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Pittsburgh area kids try out VR at a Remake Learning Rec2Tech event. (Photo: Christopher Sprowls)

Ask those in Pittsburgh’s thriving education technology community what makes the city different from other edtech hubs such as Silicon Valley, Boston or New York City, and a single word is repeated: collaboration.

“Pittsburgh has this incredible collaborative environment,” said Sunanna Chand, director of Remake Learning, an eleven-year-old network of more than 500 schools, libraries, museums, nonprofits, foundations and others — including more than 40 private companies — in the Pittsburgh area. It’s a kind of collaboration that Chand said isn’t seen in many other cities.

Sunanna Chand. (Photo: Remake Learning)

“There are a lot of education technology companies, like Duolingo,” Chand said, referring to the city’s well-known language learning startup. “But it’s so much a larger conversation than that.”

When Chand talks about collaboration, she doesn’t necessarily mean companies only working with each other. It’s also connecting with 30-some higher education institutions in the region, and schools in 43 districts in Allegheny County alone, connections Remake Learning sees as part of its mission. “Our job is to say, how do we make those bridges stronger?” Chand said.

There are no hard and fast tallies on the number of edtech companies in the greater Pittsburgh region (the Pittsburgh Technology Council doesn’t separate out “edtech” in how it maps its members). While exact metrics are elusive, there is the conviction among both long-time execs and newcomers that Pittsburgh is in the top tier of edtech hubs such as Silicon Valley and New York, in influence if not demonstrably in size.

To be sure, Pittsburgh’s edtech ecosystem is not immune to the issues that face other education technology centers. Schools and districts have notoriously slow and convoluted sales cycles. Teachers can be finicky and, in recent years, are no longer as blinded by bright shiny edtech objects, which means that convincing schools to adopt new products, and pay for them, can be difficult.

“Educators are much more knowledgeable about the types of edtech and equipment that are most applicable,” Chand said.

But it’s Pittburgh’s full ecosystem that led education consultant and author Tom Vander Ark (the first executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and himself a resident of the Seattle area) to dub the city an “edtech hive” in 2013. Back then, Vander Ark cited the obvious influence and efforts of Carnegie Mellon University over the previous decade. But he also pointed to citywide Maker initiatives funded by the MacArthur Foundation — which can be everything from hands-on tech projects to 3D printing — and the wide range of edtech startups addressing not just K-12 education, but also consumer and adult education needs.

If anything, Pittsburgh’s edtech cred appears to only have increased in the five years since.

Inside Carnegie Learning’s Pittsburgh HQ. (Photo: Carnegie Learning)

This month, the Smithsonian Institution, through its Smithsonian Science Education Center, announced a “strategic alliance” with Carnegie Learning, an edtech company founded in Pittsburgh in 1998. Carnegie’s focus on math and adaptive technology would be combined with the Smithsonian center’s focus on science and engineering to create STEM products for K-12 students and teachers.

Remake Learning, in an almost overwhelming array of statistics, today points to more than 180 educational Maker spaces in the Pittsburgh region plus seven Mobile Fab Labs for those districts and learning centers without a permanent Maker space. Its Remake Learning Days in 2016 and 2017 had more than 53,000 youth and adults participate in 602 free and public events.

‘Collaboration’ is multi-faceted

But if collaboration is the word that’s on everyone’s lips, what it means depends on the speaker’s perspective.

Steve Ritter. (Photo: Carnegie Learning)

Carnegie Learning’s collaborative link to CMU is obvious on one level — the original math software originated inside CMU. Steve Ritter, co-founder and chief scientist, said that the link persists.

“Collaboration with the universities has also been really important to us in terms of keeping up with research on how people learn and also in recruiting staff,” Ritter said. “I think that, if we’d been a technology company that wasn’t focused on education, we might have moved — but the learning science community is very strong in Pittsburgh.”

Those in the edtech community also emphasize collaboration between companies and classroom teachers.

“Compared to Silicon Valley, New York, or DC, I would say the edtech industry is not as saturated here in Pittsburgh,” said Vivian Reidler, senior community specialist and language specialist for the language learning startup Duolingo, founded in 2011. “Schools aren’t frequently bombarded with offers and requests from local companies. As a result, teachers and administrators tend to be more open to trying new things and collaborating with companies and researchers interested in improving their students’ experience.”

