Posts Tagged ‘sync or swim’

Sync or Swim Blog Series #6

Spotlighting the Best Marinnovations™ in Education

By Michael Leifer, CEO Guerilla PR / Ecodads


For this installment of the Marin Economic Forum’s Sync or Swim, I’m really excited to tell you about a new and innovative Digital and Experiential Education Program that I just found out about called MARINOVATORS, which has been incubating for the past 2 years, pretty much under the large public radar. 🙂

At the recent/inspiring Makerspace and Novato Library Opening, John MacLeod introduced me to Dane Lancaster, who is the Senior Director of Information Technology at the Marin County Office of Education (MCOE) and one of the Co-Creators/Co-Shepherds of MARINOVATORS that is open to ALL of the Marin middle, high school and college students to present and exhibit their collaborative maker-style projects at the Saturday, April 30th Event throughout the campus at the College of Marin.

Designed to build student confidence, competence and to bridge the gaps between Marin schools, college and the real world, this year’s program is being co-produced as a joint initiative by the MCOE and the College of Marin. MARINOVATORS offers a place where Marin County students can showcase their passion, creativity and ingenuity in using STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts/Digital Design and Math) principals to solve world problems.

Project themes for 2016 include: Solar Power, Smart Cities, Environmental Science, Mobile Apps, Virtual Reality, Coding, Media MAKERS, The INTERNET of Things, Digital Health and Fitness, Hack Your Biology, Robotics, Digital Fashion, Future of Work and The New Industrial Revolution.

“We especially hope that children find MARINOVATORS exciting and fun and ignites their interest in entrepreneurship, invention or pursuing a STEM or STEAM career in the future,” offered Mr. Lancaster.

The birth of MARINOVATORS arose in the Winter of 2014 from conversations by a group of teachers, the Marin County Office of Education and Autodesk about how to introduce the education community to MAKER and hands on STEM. These pioneer teachers were finding that student engagement and learning increased dramatically when classroom activities were more hands-on and focused on design thinking. One strategy to expand awareness of STEM and MAKER suggested by the group was to sponsor an “academic maker faire” in the Spring of 2014.

Last year, the MCOE hosted the first MARINOVATORS and was a huge success with over 1,800 people attending to see, hear, and interact with teachers, students and their amazing creations.

To reserve tickets to the Maker 2016 Showcase and
hear from key innovative Marin stakeholders click here.

Students can apply to exhibit their work here —

Teachers please contact Dane Lancaster by email at

Sync or Swim Blog Series #5

Spotlighting the Best Marinnovations™ in Education

By Michael Leifer, CEO Guerilla PR / Ecodads

Interview with Zack Karlsson, CEO & Director, ChangeMyPath, Education Technology

Given that the Digital Education Industry Market Size is approximately worth $51.5 Billion, (according to the Ambient Insight Research) and that “Gamification” processes are effectively being used by the corporate world to train employees at Apple, Oracle, Twitter, Salesforce and other large firms, it seemed worth exploring if any local companies were focused on this nexus.

So, I attended a nearby BASN (Bay Area Startup Network) and US Angel Investors and met David Mandel, a very successful serial entrepreneur and seed investor, who had launched an exciting new education start-up called ChangeMyPath. He introduced to his CEO and fellow Board Member Zack Karlsson, with whom I conducted the below interview.

Michael: What’s your background in the video game business?

Zack: I’ve been in the industry for about 15 years starting out at the bottom as a Game Master for EverQuest and worked my way up to VP at Capcom (market cap $1.2B) and have held senior positions at independent developers like Double Fine and big gaming industry publishers like Namco. By trade, I’m a Business Development guy. I’ve built a career on being a games guy on the business side of things.

Michael: How did Change My Path come about?

Zack: My co-founder, David Mandel, came to me looking for a CEO for a startup he was trying to put together. David is a serial entrepreneur and seed investor but with no experience in games and he wanted to put together a company around a gaming concept that he had developed with his daughter and the person who is now our co-founder and CTO, Stephen Williams. David and I spent a month or so trying to find a way that I was excited about the concept and just couldn’t find it, but through the process, we found a really nice working relationship and thought we could do something cool.

David asked me if I could do anything with my next career, without limitation, what would it be? I had heard a talk, years ago, by Ted Price on the future of games and what the world may look like 10 years from now with games as a focus. Ted was bold — it wasn’t the same old talk about BRIC, digital distribution, free-to-play etc. It was audacious and wonderful and inspired me. I spent the next couple years refining my retirement idea: When I was old and didn’t need money, what would I do with my free time? This was it. I pitched it to David and, somewhat surprisingly, he was convinced. We looped in Stephen as CTO to help us flesh out the tech and parts of the concept, and we were off to the races. It’s an idea that I thought was too big and too crazy for someone else to jump in on, but David saw the dream and then we got Stephen hooked, and we set about making it happen.

Michael: What have the power of smartphones and tablets opened up for you?

