of a self-directed, self-paced, hands-on exercises. They still have lots of rough edges and not everyone will find their exercises useful. But for those that do, this premise has tremendous potential.
I should add that although I am building a service to help educators with technology, I don’t think technology should ever replace a teacher. Technology is a tool that can make tasks easier and more efficient, but they are ultimately only as effective as the wielder of the tool. A good tool, in my opinion, is built with a human component. We strive for this on edshelf. And I believe Codecademy has this too, with its self-paced, self-directed nature, as well as its ability to allow anyone to create a course.
All images from edshelf.