Chand also said Remake Learning frequently makes introductions to schools for edtech companies, both to help the companies develop new products and to pilot-test them. It’s a type of connection that she said is “absolutely” harder to do in other cities. And it can be mutually beneficial. Chand said the educational and entertainment game startup Schell Games, based in Pittsburgh, “has done a tremendous amount of work reaching out to local school districts, helping them think through how to implement game-based learning in the classroom.”

Schell Games’ “Happy Atoms” edtech software. (Photo: Schell Games)

Mister Rogers’ (edtech) Neighborhood

While few of Pittsburgh’s educational technology companies are household names, they do represent a broad swath of the edtech landscape, from startups like Duolingo and BloomBoard to established firms like Carnegie Learning and Dynavox, a maker of special education software and speech communication devices that dates back to 1983.

But there are the widely known names, too.

Carnegie Mellon University is, of course, an easy-to-identify educational powerhouse associated with Pittsburgh. Yet a second Pittsburgh institution may have had even greater reach — even if most public television viewers of a certain age never realized The Fred Rogers Company was based in the city.

The classic and long-running PBS kids’ series, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” premiered 50 years ago this year. The sweater-clad Rogers was from Pittsburgh, and Chand says he used the innovative technology of his day — television — to reach kids. “Every single episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed in Pittsburgh,” Chand said.

Though Rogers died in 2003, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” continues to be seen in reruns, and an animated spin-off for preschoolers, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” premiered in 2012. The non-profit Fred Rogers Company also produces the PBS KIDS programs “Peg + Cat” and “Odd Squad,” working with companies like Schell Games. As a result, the Rogers organization continues to be an educational force in Pittsburgh (and has a few online games of its own).

It also probably doesn’t hurt Pittsburgh’s reputation that Tom Hanks was just named as the actor who will portray Rogers in the upcoming feature film about the children’s television pioneer, “You Are My Friend.”

A top-three edtech hub

Beyond collaboration and the network-coordination role of Remake Learning, Pittsburgh’s edtech companies cite other advantages to the location compared to other tech-heavy cities, in addition to the oft-cited lower cost of living.

BloomBoard is a teacher professional learning startup founded in 2010 in Palo Alto that opened its Pittsburgh office in 2014, where its co-founder and president, Jason Lange, is located. “We work with schools and districts all across the U.S.,” Lange told GeekWire. “Pittsburgh provides a central location for our clients in the east and midwest.”

BloomBoard’s “HQ2” in Pittsburgh, existing alongside its original Palo Alto location. (Photo: BloomBoard)

Talent, too, is an advantage. “Pittsburgh’s specialties in learning science and artificial intelligence really make this a great place for edtech,” said Carnegie Learning’s Ritter. “I do think Pittsburgh’s in the top three regions for edtech, particularly tech with an instructional focus.”

Lange would rank Pittsburgh as number two, behind Silicon Valley/Bay Area. “The Bay is much more saturated in terms of people, companies, funding, etc. However,” Lange said, “Pittsburgh is expanding by the day.”

Removing the reality-distortion bubble

One difference that may not seem like an advantage to those in tech-industry heavy cities, which may be insulated in affluent bubbles of their own making, is greater Pittsburgh’s wide range of school settings. They run from remote and rural to urban, with a lot of socioeconomic variation. “Some schools don’t have abundant access to reliable internet, let alone the latest devices for each student,” said Reidler of Duolingo. “Which makes us think about how we can adapt our platform to perform well with as many students as possible.”

Vivian Reidler, in Duolingo’s Pittsburgh offices. (Photo: Ben Filio)

It ties back to what Remake Learning’s Chand expressed as an important driver. “We need to use innovation as a tool for educational equity. We need more equitable access,” she said.

While no local companies appear to be explicitly asking (in sweaters and sneakers), “Won’t you be my neighbor?,” more edtech talent is coming in to Pittsburgh, and that’s just one of the changes in the education technology landscape over the past handful of years.

As Chand observed, local teachers have gotten more savvy as to what will work in their classrooms. On the startup side, Lange said, “More and more edtech companies are popping up, and we’ve now got a much stronger startup community through CMU.”

Ritter agreed. “It’s much more open to startups. When we started, the technology community was dominated by large companies, and we were very disconnected from them because we had very different concerns,” Ritter said. “Now, there are lots of supports for startups and a pretty good community with which to share ideas.”

Combined, it’s led to what Jesse Schell, who founded Schell Games in 2002 and has watched it grow to more than 100 employees, called “a lot of momentum” that has gradually built. “The most important thing is Pittsburgh’s history and respect for using technology to improve education,” Schell said. “I really believe that Pittsburgh is on track to become the number one edtech city in the world.”

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