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event recap: the great debate: the role of tech in shaping 21st century classrooms

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Event Recap: The Great Debate: The Role of Tech in Shaping 21st Century Classrooms

On the evening of December 15, bay-area educators and education innovators came together at Runway Incubator in downtown San Francisco for The Great Debate: The Role of Tech in Shaping 21st Century Classrooms. The panel, organized by social nonprofit SF+Acumen and sponsored by the Runway-Michelson EdTech Accelerator and AT&T Aspire, brought together several leaders from the Education Technology, or EdTech, sector.

The event took over half of Runway's space on the 4th floor of the Art Deco building that houses Twitter and Yammer. During the opening cocktail hour, educators and education entrepreneurs mingled and networked over scarce snacks, tackling the handful of hot pizzas like a band of spotted hyenas. The demo tables reflected companies ranging from NewSchools Venture-backed NearPod, which makes an iPad app for rich video content aimed at K12 teachers and students, to Edmodo, the private social network that helps teachers connect with each other and with their students in a secure, Facebook-like setting.

The panel featured Dan Carroll, co-founder of education app platform Clever, Lynzi Ziegenhagen, the CEO of school data analytics startup Schoolzilla, ClassDojo Co-Founder and CEO Sam Chaudhary, and Kosar Jahani, Impact Manager at online digital skills training startup Samaschool. Betsy Corcoran, Co-Founder and CEO of the leading EdTech magazine, EdSurge, moderated the panel, which - perhaps unsurprisingly, given the panelists' fields of expertise - focused heavily on the importance of using data effectively and managing it securely and the need to ensure equity in education initiatives across race, gender, and wealth divides.

"Data is like money - you need both security and accessibility," noted Ziegenhagen, whose startup Schoolzilla works to provide both of those things, with services including data warehousing, secure sharing, and visualizations all aimed at K-12 schools. Noting that essentially every digital tool carries a privacy policy, the panelists pondered who should be allowed to weigh privacy risks and liabilities against educational benefits - the parents, the schools, or the federal government. When Corcoran turned the question over to the audience, some holdouts from among the teacher- and entrepreneur-dominated group held out for other options, especically the students themselves.

This turned the discussion in another direction, as Jahani noted that "opting out" tended to "hurt those already worst-served." Jahani works for Samaschool, an online digital skills program focused on underserved communities. "Parents aren't necessarily in the best position to make these decisions," observed Chaudhary. Chaudhary's startup, ClassDojo, offers a messaging platform that securely connects teachers with their students' parents to facilitate ongoing communication.

Educational equity was one of the themes of the evening, alongside privacy, teacher empowerment, and skills mastery. The idea of themes was itself also present: Corcoran started the discussion with a recap of the pre-panel brainstorm she'd held with the panelists, and Clever's Carroll reflected that where privacy and security had been the big challenges of 2014, "what we've seen in 2015 is that innovation can continue while responding" to these concerns. Carroll's startup, Clever, is one of the major innovators in the data-security space, offering a secure API through which schools and districts can manage student data while working with a wide variety of education apps. Teachers like Clever because it enables secure single-sign on, which means that students spend less precious class time logging in.

Thinking about how to best leverage technology to improve education and not cheapen it was high among the group's concerns. As Clever's Carroll argued, "for poor students, technology means replacing teachers, whereas for rich students, technology means enhancing their curriculum." But regardless of their position, the panelists - and audience - were all in agreement about the importance of technology in the classroom, and especially the importance of teaching technology skills. As Samaschool's Jahani put it, "digital literacy is a requirement regardless of what your job is."

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