The EdTech Capital of the World

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Just got off the phone with a reporter who wanted to know more about why Baltimore was doing so well in becoming an edtech hub.

And it is a story I've seen quite a bit recently. Though it's hardly a new story. A dedicated cohort of folks have been pushing for Baltimore to be the edtech capital of the world for more than a couple years now. I myself have said things of the sort. Occasionally been quite aggressive about it.

After all, we've got a bunch of education legacy companies and their offshoots here in town. And Maryland is a state where some of the highest performing K12 institutions and some of the lowest performing K12 institutions in the country are often blocks from one another — so there's never any shortage of things to study when it comes to education. We've got the top-ranked ed school in the country and we're pretty darned close to a whole bunch of policy makers down the road. 

And we've got a bunch of great programmers and technologists. That one surprises some folks. San Francisco? Sure. New York? Boston? Yeah. But Baltimore? Really? Well, yeah, really. Probably has more to do with the fact that the NSA and the defense contracting industry call the metro region home. But yeah, we don't really have a shortage of good technologists; though they are often hidden in plain view as compared to scenes in other cities.

And I think that starts to get to the deeper issue.

I grew up in Baltimore. I live out by the river now in an old house in an ancestral neighborhood on my wife's side; but I come up through town just about every day, depending on traffic riding up Paca or Gay Streets en route to 33rd. I've lived all over the city and it's where we founded our business. And I am fiercely proud to be building technologies right here in the City of Baltimore.

It's a tough town. Everybody who lives here knows that. And everybody has their own story or their own view about what "tough" means. But Baltimore is clearly a city that can kick your ass. Sometimes with a loaded weapon, sometimes with a story of heartbreak. Definitely with drugs and everything that goes along with that.

But that aspect often gets romanticized by outsiders to a degree that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. People live out lives here. Heartily. No one cares about anyone else's sob-story; there's too much life to do. We've been around. And from neighborhood to neighborhood people love this city and hate this city at the same time; and that's never going to change. It's in the water. It's in the beer. It's in the crabs. It's in the ghosts of every abandoned theater. And it's in the way the broken sidewalks come up to meet you no matter who you are.

And so, a lot of the hidden in plain view stuff remains hidden in plain view. And even as folks who live and work here, we tend to try to celebrate it only when folks from other cities notice it while generally ignoring it during our usual daily routine. Sure, we have silly fun at festivals and whatnot, but really Baltimore's best moments — its best moments which happen in myriad forms every day and night — come not as iconic emblems of the city's value but in the value of the small and hidden moments which become iconic to its people. Everyone with their own story. A city full of ambiguity. Beauty. Fragments. Heroes.

This is a town full of unknown heroes.

Heroes hidden in plain view.

And so, it strikes me as artificial to try to place something as emblematic as "EdTech Capital" or "EdTech Hub" on a city that so clearly isn't.

Because the more you try to force the mantle into plain view, the more our eyes blur.

Baltimore isn't great because of the particulars of what it makes. Baltimore is great because of the people who live, sweat, and die here.

When you look it straight in the eye, you see that Baltimore has never been the capital of anything external. It is a city that thrives on getting under the skin and in ingratiating itself within the nervous systems of its people. It is a city of motorbike engines on the verge of collapse. It is a city of herringbone brick pathways that lead to nowhere. It is a city with its cannons literally pointed at itself. It is a city that sounds like no other city and yet which can't describe its own sound.

Sometimes we drive with the windows down and take in the wreckage of a good rush hour. Sometimes we run our palm across the waxy blades of its grass and wonder where the pigeons and crows go to die.

And so, although I'll admit that in the past I've put on the mantle of prophet and/or salesman, when it comes to Baltimore's place in edtech, the general notion has begun to wane for me. Or at least it has become as ambiguous as the city itself in my mind. And it's not just because I don't think Baltimore needs to be teed up for the edtech birdie, it's because I don't think edtech as we know it — or as we've been investing in it — will continue to be relevant as the new decade approaches.

Just as the legacy edtech operations and big publishers seem somewhat clumsy today, likewise a lot of "EdTech Bubble" companies are going to be seen as the vaporware they are as learning itself — not "education" or the "education industry" or the "teaching profession" — but learning itself as a state-of-being is offered new opportunities — some good, some awful — by the greater context of technology and culture.

And nota bene: I'm talking for better and worse here. As we move into new arenas where real life and tech merge and a culture and set of sub-cultures develops around or reacts against that merging, fundamentally human-centric things like learning itself are going to change shape both internally and externally in response to the shifts.

And this is nothing new.

In the education space, we tend to argue about learning and teaching as though all of human experience has occurred over the last 200 years.

It is time to wake up.

With regard to edtech: the overwhelming majority of it has been and continues to be crafted for a world of learning which is in-and-of-itself familiar to us. The world of the last 200 years. We're pretty good at making Enlightenment-approved edtech.

That's going to change.

And as it does, it will render all of that edtech irrelevant. As well as the institutions which have supported it.

The technologies that will matter will be the ones which are part of the shift itself. They'll be the ones through which the consumption of the present will occur. It will be technology — even educational technology — that terrifies most of our current sensibilities.

If it doesn't, then there is no hope for the future.

And so, no frankly: I don't want to see Baltimore be dubbed the EdTech Capital of the World. I'd rather it be seen as what it is: a difficult and compelling and intensely frustrating and ecstatically creative and ambiguous place.

A place of its own. A place transcendent of its own name.

That's Baltimore.

And it is the only place I can see the challenges of the shift being met with something more than marketing or cowering. Of course, that's my bias.

So technologies and entrepreneurs...

Do we need more capital here? Yes.

Do we need more mentors, more folks bringing to the table something of a more sophisticated history of success? Yeah, probably.

But do we need to constantly compare ourselves to other cities? No.

We don't. Though we probably will. Because that's part of who we are as well.

From Westgate to Kane Street, this is Baltimore. It is what it is. And it is that because we are that. It's not a capital of anything. Its the largest metro anti-capital you could imagine.

It feels exactly right.

I could care less where the EdTech Capital of the World is. The only thing I care about is doing work with people who are genuinely and proactively as difficult, compelling, frustrating, creative, and ambiguous as this city. As difficult as difficult is. As difficult as the future has to be. Wherever it is. Wherever.

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