EP Alumni Working to Solve the Missing Piece of EdTech

EP Alumni Aarti Bhatnagar and Dan Runcie

Technology holds tremendous potential to engage students in the classroom, ignite their curiosity, and connect their outside-of-school experiences with those at their desks.

But if students simply can’t access technology in the classroom, what good is it?

Nationwide, nearly two out of three schools—or 40 million students—lack high-speed, broadband access. For all of the innovation and creativity that edtech promises to unlock, millions of students are being left in the dark.

Just a few miles up the road from Silicon Valley, one organization powered by EP Alumni is working to change that.

Founded in 2012, EducationSuperHighway (ESH) is committed to upgrading Internet access in public schools across the country, hoping to deliver the promise of digital learning to every student in every classroom.

Among the leaders at the downtown San Francisco office are five Education Pioneers Alumni: Aarti Bhatnagar, Andrew Kenny, Sneha Narayanan, Dan Runcie, and Lacy Shannon, as well as Juliann Igo, who worked as an intern with Education Pioneers.

The group has diverse backgrounds and experience, but all were drawn to education by a desire to use their skills and experience to give something back—and to really make a difference—from outside the classroom. We sat down to talk about how they found their paths to meaningful, high-impact careers that help ensure today’s students are connected to the technology they need to succeed.

“My passion for education and social good came from high school,” Aarti Bhatnagar says. “I went to a really large public high school. My starting class was 1,400, and by my senior year, only about 900 graduated.”

Aarti credits her family as a major reason for her academic drive, which saw her taking honors classes as a freshman, ‘on track,’ as they say, for a four-year university from the start. But the majority of the students at the Union City, CA public school she attended were not.

“There was a huge disparity—I didn’t realize how much it affected me until college.” Aarti recalls that it was not uncommon for students to get pregnant, that there were numerous fights, and that there were guns on campus on several occasions. When she attended U.C. Berkeley, it was a window into a different world.

“When I compared my background with college friends who had attended other public schools in the south Bay Area, the disparities began to show,” she says. “I started to realize that the opportunities were not the same, and that it really was dependent on where you’re from.”

Looking back also inspired Dan Runcie, who has been working at ESH for six months at time of writing, to get involved in education.

“Education became really important for me when I started looking back at some of the pivotal moments of my childhood,” Dan says.

A Connecticut native, Dan, whose parents emigrated from Jamaica, was initially placed in Catholic school, before changing course and entering the public school system. There, he began to see the division, even at an early age, between the kids who were ‘on track,’ and those who were not. Fortunately for Dan, his parents discovered the magnet school program.

“I was placed in a magnet school from third to sixth grade that was focused on science and technology. That was honestly the launch pad for me—I was exposed to things that your average fourth grader wouldn’t have been exposed to,” he explains.

“We were using Mac computers in the classroom before it was cool to use Macs; they were teaching us Japanese—just having those kinds of experiences gave me an additional platform to build on, so that by the time I was in middle school, I was involved with the tracking system. I was able to be placed in honors and advanced placement courses,” he says.

While it was very rewarding, it was also frustrating—for one thing, the demographics of the classroom, and of Dan’s friend group, began to change.

“The friends that I started to have when I was in the tracking and honors and A.P. classes started to look less like me,” he says. “I felt that a lot of the kids that I’d grown up with were being left behind in a way. And what were the reasons for that? That was when I realized that there was really a divide, and that something needed to be addressed. Even though I made out well in the system, others for whom I wish it could have been different, that wasn’t the case.”

That divide was never so apparent to Sneha Narayanan, who had taken exclusively honors-level English courses up to that point, as when she decided as a high school senior to take a standard English class.

“It was so different. I had taken an honors class with the same professor a couple years before, and I felt like even his attitude was different in the classroom as well—it felt like the kids in these classes just weren’t as much of a priority,” she says.

Sneha grew up partly in India, where she had attended private school, before moving to Union City, CA when she was in sixth grade. That standard English class, she says, reminded her of her initial transition to the U.S. public school system, which had been a shock to her. “I felt like there wasn’t much of an emphasis on learning. Suddenly, what the kids were learning didn’t matter as much anymore,” she says.

After attending U.C. Berkeley, Sneha, like many of her peers at ESH, worked outside the field of education, until she felt that she needed a way to make a positive impact with her career.

“I really like working with data, and unearthing data trends,” she says. “In the midst of all of these mobile tech startups and gaming companies, there was ESH. It was the perfect intersection of what I wanted to do—to work in an innovative industry, with an innovative group of people, but still serve an idealistic purpose that all kids should be getting the education that they deserve.”

While the level of technological intrusion into learning is, and will always be, the subject of debate, the sense among the Education Pioneers Alumni at ESH is that, at the very least, the option should be there.

“We have this goal, this mission—but it’s not just a blind mission. It’s a very specific, agnostic mission,” Sneha says. “We’re not trying to say that you should be using this specific digital program, we are just saying that every single school should have access to these resources if and when they need to, and in a way that they choose to use them, depending on the needs of their students.”

And there are exciting possibilities for what those options might hold for students. Andrew Kenny points out: “I’ve come to see the way that digital learning can basically recreate the best parts of my childhood education—where I was able to be free to pursue my own interests and projects—and tap into the intrinsic desire to learn, and to create.”

Bryan Kitch is a freelance writer and an artist with a strong background in academics and an interest in education.

By Bryan Kitch, September 10, 2015