Promising Enterprises

2016 Technology Innovation Showcase boosts up-and-coming technology solutions

Ann Lee Flynn

There once was a parrot, an armadillo, 75 board members, a zoo educator, and a class of third-graders in Ohio. This collection of random facts represents one of my most memorable moments associated with the off-site programming I host during the NSBA annual conference.

Initially, the board members were able to talk with the zoo educator and meet her parrot and armadillo. Through the technological magic of a virtual field trip, they were next able to observe her real-time interactions with a class of Ohio third-graders who were passionately debating the merits of having a hard shell versus feathers.

Afterward, many of the board members expressed amazement at how engaged the students were with the zoo educator. It became clear as we discussed the program that the majority of participating school leaders had never personally taken part in an interactive, two-way video conference.

This story illustrates the challenges many board members and school leaders face when trying to make critical decisions about new technologies. The typical school board member is neither a technology expert nor a trained educator. With the fast pace of technology innovation and new approaches to instruction, it remains a challenge to stay abreast of the latest developments. That is, in part, why NSBA launched its Technology Innovation Showcase in 2013.

Highlighting Emergent Solutions

The origin of the phrase “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” has been lost to time, but the sentiment remains. In the 1980s, if someone needed computer hardware, it was unlikely a decision to purchase from IBM would be questioned if something went wrong, since the company dominated the industry. Likewise, competitors to IBM had an almost impossible job to sell against Big Blue, even if their product was superior.

The value of technology now is in supporting academic achievement, improving district operations, offering a better way to communicate with parents, or engaging the community. Increasingly, thoughtful school leaders are asking how a new device or digital resource will help meet their district goals, rather than simply being attracted by the newness of a solution.

Yet, the collection of companies highlighted by the showcase each year are specifically identified to highlight the newness that continues to emerge as a result of passionate entrepreneurs. These six companies, and 18 that have been featured previously, are intended to spark healthy discussions as districts work to balance old and new solutions.

The Technology Innovation Showcase is intended for relatively new entrants into the K-12 education business field. NSBA casts a wide net to attract corporate submissions through social media. All submissions are reviewed by teams of educators who have been previously recognized through NSBA’s “20 to Watch” recognition program for emerging leaders. The “20” represent district roles, from teachers to superintendents, who are effectively using technology and inspiring their peers. They bring insights to the review process that consider if the companies have identified real challenges in education and if their solutions are well positioned to address those challenges.

From that overview, reviewers select companies that appear to have staying power based on the needs they are addressing. This process does not take a deep dive into the companies’ business plans or financing, since there are plenty of competitions where that is the dominant factor.

Diversity of Solutions

As in past years, the six 2016 Showcase companies reflect the diversity of solutions serving K-12 educators and students. For example, the mission of FieldTripZoom is a simplified and expanded version of my experience at the San Diego Zoo. FieldTripZoom provides an online service that allows educators to search, order, schedule, and connect to hundreds of live interactive programs. Museums, zoos, and historical sites are some of the best sources of educational content to support specific curriculum objectives.

No longer are students prevented by their ZIP code or a lack of funding for field trips from experiencing some of the world’s greatest treasures and resources. Whether it’s history, the arts, anthropology, or other subject matter areas, FieldTripZoom’s institutional partners help to build a new level of understanding.

Another way to enhance understanding is with a solution from Zulama LLC that gets students engaged in the creation of their own learning. The high-tech, blended curriculum for middle- and high-schoolers was created exclusively for Zulama by faculty who teach those subjects to master’s students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center.

With in-depth teacher training, districts can offer the hands-on, project-based learning curriculum to incorporate programming, art, design, and storytelling. Students develop portfolios and skills to pursue careers not only in the gaming industry, but in a wide variety of other fields that combine creativity and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The focus on games takes a different approach with another of this year’s honorees, Memarden, Inc., which offers teachers and students the tools to develop games with their own content. With a few clicks, educators can customize their lessons to deliver a more student-centered learning experience through games that engage their students while providing differentiated instruction for special-needs children. Simplicity is critical when encouraging educators to try new approaches given their already busy schedules.

Kindergarten to eighth-grade teachers have another way to customize learning for their students through the one-to-one coaching model delivered by ZealLearning, Inc. Educators use the company’s resources for independent practice, small group or instructional centers where there is a need for greater differentiation, and after school. One user explained that Zeal is like having another teacher right in her classroom so students could receive individual assistance more quickly.

Another important way to keep students engaged in school is through their participation in extracurricular activities. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that participation has a positive correlation to the student’s attendance, GPA, test scores, and expected education goals. PlanetHS LLC has developed tools that bring together all aspects of student-life activities into one user-friendly and comprehensive system to improve parental communications, enhance participation, and gather essential data.

The growth of technology and social media is generally seen in a positive light, yet at times there can be a dark side that spells trouble for school administrators. That’s where a new resource, ICanHelpline, offers guidance to school districts on social media matters. This nonprofit’s solutions are currently in pilot programs in California, Georgia, and Washington state to address student or staff concerns like cyberbullying, sexting, and reputation issues. The identification of new technology solutions requires school leaders to develop thoughtful approaches that can evaluate the offerings of emerging companies and avoid the temptation to make a decision to stay with the familiar simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Keeping district learning goals and objectives at the forefront of the discussion is a great place to start. Asking questions to truly understand the impact on learning, and creating appropriate measures to evaluate the effectiveness of new solutions -- whether from a start-up or an established provider -- are essential.

Ann Lee Flynn ( is NSBA’s director of education technology.

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