Technically Philly: EdTech Panelists Push for Collaboration in Northeast

Panelists answered questions from Co-founder of Technically Philly Brian James Kirk.

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By connecting teachers, entrepreneurs and techies, Philadelphia is doing its part in creating a standout EdTech culture. And through collaboration with the state of New York, Washington D.C., and Baltimore, Md., the city is becoming part of the burgeoning tech scene along the Northeast corridor.

Philadelphia’s EdTech Meetup held a panel this week to discuss the tech scene in the Northeast corridor and the role that education plays in it.

Featured panelists included Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan, executive director of academic innovation at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education: Richard Culatta, deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education; Brad Denenberg, founder of Seed Philly; and Heather Gilchrist, founding partner and program director at New York City’s Socratic Labs.

Co-founder of Technically Philly Brian James Kirk moderated the panel, asking several questions about how educators and techies can help each other, how schools can build entrepreneurs and how to engage programmers to work with educators.

Among panelists, the consensus was that cities need to come together to take advantage of their individual strengths and share their best practices in order to create an EdTech culture that produces innovative and effective ideas.

“It’s less about the issues and more about the burgeoning tech community that’s happening along the East Coast,” MaryBeth Hertz, leader of the EdTech Meetup and a technology teacher for grades four to eight at Alliance for Progress Charter School, said.

When Donna Murdoch, founder of the Meetup, began pursuing her doctorate in adult education and technology at Colombia University Teachers College, she noticed something in New York that Philadelphia was missing: EdTech Meetups that were oftentimes so popular that they reached full capacity.

Heather Gilchrist, founding partner and program director at New York's Socratic Labs
Heather Gilchrist, founding partner and program director at New York City’s Socratic Labs, talked to an audience member after the discussion.

A self-proclaimed techie, Murdoch then organized Philadelphia’s EdTech Meetup in February 2012, using rooms at Temple University, where she worked at the time, to hold its first meetings.

“I’ve always noticed a lack of technology in schools,” Murdoch said. “[Creating the Meetup] needed to be done.”

But Murdoch, who specializes in higher education, said she knew she needed an energetic partner to help her collaborate on ideas, so she started working with  Hertz. The two began holding meetings in various locations in the city, such as Philadelphia Supporting Entrepreneurship in Education’s headquarters.

Murdoch and Hertz hold one social get together in Center City a month and one formal Meetup, which may include panelists or pitches for new products.

Regular attendees of the meeting, Murdoch said, include educators from all levels, entrepreneurs and people generally interested in technology and education. “[Our mission is to] get educators, at whatever level, and people who are involved in the education industry in an ongoing dialogue with the people who are creating new products that can be used in the classroom,” Murdoch said.

“Entrepreneurs and startups get feedback from actual educators and people who would actually be using the tools,” Hertz said. This market-research is necessary, she said, because teachers often “get looked over” despite the fact that they’re the experts on what needs there are in the classroom.

There are several problems that can arise when integrating technology into a classroom. Murdoch said some instructors and professors are comfortable with their own teaching methods and may be reluctant to incorporate technology due to a fear of not being able to figure something out.

Audience members networked before the panel began.

And since budgets are being slashed in many Philadelphia schools and colleges, bringing in technology may not always be feasible. But one way districts can work around financial issues, Hertz said, is to move to bring your own device methods in which students can use their smart phones or computers in the classroom.

“You’re using all these tools and all these handhelds anyway, and you have them in the classroom, so you might as well use them as something you can learn with,” Murdoch said. However, Hertz also acknowledged that inequity of devices among students can make the BYOD method difficult for teachers to implement.

To help find solutions to these problems and offer easy to manage technology to instructors, the EdTech Meetup calls for entrepreneurs and teachers to pitch their ideas about apps, websites or other startups during events such as their EdTech Smackdown held earlier this month.

But what about the move from pitches to incorporation into the classroom? “We’re building a community right now,” Hertz said. “The next step is beginning to take these conversations to the next level, beginning to see how they are going to branch out into the larger community.”

Panelists answered questions from co-founder of Technically Philly Brian James Kirk.

Still, audience members at the panel expressed concerns exist about a lack of parent involvement in technology training, the educational divide among students and, specific to Philly, the number of school closings in communities.

The Meetup ended with audience questions and an opportunity to network with panelists.

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