Incubating an EdTech Revolution: Baltimore’s Digital Harbor

Just south of the harbor in Federal Hill is a rec center turned tech center and the home of the Digital Harbor Foundation (DHF, @DHFBaltimore). In the re-purposed facility, co-founder Andrew Coy will show you two big spaces–“Nano Lab” for little kids and “Mega Lab” for big kids, where students from nearby schools get the chance to play maker and coder. This year, the Maker Camp which is hosted at Digital Harbor will offer 3 two-week session focused on 3D printing and electronics. Less than a year old, the Foundation already had one spinout company,An Estuary, a professional development company founded by Andrew’s thoughtful partner Shelly Blake-Plock.
Coy said DHF “wants to be a STEM engine” for Baltimore as “the missing piece for STEM grads was network of support and connection to jobs.” Coy sees Web 3.0, blended learning, augmented reality, and rapid prototyping all contributing to a larger local tech ecosystem and the team at DHF has written a Common Core aligned STEM curriculum they call STEM Core to do just that.
Investor Frank Bonsall III said, “What Andrew and Shelly have accomplished at DHF is worth national press and just the beginning.”
EdTech Maryland
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has become a digital harbor and an EdTech hub–a cool collaboration of veteran investors and edupreneurs. Exhibit one is EdTech Maryland, a three pronged Digital Harbor initiative to foster school system-entrepreneur collaboration, to host events, and encourage investment. In Baltimore, Coy senses “an increased sense of cohesion and collaborative momentum.”
The momentum in the city is focused on connecting the dots and empowering students, teachers, and administrators. The list of individuals involved in the work of EdTech Maryland and the ones behind creating this hub of activity, is long and varied. In February of this year, working with EdSurge, EdTech Marylander Katrina Stevens organized the EdSurge Baltimore Tech for Schools Summit — an event where 30+ companies (about a third of which were local) came together for a weekend of intense interactions and feedback loops. More than 3,400 surveys were completed evaluating and offering suggested improvements for the companies demoing. More than 650 teachers and administrators attended as well as business and government leaders (including multiple state senators, heads of foundations, business community leaders, and even the Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Education, Jim Shelton). This grassroots community has grown and matured significantly over the past two years, and recent events such as the EdTech Founders reception hosted by Doug Becker of Laureate Education are connecting the next generation of innovators to the region’s decades of successful education entrepreneurship.
Sterling. “We moved Sylvan to the area from Montgomery, Alabama, with 10 employees in 1991,” said Chris Hoehn-Saric of Sterling Partners. Sylvan moved to the inner harbor 16 years ago and supports more than 900 learning centers in North America today. The new SylvanSync digital instruction platform is a personalized, teacher-led instruction system “We have built the largest digital distribution network for teacher-driven instruction,” said Sylvan CEO Jeff Cohen. “And we can deliver anywhere there is an iPad.”
Along with Sylvan, Sterling has grown an impressive portfolio of education companies. Founded in 1998 as part of Sylvan, Laureate International Universities is the world’s largest private network of post-secondary institutions with 67 schools in 27 countries. Ashworth is a leading provider of secondary, postsecondary, and career-oriented accredited online education programs. InfiLaw is a consortium of law schools. Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy is a digital media arts college. Progressus partners with school districts to identify their needs in occupational therapy, speech language pathology, and physical therapy. School of Rock offers instrument and vocal programs to 7-18 years old. Meritas is a global network of college prep schools.
Sterling started test development shop Prometric, which was sold to Thomson for $780 million in 2000 and subsequently acquired by Educational Testing Services. It’s still headquartered on the Baltimore harbor. Catapult Learning provides services to school districts and was sold about five years ago. Progressus is a leading provider of speech therapy services. Wall Street Institute, spun off from Sylvan in 1997, is a worldwide English language provider. It was acquired by Pearson in 2010 but remains headquartered in Baltimore. Educate Online, formed as eSylvan in 2000, is a leading, synchronous online K-20 tutoring company. It was spun out of Sylvan in 2007.
Connections Education, launched as part of Sylvan in 2001, is a national leader in online learning operating 24 statewide virtual schools and supporting a growing network of blended Nexus Academy schools. Connections was sold to Pearson in 2012 for more than $400 million and remains headquartered on Baltimore’s inner harbor.
“Within a mile of Sterling’s office are 8 Sterling/Sylvan incubated education companies that are leaders in their particular sector,” said Cohen,“ spanning K-12 to higher ed, testing to tutoring, and supplemental instruction to full-school models.” There are only two other cities with a similar collection of proven education businesses, none with a source like Sterling.
Camden Partners. Located right around the corner from Sterling, the private equity firm Camden Partners has a long history of significant investments in the education space. Current portfolio companies include companies such as:

