From Teacher to TechieMarch 21, 2016
The email that launched Milken Educator Maggie Knutson's ed tech career landed in her inbox on June 8, 2015 and came from Dr. Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards.
Jason Young, a 2000 Milken Scholar and the founder of MindBlown Labs in Oakland, California, was looking for a professional educator to help the company launch Thrive 'n' Shine, an educational app game designed to teach middle school and high school students financial literacy. Foley forwarded Young's job description, titled Educator Experience Lead, to the Milken Educator email list.
For Knutson, who had moved from the midwest to the San Francisco Bay Area with her family in 2009 and was teaching in Berkeley, the timing was right. "I was ready for a new challenge," she says. "I knew that my path was going to lead me somewhere else. I was trying to stay open to new possibilities."
Right challenge, right time
Though she had not specifically considered working in educational technology, the MindBlown Labs job seemed like an exceptionally good fit. Thrive 'n' Shine, unlike many parent- and consumer-focused educational apps, was specifically intended to be used in a classroom setting, with the students' game experience led by a teacher. The company needed someone to design the teacher experience, write curriculum to accompany the game, recruit teachers to test the technology, oversee classroom pilots, and present at conferences.
"They were interested in bringing value to teachers' and students' lives, and it was clear that Jason and his team wanted to honor teachers as professional decision-makers and instructional designers," Knutson says. "I liked that they were highlighting the value of a teacher rather than the value of the technology." Knutson joined MindBlown Labs in June 2015.
Moving into ed tech has definitely provided Knutson with the challenge she was seeking, so it's helpful that she actually likes operating outside her comfort zone. In addition to immersing herself in game-based learning and app design, she's also had to adapt to significant culture change. Example: At one point she went back to her old school to oversee usability testing. On her way in, colleagues, students and parents showered her with warm greetings and hugs, and the kids interacted enthusiastically with Thrive 'n' Shine in the classroom. Then she headed back to the office — where, just like in the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, nine engineers with earbuds sat hunched over their computers, staring at their screens and typing away in silence.
One area where Knutson had to play catchup: her own personal technology skills. She learned to schedule meetings through the company's online calendar, give remote presentations with screen-sharing, even participate as a panelist on a webinar — even though, until this job, she'd never even attended one.
But many of the skills Knutson honed in the classroom and as an administrator have added value to her role at MindBlown Labs. "At first, I would create presentations that were full of educational theory and quotes from researchers that supported what we're doing," she says. "Then I realized that all I really need to do when I present at conferences or to sponsors is to be a teacher. We teachers are skilled at reading our audiences. We know when people are listening and whether they get it — and, if they don't, we know how to meet them where they are and bring them to a place of understanding and agreement."
Thanks to Knutson and the MindBlown Labs team, Thrive 'n' Shine is taking off. Educators in nine countries have requested passwords, including Malaysia, China, Ukraine, South Korea, India, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. And game play is increasing exponentially each month as more teachers find ways to incorporate the game into lessons on personal finance, either during the school day or as extra credit. "This has been a huge growth opportunity for me," Knutson says.
Laying the groundwork: Maggie’s advice
Like Knutson, teachers who think about transitioning into the fast-growing world of ed tech bring important subject-matter expertise to the table. But that's not the only thing needed to succeed in StartupLand. We asked Knutson to share suggestions for how teachers can prepare for this kind of career change. Her tips:
Get familiar with different kinds of ed tech tools that are used in the classroom. Try them with your students. Having insights as an actual user is really valuable.
As you use different tech tools in your class, pay attention to your own user experience as well as that of your students. How easy is it to get started? How intuitive is it? How are content and skills integrated into the student experience? Is there a teacher dashboard or other teacher resources? Is there a website for teachers? How intuitive is the website? Are there any friction points in your experience?
Make sure your own tech skills are current. Do you know how to screen share, attend a webinar, utilize social media, create a website, generate and use analytics and data, create Powerpoints and Prezis?
Try to move into tech leadership roles in your school or district so that you can experience working with teachers to integrate technology in their classrooms.
Learn to use Google apps like Sheets, Docs, Forms, and advanced Calendar features.
Create a professional presence on LinkedIn. List all related tech positions, training and experiences. Request online recommendations for your LinkedIn profile from current and former colleagues highlighting your ed tech background.
Be prepared to get out of your comfort zone and learn new things. The ed tech culture is completely different from school culture! Collaborating across teams (sales, art, engineering, design, sales) can be challenging but is also really fun.
Remember that your teaching expertise DOES translate outside of the classroom. The skills teachers develop in the classroom give them many advantages in the business world. They know how to engage audiences, design learning experiences and assessments, break down and communicate information and ideas — all crucial skills in business.
Read up on the industry. Set up Google alerts with keywords related to the area of ed tech that you want to enter so that you can stay current on related news. Also look at resources like eClassroomNews, EdSurge, EdWeek, Education Entrepreneurs, EDUKWEST, Getting Smart, Hack Education, Teach 100, and ImagineK12.
Note: Knutson and MindBlown Labs are looking for more teachers to use Thrive 'n' Shine with students to help kids learn about managing expenses, saving, budgeting and other financial literacy skills. There is no charge for teachers, students or schools. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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