Eliot Levinson, Forever A Founder

An inspiration to the edtech world—and the start of something new.

FOUNDERS | by Victor Rivero

Scanning LinkedIn, I noticed Robert Dickson (CIO of Wichita Public Schools) post:

The #edtech world lost a great inspiration today. Eliot Levinson brought so many different talents together that helped shape technology in schools. I am glad to have worked for and with him for so many years. #edleaders #edleadership

Drawing in a sharp breath and exhaling for what seemed like forever, I flicked back across two decades. I was at my desk on the phone; Eliot’s warm, familiar monotone came through with a curious phrase:

“Have you used Google? Try Google. Google it.”

One of the first pieces of advice he gave me, and I didn’t have a clue what he meant. I sat there puzzled; he was already ahead of me and on to the next topic.

It was barely 1999.

Keeping Up

In the weeks, years, ultimately two decades that would follow—when I knew I’d be talking to Eliot, if I wasn’t at a computer, I made sure I had pen and paper to hand.

Eliot, of course—to anyone who knew him—was full of gems.

That is, if you could keep up.

Insights, information, pointers—he was eager to condense; generous in providing; and even abrupt, sometimes ending calls with a signature deadpan, “Bye.” Or, just hanging up at the end of the talk, no bye, like he’d simply finished and had turned his attention to helping someone else now.

God help you if he was giving you someone’s phone number! He’d let it out in one breath and move on (it so tickled me, I’d later try that on my wife; not impressed).

I knew he was very active, busy and productive, so whenever he gave me some of his time, I considered it an honor.

I’d jot quickly knowing that I’d later make sense of it on my own time. Right now, it was time with Eliot—too valuable to waste. I’d learn interesting stuff, things I’d never heard about:

“Hi Eliot! What’s new?

“Harry Potter.”

“What’s that—who?

“Oh, Victor! You haven’t heard?!”

At that time, very few had heard of Hogwarts, but Eliot was already enjoying some school-related pleasure reading. Harry Potter. I wrote it down. Eliot was on to ideas about organizational management, helping rural schools, or other areas of education that, properly helped, could improve the lives of leaders, educators, and learners.

Tech From the Top

Very often, what I really wanted to hear from him were his ideas for “Tech from the Top”—a monthly column he co-authored first with Jim Surratt, a school superintendent that had served in North Carolina, Texas, and Florida — and later with Barbara Grohe, the 1998 National Superintendent of the Year.

Tactical advice for superintendents and other school leaders grappling with budgets and a variety of new technologies coming their way, the column was published in an at-the-time new national print magazine all about ‘where education meets technology’ and aptly named Converge.

The magazine itself was ahead of its time—it appeared at the advent of that very early ‘dot com’ era (you know: ding ding dong dong schwoooooosh bing bing).

Back then, Eliot was already a known school technology expert, a real pioneer. Eliot and Barbara would take turns being the main author but still shared the byline.

Now it was Eliot’s turn; the column was clearly overdue, I was his editor—and I had him on the phone.

“So Eliot, do you have the column?”

“Yes.”

“Well, where is it?”

“It’s up here.”

Deep inhale. I held my breath and grabbed at my chin. Yep, I was pretty sure he’d just tapped at his temple with his index finger.

My eyes glanced upward to my production manager, who was standing over my desk listening in on our call with a red face, bulging eyes.

So I employed a tactic I would often use with Eliot:

“Oh good, very good! Great, so, just curious—could you tell me a little bit about it?”

It would flow out of him easily, rapidly; over the phone he’d outline the entire column in detail. Wow. Apparently, he really had been sifting it over in his mind.

And now the column was kind of mid-air between his head and the page.

Progress; I had to smile and shake my head.

And like clockwork, a couple days later an email would appear: he’d delivered a rich, detailed, insightful piece. Yes!

A quick edit and the crown jewel column neatly placed, we’d send it—and the rest of ‘the book’—off to print.

