Why I Love ASU+GSV and How It Can Be Better

How to Integrate Educator Voices into the Edu-Preneurial Conversation, Speaker Highlights and more

May 16, 2014

I recently returned from my third trip to the ASU + GSV Education Innovation Summit in Phoenix. It has grown considerably in size and this year convened 2,000 investors, consultants, techies, “edu-entrepreneurs”, as well as many established software providers and publishers. Most who attended have been in the education technology (edtech) sector for a number of years, and the reunions among old friends, colleagues and business associates clogged the hallways.

However, one group that was underrepresented at ASU + GSV is the one that has the most direct impact on education: teachers. According to EdSurge, there were about 100 educators in attendance – approximately five percent of the participants.  

Now to compare this to the majority of education conferences is a little misleading. To illustrate, the first year I was there, a session panelist referenced NCLB—standard education lingo—and the moderator stopped the discussion to explain it to the audience. A tip off that this event is nothing like ISTE! The focus of the conference, after all, is financing and showcasing “edu-preneurial” ventures, which we need to do more of in edtech (many other conferences ignore business issues to their own detriment).

However, the teacher and student voices are often missing from this discussion—and not just at ASU + GSV. Technology for technology’s sake will not help kids learn unless the solution can be used effectively and easily by teachers. Sounds simple, but many smart people often forget that. In my past job, on Microsoft’s Partners in Learning team, the most important thing we did was to create an active and empowered network of teacher advisers who allowed us to understand how our solutions worked in an actual classroom.

At the conference, numerous successful and up-and-coming companies spoke about what they do to support teachers and students, often by highlighting case studies or user scenarios. I did this in my own presentation. But the teacher voice and—to a greater degree—the student voice were missing.  

So what do we do? There is a relatively easy solution: create a pitch contest for edu-preneurial students and teachers to submit business plans on their inspired ideas or solutions to improve education. Fund the top two or three submissions with a fairly modest stipend after a review by a panel of investors, educators and edtech leaders. It could happen, “Shark Tank”-style, in front of an audience, which would give the hopefuls even more public exposure.

The funding pool wouldn’t need to break the bank, but the stipend would give some edu-preneurs a gentle nudge off the fence. You could also track the program over time and build a brand around the successful companies, much like tech incubators do. Who knows, maybe it will find and fund the next winner of the ASU + GSV Return On Education Award?

Dressed for Success?

The funky mix of attire was another clue that this is not your typical education conference.   Bankers in suits and consultants in consultant uniforms (blazer, no tie) were spotted mingling near the unshaven, hipster techies, who were decked out in jeans and sneakers. Colorful shoelaces were all the rage this year among the programming set.

Girl Power

Since this was an investor conference, it wasn’t a surprise that the men outnumbered the women (this is a discussion for another day), but girl power was evident all around. This was especially true at the Ladies Luncheon, where we heard from Reshma Saujani, CEO & Founder of Girls Who Code, a really cool organization working to close the gender gap for computer programmers. Also present was judicial trailblazer, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who shared the story of her very brief conversation with President Reagan when he called to discuss nominating her for our nation’s highest court.

What’s Next in Edtech?

If you are in the edtech space and want to know who the next hot company will be, keep an eye on who wins the ROE award. This year it was Parchment and last year was Dream Box, which has Netflix chief Reed Hastings on its board (more on him later). If you want to see who is doing cool stuff in among the hundreds of edtech startups, go to the company presentations listor, better yet, watch their presentations. They are concise nine-minute pitches on the basics of each business. Some will blow you away. Some will give you great ideas for your own business. Some will present new partnership opportunities. All will energize you about the passion, dedication and innovation bubbling up in the education space.

Highlights among the speakers were:

  • Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix. He shared his story of equal parts success and failure, sprinkled with great current appreciation for Frank Underwood. He likened entrepreneurs to those “willing to jump out of a plane without a parachute hoping to land on a bird flying by.” An apt analogy that has stuck in my mind. Sometimes you need to jump off the cliff with little understanding of what comes next. Failure will happen occasionally and that has to be part of the landscape. Still, Hastings spoke of being bold without being reckless. A clear lesson for him was the need to continually “farm for dissent," a reminder for all of us to always gather multiple viewpoints to be as informed as possible before jumping out of that plane! This point relates directly to the need for education providers and entrepreneurs to work closely with teachers.
  • Michael Crow, President of ASU. As a key founder of the event, ASU figures prominently each year and Crow gave an early morning keynote at which he continued to push the boundaries of higher education—an orientation that has distinguished his tenure. Crow cited some impressive statistics about the enrollment growth of ASU online and implored all of us working in education to keep pushing for access to higher education until we reach the point when student income is no longer a determinant of student outcome. 
  • Andrew Sutherland, Founder of Quizlet. Far and away my favorite company presentation. Andrew is in his 20’s and gave an impassioned pitch about the Quizlet’s success since he started it for a high school French class. Hearing that it was the 94th most visited U.S. website, many in the audience wondered if we were looking at the next Mark Zuckerberg. To my point above about the importance of the teacher and student voice, Quizlet staff visits schools in the San Francisco area at least once a week, wearing their distinct blue t-shirts. This is a company with a product that will stay current and easy to use as they continually hear from end users and modify accordingly. There’s a lesson for all of us there.

I am a huge fan of the conference as I learn a tremendous amount every year about the industry, reconnect with friends and colleagues and get a large number of meetings done very efficiently. Getting out of Vermont during Mud Season didn’t hurt either.

If you attended ASU + GSV this year or in previous years, I’d love to hear your about your experiences in the comments section.

Photo courtesy of ASU + GSV

Stacey Rainey
A long-time Bostonian, Stacey’s new Vermont life is highlighted by trial-and-error gardening, embracing the outdoors in Vermont’s subarctic climate, traveling with her family and sneaking out for noontime yoga (oh, and she may like “Scandal” a bit). Stacey, who joined Middlebury Interactive in January 2012, serves as Chief Strategy Officer and supports a fun and talented (if slightly off-kilter) team of edtech pros who do some amazing work for students across the country.
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