Zack: It has given us the ability to deliver digital content to anyone anywhere, but more importantly, it’s given us a broader general market in which to compete. It’s allowed people who never self-identified as gamers and let them participate in entertainment that isn’t strictly one-way. It’s given us a challenge on user interface design — gone are the days when you had a 13 button controller to design around, now you have to think about touch, 3D, motion sensing, Augmented Reality, and a litany of input devices. The most important thing for us is the ubiquity of smartphones. For CMP, we can reach anyone, anywhere, at a time that is convenient for them.

Michael: How are you using gamification with Change My Path?

Zack: Gamification for us is split into two parts. 1) Taking educational content and making it engaging and fun. There is a wealth of experience in this particular endeavor from the old Oregon Trail and Carmen San Diego games I used to play as a kid to the content done by Broderbund, The Learning Company, and many others. The question hasn’t yet been answered if this kind of content can be educationally transformative. In other words, does it leave a lasting impact on peoples’ lives? Could it? We think it can. We think that the content has, with no offense intended to others in the space, been designed primarily by educators rather than entertainers.

Everything we know about learning is that it works best when people are engaged and yet, we think it perfectly natural, as adults, to pay tuition to an institution of higher learning and, once the tuition is paid, it becomes our job to learn rather than their job to teach. The engagement factor goes to 0. What happens when content gets subjected to an open market, where people get to make decisions about learning that engages them first? Where the content isn’t simply a lecture and a quiz?

We live in an age with some incredible interactive entertainment but so little of that content has peripheral learning engaged, or value beyond simply being entertaining. There is virtue in pure entertainment, but there is also virtue in using the skills we have learned as an industry to help bring someone job skills or knowledge that will help them better their lives. And 2) It is about taking the process of the consumption of educational content and adding gamification to it.

This is not particularly innovative, but it has, to my knowledge, not been done well before. There are some parts of this that exist in different platforms that are out there, but most of those platforms fall short on understanding the motivation loop that is the foundation and driver of the gaming industry: action, value, outcome. In our example, taking a class is the action, learning something is the value, but where is the outcome? Most of us don’t learn just to learn — it’s a noble pursuit, learning for learning’s sake, but it’s a conceit primarily reserved for the privileged. Most of us take a class so we can learn something so we can get a job, a promotion, or benefit our career. We may be one of the first to take classic gaming compulsion loops and apply it to progression through content that has secondary value.

Michael: Who’s your target audience for this app?

Zack: Anyone who wants to learn a new skill. Our first foray as we build this platform will be focused on nursing. We chose it mainly because we felt that we needed to prove efficacy right away. Nursing has a certification board exam that is required before you become a nurse and we wanted to have a hard metric that we could use to prove that we were helping people build the right knowledge and skills.

After that initial test, we’ll roll it out to other job skills. We are focusing on people that might be looking for a career path that doesn’t require them to run up $60K in debt in order to obtain a degree that doesn’t actually deliver them job skills that help them start a career. Maybe it’s a single mom who wants to get out of food service but can’t leave her day job in order to attend school and doesn’t have the time for night school while she raises her children. Maybe it’s a man stuck in a dead end job that has the motivation but not the means to attend a technical college. Maybe it’s a young man or woman who doesn’t know what they want to do quite yet, but they know that they want to get a job that pays reasonably well and don’t want to rack up 20 years worth of debt in the process.

This is about making education affordable again and attempting to divorce the legitimacy of education from an antiquated brick and mortar building where your money is going into manicured lawns and marble buildings instead of curriculum development and skills training. Further, we can use mobile analytics and data modeling to refine our content on a much more immediate basis instead of whenever the “new” textbook that your Sociology professor wrote gets reprinted at $150 a pop.

Michael: What type of reception have you had from VCs thus far?

Zack: Generally positive. This idea is big and scary and that’s intimidating for some. Some wanted to see more proof that we can do what we say we can do. But we’ve had others that saw the vision and wanted to participate in re-engineering the American Dream and making it accessible again for the middle class. We didn’t need everyone to believe, we just needed the first one. Once that happened, we started the business of making education accessible.

Michael: What are your short-term goals for this app?

Zack: We think that BarBri has a great model. They teach want-to-be lawyers how to pass the bar. We’d like to teach want-to-be nurses to pass the NCLEX. By aiding in the acquisition and retention of crucial information, we’ll improve the quality of health care and the quality of nurses coming into the system.

Michael: Where do you see your company five years from now?

Zack: Ideally, I’d love to see us expand to all sorts of job and skills training, anything from mechanics and plumbers, to hair stylists and paralegals and corporate job training. In particular, I get excited when I think about where technology and this concept enables us to go. Specifically, I love the possibilities of virtual reality and augmented reality.

Since Lawnmower Man and the Star Trek holodeck, I have always thought about where education could really find a home in these kinds of devices and experiences. We also have an opportunity to explore some long tail curricula — nowadays, the interest level has to be sufficient to support a full class at every institution who takes on a particular subject matter, but digitally, we can find critical mass in a distributed fashion so things that couldn’t be taught before, because it wasn’t efficient enough, could be taught now.

