Ed. Business Leaders Face Their Own 21st Century Learning Challenges

Associate Editor


How can ed-tech companies help a 20th century education system teach students 21st century skills?

It’s a question that more than 350 business leaders at EdNET 2015 were asked to consider as they gathered here to learn the latest about what K-12 districts need, and how to make sure their products show a positive impact on student learning.

Keynote speaker Rob Mancabelli, co-founder and CEO of BrightBytes, framed the conversation at the conference with that line of inquiry, telling attendees that they need to ask themselves, “How is my company poised for ‘exponential personalization’ in 2015?” 

A former teacher and school technology director, Mancabelli runs a fast-growing data research analytics company that helps districts make decisions based on the collection of data, and has more than “one trillion data points about what’s going on in schools in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Singapore,” he said.

Statistics from 2014 indicate that schools are struggling to adapt to the way students can learn exponentially fast outside of public education—simply by accessing the Internet for research, finding experts worldwide who can answer questions, and engaging with those specialists who are often willing to stay in touch with and mentor students online.

According to data from BrightBytes, some of the 21st century opportunities that students said they have missed in the classroom:

  • 81 percent were not asked to solve real-world problems in school
  • 91 percent were not asked to search social networks for answers
  • 71 percent never receive feedback online from an expert

Mancabelli said his company’s research also indicates that most teachers are not engaging in social networks themselves.

When people ask why schools are slow to change, Mancabelli said many point fingers at the educators. “But we found…it tends not to be the people. It tends to be the system itself,” he said, explaining that the system is not designed to give sufficient feedback to students for “exponential personalization” to take place.

Mancabelli asked: “How do we change a 20th century system” in which teachers develop the curriculum, instruction and assessment into one in which students curate their own content, measure their progress, and get their own feedback?

‘Crowdsolving’ Education Business Problems 

Mancabelli told the business leaders that they should consider inviting educators to “crowdsolve” issues with them. “Would educators who think they’re bridging the gap between 20th century learning and 21st century learning work for your company for free?,” he asked. 

By their very nature, teachers are eager to provide solutions. “They want to build your next product for you. They’ll do it for free, and they’ll do it gladly,” he said.

As evidence, Mancabelli shared the story of how a BrightBytes product was built. His company invited educators to a design workshop, where they learned from leading Silicon Valley designers in the morning, and then in the afternoon, the educators began to design a BrightBytes’ product. They reached out to people they knew on social media to generate even more ideas. 

When BrightBytes rolled out the product, it met with fast adoption. Nine percent of schools in the United States bought it in six months, according to the CEO. 

Besides enlisting school customers in the design of products, Mancabelli said education businesses need to do their homework to personalize their approach to working with schools. State education agencies and districts are not generic, he said.

For example, ed-tech companies need to ask themselves, “How much do I know about this specific school prior to a software implementation?” 

Whatever they do, education companies can help schools accomplish their mission of “delivering 21st century learning,”—even when that seems like fitting a square peg into a round hole, he said.

See our coverage of EdNET in previous years:


One thought on “Ed. Business Leaders Face Their Own 21st Century Learning Challenges

  1. Rob, when you say, "But we found…it tends not to be the people. It tends to be the system itself" I am amazed! So if it wasn’t the people was it the buildings, the grass, the busses, what? Sorry but systems are PEOPLE. If people would make different decisions the "system" would be different. The fact is we educators ARE the problem but we a also the solutions. If we will change our behaviors we will be more successful. Success is NOT a new product or new tool, it is a new BEHAVIOR by teachers and leaders. The greatest responsibility of educational leaders is to engage the teachers in a plan for improvement. Not a policy, but a conversation and a collective commitment.

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