3 reasons why the Blended Learning & Technology Conference totally rocked

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Teachers at HiBLC making and publishing their own games in Gamestar Mechanic while I make goofy faces in the front of the classroom.

Last weekend, I headed up to Providence, Rhode Island to represent E-Line Media at the Second Annual Blended Learning & Technology Conference (hashtag HiBLC). This event is put on by the Highlander Institute and headed up by super teacher and Metryx founder Shawn Rubin, who is leading the charge to bridge the gap between educators and the edtech industry.

Geeking out with classroom teachers about education technology is seriously one of favorite activities…so, my expectations for this event were pretty high. I’m happy to report that Shawn and his team completely exceeded my expectations. Here are the top three reasons why the Blended Learning & Technology Conference totally rocked:

1. Educators and industry folks talking on the real. In addition to keynotes and talks, HiBLC had tons of smaller roundtables and un-conferences where the format was discussion rather than presentation…sharing and learning rather than pitching. In these sessions, educators talked about how they are using technology to meet classroom challenges, what’s working and what is totally horrible. These kinds of user stories provide the most valuable learning experiences for people who make education technology.

2. High flying teachers. Next year, HiBLC should get a red carpet and media wall, because this event was full of Blended Learning superstars. Like Dan Callahan, Founder of EdCamp and the K-5 Instructional Technology Specialist at Burlington Public Schools. What Dan and his students at Pine Glen Elementary are doing with screencasts will blow your mind. Seriously, check it out. Also he and his students did this awesome Harlem Shake video…the dude in the mask is the principal.

3. An awesome BYOD talk from a district leader (OMGs) given during the lunchtime keynote by Jean Tower, the Director of Technology at Public Schools of Northborough & Southborough. The gist: BYOD is coming, the sky will not fall, in fact, you will love it. It will save you money, it will be easier for students and teachers. BYOD success will come to districts and schools who “manage the people part of it not the technology part of it.”

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The Engagement Challenge

One of the key drivers of E-Line’s vision is to address the increasing lack of engagement with youth in school. School dropout rates across the country have reached epidemic proportions, and America is falling behind our competitor nations on math, science and literacy scores. As a result, the nation’s prominence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation faces a very real threat. Underlying this crisis are the following statistics:

  • 7,000 students drop out of school every day (more than 1 million every year)
  • 1/3 of public high school students fail to graduate
  • 1/2 of African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic high school students fail to graduate

While there is no single cause driving student dropout, one overarching factor is the lack of motivation and relevance most adolescents report in assessing their school environments. In a 2006 study conducted for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 69% of students said they were not motivated or inspired in school. They expressed feelings of being disconnected and bored, and doubted the real-world relevance of their classes. The economic and social impact of this problem is massive in terms of unemployment, public assistance and public health. A lack of education also has direct results on the stability of the nation and the potential for communities to thrive. As evidence, nearly 50% of African-American males who drop out of school end up in prison.

Game-based learning has emerged as one of the most promising areas of innovation in making academic content more engaging and relevant for America’s youth, and in promoting the types of skills demanded by growing numbers of employers. A recent white paper by the New Media Institute outlines the value of such learning. According to its author: “Harness the power of well-designed games to achieve specific learning goals, and the result is a workforce of highly motivated learners who avidly engage with and practice applying problem-solving skills.” Indeed, computer and video games have shown promise in promoting inquiry, literacy, creativity, collaboration, problem solving and system design skills needed to learn standards-based content, develop an understanding of STEM concepts, and build critical skills that are essential for preparing youth for successful high school completion, college success and, eventually, 21st century careers.

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Kids in Columbia, MD, helping each other learn with Gamestar Mechanic.

BEM: Or Before E-Line Media

Even those who know us well sometimes don’t know that before there was E-Line Media, there was E-Line Ventures. E-Line Ventures was conceived by founders Michael Angst and Alan Gershenfeld with the vision of angel investing in digital media that could engage and empower youth. We wanted to create proof points of companies that could find the organic alignment between making money and making meaningful social impact. Based on these proof points, the plan was to raise a double-bottom-line fund focused on impact games and, possibly, other youth media platforms. We studied a number of media sectors and ultimately concluded that we could make the most impact with a primary focus on computer and video games.

After looking at more than hundred potential investment opportunities, it was clear that there is a gap in publishing expertise within the ecosystem of learning and social impact games. We found leading commercial game industry and educational publishers reluctant to embrace these projects because the risk profile is too high and the teams leading these projects lack certain core skills and assets required to support impact-focused games. Despite a growing number of venture capitalists that want to invest in the educational space, most projects lack investable management teams to attract venture capital. Until more experienced management teams demonstrate evidence of market traction or can refer to success stories in the sector, venture investors will continue to watch from the sidelines.

This is a visual that summarizes what we observed:

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To help realize the potential for digital games to make meaningful learning impact and to help scale the overall sector, we felt we could be most effective as a publisher of game-based learning products and services. Our E-Line Ventures investment approach became the E-Line Media publishing approach, with a new goal to create a double-bottom line company founded specifically with the mission of scaling research-based learning platforms in a manner that balances financial sustainability, affordability, and reach to underserved communities. We hope that we will create commercial proof points as well as methodologies that can help rise the overall sector of game-based learning and ultimately positively effect more youth.

The Blog Launches

In the last five years since launching E-Line Media, we have witnessed an incredible shift in perspective about the value of games for learning. Supported by a wealth of research and strong quantitative and qualitative feedback, the educational system has come to embrace games as an incredible way to motivate students’ interest in a variety of learning areas. Here at E-Line, we have been extremely pleased and encouraged by the number of teachers who have excitedly adopted Gamestar Mechanic, our first game-based learning product that has now been used by more than 350,000 youth and is in over 4,000 schools and after-school programs. We have also been excited to see the number of very strong learning games that have emerged from academia, organizations and studios focusing on educational and social impact games.

While we continue to see the power of games explored in a variety of positive ways, we believe that a place is necessary where we can share the many ideas, perspectives, tools, resources and research that are available and that will become available. We hope this blog will be just that. We are modeling this blog after a lab – a place for exploration, discussion, trial and error. We encourage those who are interested in games for learning or who are participants in the space to be contributors to this site. We look forward to building it with you.