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Here’s what’s keeping Baltimore’s edtech entrepreneurs up at night

Sleepless in B'more. March 31, 2016 Category: EventFeaturedMediumPurpose

Disclosures

This is part of a series about Baltimore's social impact community via its Light City conference.
You made a thing that helps students learn better. Now how do you get that thing into the hands of the students who need it most?

On a Light City panel intended to prompt participants to opine on the role edtech will play in the future of learning, local industry leaders spoke instead about how bureaucracy and cost are keeping the ideal at bay.

That’s just what happens when you’re working in an industry heavily regulated and subsidized by government, said StraighterLine founder Burck Smith, whose company offers low-cost, non-accredited college courses. Speed is predictably slow, and access is only as broad as the government supports that are in place.

“It does not move as fast as you think,” he said. “And you’ve already assumed it doesn’t move fast.”

To former teacher and foreign language education enterprise ClassTracks founder Lida Zlatic, the difficulty of founding a company pales in comparison to the struggles a teacher faces in their first year on the job.

“We’re trying to serve teachers and through teachers serve students,” Zlatic said. And while her focus so far has be making sure her platform works well for students, Zlatic doesn’t want to ignore teachers’ needs for easy use and implementation.

“I don’t want to put one more thing on [a teacher’s] plate. I want to take things off,” she said. “I’d really like us to get to the point where using ClassTracks is easier than not using ClassTracks.”

Wes Moore — a U.S. Army veteran, acclaimed author, founder of Baltimore-based social enterprise BridgeEdu and all-around affable entrepreneur cut to the heart of the problem for edtech: focus and expectations.

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Especially when you’re working with low-income and at-risk students, he said, it’s easy to get distracted by the everyday struggles they have to conquer. As he put it, “a whole lot of life” gets in the way for unprivileged students.

When you're working with low-income and at-risk students, it's easy to get distracted by the everyday struggles they have to conquer.

“We have many students who are wondering about where they’re going to live, the fact that their grandmother is sick and they’re now the ones taking care of their siblings,” he said. “All [edtech leaders] would love to deal with any single one of those barriers that exist in the path to higher education for our students.”

But Moore’s most pressing frustration is with society’s tendency to place different expectations on different students.

“Somehow, [low-income students] do not have the same chance of success nor even deserve the same level of opportunity for that success,” he said. “For anyone who decides to work in this space…being able to fight over that with everyone from providers to practitioners to funders is a frustrating process.”

Baltimore, he said, falls victim to the “gatekeeper mentality” — the idea that if you “kiss enough rings,” you might just get your chance to slip under the bureaucratic red tape holding up progress. It’s too much power in the hands of too few.

It’s complex. But that complexity needs to be accepted.

“If we’re serious about the final products, and we’re serious about supporting students who are in many cases coming from more complicated backgrounds, we can’t be afraid to invest in the things we know make sense and put those platforms and supports around them,” Moore said. “We have to … understand that equity means complexity, and we have to be OK with complexity and put the resources behind actually being able to [support] that complexity.”

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