opinion

How Good Ideas in Edtech Go 'Viral'

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Atul Gawande, famed surgeon and journalist, recently wrote an article for the New Yorker, “Slow Ideas.” He opens with a question: “Why do some innovations spread so swiftly and others so slowly?”

Why, indeed. In fact, I often find myself asking the same question about educational technology. In a country where the public education system is essentially broken, the landscape is ripe with opportunity for new and innovative technologies and practices to spread like wildfire...if they are found to be effective.

However, Gawande points out that proven effectiveness is not necessarily enough to ensure widespread adoption. I found myself nodding my head in unison with Gawande’s two reasons for stunted growth: 1) when solutions combat an “invisible problem” rather than an observable, immediate issue, and 2) when solutions prove helpful for one stakeholder, but more tedious for others.

As an example, Gawande compares the spread of anesthesia usage with a virtually unknown, yet effective, antiseptic method in the mid-1800s. While anesthesia combated a “visible” and “immediate” problem, and dealt with pains experienced by both patients and doctors, antisepsis combated an “invisible” problem of germs, and actually created a more difficult work environment for doctors. To gain traction, antisepsis required much deeper-seated changes in the medical field that did not take place until the end of the 19th century.

So does educational innovation seem to follow the same patterns? Many educational products on the market show at least some evidence of effectiveness, whether quantitatively or qualitatively. And to back those ideas before they get to market, education-focused incubators and accelerators have sprung up in cities from Boston to New Orleans. Clearly, there is growing support for a vast of array of edtech ideas to be prototyped, tested, and marketed to the K-12 masses.

But the biggest obstacles to their adoption are similar to those raised by Gawande: the need to solve the most critical pain points that concern all stakeholders. (In this case, especially teachers.)

While all product developers hope to produce the next anesthesia, some end up in the antisepsis category by failing to 1) solve a visible classroom issue that plagues and festers when untreated, and 2) consider the teacher in design and ease of usability. At the end of the day, the majority of edtech products for classroom use are at the mercy of the teachers who use them. So, when an innovative tool fixes an issue that truly hits home and caters to the needs of the teacher as well as the student, it gains the groundswell of grassroots support needed to propel the product into the spotlight.

Take ClassDojo, a classic example of a swift, almost “viral” innovation. Before co-founders Sam Chaudbary and Liam Don launched ClassDojo in 2011, they interviewed several hundred teachers to find out what major problems plagued them on a daily basis. They identified a clear and visible problem that teachers experience worldwide: establishing a practical system for classroom management. So they designed a free, customizable platform that ultimately supported students while simultaneously providing ease-of-use to teachers. The result? At the end of Class Dojo’s first year, the number of users had risen to 3.5 million, a growing figure that the team strongly attributes to word-of-mouth. In the realm of the edtech industry--or any others for that matter--that’s no small number.

But what about the “antisepsis” products? Take, for example, research search tools. Conducting research is a critical skill that students must develop, and while it isn’t the first issue one might notice upon entering a classroom, students can certainly benefit from using an online research aggregator or search tool. In comparison to classroom management, however, the sense of “urgency” is somewhat lacking. Additionally, current research products have complex teacher dashboards that require a long, steep learning curve. And in public education, time is a rare luxury that is hard to come by.

It seems almost obvious in reading Gawande’s article that at the end of the day, the concern for teachers as early adopters should be at the forefront of any entrepreneur’s mind. Yet having worked on an edtech startup myself, too often do you hear statements like: “There’s little opportunity in the K-12 space,” or “Schools are so slow to adopt new technologies; good luck monetizing!”

Gawande concludes with the message that fast or slow, any innovation adoption takes time, and this holds true in any field. But in the K-12 market, the problem is not the space itself. It’s the manner in which a problem is targeted and how a subsequent product designed.

What do some of the fastest-growing edtech companies--Quizlet, Edmodo, Class Dojo--have in common? They tackle a problem that keeps teachers awake at night, issues that any teacher can relate to. Perhaps if more entrants into the edtech world keep that in mind, “good ideas” with the potential to fill small holes of need in the American education system will gain the traction necessary to treat the most important patients--students.

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