I’m a 90s baby — as in I did not exist when Vanilla Ice was rocking the world with “Ice, Ice, Baby” or when the first episode of Beverly Hills 90210 debuted on television — and I feel so lucky to be part of a generation that really has unparalleled opportunities. Our world has never had more globally connections or access to knowledge than it does in this very moment.
While I am old enough to have used pencils to salvage cassette tapes and visit the library to thumb through thick volumes of encyclopedias, I’m also part of a generation that grew accustomed to information at my fingertips and having something to look at all the time. This is the generation that got our first emails when we were still in elementary, got free game CDs in our cereal boxes, and learned to flirt using emoticons ;P. Our pilgrimage into adulthood was migrating from AOL IM (with your Mom’s account) to MSN Messenger (with embarrassing names you thought were cool) to MySpace (I wasn’t allowed) to Facebook (I was scared when I first signed up). Technology is not just merely a part of my life, it was a medium for me to cultivate friendships and learn to discover my own identity. So when someone asks me about my Gen Y perspective on the role of technology in education, I think about the little ones I know – the ones who got their very own hand-me-down iPod Touch at age 5 or learned to launch birds at piggies at age 2 – and the answer is simple: technology will redefine what we know as traditional education.
Omitting or ignoring the impact technology has on the modern day learner has serious consequences of apathy and disengagement for Gen Y. With our startup Penyo Pal we found that gap in traditional language learning options. We kept hearing stories from bicultural Canadian parents who fretted over their little ones’ distaste for Saturday language classes and the various resources they could find, and it hit us like a ton of proverbial bricks … children’s language learning was in dire need of technology-driven innovation. The Penyo Pal team immediately began to convince anyone we knew with a little one to let us Skype or Google Hangout with them and learn more about their tiny, wired brains. What we found our was these little guys and gals were bored out of their minds at these Saturday morning classes. Memorizing pinyin or conjugations was not even remotely close to their idea of a good time. What they did love doing however, was playing games on their parents’ iPhones or tablets, and we immediately imagined the possibility of combining the power of character-driven games with language curricula. We created Penyo Pal to leverage the power of characters and stories to create games and interactive stories for mobile and web, so children learn a second language while having fun. We’ve chosen a mobile/tablet delivery because of the room for innovation in how it is used, the excitement it conjures within children and of course, the flexibility we have to integrate learning optimizations such as spaced repetition or adaptive learning.
The idea of games and education (we lovingly call it edu-play-tion at Penyo Pal) is definitely nothing we can lay claim to, as thought leaders like Stuart Brown, Jane McGonigal and Marc Prensky have been writing literature on the topic for decades. What is unique is the approach we are taking with product design. Even before Reynol Junco made waves describing why “ed-tech startups suck” for failing to involve educators, we were lucky enough to be forewarned by a mentor of this common pitfall. We have taken that school of thought and focused carefully on picking the brains of as many educators as possible and letting those discussions shape our approach to our products and startup. At the same time we’ve paid close attention to engage kids as early as possible in our product development process. Their blunt honesty is refreshing (and sometimes a little painful) and keeps us always conscious of the most important demographic in our lives. The most interesting part is when kids tell us about stories they would love to see, or things they wish they could do with the technology. They get our brain juices flowing better than any internal brainstorming could ever do and help us grasp the full potential of what we could build.
We are first-time entrepreneurs and new grads, and we have lived and breathed technology as a sixth sense since our preteen years. Our freshly-out-of-the-system eyes have helped us gain some major takeaways from our journey with Penyo Pal such as:
- Let’s retire the question “how much technology should there be in education?” and “how should we integrate it?”
- Instead, let’s ask “what do kids love doing these days?” and “how can we use technology so teachers/parents and students can discover things together?”
- Minimize the amount of white hair at education-related conferences. Bring in the young folks! (And I’m not talking about me…bring in those 8 year olds). Let them share with us what they wish they could do at school, and then we can brainstorm to find the right “fairy godmother” technology to fulfill that wish.
- Let’s face it, the undisputed idol of the modern elementary student is a scrawny kid from Canada who rose to fame via YouTube and the current song I hear blasting from the playgrounds originated from a horse-dancing pioneer in Korea. They are connected in all aspects of their life, education should not and will not succeed at being the exception.
- For the educators in the room, don’t hesitate to reach out to edtech startups and businesses and tell them your pain points. We are a wonderful relationship with a few schools in Toronto and we treasure their input so much. It is invaluable to hear teachers tell us about issues they are facing with, in our case, making language classes engaging, and in turn, we are better able to build a solution to make their lives easier.
We are on a journey thus far, please do not hesitate to reach out (@wu_jane) to discuss.