A Personal Concierge to Connect Edtech Companies and School Leaders

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A Personal Concierge to Connect Edtech Companies and School Leaders

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Jun 23, 2015

A Personal Concierge to Connect Edtech Companies and School Leaders

For the past six months, EdSurge has been experimenting with developing a product. Our efforts are still at an exploratory stage. Even so, we want to share what we’ve been doing, what we’ve learned and our next steps.

Since we began, EdSurge has aimed to bridge the gap between the users and creators of education technology. We’ve done this through reporting and writing news, sharing your stories and hosting events across the country. We’ve also tried to make sense of this growing, intricate industry through our Edtech Index.

Even so, the challenge and cost of getting the most appropriate tools into the hands of the people who need them is still really high. Educators say that they spend hours sifting through research, emails and demos to find tools that meet their needs. Companies underwrite big sales and marketing pushes without being sure they're reaching customers in the right time or manner.

Reports from Digital Promise and the John Hopkins School of Education have chronicled these inefficiencies, as have the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Or ask an educator or an edtech entrepreneur. Chances are, you’ll hear the same frustrations.

Whether measured by time or money, it’s still too hard to find the right tool for the right need.

After watching thousands of users find each other through our Index and at our Summits, we wanted to do more. We wanted to make it easier for educators to find the most appropriate products for their needs and for companies to find the customers who need them most.

What if finding the right tools and customers was more personalized? What would it be like if both companies and educators had their own personal advisor? Someone like a hotel concierge, who was knowledgeable about the territory? And yes, someone who was truly neutral about whether you wanted front-row symphony tickets or a late-night slice of pizza?

That’s how the idea for our Edtech Concierge was born.

Our Skunkworks

We created a skunkworks team within EdSurge. They pulled their desks together, bolted whiteboards to every inch of the wall and stocked up on Post-it Notes. The editorial team moved to the opposite corner of the office. The Concierge team created its own collection of databases and files. We might share popcorns and Diet Coke--but that was about it.

Concierge team members began interviewing school administrators. We came to realize that it's one thing to be hunting for an edtech solution; it's something else to be truly ready for one. Over several months, the team built out an extensive interview framework, aimed at helping school leaders define their instructional needs and how they envisioned technology supporting those needs. Some were seeking “purple unicorns” (tools we wished existed but did not). Others need, say, a math tool to help English language learners in 4th grade develop skills to tackle word problems.

Then, in partnership with school leaders, the Concierge team created detailed writeups of those needs. When the educators feel we have captured their priorities, EdSurge team members turn to the central catalogue we’ve been steadily working on for more than three years: the EdSurge Index.

We’ve logged more than 1,500 tools in the EdSurge Index, with more coming every day. Hundreds have in-depth reports with more detailed characterizations. Even fuller insights are available from a small--but growing--portion that includes extensive comments from teachers who have participated in our Summits. (For instance, here are more than 180 teacher comments on Curriculet or 250 reviews on Actively Learn here, or 310 reviews on BrainPop here.) Our own findings are supplemented by web research that fills in information about edtech products.

Using these resources, the Concierge team identifies tools that are potential fits for each school’s unique needs. Because the questions we ask at the outset are detailed, the resulting lists are different every time.

How can schools--and companies--safely turn these prospect lists into productive conversations with the best partners, without wasting time and resources on dead-end discussions? That’s where EdSurge helps both sides prioritize. We redact the name of the school involved--and share out our description of the “need” with the 10 to 15 companies that best fit the school needs. Some companies are ready to proceed; others may choose to stand down if the opportunity and their products don't quite align. All companies are invited to write a short proposal--including demos, estimated pricing and a more specific description of how the tool supports the need--based on the anonymized descriptions. We then bundle up the lists and proposals and ship them over to the school administrators.

Those school administrators then review the list and the submitted proposals. We ask them to give us feedback on whether the proposals fit their needs. And they agree to continue the conversation with at least one organization.

What Does It Cost?

There’s no financial cost to educators for going through the diagnostic of needs--but there is a real commitment of time. Educators invest their time to:

  • Consider the instructional issue they want to address in collaboration with their peers;
  • Evaluate the companies’ responses;
  • Follow up with the most promising product(s).

In turn, there’s no cost for any company to be included on the initial list of 10 to 15 suggestions. Any relevant product--whether it’s on the EdSurge index or not--may be a candidate to fill a school need. We do ask companies that want to create a more detailed proposal to pay an appropriate fee if they choose to submit a tailored response. And if they win a contract, they agree to pay a referral fee as well.

What We’ve Learned

Since January, we’ve conducted more than 70 interviews with administrators around their needs and engaged with hundreds of companies. We’ve created 40 unique lists of possible products, including hundreds of prospective products. So far, we’ve helped bridge more than 50 connections between administrators and companies. Several deals are in the works.

Here’s what we’re learning:

Getting ready is a two-step process. While we’ve had many needs interviews with administrators, almost a third end in a conversation about why they might not be ready to purchase edtech products. Often these administrators need more information before they begin seeking tools. We’re patient partners. We encourage educators to go back and get more information from their teachers and end users about what they need--so that in the next stage of the cycle, there's enough clarity and unity to move ahead.

Schools can’t be rushed. To make smart decisions for their schools, many administrators will line up two products in separate classrooms and let teachers try them out for a few months. We applaud that kind of methodical decision making.

It does mean that the sales cycle is long and grueling, particularly for smaller companies. As more quality results from pilots become available, we plan to factor that data into the reports we compile for schools. Piloting tools is critical. But we recognize it creates tension that can be paralyzing, particularly for small innovative teams. We hope that by adding more clarity to the market, we are streamlining the searching process and enabling educators and entrepreneurs to focus on questions that will get them to positive outcomes.

Teachers’ input should be much more than an after-thought. So far, we’ve been interacting with administrative staff rather than classroom teachers. Much of our advice to those administrators includes figuring out how to get a true read on the needs and experiences of their teaching staff.

We believe that teachers should have a powerful voice in choosing the technology tools to support learning in their classrooms. And as we all get better at assessing the impact of using the most appropriate tools in classes, we suspect that the schools that have involved their teaching staff will have the best results. That will be critical information to include in our publically available Index and to factor into the lists we compile.

We’re always learning. We’ve been powerfully encouraged by the comments and feedback from the administrators and companies who have engaged in this experiment with us.

What’s Next: Getting You Involved

Even though this project is still young, we wanted to share what we’re doing both to foster the conversation--and to invite you to join:

If you’re an administrator and believe that there is an edtech tool that can support the your school and teachers’ needs, give us a call. We can take you through the Concierge process.

If you’re a company, feel free to get in touch, too: We can talk you through the Concierge process--and be ready for when your product pops up on our lists.

And no matter where you are in the edtech system, we welcome your thoughts and feedback. Send us an email at concierge@edsurge.com and let us know what you think.

We believe that the right education technology can make a difference in the lives of students and teachers. You will enjoy a bowl of soup so much more if you eat it with a spoon rather than a fork. Similarly we believe that connecting teachers and learners with the most appropriate technology to support how and what they're learning will lead to the best outcomes. We’re all about trying to help people figure out what’s a spoon and what’s a fork.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

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