Bridging the Divide Between Entrepreneurs and Educators

By Ben Stern     Mar 12, 2014

Bridging the Divide Between Entrepreneurs and Educators

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 sessionillustrate this point. First, one teacher commented on a company that asked hisschool 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 schoolthat the relationship was over. He received no discount, no thanks, and evenwhen running into each other at a conference, no acknowledgement of the hardwork. Hearing this story, the room was soured on the product.

In contrast, another teacher shared a story whereone day in class, the product simply did not work. Ten minutes oftroubleshooting in class revealed a clear software glitch. The teacher tweetedat 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 kidsthought their teacher was a wizard and the teacher was deeply appreciative. Theattendees at our session were as impressed as the students.

Good or bad, word of customer serviceexperiences travel far and wide. Teachers like to talk. You’re not dealing withonly 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. Someteachers are eager to use beta products and are prepared for tech failures.These are probably your early adopters and most vocal advocates. To innovate, youneed these folks.

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

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 ofcustomer service wins and failures, though. I’ve writtenabout this before, but it bears repeating: teachers will be happy tooffer their time and expertise to helping you if they believe in your product.

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

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

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

An academic liaison’s value is their intimateknowledge of how schools function, and they know better than edtech companiesthe problems teachers face. Every teacher can list a number of pain points: thelogistics of scheduling and following up on parent-teacher conferences, thelack of reliable, vetted OER content, making assessment metrics meaningful, andso on.

Unfortunately, these problems aren’t communicatedeffectively. They float around faculty rooms, never to reach the ears of thevery people who can solve them. If we could just get teachers to compile a giantlist of their pain points, whiz kid developers and entrepreneurs could dream upsolutions for many of them. We need more of this collaboration andcommunication. Educators can and should lead product development, but someoneneeds to step in to help.

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

I’ve heard many entrepreneurs bemoan thedistaste for profit-motive among teachers. They fear that the moment they ask ateacher 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 toimplement Ponder,they ask, “How can we pay you? What do I need to do?” When teachers believe ina product, they don’t care that it costs money. They just care that it helpstheir students. If they don’t want to pay you, it’s because they don’t believein the product, not because they’re anti-capitalists.

These five lessons are a snapshot of theawesome ideas shared at our session. Beyond these points, though, is the mostimportant one: Teachers and edtech companies want to team up, but just don’thave enough opportunity to do so. We can change that. Together, we can bridge this gulf.

Bridging the Divide Between Entrepreneurs and Educators

By Ben Stern     Mar 12, 2014

Bridging the Divide Between Entrepreneurs and Educators

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 sessionillustrate this point. First, one teacher commented on a company that asked hisschool 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 schoolthat the relationship was over. He received no discount, no thanks, and evenwhen running into each other at a conference, no acknowledgement of the hardwork. Hearing this story, the room was soured on the product.

In contrast, another teacher shared a story whereone day in class, the product simply did not work. Ten minutes oftroubleshooting in class revealed a clear software glitch. The teacher tweetedat 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 kidsthought their teacher was a wizard and the teacher was deeply appreciative. Theattendees at our session were as impressed as the students.

Good or bad, word of customer serviceexperiences travel far and wide. Teachers like to talk. You’re not dealing withonly 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. Someteachers are eager to use beta products and are prepared for tech failures.These are probably your early adopters and most vocal advocates. To innovate, youneed these folks.

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

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 ofcustomer service wins and failures, though. I’ve writtenabout this before, but it bears repeating: teachers will be happy tooffer their time and expertise to helping you if they believe in your product.

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

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

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

An academic liaison’s value is their intimateknowledge of how schools function, and they know better than edtech companiesthe problems teachers face. Every teacher can list a number of pain points: thelogistics of scheduling and following up on parent-teacher conferences, thelack of reliable, vetted OER content, making assessment metrics meaningful, andso on.

Unfortunately, these problems aren’t communicatedeffectively. They float around faculty rooms, never to reach the ears of thevery people who can solve them. If we could just get teachers to compile a giantlist of their pain points, whiz kid developers and entrepreneurs could dream upsolutions for many of them. We need more of this collaboration andcommunication. Educators can and should lead product development, but someoneneeds to step in to help.

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

I’ve heard many entrepreneurs bemoan thedistaste for profit-motive among teachers. They fear that the moment they ask ateacher 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 toimplement Ponder,they ask, “How can we pay you? What do I need to do?” When teachers believe ina product, they don’t care that it costs money. They just care that it helpstheir students. If they don’t want to pay you, it’s because they don’t believein the product, not because they’re anti-capitalists.

These five lessons are a snapshot of theawesome ideas shared at our session. Beyond these points, though, is the mostimportant one: Teachers and edtech companies want to team up, but just don’thave enough opportunity to do so. We can change that. Together, we can bridge this gulf.

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