“The trend of offering individualized education plans, curricula, and lessons is going to help students tremendously. “Teaching to the middle” is one of the saddest concepts I’ve ever heard about.” – Mike Lee, USA
Mike Lee calls himself a jack-of-all-trades, and it seems like a more-than-fair description. With a formal education in marketing, communications, media and management and experience in entrepreneurship, psychology, sociology, community-building, software development, project management and conflict resolution (to name just a few areas), Lee now finds himself in the thick of what he terms the “new revolution in education technology.” Lee is co-founder and CEO of edshelf, a directory of websites, mobile apps, and desktop software that are rated and reviewed by educators, for educators. “We decrease the friction of using and procuring effective technology into the classroom,” Lee says. “This mission is the culmination of nearly a decade of dreaming and scheming.”
This isn’t Lee’s first foray into starting a technology company. In 2008, he co-founded the web development agency WebMocha, and also previously co-founded MoodThingy and Chromonica. But he’s particularly interested in the possibilities for technology in education, and he’s committed to helping schools and teachers make sense of it all. Here, Lee shares his perspective on the “new revolution,” and offers some tips to other entrepreneurs seeking to make a difference for education.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
We are at the cusp of a new revolution in education technology. One of the differentiating characteristics of this revolution from previous ones is the shift of purchase influence from district administrators to teachers and students. Education technology is increasingly getting into classrooms and homes because of the word of mouth between teachers and students, instead of sales teams, corporate marketing, and district buyers.
This shift presents new challenges in:
- Discovery – How do teachers and students find new technologies? How do they know which ones are genuinely effective?
- Procurement – How do teachers and students buy these technologies if budgets are centralized at the district level?
- Usage – How do teachers and students learn how to use a new technology if they adopt it themselves, before their IT teams have a chance to learn how to use it themselves?
Our system will solve this for educators of all kinds.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
We are still a new startup, though we are already in over 1,300 schools and helping teachers discover and share new technologies. Other features are in the works.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
We use whatever technologies we reasonably can to provide friendly, usable, and meaningful user experiences. Since educators do not have the time to learn complex user interfaces, so we aim to be as easy to use as possible. In other words, we use technology to craft a desirable experience, not for the sake of technology itself.
Though we have released only 10% of our full vision, we’re thrilled that educators are already enjoying our work.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
If you look at the macro view of the history of technology, you’ll see that it started with a machine-centric view. This was because technology was in its infancy, and the easiest way to program technology was to speak its language. Today, technology is becoming increasingly social. It is getting closer and closer to mirroring human behavior. The rise of natural user interfaces, such as touch screens, voice commands, and even brain commands, all herald a more human-centric view of technology.
I have never believed that technology is a panacea for education’s woes. Technology is merely a tool. What excites me is that this tool is rapidly improving, as is our understanding and maturity in using it. This means there will be new ways to educate our youth. And for education technology companies, this means there will be many opportunities for innovations to come.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Speaking to another entrepreneur interested in making a difference in education, I would say that opportunities abound. It may seem like a daunting space, but it is a very meaningful one that has a chance at having a true societal impact.
My advice would be to:
- Strive to understand your customers, both the end-users (e.g. teachers, students, parents, etc.), and the buyers (e.g. district administrators, budget officers, parents, etc.). And place a special emphasis on the end-users.
- Strive to understand the education market and its trends, as well as political and economic factors. This market is akin to the enterprise market and is influenced by state and federal laws and policies. Keep an eye on them all.
- Strive to understand education theory. Many people mistakenly think they know how to solve the problems in education because they were a student once. If you are/were an educator or have an educator on your founding team, great. If not, pick up a few books and subscribe to a few blogs on education theory.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
The trend of offering individualized education plans, curricula, and lessons is going to help students tremendously. “Teaching to the middle” is one of the saddest concepts I’ve ever heard about, yet it is practiced daily because it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to teach with different paces and styles in a crowded classroom. Technology is but one solution in individualizing education. It is not the only solution, but it can help.
At the same time, an over-reliance on technology can also hurt a student’s education. Human interaction is crucial for building one’s emotional and social intelligence. As technology becomes more social, the risk may decrease, but subtle human interaction cues – such as body language and facial expressions – may not translate as well.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
I don’t mean to be overly self-promotional, but I would give every child and their parents an account on edshelf. Through edshelf, each learner can discover a world of education technologies that match the learner’s particular background, skills, and education path.
Since the education technology field is going through another revolution, hundreds of tools are coming onto the market. Some are great, but many are not. Our system will allow learners the ability to sift through the dirt to find the few gems they can use. In other words, I don’t think there’s a single educational tool that is right for every child in the world. Everyone is different, and the right tool for one child may not be the right tool for another.
About Mike Lee
- Birthplace: New York City, New York
- Current residence: San Francisco Bay Area, California
- Education: New York University
- Website I check every day: Hacker News
- Person who inspires me most: My wife, an ER doctor at a children’s hospital, who is constantly dealing with life and death issues with children
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? Earlier today, after looking at a funny face my newborn daughter made
- Favorite book: Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
- Favorite music: Heavy metal
- Your favorite quote or motto: Have the courage to change that which I can, the serenity to accept that which I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.