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Bridging the Divide Between Entrepreneurs and Educators

Small thumb ben stern 1401861611 1422653864 1422676501 1428741646 1428750060 Ben Stern

Did you know we have a Jobs Board?


There’s a gulf between educators and entrepreneurs. It’s time we do something about it. In this spirit, I had the privilege of leading a workshop at SXSWedu this year in which we paired educators and edtech entrepreneurs to share their trials and tribulations and discuss how to bridge the gap between them more often. Here are five lessons we learned.

1. How you treat customers will reach a much broader audience than you expect.

Two great stories shared in our session illustrate this point. First, one teacher commented on a company that asked his school to be the primary beta tester. Teachers, administrators and tech integrators worked regularly with the company to give feedback that was incorporated into the 1.0 release. Once it hit the market and started growing, the company told this teacher and his school that the relationship was over. He received no discount, no thanks, and even when running into each other at a conference, no acknowledgement of the hard work. Hearing this story, the room was soured on the product.

In contrast, another teacher shared a story where one day in class, the product simply did not work. Ten minutes of troubleshooting in class revealed a clear software glitch. The teacher tweeted at the company, the company dedicated a developer to this problem that night, and next day the teacher redid the lesson with a working product. The kids thought their teacher was a wizard and the teacher was deeply appreciative. The attendees at our session were as impressed as the students.

Good or bad, word of customer service experiences travel far and wide. Teachers like to talk. You’re not dealing with only one school or teacher; you’re dealing with their whole network.

2. There can be tension between pleasing individual teachers and scaling. It can be resolved by having one nimble product and one staid product.

As companies improve their customer service, they have to deal with pleasing two very different sets of teachers. Some teachers are eager to use beta products and are prepared for tech failures. These are probably your early adopters and most vocal advocates. To innovate, you need these folks.

Other teachers just want a reliable product. These are the teachers who pay your bills. You need to keep both happy. To do so, go beyond just offering your innovators a beta version. Dedicate engineering resources to a wholly separate product that will evolve according to their needs. As it evolves, you can incorporate some of its features into your core product, but keep innovation alive at the same time. Think of it as beta+.

3. Startups need teachers to advocate for them and inform product development. Hire academic liaisons and have them focus their efforts on less techie teachers.

Teacher advocacy has to extend beyond tales of customer service wins and failures, though. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: teachers will be happy to offer their time and expertise to helping you if they believe in your product.

The teacher you hire as your academic liaison should advocate for your product at conferences, on Twitter, and in his or her professional learning community. Your academic liaison should also identify seasoned educators. Power brokers in faculty rooms are these revered, wizened teachers who have survived several administrative regimes and educational fads. If they begin using your product, your work is done in that school. A good academic liaison will know exactly how to talk to them; they’ve mastered “teacherese.”

(And to answer a question that came up a few times at the session: you should pay your academic liaison! Teachers don’t need internships! It doesn’t have to be much, but give them the respect they deserve.)

4. To paraphrase my co-speaker Martin Moran, too much of edtech is solutions looking for problems.

An academic liaison’s value is their intimate knowledge of how schools function, and they know better than edtech companies the problems teachers face. Every teacher can list a number of pain points: the logistics of scheduling and following up on parent-teacher conferences, the lack of reliable, vetted OER content, making assessment metrics meaningful, and so on.

Unfortunately, these problems aren’t communicated effectively. They float around faculty rooms, never to reach the ears of the very people who can solve them. If we could just get teachers to compile a giant list of their pain points, whiz kid developers and entrepreneurs could dream up solutions for many of them. We need more of this collaboration and communication. Educators can and should lead product development, but someone needs to step in to help.

5. Teachers are less skeptical of profit-motive than is their reputation.

I’ve heard many entrepreneurs bemoan the distaste for profit-motive among teachers. They fear that the moment they ask a teacher or school to pay, they’ll somehow be marked with a scarlet dollar sign. Teachers are less naive than you may think. Whenever I work with teachers to implement Ponder, they ask, “How can we pay you? What do I need to do?” When teachers believe in a product, they don’t care that it costs money. They just care that it helps their students. If they don’t want to pay you, it’s because they don’t believe in the product, not because they’re anti-capitalists.

These five lessons are a snapshot of the awesome ideas shared at our session. Beyond these points, though, is the most important one: Teachers and edtech companies want to team up, but just don’t have enough opportunity to do so. We can change that. Together, we can bridge this gulf.

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