Being of Service to Others

Over the years, Eliot was a truly special friend and mentor.

He’d often ask how my mom was, or tell me about his wife and their dogs.

He’d gone to Middlebury, I was born and raised in Vermont. 

Another very interesting commonality we shared was a connection to the U.S. Peace Corps. Eliot, like my mother, though not directly together, had in the mid-1960s volunteered and served among its earliest cohorts in the very same country: Peru.

I knew that this experience had carried great meaning for him, as it did for so many Volunteers, and no doubt shaped his life and his attitude of being of true service to others—before; especially during—but ever since.

We continued to stay in touch over the years, and when I launched EdTech Digest back in 2010, he generously made himself available as a mentor and Advisory Board Member, as well as a judge for The EdTech Awards, but really I see now that it was all just a great excuse to continue our friendship. 

In one of our final phone exchanges and partly over email, not too long ago Eliot and I had discussed an idea to honor those ‘oldies but goodies’ — people in the edtech world who went above and beyond in some way, with a kind of Hall of Fame tribute.

Really, I had him in mind and wanted to run it by him to see what he would make of the idea. When he called to tell me his thoughts (rather rapidly and to the point), I was—away from my desk, no pen or paper.

But a few days later, I was delighted to find an email from Eliot:

——

The group could be called founders. You could do an issue

Criteria. 

1.retired and alive

2. Over 70

3. Made a unique contribution to a particular aspect of ed tech which others have built on but would not have been able to without them 

4. They should be vetted by a panel of 3-4 people who you get input from 

5. Not fully recognized or understood currently 

——

Eliot also gave me a great list of many names with notes next to each one. He also included himself on the list, with notes:

——

Eliot Levinson founder of the BLEgroup.  First group to put 200 ed tech leaders and investors together  to assure that the quality of K12 ed tech products would be high.  and to pilot the products to assure that they would  be implemented well.2. The BLEgroup focused  on cost effective strategic assessment and integration planning for  the 90% of districts under 7,000 which no one else did 3.)e for over a decade the BLEgroup published thought leadership pieces on evolving technology for superintendents and CIOs

——

He added that he wanted to shy away from those who may already have been fully celebrated. And he finished his message with this:

——

Victor……this is a strawman and not Moses speaking from Mt. Sinai. So let me know what you think….It is a strawman…The form could be a column called founders or a vetted recommendation by a panel of knowledgeable and respected experts….

Best regards

Eliot

——

I had intended that Eliot be the first inducted into this group. Eliot, I’m sorry to break part of your first point above, the “alive” part, but you will always be very much alive in my mind, and I’m going to induct you anyway.

As the purpose of this Founders group is:

To honor those who have made a unique contribution to a particular aspect of edtech which others have built on but would not have been able to without them…

…I think you’ll pass the vetting process just fine.

Your contribution, inspiration, and support is something countless people have built on, I personally have built on—and it definitely would not have been the same without you.

As comments continue to emerge from those you’ve helped in a thousand small and large ways, I also think you have not been fully recognized and that you will be better understood currently for the great work you have done in this most important area of human endeavor.

And so, with that:

Eliot Levinson

I hereby induct you into Founders 

And thank you for your service and contributions

to the field of education technology

and to the future generations that will benefit from your help.

Your honor is well earned and well deserved, and to you:

Very well done—and thank you!

I now await word from any one who will second this, with any message of support for Eliot and his contributions that they wish to provide.

Eliot, I will miss our calls and emails. It’s like this: We’re on the phone, you’re doling out some great gems to me, I’m madly jotting, and now we’ve come to a comfortable point, and you’re done. No bye. I simply hear the phone hang up. And I picture you pivoting in a different direction, off to help someone else.

But in my mind’s eye, I can’t quite end it there; I’m still running to catch up, except this time, I finally do:

Hold up! Just one more thing…

And you turn and raise your eyebrows.

Thank you, Eliot!!!

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com  EdTech Digest will continue to feature ‘Founders of Edtech’ into the future.

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