The success of shows like “Shark Tank” is very telling of the pleasure we get from watching well-intentioned entrepreneurs have their ideas torn apart by judges.
Each year, EdSurge serves up its own edtech version of Shark Tank, with a twist--instead of investors, the sharks are teachers. At this year’s Teacher Tank, from the floor of SXSWedu, two panels of educator judges flung hard and fast questions at six companies--Edmodo, LearnSprout and Schoology during Session One, and Curriculet, Amplify, and Story2 during Session Two.
Over the course of the two sessions, LearnSprout and Curriculet emerged victorious (with most of their limbs intact), having garnered the highest scores from the Sharks and the audience.
So what does it take to survive an EdSurge Teacher Tank? Here are the three biggest questions the nearly all of the companies had to face--and some of the responses that followed.
"When you talk about results, who has access to data?"
Data privacy was the hot-button issue throughout SXSWedu this year, with at least 10 sessions devoted to the topic. The teacher Sharks voiced their own concerns on both how data can be used and who has access to it. For example, educator and teacher shark Kelly Blair asked at one point, “How flexible are you with student data, in terms of what educators can do with it?”
LearnSprout, which analyzes data from student information systems to predict which students are at risk of dropping out, bore the brunt of questions related to data and privacy. CEO Franklyn Chien centered his responses around his customers, sharing “We focus on the school’s questions and deliver information. Data is not gathered and mined for potential use.”
"Why would I use your product when other products are free? Why would I switch?"
“Schoology is fee-based, correct? What makes this product better than Edmodo, which is free?” asked KIPP Austin Digital Learning Coordinator, Matthew Worthington. This question came up frequently throughout Teacher Tank, as companies Amplify, Schoology, LearnSprout and Story2 struggled to respond. Even Ketan Kothari, general manager at Edmodo, a free tool, struggled to explain why it would be worth switching from another free product like Google Drive.
— EdSurge (@EdSurge) March 11, 2015
Similarly, Curriculet CEO Jason Singer got a zinger when Rafranz Davis, Instructional Technology Specialist at Arlington ISD asked, “Why would I use Curriculet over Subtext, which is already in place and loved by many?”
Fortunately, Singer knew his competition well, responding with, “You can't get daily news or rent books on Subtext. But on Curriculet, you can.”
"What problem are you actually trying to solve?”
Educators no longer take buzzwords at face value. By far, this was the most frequently-asked question related to what products actually do--especially when entrepreneurs dropped jargon like “personalized” and “dashboard” into their presentations.
Pablo Mejia, Director of Individualized Learning at IDEA Public Schools, posed this question to Edmod’s Kothari at the start of the day. Something similar happened when Amplify’s Emily Lutrick dropped the word “algorithms” into conversation.
“I don’t care about algorithms… what does your product actually do?” posed teacher shark Davis.
Take it from the sharks, folks. Don’t mask the value of your product with jargon; explain in clear, direct words what your product actually does.