The fringes of the applications of this platform are really interesting to me — what if, as a way to directly reduce recidivism in ex-cons returning to society, we gave them a skill, a trade, as a condition of parole. Study after study has shown that a major driving cause of recidivism is the inability to find work upon re-entry. What does it do to poor communities where crime is prevalent to reduce recidivism by 10 or 20%? What does it do to those same communities when you can help educate young women who have, historically speaking, always been the driver behind breaking the cycle of poverty?

Where do I see us? The internet is ubiquitous now, even in developing countries. In my dreams, I see us changing the nature of poor communities across the US and elsewhere in the world, bringing education and job skills to people that need it. Realistically speaking, if we just do it for 1 person at a time, that is progress. I don’t know how many it will take until critical mass helps those communities shift out of direct poverty, but I’ll bet it’s fewer people than have played Candy Crush. I don’t think that’s too crazy of a goal.

Michael: What opportunities do you see new micro-consoles and other technology that’s connecting mobile devices to the big screen TV opening up for apps like this?

Zack: This really isn’t our focus. I think micro-consoles are interesting, but it’s just shifting where the computing power sits. Whether it be in your home or in the cloud, the key to the home and to peoples’ attention is the quality of the content. Most people don’t care deeply about the platform they’re using to access that content, unless it specifically requires an interface or input that isn’t available somewhere else. In our industry, I think we get too caught up in platform rhetoric and lose sight of the fact that content is king.

In the education world, this lesson has been particularly slow to take root. Hopefully, that is not for much longer.

Sync or Swim Blog Series #2

Spotlighting the Best Marinnovations in Education
By Michael Leifer, CEO Guerilla PR / Ecodads

On October 18th and 19th, Google will be coming to town with the Ed Tech Team for the Marin County Ed Tech Summit hosted by Mt. Tamalpais High School.

Google is by no means the ONLY player in the space, BUT they are a very important one.

This two day high-intensity program features Google in Education Experts, Innovative Educators, Certified Trainers, practicing administrators, teachers, and solution providers as well as access to world-class education technology leaders.  These groups will share their best practices, success stories, classroom management learnings and experiences using Google Apps.  They will also discuss and demonstrate how these apps and tools can be easily integrated into any school’s learning management system, and show how they can be accessed by any student computer, laptop or mobile device (like an iPad) through Wi-Fi.

Sync or Swim Blog Series #1

Spotlighting the Best Marinnovations™ in Education
By Michael Leifer, CEO Guerilla PR / Ecodads
Continuation next month

Back in 2012, California State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson decreed, “Technology is changing nearly every aspect of our lives. But in California-home to Silicon Valley and the world’s leading technology companies-many schools have been all but left out of the technology revolution. If we’re serious about providing our students a world-class education, we need a plan that leaves no school and no child offline.”

It’s taken quite some time, and a lot of friction-filled evolution, for the public school system to integrate technology into the classroom, but the EduTech mandate has finally arrived in Marin and become a reality. Every school in the County either offers Wifi and/or has a computer lab or a cart of tablets. That’s quite remarkable when compared to the fact that only 1/3 of all public schools in California have Wifi.

But, let me put this into more of a visceral parent perspective…

Last year, in September, my wife (a High School English teacher in Marin), and I attended the Sir Francis Drake High School Back to School Night excited to meet our daughter’s new teachers, to sit with fellow parents in her classroom cohorts, and to find out what she was going to learn during the year.

However, to our surprise, the teachers spent over 50% of the evening discussing the new Learning Management System. All teachers and students were to now use this digital engine as their ONLY assignment center, homework delivery mechanism, the place for giving and getting grades, to receive feedback and where ALL projects would be posted.

So, rather than clarifying the new common core curriculum standards, arcs, themes, and experiential projects that the students would be undertaking, the educators explained the user interface windows, the features and functionalities, providing an overview of the various platform modules, and how this digital-locker interfaced with other tools like YouTube, Google Docs, Microsoft Office and much more.

This twist of expectations had caused many parental attendees to glaze over at the projection screen, while others reacted more overtly with fear-based platitudes over this apparent whirlwind shift from the days of pen, paper and the ability to say, “The labradoodle ate my homework.”

And, amongst this growing din, one parent at our table remarked discerningly, “Guess it’s time for them to either Sync or Swim their way to college.”

Over the past year it’s made me think: do students, parents, tutors and teachers have the best practices, training or tools to easily sync with this transition? Marin has quite an amazing talent pool of technologists, programmers and start-up businesses. And, with Dominican University graduating teachers right in our backyard, along with the Marin Educational Office of Technology, it seems there may be some phenomenal resources. But, how many are offering innovative ways to easily plug-in and sync with education? For students after school? For parents to aid? And, why aren’t people in my circles talking about them? Plus, what schools are using which resources and devices, and how are they working and being assessed?

These questions lead me down a discovery pathway to want to identify, conduct interviews with, and write articles about the most revolutionary Marin EduTech companies, non-profits, clubs, associations and participants, as well as the social impact and benefits that they are trying to create for Marin. I look forward to sharing with you what I learn from this exploration across future issues of this MEF Newsletter.


Michael Leifer
Cultural Anthropologist & CEO
guerilla PR, Inc.
mobile: 213.725.3037