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Tara García Mathewson


Student Ed Tech Entrepreneurs Argue They Know What Classrooms Need

For example, a platform that is both a project management and learning documentation system

Published: Tuesday, July 30, 2019 - 12:02

The majority of educational technology is designed for student use. And it’s almost always designed by adults, few of whom consult with kids before they start mass-producing their products and selling them to schools. The disconnect is not lost on Brandon Goon.

Goon, now 20, dropped out of his high-performing New Jersey high school as a junior. He was bored, and he found himself learning far more interesting things outside of school than inside it. As a student, he saw a lot of products aimed at supporting student-centered learning, but created by adults who only thought they knew what kids liked.

“They don’t really understand that I don’t want to use Instagram for the classroom,” Goon says. “Some of those things can be more engaging than your traditional, boring dashboard, but at the end of the day, I want to do my Instagram on Instagram.”

He has gone on to create a platform called Be Anything to support project-based learning. It’s a cross between a project management system, like those used in the business world but customized for classrooms; and a learning documentation system, which gives students a central place to articulate what they learn during each stage of the project and build a portfolio of their accomplishments. Teachers can monitor student progress and give targeted feedback when students need it.

Goon started working on Be Anything right after he dropped out.

“I didn’t want to wait too long until I wasn’t in touch with what was going on in the classroom,” he says.

Goon has spent the last two years making his idea for Be Anything into a real platform that schools can use. Although the app still isn’t available for general use, a handful of schools around the country are already testing out the beta version.

A group of high schoolers at The Village School in Houston are on a similar path. They’re still in the idea phase, but they won the “Transforming Education Through Technology” category in this year’s Conrad Challenge, a global STEM and entrepreneurship contest for students in junior high and high school. Their goal is to develop an app that will help students prepare for class presentations with real-time, comprehensive feedback.

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Olivia Bangs, one of four rising seniors on that team, says they brainstormed ideas based on “pain points” in their own education. She thought about the schoolwork that was causing her stress and realized there were already apps that could help her prepare for Spanish tests or improve her grammar in her papers. But she had no idea how to prepare for an upcoming presentation.

“So many people are afraid of presentations,” Bangs says. “I know classmates who sit in class and are petrified to get called on.”

One of her teammates, Omar Imtiaz, says they could use artificial intelligence and machine learning to help people improve their presentation skills.

Dubbed VoxLion, their app-to-be will use AI to analyze a student’s recorded presentation, assessing hand movements, speaking volume, and eye contact. It would then give feedback based on the body language of good public speakers, and track students’ improvements over time.

Bangs and Imtiaz worked with Roberto Martelli and Divyesh Khatri for the Conrad Challenge, submitting their initial idea and then a business plan before the finals at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2019, where they gave an in-person pitch. This summer, they are working on a proof of concept and applying for a patent before starting to develop a functional app.

Other student teams in their category at the Conrad Challenge designed platforms to increase student engagement by emphasizing the “how” and “why” of what they learn; help girls master programming; create virtual reality learning opportunities; and embed SmartBoard technology in students’ desks.

Bangs believes students like her are well-positioned to come up with good ideas for ed tech.

“A lot of these products are made by adults who don’t really understand what kids need,” says Bangs.

Young people must overcome a fair amount of skepticism from adults in the business world, but the Houston team is already fielding interest from a lab at MIT interested in helping them bring their idea to life. And Goon is one of many young adults charting a path to market for student creations.

First published June 13, 2019, by The Hechinger Report.


About The Author

Tara García Mathewson’s picture

Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer for The Hechinger Report. As an independent journalist she has covered national education issues, immigration policy, Chicago’s Latino business community and more. She received the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice Journalism Fellowship in 2014 and the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship in 2017.