MindCET and the ed-tech accelerators looking for better ways to learn

29 Aug 2013

Illustration by Naomi Fein, Think Visual

Just like the written word and the printing press, modern technology is poised to have a dramatic impact on the face of education as we know it, which is why ed-tech accelerators are springing up worldwide to support ideas that can disrupt current educational models.

MindCET is one such organisation. It was established about a year and a half ago as an independent spin-out of Israel’s Center for Educational Technology (CET), which has been operating in the ed-tech space for more than 40 years.

Based in Negev, south Israel, MindCET hopes to tap into the country’s buzzing start-up scene and encourage them to help create a new educational paradigm.

Catching the ed-tech bug

Basically, MindCET is an incubator for ed-tech ideas and start-ups. It connects independent tech entrepreneurs with teachers, students and researchers and provides them with a platform to collaborate on new ideas.

Avi Warshavsky by Naomi Fein, Think VisualMindCET CEO Avi Warshavsky believes now is the right time to be involved in ed-tech. “We are in a very fascinating time right now with this kind of initiative because the scene of ed-tech is boiling,” he says.

In the last three years, the amount of investment in ed-tech and the number of start-ups operating in this field have been rising, says Warshavsky. When the idea of MindCET was in its infancy, it was quite original. Now, he reckons there are about 15 of these hubs worldwide, such as the Pearson Catalyst for Education, the Edtech Incubator from the UK’s Education Foundation, Kaplan’s EdTech Accelerator powered by TechStars, and Boston’s LearnLaunchX, to name a few.

“We’re probably catching something of the spirit of the time in this aspect,” Warshavsky muses.

How MindCET operates

MindCET is about more than just teaching kids how to code or use iPads. It’s about incorporating technology into the entire field of education, no matter the subject matter. “We are looking for technologies that are not amplifying the existing system but trying to break the paradigm,” explains Warshavsky.

MindCET illustration by Naomi Fein, Think Visual

There are three sides to the organisation. There’s the Garage, which is the accelerator that incubates independent projects and gives them what they need to move forward. The Laboratory is where the users – teachers, students and schools – get involved and become part of the discussion with entrepreneurs, acting as beta testers for their ideas. And, finally, there’s the Aquarium, which not only helps spread awareness of MindCET’s work by serving as a window onto its operations (hence the name), but is also a place where agile, hands-on research takes place.

MindCET illustration by Naomi Fein, Think Visual

Projects developed through MindCET follow the Lean Startup technique: they focus on minimum viable products, take them out into the field for testing, judge the response, modify and reiterate. For this to be effective, the connection MindCET provides between start-ups and students, and teachers and researchers is vital.

MindCET Lean Startup illustration by Naomi Fein, Think Visual“The feedback is maybe the most important part of the story,” says Warshavsky. “We believe that this is the best or the most important service that we give the entrepreneurs.” Illustrating his point, Warshavsky explains that each project currently under development has undergone radical changes based on feedback from testing.

Focus on learning, not schooling

The first cohort of entrepreneurs started working with MindCET at the start of this year. Out of nine that started out on the programme, five saw it through to completion.

A call has already gone out for applications to join the next cohort, which is planned to start working in October, but MindCET already has promising projects from its first round in development.

MindCET illustration by Naomi Fein, Think VisualThese projects include a tool for online brainstorming that sees the internet as one huge brain and tries to create links between different ideas, turning it into a rich semantic database for search and discovery. Another project is a sort of smart notebook that lets students work with quality-controlled crowdsourced material.

The ideas bubbling up in MindCET focus on educating children from kindergarten up to Grade 12 (the equivalent of Ireland’s junior infants to sixth year). However, some of these projects could be applicable in higher education.

“We are open for everything that is connected to learning in general, as opposed to technologies that are focused on schooling,” says Warshavsky, making a critical distinction between the two. “We believe that everything that is done in order to improve the way we learn is also relevant for the educational discussion, so it’s important for us,” he adds.

Going global

Warshavsky says MindCET’s mission is to bring Israel’s vivid start-up scene into the educational conversation, but the projects tested here are intended, eventually, for the international stage. “We believe that each one of these projects has the potential to be part of the educational market in Israel but also outside Israel,” Warshavsky explains.

MindCET illustration by Naomi Fein, Think VisualMindCET is looking beyond Israel to a more global market, seeing its country of origin as a sort of beta site for testing and exploring these new ideas.

With its own mind set on global growth, MindCET is currently collaborating with New York City-based Socratic Labs. “With Socratic Labs and others we are trying to create a network of accelerators around the world which will enable working in collaboration and the exchange of members from one accelerator to the others and so forth,” says Warshavsky.

Enabling the essential

The current state of educational technology in Israel is varied. Warshavsky says that while some schools have one-to-one models with each student getting access to their own device, such as a PC or tablet, others are more limited.

But Warshavsky believes this landscape will change dramatically over time, as costs decrease and essentials, such as bandwidth, increase. “I think it’s a matter of a very short time that [devices and infrastructures] won’t be an issue any more,” he says.

“Even in schools where there is no equipment, the students – most of them – have smartphones. So, in a way, the devices are already there but what we are lacking is the methodology of how we work with them and how we produce the best way of educating [with them],” he adds.

The reality, Warshavsky believes, is that there is no way forward for education without technology. “Technology has become part of the background of our lives in a way that we cannot actually communicate and get information [without it],” he says. “I think it will be very difficult to imagine a student without technology the same way that it was difficult to think about a school without writing or reading. It’s the same; it’s essential in the same way.”

Think Visual

Illustrations by Naomi Fein at Think Visual. Keep your eyes peeled for more unique illustrative content from Think Visual coming to Siliconrepublic.com.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.