Ellen Bialo: Edtech Pioneer and Networking Guru27 Jul 2015, Posted by Advice for Aspiring Producers, Distance Learning, Edtech, Expert Interviews, women in technology in
The woman with the glowing smile is Ellen Bialo, CEO, President and Co-Founder of Interactive Educational Systems Design (IESD), an educational market and product development research company recognized in K-20 publishing as a leader in research and analysis.
She also founded the DOLS, a professional women’s organization that helps women who work in the business of education help one another.
- 1. I believe you began your career as a classroom teacher and later segued to the business of education. Can you explain how and why you made this transition?
Yes, I was actually a middle school and high school math teacher. After ten years I felt ready to leave the classroom, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Eventually I decided to go back to graduate school and get my doctorate in educational psychology. Along the way the woman who was head of our Ed Psych program, Mary Alice White, got me interested in educational technology. Mary Alice White was kind of a futurist who thought technology was going to transform education. This was in 1979!
She had us all doing Ed Psych research, but related to technology and how people were starting to use it in the classroom. And I got caught up in it. I don’t know if it was partly because it was technology-based and there was a lot of programming involved that appealed to my math background. Whatever the reason, after I graduated, I started working at an institute at Columbia Teacher’s College evaluating software. It was called EPIE, Educational Product Information Exchange. We sold print copies of evaluations of software products. And we mailed them out each month. And then in 1983 I started my company. I suppose I felt like I knew as much about technology and education as anybody at that time. And now it’s 30 years later.
- 2. Edtech has become “hot” in the past few years. Investors have been flocking to the sector and young people are increasingly becoming involved in Edtech startups. What are the pluses and minuses of this elevated attention?
I think one advantage is that hopefully there will be sufficient money and talent to develop and bring to market really valuable ed tech innovations. I guess that’s the main thing, but I think it also should be easier in this climate to get the word out about educational technology product “gems.”And yes, there’s a potential downside to the elevated attention—the market could get flooded with a new wave of mediocre products.
I was just at ISTE, and it was huge. There were so many products and so many startups. It was really overwhelming. And there were about 20,000 attendees, or at least that’s what I heard. And in thinking about the downside, I guess another potential pitfall is that investors who come to our space might expect quick returns on their investments. And you and I know it takes a long time to work through the complex, complicated bureaucracy of schools.
- 3. I have seen interviews in which you urge industry newcomers to “network, network, network.” Do you have any specific tips for newcomers on how do that?
While conferences and large gatherings have their place, I tend to think about networking more on a micro level. I’ve always had the attitude that you should talk to everybody regardless of who they work for or what position they’re in, whether they’re a VP or marketing manager or product manager. Just talk to as many people as you can, get to know what they do, and get to know them beyond what they do. That’s why I started the group, the DOLS, which is a women’s networking organization that is designed for women in education technology publishing to support one another. We’ve got a wide range of people—almost 600 members right now. They come from varying backgrounds and most of them have come because one of the DOLS reached out to them, or they heard about it and they wanted to join. So I say talk to everybody. Everyone has something smart or interesting to share. Follow up with people and build those relationships. I guess that’s the way I do my life—you have to let people in in order to go that next step.
- 4. There are so many industry conferences these days that unless you have infinite funding, it’s necessary to pick and choose among them. Are there any conferences that you would particularly recommend to people who want to make business contacts?
I think EdNet is a really great B to B show. So I’d put that one at the top of my list. ISTE is not so much a B to B show, but so many people attend that if you know who you want to meet with and you can set up appointments in advance, it’s a great place to meet people who are geographically unrelated to where you are.
This year I decided to go to some conferences that I hadn’t gone to before just to shake it up a bit. One of those was the ASU GSV conference that is primarily for investors. I learned more about the investment side of the business and got a handle on just how much investor interest there was in ed tech. I am not sure I will attend every year but will attend again.
- 5. What are you most proud of in terms of career accomplishment?
That’s a hard question. I Most of the research that IESD does involves obtaining, analyzing, and representing educators’ voices to ed tech developers and publishers. When I think about some of the challenges faced by the district and school leaders we represent along with the essential needs of teachers, I think that being their voice and communicating their needs is a critical role in the product development and marketing process. I am proud to be making what feels to me like a significant and important contribution. At least I hope it is. And then the other thing that I’m really proud of is developing the DOLS as a thriving, supportive network for women in the education industry.
