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
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
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
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
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.