Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Thoughts from the Close It Summit

Two weeks ago I attended the second annual Close It Summit, in the cool capital city of DC. The “it” in Close It refers to the skills gap - the difference between the skills and credentials that employers want, and the skills and credentials that job seekers actually have. In particular the conference focused on the many unemployed who don’t have college or even high school degrees, but are still motivated to have a successful career.

I didn’t expect the conference to align exactly with School Shaped’s mission; the speakers focused more on adult education than K-12. However, as the schedule proceeded I realized that the skills gap was really just the continuation of the K-12 achievement gap. The hard working adults using the tools at the conference were once the underserved students graduating (or not) from our K-12 schools. Many of the products there proclaimed they could get an unemployed client job-ready in six months, after our K-12 system failed to do this in 13 years.

The good news is that there are some great schools and businesses with impressive solutions for both the skills and achievement gaps (see below for some from the conference). There is, however, an important difference between the adult and K-12 markets. For the K-12 market, it’s often not the users of a product that are purchasing, whether those users are students, teachers or administrators. Thus it’s possible for unintuitive and misinformed products to end up in schools. In contrast, market forces operate pretty effectively in an adult market. The users of the products are the ones paying, and thus capitalism prevails in all its Darwinian greatness.

This may be one of the reasons that edtech for adults imparts skills in six months that K-12 tech has trouble teaching in years. Noel Enyedy with the National Education Policy Center points out, “We cannot trust market forces alone to sort out which systems are effective” for K-12 edtech. Rather, he suggests direct partnerships between developers and school communities to help users who can’t vote with their dollar, vote with their words instead. By providing this kind of partnership, I think School Shaped is doing its part to help close the achievement gap, and ensure the skills gap doesn't exist for the next generation.

Some great products from the conference:

Mentored: Online mentoring for K-12. This is pretty hard space, due to safety concerns with student tutoring, and the difficulty of growing a product is associated with homework. However Mentored is totally nailing it by making the process of connecting with a mentor easy and fast.

Kuepa: Online courses for the underemployed. Kuepa courses get users ready for entry level jobs, and they charge only a low, monthly fee for all of them. They started in South America and had great success there. Now they are getting into the American market, focusing on spanish speaking english language learners.

Axonify: Platform for corporate learning. Axonify applies learning science to on the job training, using spaced repetition and gamification to making lessons effective and engaging. The results speak for themselves: Pep Boys used Axonify and saw a 45% reduction in incidents, with 95% of employees regularly using the system.

Andela: Pipeline for talented programmers in Africa to become remote employees for American companies. Andela trains talented African programmers, and then connects them with startups and Fortune 500 companies in America. The employees they provide are some of the best around, and help companies here rethink who and how they hire.

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