Ask Gee Kin: Effective Edtech Implementations at the District Level

Ask Gee Kin: Effective Edtech Implementations at the District Level


Editor's Note: This is part of an ongoing "Ask Gee Kin" column from Gee Kin Chou, former CTO of Oakland Public Schools. He's generously offered to answer questions posed by edtech entrepreneurs about building relationships with and selling to districts. If you have questions of your own for Gee Kin, submit them here.

Adam Frey (Wikispaces) asks:

You say [in a previous article]: "Districts are notoriously bad at implementation and the product inevitably gets blamed for poor outcomes even if they were the result of poor implementation".  Does this suggest that one good option for startups is to sell solutions that don't require a lot of involvement at the district level, even if they are sold to the district? Have you seen SaaS solutions in particular, perhaps with a good Single Sign-On integration, be purchased by the district and then handed off to ed-tech people at the school level to manage and run?

“Software as a service” (SaaS) with good single sign-on integration indeed can save the district’s IT department some work and make it easy for users to log on. But “implementation”--enabling the organization to get good value out of your product--requires much more. Implementing new technology district-wide forces changes to the behaviors and routines of the majority of the teachers, students, administrators and (sometimes) parents. While attracting early adopters may have been relatively easy, successfully managing that change across the entire district to include the later adopters is much harder.

Edtech companies must remember that the success of any district-wide technology initiative depends primarily on the capacity of the District: the perceived performance of their products will only be as good as the weakest part of the District’s technology ecosystem and the capabilities of the users. Since any disappointment, irrespective of the reason, reflects badly on your company, you need to decide where and how you might help districts with implementation, or whether you cherry pick only those districts that can cover the bases themselves.

While most edtech startups do not have the resources to provide staff on-site to help the district, you could identify a person from the Central Office who can manage the project, provide her a project plan template for a typical implementation, and check in frequently to see what other tools she needs to help move things along. She will increase your chances of success and you will learn how to make the next implementation even better.

Some points to remember:

No technology is totally independent
  • Do the user devices have enough computing power? Are the browser versions compatible with your application? Given the budget pressures and cutbacks in staff, maintaining a reasonable hardware refresh cycle and keeping software up-to-date is a challenge for many districts. Many districts are issuing bonds to fund technology; understand when devices are planned to be purchased. In the meantime, the district might be able to tap into grants to get some of the devices up to standard for an initial partial rollout that creates loyalty to your product.

  • Is there reliable, high performance internet connectivity for everyone that needs to access the application? You can ask schools to run a speed test (for example, A “slow” network could be due to any of a number of reasons, and the district’s IT staff or outside resources would have to take a closer look. There may be some “quick fixes” but your district- wide implementation plans may depend on the district’s timeline for upgrading the network infrastructure.

  • Have the necessary data bridges been established (e.g. to the district’s student information system) to make the application seamless to use and easy to maintain? If manual maintenance is needed, is the task on someone’s list?

Quality content is more important than the technology itself
  • Insufficient or out-dated content can quickly kill user interest. Creating, uploading and maintaining the content normally is the district’s responsibility. Has the district designated a point person who coordinates the schools and departments to load and refresh the content according to a schedule that keeps the application useful?

  • Chronic data quality issues will frustrate users and hurt your product even if it is not explicitly blamed. Cutbacks in funding for schools, resulting in the elimination of many clerical personnel, have made it more and more difficult for schools to maintain the accuracy of student and staff data. Fixing the district’s data quality issues is outside the scope of most implementations, but you should draw their attention to issues during the product rollout--you may jump-start a long overdue data quality initiative that yields far reaching benefits to the district.

No technology is intuitive to everyone you want to reach
  • You must provide some kind of training/professional development and ongoing user support if you want to bond with a broad user base. Early adopters may have found ways to get value out of your product by themselves but a district-wide implementation will include staff that are slow to grasp new technology. Since on-site training classes and live phone support, the preferred training and support modes for many later adopters, are cost prohibitive in most situations, you have to create a menu of options (including pre-recorded videos, webinars, written instructions and emails support) that can speak to users with differing learning styles.

  • Professional development for teachers and administrators is even more important for instructional software designed for students. Traditionally, teachers have been under daily pressure to keep up with “pacing guides” and introducing something new can upset that pace; you need to help the district’s Curriculum and Instruction department modify what teachers are expected to do and integrate the product into the curriculum.

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