- 6. What is the most surprising result you have experienced in your career?
As I look back over the last ten years I think one of the most surprising (and positive) things has been the explosive growth of Google for Education. I’m really impressed with the way that educators, students, everybody in the education field, use Google for Education for teaching and learning.
And they use it in so many ways. For example, they use it to develop collaborative lesson plans and depositories, as well. We all know that collaborative learning has been hot for a while, and it’s gaining even more focus. Educators are using Google for Education to support the writing process where peer and teacher review of student work is easy to do. Educators also use it for data collection for science. When you realize their starting point was Google Docs and now they are a serious competitor to the Microsoft Office Suite, it’s quite impressive!
Perhaps the most disappointing surprise has been the slow pace of One to One computing in K-12. We recently did some research on mobile tech and found that only about 1/5 of the districts have implemented any one to one.
This is especially disturbing since the market for some of the most promising and comprehensive ed tech applications will be limited until one to one becomes the norm in more districts. I know it’s going to happen. It’s just slow, like everything in education, right?
- 7. We call this blog, Influences and Influencers. Who are the people who have influenced you? Have you ever had a mentor? Can you tell us about him or her? Whose work or input has impacted you the most in your career and how?
Several people come to mind. This first two are quite sentimental—my mom and dad. My mom was a “glass half full “ person. Her perspective taught me to go out in the world and see everything in the most positive light. She was sweet and loving and very reinforcing. My father is the one who gave me a huge sense of self. He made me believe that I could go out and make a difference. So that’s on the parent side.
There were two other people that were very important. One was somebody I mentioned earlier. Her name was Mary Alice White. She was the person who first introduced me to the idea that technology was going to transform education. When I entered her graduate program she gave me lots of support and even gave me a job while I was in graduate school so that I could pursue the field. I see her as a mentor who opened my eyes to an exciting future.
The fourth person is Kathy Hurley. (Interviewer’s Note: For those of you who do not know Kathy Hurley, she is a highly respected member of the Ed Tech community. Kathy has been in ed tech since the 80’s when she worked at Mindscape. In later years she went on to become an executive at the Learning Company, NetSchools, Plato Learning and Pearson Education.).
Kathy and I go way back. We first met just before I started my company. At that time I was working at EPIE and we were doing a monthly TV show called Educational Computing. Each month I’d do a 5-minute segment on software. This particular month I went to ISTE hoping to interview someone interesting. (It was perhaps the third year of ISTE, which used to be called NECC.) I started asking around for recommendations and several people mentioned a woman named Kathy Hurley. I tracked her down, and being a networker par excellence, she agreed to be interviewed. She’d never been interviewed on the show floor and I’d never done an interview. Nevertheless, we did it right on the show floor of NEC with the cameras from the TV station and were both nervous and sweating. It was great, and it was the beginning of a relationship in which we were peers, but she was also a mentor. I’m not sure she knew it at the time, but she was. She really helped my partner and I get our business started. She recommended me to people, often saying, ”Ellen does great work.” She didn’t really know that I did great work but I guess she had a sense of me and believed I would.
She always was giving me sage advice — do this, talk to that person, etc. She also hired us to do work and continued to mentor me for many years. She is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met.
- 8. What are you working on now?
We recently did a survey we call the 2015 National Survey on STEM Education. We’ve been doing it every couple of years. This year, it was sponsored by Vernier. They sponsor the educator edition. And we also did a business edition that we sell to the industry. It’s been really interesting because STEM and STEAM are so much in the news. Now we are starting work on our third edition of the 2016 National Survey on Mobile Technology for K12 Education. So those are two projects that we publish independently, as opposed to for a client. We keep learning about the market and how it’s changing and what people predict is going to be happening.
- 9. If you could start all over again, what career would you pursue?
Based on knowing what I know now? The truth is I went into education because my parents said be a teacher or a nurse. In those days that was very common advice to young women. Though I really enjoy my work and feel it is valuable, I have found that what I really love is horticulture. I have an amazing garden on Long Island and I love growing things. So I think I might have gone down the science path and learned about plants and everything related to plants. I like being an entrepreneur and having a business hybridizing vegetables or something similar, might have been wonderful for me.