Ed-Tech Startup Conference Pushes Boundaries

Today’s guest post is written by Eileen Rudden, Co-founder of LearnLaunch. LearnLaunch Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing student achievement through the adoption of digital technologies. LearnLaunch Institute connects educators, entrepreneurs, learners, investors, and industry affiliates in the education innovation ecosystem.  Find her on twitter @eileenrudden.


It’s hard to believe that we are preparing for the  the fifth LearnLaunch Across Boundaries conference.

Four years ago, three starry-eyed innovators said to each other, “Let’s bring together a broad cross-section of people interested in how digital technologies can be harnessed to improve student achievement.”

We believed that innovation often occurs at the boundaries of disciplines, ways of thinking, or segments of the ed sector. Together with the MIT Sloan School Education Club, we planned and hosted our first Across Boundaries Conference; bringing together educators, entrepreneurs and ed industry folks.

Anthony Kim of Education Elements, John Katzman of 2U, Seth Reynolds of Parthenon and Anant Agarwal of edX were our keynote speakers. Four years later, these leaders are still charting a path for education innovation. Of the entrepreneurs who have appeared at the conference, some are thriving, and some have closed shop or combined with others.

In 2013, more than 300 entrepreneurs joined us. This year more than 1,000 will participate in Across Boundaries, co-hosted by MIT. Because of this growth, we have graduated from the Harvard Business School campus to the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. As the use of ed tech has grown, so has our Across Boundaries Conference.

The theme of the first conference in 2013 was “Innovation and the Future of Education.” That was the beginning of a conversation that has not abated. That conference marked the “Year of the MOOC,” and while views about MOOCs’ promise and power have swung over time, growth has been strong. So this year we are hosting a session entitled, “The Changing Landscape of MOOCs in Higher Ed.”

The conference has sometimes forged ahead of the path of the ed-tech sector. In 2014, we addressed the question, “How can ed-tech scale student success?” This is something that is still being asked and worked on today. Last year, with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Business School we addressed a new question: “Are we digitizing past practice or moving toward personalized learning?” It’s a conversation that will continue to play out over the coming years.

This year the event’s theme is “Personalizing Pathways to Learning and Careers.” It’s a particularly important focus as the sector moves from an emphasis on K-12 and higher education toward a broader lens, including adult learning, corporate training, workforce development and lifelong learning.

Some topics are evergreen. Game-based learning, ed-tech investor input, sales tips, superintendents’ hot seat, tech infrastructure, research, higher education, CIO feedback, and strategic partnerships are all perennial subjects for discussion.

Others are more unique. For example, competency-based education has emerged more prominently, along with problem-based learning and personalized learning, all with a technology focus. We have seen the emergence of video tutoring and support, and are now watching as technology allows students to access the real world through experiential learning. Social emotional learning, school climate, and culture are all also in the spotlight. And the emergence of the STEM focus, coding, internet of things, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality are evident in changes in the program over time. The importance of technology standards and the rise of software “suites” are current topics.

Despite the rapid adoption of Google Apps for Education and the Chromebook over the past four years, our audiences have remained cautious around K-12 tech adoption. We take an annual poll of conference participants, and over the past three years attendees’ judgment about whether 80 percent of K-12 would be 1-to-1 with devices in five years has shifted. That number moved from 22 percent to 28 percent to 31 percent. The attendees’ judgment on whether 80 percent of college freshman would experience adaptive learning within five years has stayed stable or declined going from 72 percent to 68 percent and then 69 percent. These are innovators leading transformation at all stages of learning. It will be interesting to see what they say this year.

We hope to see you at the fifth LearnLaunch Across Boundaries Conference, co-sponsored by the MIT Office of Digital Learning, Feb 2 and 3, at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.

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