Edtech Meetup

Let's plug little Johnny into the Matrix.

September 12, 2018
Edtech Meetup
Edtech Meetup

I recently attended a panel hosted by the Irish International Business Network (IIBN) New York Chapter and Digital Irish titled “Back to School: EdTech.”

Here is the description of the event:

Education is the second largest sector of the US economy; however, it has changed less quickly than any other. Join IIBN-NY and Digital Irish on September 12th to hear how edtech utilizing AI, blockchain, VR is transforming the future of education and workforce training.

The moderator was Michelle Dervan, Principal at ReThink Education. The panelists were Aoife Dempsey (CEO, Waggle), Barry O’Neill (CEO, Touch Press), and Terry Nealon (SVP & GM of Follett Classroom Solutions).


The event took place at Alley Chelsea, a workspace/community area in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. Alley touts themselves as not simply a mere coworking space, but a “platform” (for what, I’m not sure).

Highlights and notes

To provide context for the discussion to follow, the audience was presented with a video produced by BBC Worldhacks: “Schools of the Future”

After the video, the panel opened into a lively discussion.

Here are my notes:

EdTech Pitches

Finally, we heard brief rundowns from a few tech companies. Here are two I found interesting.

My thoughts


Whenever I hear an abundance of buzzwords (#AI, #Blockchain, #VR, #AR) attached to a thing, I’m skeptical. We see it frequently with new tech: enthusiasm and hype build but go nowhere. Indeed, AI as a concept has been around for decades with the big breakthrough perpetually just around the corner.

How is this latest resurgence of AI any different from those that came before? Are edtech companies for real? Or are they baiting venture capitalists and school districts with flashy buzzwords? In the context of education, how can this “new” generation of tech help a child understand The Catcher in the Rye or solve quadratic equations? How can it help teachers teach this material?

The problem edtech seeking to solve

The problem, according to the panelists, involves teachers and students alike. Teachers are overworked, and burn out is high. Students lack material appropriate to their learning level and style. There is a set curriculum, and classes are taught against it—regardless of each student’s ability.

Artificial “Intelligence”

Part of the solution, according to edtech companies, involves the use of artificial intelligence—essentially computer programs, or algorithms—that perform predictive analysis.

What is predictive analysis? According to Wikipedia,

Predictive analytics encompasses a variety of statistical techniques from predictive modeling, machine learning, and data mining that analyze current and historical facts to make predictions about future or otherwise unknown events.

AI is great at learning patterns. Applied to the classroom, AI can quickly process patterns in the learning environment and generate highly-accurate student profiles. With this data, material students are presented with can be made hyper-relevant, or even personal. Meanwhile, teachers prioritize time more efficiently (if you only had 20 minutes with your students, you know exactly where to spend it). Data can be used to drive instruction.

Since teachers simply don’t have enough time or energy to devote personalized attention and analysis to every single student, I can see the obvious benefit.

Alt Schools

The main platform for testing and developing these ideas are Alt Schools. Alt schools are essentially a research product, or incubator environment, for this student-centric approach to teaching and learning. Alt schools apply concepts used in the big data space—bringing them into the sphere of education.

Near the end of the discussion, one audience member asked, “How do edtech companies make money?” The answer from the panel was that they sell their product to school districts. While school districts frequently have limited budgets, there are funds reserved to solve “failing outcomes.” I interpret this to mean that schools set aside discretionary money for new or unique projects that could help in any way possible.


Blockchain technology was only lightly discussed. The primary use of this technology is systems that synthesize student performance data into a highly-accurate and robust student profile. This profile would follow students throughout their educational career, helping teachers, admins and students themselves track progress on a long time-scale.


This was a fascinating panel. While I still believe the ideal solution to the problems presented by the panel is more teachers (who have more support financially and administratively), the solutions presented were realistic and practical, and in the end, forced me to put some of my initial skepticism to the side.

It’s impossible to predict how this new generation of tech will impact education in the coming decades, but if it can help teachers and their students today, perhaps that’s a good place to start.

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