Additionally, they have listed on their website another half-dozen exited education companies, included Princeton Review. Just this last April, Camden announced the closing of a new $130+ million growth equity fund for targeted investments in Health Care, Business and Financial Services, and Education. David Warnock, Senior Partner and Managing Member at Camden, is passionate for improving educational opportunities in Baltimore and in the past few years has made significant impact in his role with organizations such as the Center for Urban Families, Green Street Academy, Green JobsWorks, and GiveCorps. The Warnock Foundation has made a big commitment to supporting social innovation in Baltimore in the past year with the launch of the Social Innovation Journal and a radio series on WYPR.
Investment Community. “Baltimore is trending well for startups, particularly EdTech, healthcare and cyber software,” said Frank Bonsal III. “There is also a very robust gaming and e-commerce community in Baltimore County.” The community of education investors includes, in addition to the likes of Sterling and Camden, such organizations as ABS Capital Partners (which supports late-stage growth companies includingAmerican Public Education, Rosetta Stone,TeachScape, and Whitney International University Syste), Calvert Street Capital Partners (which is a lead investor in Six Red Marbles, a leading Boston-based learning experience design and development firm), Maryland Venture Fund, TEDCO, and Baltimore Angels. Additionally, New Markets Venture Partners (where Frank Bonsal III is part-time but served as a full-time director of their 2nd & 3rd venture funds) is headquartered southwest of Baltimore in Howard County. With eleven realizations out of twenty-six investments since the late 1990s, Frank was a successful EdTech investor before it was cool. Select New Markets portfolio companies include:

New Markets and partners’ legacy investments include APEI,Blackboard,Capella, Flat World,Headsprout (now Mimeo),Smarthinking,Moodlerooms, andSpectrum K12.
Frank Bonsal III has recently stepped into a new role focused on building more grassroots and early-stage community, becoming the first Director of Entrepreneurship at Towson University (Maryland’s largest producer of pre-service educators and where individuals such as the former Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick is a Presidential Scholar). In addition to providing advice and support for faculty and staff across the university, he leads the TU Incubator and TU Student Launch Pad and other entrepreneurship initiatives. His work extends beyond the walls of TU, though, and, as a co-founder of EdTech Maryland, is committed to building a location-agnostic mentor support network for the region that works with other incubators and centers of innovation in town as well as the formation of an EdTech seed fund for the region.
The Emerging Technology Center (ETC) run by Deborah Tillett, is a nonprofit tech and biotech incubator with 86 companies in its portfolio totaling more than $176 million in economic impact according to a recent study. Local spaces such as the ETC, Betamore, AOL/’s campus and even the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center are home to a very active meetup space with groups such as B’more on Rails, Baltimore Lean Startup, Baltimore Mobile, the Tech & Social Change Baltimore Meetup, the Baltimore EdTech Meetup and the Baltimore EdTech Group.
Betamore, an 18-month old co-working space for hip developers and companies is home to EdTech companies as well (namely, Citelighter). Similar to General Assembly in New York, they also offer educational opportunity through the recently launched Betamore Academy.
Multiple times in the past six months Baltimore has grabbed national attention when companies such as Citelighter and Three Ring uprooted from New York City and relocated to Baltimore.
Some of the EdTech startups that call Greater Baltimore home include:

  • An Estuary: disruptive developer of professional learning tools and experiences;
  • Alchemy Learning: supports a flipped classroom by helping teachers bring digital content and instruction to students;
  • Allovue: finance and data visualization app for school districts;
  • BusyGrad: inspiring science, a social network for grad students;
  • Citelighter: academic research tool that provide an organizational framework for writing;
  • Common Curriculum: organizes a teacher’s lesson–and life;
  • Curiosityville: recently acquired by Houghton-Mifflin, a world of personalized preschool content;
  • Immersive3D: combines 3D graphics and multiplayer gaming strategies into powerful learning experiences;
  • Lessoncast Learning: company focused on next generation teacher preparation & professional learning;
  • Three Ring: is a student work company; and
  • Unbound Concepts: organizes digital content, linking content developers and instructors in a digital dialog.

