Putting Maryland edtech on the map
How do you build an industry that barely existed two years ago?
That was the challenge before about several dozen people involved in education, technology and economic development who gathered recently for a forum put on by the Chesapeake Regional Tech Council titled “Mapping the Maryland EdTech Landscape.”
Maryland, and Baltimore specifically, have become a hotbed in recent years for startup companies developing “apps” to help with teaching, learning and school administration. The people involved in the industry foresee a day when edtech could employ thousands here as technology makes deeper inroads into classrooms and homes. And people in a position to take big bets on that prospect are taking notice: Nationally, nearly $740 million in venture capital was invested in education-related companies last year and the first quarter of this year outpaced that all-time record, according to Pitchbook. Ask “why here?” and people involved point to a collaborative technology community and a history of successful education companies such as Sylvan Learning, Laureate International Universities and Prometric testing.
“What I love about Baltimore is we really care about the ‘double bottom line,’” said Katrina Stevens, a former teacher who writes for an edtech blog called EdSurge. “You have to have companies that are sustainable and profitable, but we also really care about student impact.” She described a “summit” in Harbor East last February that attracted 900 teachers and “edu-preneurs” as a “groundhog” moment: “Everyone looked up at the same time and realized a lot of people in this region are invested in this.
Technology should be an engine for job creation, and not a wedge for inequity, said Frank Bonsal III, a former teacher and coach who became a venture capitalist and last year was named Towson University’s first director of entrepreneurship.
“We need to be cognizant that digital literacy doesn’t increase the divide between haves and have nots,” he said. “We have a unique opportunity to develop an ecosystem in Maryland, but doing so takes about 20 years and we’re in year three. We have to be extremely mission-driven.”
Part of the challenge for a little-known field is marketing, said Todd Marks, also a former teacher who built a mobile and web app development company in Baltimore called Mindgrub Technologies. IT security, for example, had existed for many years, he said, but after being recast as “cybersecurity,” and fueled by some very prolific threats and breaches, the industry has grown into a significant employer.
Andrew Coy’s work at the Digital Harbor Foundation in South Baltimore has become a beacon in edtech locally. He helped turn a closed rec center into an after-school tech learning program where students designing web sites on contract have earned hourly pay that eclipses what their parents make. That has opened the students’ eyes to future possibilities, he said.
“The kids want something that matters. We have to develop the capacity for informal learning,” he said, discussing perhaps the future edtech workforce. “I remind people that the Internet was built by people who never went to school to build the Internet.”