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Teacher On A Mission

December 22, 2011


My name is Jennie Dougherty. I am a teacher at one of the largest urban high schools East of the Mississippi. Everyday I work within the inequitable opportunities given to students from districts with limited resources. Last summer I went on a mission to give my students access to awesome technology. I created partnerships between my classroom and ed. tech. entrepreneurs who were looking for opportunities to test their designs and programs. Our collaboration gave my students access to technology with the potential to empower their education and future. After talking with other teachers, I realized I would be selfish to keep this opportunity for myself and my students.

What began as a single teacher and a beta classroom blog, grew into a network of 150+ innovative educators from around the United States. While we are from all over the K -12 spectrum, we are united in our joy of beta testing ed. tech. and giving our students the opportunity to be the first to try out and use new programs.

On Feb. 15th, Beta Classroom will relaunch as the incorporated nonprofit edUpgrade. While the name is changing, the mission stays the same.  The edUpgrade co-founders are dedicated to supporting the work of rock star teachers and the punk ed. tech. entrepreneurs we work with. On the 15th, we will be presenting the national network of innovative educators with a portfolio of betas that have the potential to optimize our practice and our students outcomes. In exchange for free access to beta innovations, these classroom rock stars will be providing the highest quality feedback-telling what we love; what we dream it could be.

We ask each beta to be in our portfolio because we think it is awesome and has the potential to positively transform our classrooms. As such, these betas have the greatest potential to benefit from the powerful feedback that comes from classroom facing teachers who are hungry for the chance to shape the technology of tomorrow.

We are looking for classroom agents of change, tech. visionary, or friend of this revolution to support our mission.

Earlier this summer, I worked with 3 extraordinary entrepreneurs to collaboratively co-author a response to Edsurge’s beta bill of rights. What we came up with was a best practices for educator and entrepreneur collaboration. With these principals in mind I continued my mission this fall and quickly learned several important lessons.

It would have to reward teachers with the opportunity to earn devices that are inequitably distributed among this nation’s classrooms. This lesson came from one of my students and is therefore the most important of all. I went into this academic year psyched to get the B.Y.O.D. message to my students. 20 minutes into my first day of class, a student raised her hand and asked, “Ms. taking out your smart phone can get you jumped. I don’t care if other students see me take out my smart phone, but I know some of my friends would be worried that taking out their phone would make them a target.” Time stops and I feel my face flush with shame at not being able to predict the infinite ways that inequality saturates every pore of my classroom. As a teacher, my first priority is to keep my students safe. 20 minutes into the school year and I had received my first major set back. I tell my students that resiliency is a 21st century skill, and feel my determination calcify as I inform them that I refuse to deprive them of the opportunity to have their education positively transformed by 21st century technology. After a momentary pause, I explain that I will be bringing enough devices for the class to work in small groups and experience the awesome betas I had the privilege of testing over the summer. The next day, and every day since then, I have brought a laptop computer, two ipod touch devices, a smart phone and an ipad with me to school each day. Moreover, I’ve become resolute in my commitment to creating an opportunity for teachers to be classroom agents of change and obtain the devices that they and their students need.

I am not satisfied with solving the problem for just my classroom. The fact is that I promised the lead teachers of the network that I would find a way to get them the devices they deserve. These educators are leaders because they have used technology to innovate the classroom and powerfully optimize the education of their students. So I took it upon myself to get the devices, and as a full time public school teacher, living at home, and paying off student loan debt, I learned another important lesson: I can afford 2 ipads. As a full time public school teacher paying off student loan debt, I can afford 2 ipads.

How could I get them the devices? The network of educators testing out these betas realized how profound an impact they could have on the classroom. Yet, many of our students did not have the devices to access these programs and no teacher would ever put a student’s well being as risk no matter what the benefit. So what to do? The network was created to give teachers a voice in shaping the technology of tomorrow as well as providing fledgling entrepreneurs and visionary technologists with the opportunity to get feedback necessary to develop extraordinary programs. I can’t ask these entrepreneurs to buy ipads for classrooms; they don’t have the funding and it would create a conflict of interest and undermine the integrity of our feedback and thereby the strength of teacher’s voices. Last summer, I wrote a letter and even shared it with my students as an example. I titled it “Letter to the Big Dogs”, and sent it to the heads of Gazelle with the hopes of getting one set of devices. While that failed I wasn’t deterred and went through with setting up a page where the money earned from old devices could be donated. This idea has not had the success I hoped it would. Another option that became very clear was to sell reports of these betas to investors. I may be a teacher and without an MBA but I know what evil smells like, and that kind of thing reeks of wrongness. It would be like publishing a wedding announcement with a photo of you from middle school…you know the one before you got your braces taken off, when you thought that nothing was cooler than a baby-t and overalls. While the last of these assumptions was in fact correct, not every decision we make as tweens was equally wise. While this period of growth is a necessary part of self-discovery, a summary of that mistake filled journey does not capture the magnificent person you are and the bright future ahead of you. While I am sure there are hipsters with save the date announcements featuring snapshots from their respective tween years, the other 99% of us get why its not okay to sell information about the highs and lows of a beta’s early development.

I couldn’t not do this alone. Even with the League of Friends supporting me as mentors and guardian angels, the mission deserves more than I alone could give. Thankfully I met the individuals with the audacity, energy, and rock star status to join me. Together Beth Rabbitt, a doctoral fellow at Harvard innovation lab, Ben Berte, a co-founder of Socrative, and myself co-founded edUpgrade. During this founding period we addressed each of the lessons learned and sketched a plan of action to ensure the ideas and voices of betas and educators have the chance to work in symbiotic collaboration and produce new and awesome technologies.

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