Powerful Pilots: 5 Keys to Getting Them Ready, Set and Going

Powerful Pilots: 5 Keys to Getting Them Ready, Set and Going


The old adage “it’s better to give than receive” didn’t originate in the edtech ecosystem. But it certainly could have, especially when it comes to product pilots. Pilots can provide a great source for feedback and a foot in a school’s or district’s door. But when companies focus too much on what they’re looking to get, they can miss opportunities for powerful engagement—through giving.

As Director of Marketing and Community Engagement at Zinc Learning Labs, I led the company’s large scale pilot with a selection of the College Board’s SpringBoard curriculum users in the fall. My goals were pretty standard: collect feedback, support new users, and most importantly, ensure that piloters had an amazing experience. Over the course of the trial, several principles emerged as keys to making pilots worthwhile and valuable for companies and teachers alike.

1. Give your time to get to know your users and their needs below the surface

Most products are nuanced and can be used in diverse ways to satisfy different needs. In order to be able to direct piloters on how to fit your product with their conditions, you must first deeply comprehend their context. It’s important to understand standard parameters, such as the makeup of school demographics and technology setups, but it’s just as crucial to know what specific challenges the educators you’ll be working with face. If your product can help with solving these problems, you’re off to a great start. When time allows, it can be worthwhile to set up calls or video chats with new users, so the conversation about needs can flow and rapport can be established.

2. Give users guidance on how to integrate your product

Now that you know what the educators’ problems are, you must demonstrate how to use your tool for this solution. Instructions on how to navigate the technology are important, but direction on the specifics of incorporation is key too. For example, teachers may want to know how often to use the product and where within their lessons, unit or semester. The more guidance that companies can offer, the easier it will be for piloters to get started and continue use.

It’s important to always remember that educators are busy. At EdSurge’s Fort Lauderdale summit earlier this month, Superintendent Robert Runcie listed the top five reasons he hears from educators about why they’re challenged to integrate tech into their classrooms. His number one (and five) was, “I don’t have time.” Just as pertinent, number two was “I don’t know how.” To make sure that the know-how is addressed, provide user training. The time put in at the start for instruction will save support time in the end.

3. Give piloters meaningful interactions

When I was a teacher, my days were packed attending to my students’ needs. Sitting down for lunch or a personal call was a rare luxury. Considering this level of intensity, an exchange with an edtech company would need to be worthwhile to merit taking my attention away from the students who are simultaneously vying for it.

To make calls significant, companies will often need to listen more than they speak. They may have certain ideas about how their product works in a school, but the piloters may have different experiences. If the educators are given the opportunity to share, a company can test its own assumptions.

During these interactions, nothing is more important than honesty. For many people, critical feedback is tough to give and take, but positive false reports are meaningless. It’s important to make sure users know that their contribution of true, and even harsh, thoughts will help to shape a better product and ultimately help many more students and educators. Anonymous surveys can be a great way to get around piloters’ worries about offending companies.

4. Give users a stimulating community

Educator-centered communities are key. They provide a way for users to engage with each other and share best practices and questions. Furthermore, a community gives motivated and enthusiastic educators the chance to engage with likeminded folks in exciting conversations about the product’s bigger educational purposes and pedagogy. If users want to “geek out” on your product, give them a place to do so! Google groups, Facebook groups and Slack channels for piloters can be set up quickly and easily.

5. Give empathy and be flexible

A school is not a controlled lab setting. This means that plans will change, Wi-Fi will go out and snow days will happen. Don’t assume that your piloters will have the same level of predictability with which your company operates. Empathize with their need to make alterations and recalibrate.

For example, if a teacher goes from piloting your tool daily to once a week, embrace that change, acknowledging that you’ll now get information on how your product works with that frequency. If your pilot is user-centered, as it probably should be, then rolling with the punches of user needs and schedules is a given.

At the close of the pilot, there are many measures of success: satisfied and committed users, positive student learning outcomes and lasting partnerships. Each of these results is inextricably tied to the others, so it’s crucial to keep all in mind throughout. In my experience piloting with the College Board’s SpringBoard teachers, the proof was in the (pilot) pudding. These principles proved successful, and Zinc is currently being integrated into the curriculum’s digital platform, getting set to be available to nearly two million student users this fall.

Colette Coleman (@ColetteEdReform) is Director of Marketing and Community Engagement at Zinc Learning Labs.

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