opinion

What the Savviest School Administrators Know About Education Technology

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Umang Gupta’s advice on monetizing your edtech product offers a snapshot of what the world of selling products to K-12 educators looks like to companies—and what the smartest edtech companies should know.

Now let’s flip that lens: What does the world of edtech products look like to administrators? What makes a school administrator a savvy edtech purchaser?

For decades, the people running schools—from teachers to principals to chief academic officers, district leaders and even the school boards—have had about as many choices for their curriculum content and supplemental resources as American consumers had among telephones in the years before the breakup of AT&T.

Three large textbook publishers, fielding hundreds of sales representatives, dominated the business. They could tweak a book to fit state standards but the changes were minor. Any deeper effort to make curriculum fit the needs of a group of students fell on the backs of teachers, many of whom wound up working long hours to design their own curriculum.

As is the case in a classic monopolistic—or oligopolistic—system, the textbook providers faced hard-to-swallow disincentives to offer anything different. A senior member of one of the big three publishers told me this story: Every year, the chief executive of his company would visit different divisions and nudge the teams to explore a new idea. Team members would nod and smile, he recalled; as soon as the CEO was out the door, they would shelve the concept.

Change made no sense. The profit margins on their existing products were “obscene,” he confided. There was literally no imaginable change that could have produced better profits. Because a significant part of the team members’ compensation was based on commissions, introducing anything new amounted to taking an immediate pay cut.

Fast-forward to the present: The past five years have witnessed a preCambrian-like explosion of thousands of edtech products, many of which are “free,” and all of which have been designed for teachers, schools and students. Teachers, particularly those with students for whom school is an achingly bad fit, became early adopters. These educators are desperate to find ways to make learning relevant and personal for their students—and they work heroic hours to see if technology helps. Many charters schools are doing the same.

District (or charter network) administrators now face the inverse of their past problem: Choices flood their schools as teachers try out new products and product marketing materials wash into their inboxes. Both the printed rules—and even the rules of thumb—around choosing technology are now upended.

Gone are many state-approved lists of curriculum. In their place: requirements to purchase digital curriculum but with little guidance about what to choose. Teacher who have long grumbled that they are dissatisfied with the existing curriculum now have a surfeit of choices—but scant evidence on the effectiveness of any of the new materials. Enter data champions—both in and outside of schools—enthusiastic about using fine-grained data to inform teachers about what their students do or do not know. Privacy watchdogs are on guard, urging teachers and districts to be wary about who amassed data on students and what they did with it. But distinguishing between the good and the treacherous data practice embedded into products is hard. Adding any new technology—no matter how promising—requires that teachers learn to use it. Yet time and opportunities for teacher learning continue to be among the most scarce resources in a district. And then there is the problem of making all the new technology fit together. Just because a community of educators are successfully using one tool doesn’t necessarily mean that a second will naturally fit in.

That’s a short way of saying that figuring out what to buy—and how to buy it—in this new world is a colossal challenge for administrators. They have to scramble to learn how to evaluate technology, about why some products “fit” one school and not another, about what it takes to integrate even a “great” edtech tool and about how to monitor a school’s progress. And they have to do this while doing their plain old day jobs (which already soak up more than 40 hours a week).

Finding a smart consultant has always been an option—albeit one that comes frequently comes with a high price. But recently, a number of additional solutions have emerged, all aimed at helping administrators tackle the challenge figuring out how to make sense of this emerging edtech ecosystem.

EdSurge got started first by writing and sharing articles, and next by offering specially designed Summits where administrators could talk with peers and have in-depth conversations with top-notch entrepreneurs about their tools and the industry overall. Over the past year, we built Concierge, a holistic approach that involves working one-on-one with school administrators. We help them crisply describe the problem they’re trying to solve and then line up a menu of potential solutions that fit their requirements.

And there are other approaches, too. Here’s a shortlist of the solutions emerging to help administrators work through the complexities of identifying and buying the right tools for their schools:

All such efforts aim to make buying education technology tools more of a science, not just a result of habit or relationships. They are the building blocks of a better functioning marketplace for edtech and—the real goal—better outcomes for students.

As Gupta observes, when it comes to selling, the smartest edtech companies are the ones that know what kind of tool they’re building will do a better job of serving their customers. Similarly, when it comes to buying, the savviest administrators are the ones who have deep insight into the problems they are trying to solve and the needs of their schools and teachers.

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