For the past 150 years, Towson University has been Maryland’s top producer of teachers and is constantly working to enhance the educational experience, including ways to integrate technological advancements. Located on Towson’s campus, TU Incubator is uniquely positioned to help edtech (education technology used to achieve educational improvements and innovation) companies succeed by leveraging TU’s resources and expertise in education.
Recently, I read Benjamin Herold’s article “Popularity of Ed Tech Not Necessarily Linked to Products’ Impact” in Education Week. One of the key takeaways is it is not enough just to get the product in the hands of teachers, you have to make it easy for them to use, provide training and support as required, and make sure it saves time for the teacher.
The article highlights the findings of an analysis of edtech products designed for higher education undertaken by the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International. Here are some of the findings and and my thoughts on what this means for edtech companies.
Barbara Means, the director of the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International, the nonprofit research center that conducted the new analysis said “To create an education technology tool that can have an impact, but also be adopted in many classrooms, requires thinking about supports for teachers, resources for instruction, and rethinking the way time is used within schools.” “They also identified three common factors among those products that scaled most rapidly: a promise of cost savings for schools, no requirements for face-to-face training, and an ability to be easily integrated into existing teaching and learning practices.”
This is about value proposition. All of our TU Incubator edtech companies are first and foremost motivated by solving a problem teacher’s face and ultimately providing better educational outcome for students. But providing better student outcomes is not enough. There has to be a compelling value proposition for the schools to buy the product. That value proposition has to be about saving something, usually money or time, in addition to the student benefits.
“Equating usage with value is fine for a consumer product that users are spending their own time on,” Means said. “But students are not volunteers, and we’re devoting instructional time to products when we don’t know whether they work or not.”
This issue is raised more and more. In order to be successful, edtech products need to show research that confirms there validity and efficacy. Local education agencies (LEAs) are increasingly looking for research on efficacy before introducing new products into the classroom. Investors will want to see that too.
- Andrew Calkins, the deputy director of the Next Generation Learning Challenge. “Practitioners [in traditional schools] find it easier to adopt technology tools that readily fit within their existing models,” Calkins said. “That’s why tools and platforms that demand a lesser degree of disruption might have found greater purchase in the marketplace.”
There is a simple message here, you have to make it easy to use the product and ensure that it integrates with the schools existing academic practices, administrative needs, and learning management systems, just to mention a few.
The companies that are often most successful in this new landscape, said Allan of the Gates Foundation, are those that start by going directly to a relatively small cadre of educators; use those relationships to gather feedback, improve their products, and demonstrate demand and effectiveness; and then work with institutional leaders to make sure their tools are also integrated into districts’ system-wide instructional models and purchasing plans.
Finally, there is often debate as to how best to distribute and sell an edtech product. Building that small cadre of educators can be time consuming and costly. Selling to the school districts is not easy but potentially leads to a bigger sale. There is not a right or wrong answer here; it will depend on individual circumstances.
In summary, to create a successful edtech product you need to solve a compelling problem, have a clear value proposition for all stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, administrators, and investors), provide research to back up your claims, make the product as easy as possible to use in the school environment, and get your distribution right.