At the end of 2013, General Assembly, a leader in 21st century education, and Pearson, one of the largest educational publishers in the world, approached each other about ways to collaborate in the education technology space. What emerged was a series of conferences in six cities across the globe, aptly titled “Assembled: Education.”
Each Assembly: Education conference features a full day of talks, panels, and networking for those seeking to get acquainted with the edtech landscape in their respective cities. The most recent Assembled: Education was held this past Saturday at the General Assembly offices in Manhattan, and over the course of the day, six lessons for aspiring edtech entrepreneurs emerged from presenters and attendee conversations.
1. School districts are better customers than you think.
Let’s face it: managing customer relationships with public school districts is not generally regarded as a walk in the park. However, Matt Greenfield, Managing Partner of the venture capital firm Rethink Education, pointed out several of the benefits of working with local departments of education: they rarely go bankrupt, they rarely merge and the metrics by which they define success are clearly defined. Before you write off the world of K-12, keep in mind that in many ways districts are better customers than corporations, and if your company can deliver, the benefits can greatly outweigh the costs.
2. Competition is for losers.
Greenfield also lamented the fact that too many entrepreneurs go after the same problems; oftentimes, more established companies, rather than individuals, have the greater capacity to solve better and more cheaply.
Greenfield advises the startups he works with to “go into the white space.” “Be a monopoly,” he said, adding, “Don’t become an entrepreneur until you’ve found a problem that only you can solve.”
3. Solve real problems.
Unfortunately, edtech entrepreneurs are notorious for solving problems that do not exist. Doing your research early on and reaching out to as many educators, students and parents as you can will prevent you from selling what no one is interested in buying (or funding, for that matter).
Preeti Birla, Director of Community and Outreach at NYC DOE iZone has worked with hundreds of edtech entrepreneurs who are hoping to partner with public school districts. Through software challenges, hackathons, open office hours and Shark Tank-style events, the NYC iZone team is working to stimulate a smarter tech ecosystem to support the nation’s largest school district. According to Birla, one of the key attributes of successful entrepreneurs is empathy for their end users and customers:
“New York City’s population is incredibly diverse, which is reflected in our student population. Don’t assume that because your tech solution has worked in private or charter schools that it is validated for the nation’s largest public school systems. To succeed, you must have empathy for educators grappling with the balance of compliance and issues of equity and access that permeate urban public school systems.”
5. Teaching STEM doesn’t have to be rocket science.
Many edtech entrepreneurs in the K-12 space focus on math and science, and for good reason: High demand for quality content means a plethora of funding opportunities.
Take the The Honey Bee Company, for example, who produces STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) apps for preschool students. Honey Bee’s Director of Customer Experience, Kelley O. Williams emphasizes introducing students to STEM topics through play, creativity and storytelling to help students engage and build confidence. It’s not just students who benefit from this approach. According to Williams, almost 40% of elementary school teachers have math and science anxiety, which can negatively affect their students’ feelings about STEM. Approaching STEM through play and story can help teachers overcome their fears about math and science, leading to better outcomes for the students in their classrooms.
6. Consider apprenticeships.
Rob Sanchez, Chief Strategy Officer at Manufacture New York, and Gina Gotthilf, Head of Marketing and International Development at Duolingo, both made the case for 21st century apprenticeship models. Manufacture NY, a hybrid fashion incubator and factory, teaches apprentices (many of whom have been previously unsuccessful in traditional schools) old-world manufacturing techniques along with cutting-edge technology skills. By combining both sets of knowledge in a real world setting, apprentices are able to innovate in ways that lead to cost savings and increased revenue for designers.
Also inspired by the apprenticeship model, Duolingo provides free language learning software by encouraging users to translate existing web content. They are then able to sell the translations to clients like CNN and Buzzfeed. Although Duolingo is pivoting away from the translation business, both organizations have found innovative apprenticeship models that benefit both learners and the bottom line.
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