The Tough-Love Advice Edtech Needs to Hear

The Tough-Love Advice Edtech Needs to Hear


Technology can have a powerful impact on college students’ success. But progress is slow. Initiative fatigue abounds. At a time when the potential for technology to transform higher education has never been greater, university leaders can be increasingly skeptical of the hype surrounding “the next big thing.” And with good reason. While tech entrepreneurs are quick to bemoan Byzantine procurement processes and risk-averse campus cultures, higher education’s anemic adoption curve may have just as much to do with tone-deaf pitches from entrepreneurs and a legacy of failed implementations.

So how can entrepreneurs pare back the cynicism that impedes shared progress between edtech and higher ed? For the sake of students, and the sanity of administrators and faculty, edtech companies need to get smarter about how they approach universities. As someone who works with university leaders looking to identify and cultivate innovations that scale, I have a few tips for edtech companies.

Ask questions before you offer solutions.

Nothing aggravates university administrators more than a sales person coming in with a “solution” to a problem the university may not have (or may not view as a near-term priority). A better approach is to ask questions about what administrators and faculty think could work better at their institution. What aspects of their strategic plan are they struggling to implement? What solution do they wish they had? If they have to triage problems—and most do, given budget constraints—what do they want to deal with first? 

Asking administrators about their priorities will not only help to earn goodwill, it might enable you to identify discrete problems that technology can solve, making the need to invest both obvious and immediate.

Stop falling in love with your product.

You’re convinced that your product is a surefire winner, guaranteed to take the university to the next level. But administrators and faculty are skeptical. They’ve seen dozens of whiz-bang presentations, followed by implementations that fail to match the hype. Adopting a new technology is complex. Humans naturally resist change. Very few technologies can point to successful, large-scale implementations across complex and dynamic—to say nothing of bureaucratic—institutions.

You may interpret administrators’ resistance as an inability to see the big picture or to get out from their bureaucratic rabbit holes. But they know the players and challenges, and have to take into account not just product, but people, to forecast the payoff. Rather than assuming that your product will change ingrained processes and behaviors, ask about the challenges administrators anticipate when adopting a new technology and work on answers. Be a problem-solver, not a product-pitcher.

Understand your real users.

Too many products are coming onto the market from teams that have designed something based on their personal experiences as students. While universities need to be more student-centric, the fact is that your product has to be implemented and used by faculty and administrators. It’s essential that you talk to those people to understand how they’ll use your product, what systems and products they’re currently comfortable with, and how your product can be integrated into their daily work as seamlessly as possible. If your product doesn’t smoothly blend into their already overfull days, it will go nowhere.

Don’t bigfoot your way in the door.

Entrepreneurs often mistake access barriers for resistance to change. University administrators and faculty can be challenging for vendors to connect with, because they already have a lot on their plates; and listening to strangers who have not worked in higher ed over-confidently describing how they are going to disrupt the industry wastes precious time.

It may be tempting to leverage a contact in the president’s office for a pitch meeting with administrators, but it is rarely the best route in. The team that’s forced to listen to your pitch can resent the laziness of someone going above their head without providing proof of concept. Yes, it’s hard to figure out who is responsible for vetting new technology solutions—IT? Procurement? Department heads? But you should conduct due diligence to find the right point of entry, and then do your homework and approach busy people with an interest in understanding how you can be useful to them. You’ll demonstrate a commitment to helping the university overcome real challenges rather than just trying to make a sale.

Spend a lot more time planning for implementation.

Instead of the 80/20 rule, try the 50/50 rule: To succeed in a sector prone to inertia, at least 50 percent of product design should be focused on project management and technology onboarding so it can be readily deployed in a complex bureaucratic organization. Most of the edtech companies I encounter treat implementation as an add-on. The most successful firms—those that gain market share based on referrals from happy customers—design products around the workflows and capabilities of colleges and universities. Their technology may not always be the best on the market, but it’s designed from the get-go to work in higher ed’s ecosystem.

Academics and administrators know that their institutions can appear frustratingly bureaucratic. They fight against it every day. They also want useful technology that can do wonders for students and make their own jobs more manageable. With better preparation, a dose of humility and a focus on the end-users who matter most, edtech promoters can win more hearts and minds among university administrators. Companies that do so will reap both economic and educational returns. And we will all benefit from a healthy and vibrant edtech sector filled with thoughtful and well-designed technology supporting student success.

Bridget Burns (@BBurnsEDU) is executive director of the University Innovation Alliance. 

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