Portfolio of Schools. The school districts throughout Baltimore are “entrepreneur-friendly,” which has led to many successful partnerships. Organizations supporting EdTech in Baltimore are drawn to the socioeconomically diverse landscape which includes regular public, charter, and private schools with which businesses hope to test products. As Andrew Coy, chairman of the Greater Baltimore EdTech Advisory Task Force, says “Innovators want to solve problems, and the schools are willing to take part in implementing the new technology.”
Andres Alonso made some progress as chancellor of the 85,000 student Baltimore City Public Schools from 2007 to 2013 by attempting to reform the district from within while expanding a portfolio of options including 34 charter schools. Milwaukee superintendent Gregory Thornton will be taking over in Baltimore in July.
During the last decade, the local Fund for Educational Excellence led a 12 foundation consortium supporting high school reform. That work continues under the direction of former TFA Director Roger Schulman with support for 14 Secondary Transformation Schools which are operated under contract by outside groups Friendship Public Charter Schools (2 elementary and 2 secondary) and Diploma Plus (2 high schools).
Urban Teacher Center, launched by Jennifer Green, a TFA teacher who went on to senior leadership positions in Baltimore, “ensures that districts get only teacher candidates who have demonstrated effectiveness in the classroom.”
TFA Baltimore has 340 corp members in 107 schools with 600 alumni in the area. Executive Director Courtney Cass says, “We are embarking on an ambitious four-year strategy to recruit 1,000 corps members to Maryland.”
Baltimore participates in the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Building a Teaching Effectiveness Network, a process improvement partnership to increase retention and effectiveness of new teachers. The district is also capturing video of teachers as part of Project Cycle, a cycle of reflection and support to improve teaching.
In addition to Connections Education, Baltimore is home to virtual school provider Calvert Education Services, recently purchased by Camden Partners.
Cool Schools. SEED Maryland is a residential 6-12 school, modeled after SEED School in DC, supported by the Maryland State Department of Education. KIPP Baltimore runs an elementary and middle school (yes, the organized one in the papers in 2010).
Green Street Academy whose board is chaired by David Warnock and has recently added members such as Andrew Coy, runs project-based learning that integrates sustainability and technology into its curriculum.
Patapsco High School is home to the current National Teacher of the Year, Sean McComb, and counts among its past or present number individuals such as Ryan Imbriale (former principal at Patapsco and current Director of the Department of Digital Learning), and even Digital Harbor Foundation’s Shawn Grimes and Steph Grimes.
College Park Academy is a blended early college charter school sponsored by University of Maryland and developed in partnership with Connections Learning. A similar Prince George’s partnership with a STEM focus has been proposed with Bowie State and Lockheed Martin.
ACCESS Online is a Connections powered program in Prince George’s County that helps over aged, under-credited students get back on track.AdvancePath supports four dropout prevention academies for Baltimore County Public Schools.
High functioning suburban districts include Montgomery County Schools, what author Harold Kwalwasser calls the best district of those he profiled. ACCESS Online is a Connections powered program in Prince George’s County that helps over aged, under-credited students get back on track.
Grad rates are up in Baltimore County Public Schools due, in part, to six dropout prevention academies supported by AdvancePath.
Higher Ed. The greater Baltimore region has 16 institutions of higher education, covering the spectrum of community college to top-tier research universitites.
UMBC has a well respected cyber security program. President Freeman A. Hrabowski, III has been a tireless advocate for STEM education and minority participation in his 20 year term.
Towson University’s Jan Baum, a professor in the Department of Art + Design, leads the university’s cutting-edge Object Lab, where TU students learn 3D modeling and how to digitally fabricate parts and objects with 3D printers and milling machines.
Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education was just named #1 by US News & World Report in the country for graduate education. Additionally, the university as a whole spends the most on research and development of any university in the country ($2.1 billion according to data from the NSF).
Foundations. The Abell Foundation supported Digital Harbor’s tech center and has made some venture investments. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has supported charter schools and KidsCount–a long term commitment to measuring child welfare metrics. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Chevy Chase) makes grants that are changing how science is taught and conducted. Other notable funders active in the education space include the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, the David Warnock Foundation, Venable Foundation, M&T Bank Charitable Foundation, the Blaustein Philanthropic Group, the T. Rowe Price Foundation, the France-Merrick Foundation, and the Baltimore Community Foundation.
State of Play. Maryland has been recognized for strong standards but it has a weak charter school law and limits online learning.
CER Parent Power Index ranks Maryland close to the bottom, “Maryland has one of the weakest charter laws in the country because of the enormous obstacles charter applicants face from school boards. Charters face outward hostilities from boards and are micromanaged, operationally limited, and poorly funded.”
Despite the presence of the world’s most important online learning providers in the DC-Baltimore corridor, the “Maryland charter school law effectively prohibits online charter schools,” says Keeping Pace, and students can only take an online course with “permission from the local system and school principal.” Digital Learning Now gave Maryland a C- grade in their most recent report card.
Individuals such as Jason Botel at MarylandCAN are working hard to improve policy and foster great schools across the state.
Baltimore Education Ecosystem. Education innovation among Baltimore creatives and technologist is on the rise. A report by the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore identifies EdTech as a prime mover in the city’s burgeoning tech economy.
It’s worth noting that a gifted teacher like Andrew Coy left the district’s most advanced tech school to start an after school program. Most tech curriculum remains focused on the software of the last decade while Coy and his kids are creating the tools of this decade. Can an urban district remain relevant if “not connected to current needs of the tech economy?”
Baltimore has the chance to connect its blossoming EdTech sector with its struggling city schools in a productive and novel way. It is interesting how two teachers can help change the energy level in a city and, perhaps, spark a revolution in learning.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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