When Nikki Navta, founder and CEO of edtech company Zulama, was testing Zulama’s login system in classrooms five years ago, there was a hiccup right out of the gate.
The company included the standard username and password login, but schools blocked students from logging into personal email accounts to retrieve an activation link—and logging in through a social media account was out of the question. Plus, students had a difficult time remembering their passwords. Zulama wasn’t able to get students into their system at all.
“We thought, ‘Wow, we’re operating in a whole different world here,’” Navta said. “‘We’re not going to make any more assumptions.’”
The company started asking teachers for their input, beginning a close collaboration with educators. Today, Zulama is used in more than 50 schools throughout the United States and internationally, including Elizabeth Forward High School in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, and West Allegheny High School in Pittsburgh. Matched with a thorough teacher-training process, Zulama’s Entertainment Technology Academy teaches students the principles of game design through hands-on projects with the goal of recharging their engagement with school.
Zulama grew alongside Pittsburgh’s expanding edtech scene, which is forming around a small hub of startups popping up in new coworking spaces and tech incubators throughout the city. Like Zulama, several key players in the city’s tech scene have found that listening and collaborating with the people who will use their products—teachers and students—are invaluable in building products that work.
Ever since Tom Lauwers, founder of BirdBrain Technologies, started commercializing the Hummingbird Robotics Kit in 2010, which he originally developed at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, he too has witnessed the edtech scene in Pittsburgh grow around him.
Lauwers said he has used Pittsburgh as the “test bed” for new products before scaling nationally, partnering with educators almost every step of the way. BirdBrain recently started shipping its new Hummingbird Kit Duo, which was shaped by the feedback from a number of Pittsburgh teachers who have been using the product for years.
“Many of the same teachers who have worked with us in the past have provided us tons and tons of advice in terms of how could we improve,” he said. “Most of those people [who have been giving me feedback] have been in Pittsburgh, because I see them around and at Kids+Creativity Network events. Because the events and network exists, that’s what helps me connect more easily with people who are, in a way, my customers, but also my co-developers.”
A similar idea exchange happens monthly during the meetings of the Meetup group, Ed Tech PGH. Courtney Francis, the organizer of the group and co-organizer of the upcoming Startup Weekend Education Pittsburgh, has worked in the edtech field for 10 years. She said the group’s 241 members are fairly evenly split between educators and technologists and that the goals of the group speak to each group’s unique interests.
“It’s such a complex ecosystem,” Francis said. “There are people who are developing technology for a classroom that have never set foot in a classroom. There’s such a complex system around doing this effectively that I think people really want to do it right. Working on the tech side, I’ve seen clearly that there needs to be 360 degrees of support for developing this kind of technology.”
For example: At one open forum, technologists had the chance to showcase their work and receive teacher feedback.
“There were a lot of lightbulbs that went off,” Francis said. For one thing, technologists weren’t aware of the really low budgets for tech in the classroom, and some didn’t understand how many schools’ sluggish internet connections can’t run web-based applications well. Others weren’t aware of how difficult implementation can be.
Although getting ed and tech in the same room can be eye opening for the tech side, the reverse can be true as well.
“The collaborative aspect is really important,” Francis explained. She said introducing teachers to the process of development can both broaden their perspectives and introduce new tools to teachers who are interested in using different technology in their classrooms.
Sales vs. Learning: Can Goals Really Align?
Although there’s a healthy back-and-forth between educators and technologists in the group, Francis said some educators have been “burned” before by poor implementation or products that don’t serve their needs. Not all of the estimated $7.9 billion pre-K–12 edtech market in the United States is made well. Seeing gaps or becoming frustrated, many teachers have struck out on their own to develop products. But Francis believes that teachers’ priorities of learning outcomes and technologists’ goals of creating great products can be aligned. Ideally, products are going to sell better if they really work.
But collaboration across sectors isn’t just key for tech to work better in schools. As Jesse Schell, founder of Schell Games, told Barbara Ray in an interview, collaboration across sectors is how new ideas pop up in all disciplines.
“Interdisciplinary collaboration is where the best and newest innovations are coming from,” said Schell.
Zulama’s Navta sees the growth of the city’s edtech scene, and the emerging partnerships, as running parallel to an overall renaissance of Pittsburgh.
“Along with this revitalization, there’s been a lot of opportunities to imagine what Pittsburgh can be like in the future. And I think that’s carried over into our educational community,” Navta said, adding that the same is true in the edtech field, where new coworking spaces—like the one Zulama is in—have helped form a community that works off one another.
“Now we have the physical spaces for very small companies to set up shop, talk to each other, and share successes and failures.”