Including Teachers and Districts in the Edtech Discussion


Editor’s Note: This is a response to an opinion piece that ran last week, “Bridging the Disconnect Between Teachers and the Edtech Industry.”

Let me start by saying that I think the disconnect is a real and serious one. But I think that the proposed solution--granting teachers purchasing power--is the wrong one. Well, not so much wrong as ineffective.

I have a particular and informed perspective on this, having built K-12 education technologies for 25 years now. First, as the co-founder of the company that built FirstClass (founded in 1989, it’s the district-wide email and collaboration product currently in 3 of the top 10 school districts in the U.S.) and now as co-founder of Edsby, for which we just announced a district-wide deployment at Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, FL, the 8th largest district in the U.S.

Where to start?

I think that as a group, teachers are woefully underrepresented within the mindshare of typical edtech startups. For 25 years, I've seen the same thing happen: some bright young techies get a cool idea on how they can revolutionize education (or fix/disrupt/transform/etc., the jargon changes). They build their clever product, and let's assume that they do a good job. Then they show it to teachers, and if they are really lucky, they find that some percentage of teachers like the clever product. But when they finally go out to talk to K-12 public school districts, they discover that it doesn't matter how clever their product is. Because what matters more is whether the district can effectively deploy the product to tens or even hundreds of thousands of users, at a reasonable price, while at the same time staying within the confines of the legal, policy and parental constraints that they operate under. And usually, they can’t.

The problem with all of this is that the end result of the whole sorry process is that teachers (the ones who needed the help in the first place!) end up having to put up with the same out-of-date tools and systems that they are stuck with now, and that is where the true shame lies.

So, what can be done about it? Well, there are two things.

First, we have to bring a new respect for teachers to the edtech scene. There's only one way to understand what pain points teachers have, and that's to ask them. We started Edsby in April of 2010. We spent an entire year, from April 2010 to April 2011, doing nothing but talking to teachers and trying to understand their challenges and synthesize their answers. We also talked to principals, and that was even more eye-opening. At the end of a year, we started to get a handle on what technological solutions might have a positive impact on teachers, principals, students and parents.

We did not build a product inspired by our own hypotheses and then show it to teachers and ask, "What do you think about this?” People always like shiny, slick-looking baubles. Of course they'll say they like it.

Second, without a viable strategy for large-scale district-wide deployment, edtech products will be relegated to the dustbin. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a single viable example of a successful freemium-model product for district-wide deployment in K-12. There are some really, really good reasons for this. The major one is that K-12 district sales are fundamentally enterprise sales, and those are long, slow, and fraught with complex technical, timing and regulatory issues. K-12 districts run under some of the most complex and difficult regulations in the world, and you can't just dump in new products because they are "cool".

So, what about the thrust of the original article? Putting purchasing power in teachers’ hands? The good news is that if we're talking about classroom tools for individual teachers, that can work, sometimes. But tools that have to interact with district data sets, manage class rosters, report grades, and communicate with parents are only going to work when tightly integrated into the back-end systems of the district. That necessary level of integration is never going to be available to tools bought and installed by individual teachers. The security risks of providing that data to third-party providers are enormous.

The end result? Cool stuff that gets used by a few early adopters who are willing to do manual data integration, while the majority of the teachers trudge on with paper gradebooks, 3270 terminals for accessing the student information system, and bubble sheets for attendance. Not really optimal. Not really revolutionary.

As you can see, I'm pretty passionate about this stuff. I do want to enable change in education, and I believe that as an industry we can do it. But it's not necessarily going to be easy, or quick. Long term pilot programs and testing requires collaboration between school IT departments and classroom teachers, and constant contact between product developers and school districts. When more companies undertake the rigours necessary to implement change-making resources in education, then the real revolution can begin.

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