Can a District Disrupt the Edtech Industry?

Opinion | Startups

Can a District Disrupt the Edtech Industry?

By Colette Coleman     Apr 15, 2017

Can a District Disrupt the Edtech Industry?

Fail fast. Think big. These are the words that edtech startups live by, but schools and districts generally operate at a different pace. When it comes to our children’s education, there’s no room for failure—fast or slow—and layers of bureaucracy and tight budgets often make big changes impossible.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A case in point: New York City, where the nation’s largest district, experimented with fast and effective edtech adoption through its iZone Short Cycle Evaluation Challenge (SCEC).

As the Director of Business Development at Zinc Learning Labs, I led the company through the application and implementation phases of the SCEC for the 2016-17 school year, focused on products supporting English Language Learners (ELLs). Knowing that New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) serves more than a million students, and solicits tools through Request for Proposals (RFPs) that can run hundreds of pages long, I initially had doubts about how innovative this effort would be.

I was happily proven wrong. A bureaucracy transformed into a lab before my eyes, and this metamorphosis brought several welcome changes in how developers can work with districts. The NYCDOE isn’t alone in this willingness to deviate from antiquated practices and the rigmarole of complex procurement processes: Zzish co-founder Charles Wiles recently wrote that “the unforgiving school ecosystem, which has presented itself as an almost insurmountable barrier to entry for many edtech startups, is showing signs of change.”

The SCEC offers a promising example for how this change can happen and gives districts a blueprint to follow.

True Partnership

All too often in edtech, there’s a feeling that companies and educators are adversaries rather than partners. Earlier this year, Digital Promise facilitated a conversation between me and a district superintendent where we asked: “Why can’t we be friends?” This title may be tongue-in-cheek, but the sentiment was based in reality. Educators and education companies want students to succeed, but this shared goal is often lost in the sales shuffle. However, it should be easy—and is necessary—for educators and companies to feel part of the same team.

Giving and receiving must go both ways. For example, companies can give training, support and recommendations for integration, and teachers can provide feedback and product suggestions. Developers often create customized content and enhancements to make their program a better fit for the specific ways it’s being used. In turn, teachers open their classrooms for observations of and interviews on these new features.

Gloria Canales McCabe, the technology coordinator at the Business of Sports School (BOSS) in New York and a returning iZone piloter, explained that this synergy led to the SCEC going “beyond a program just to explore a new tool to enhance instruction” and evolving into “an opportunity to collaboratively reflect on and develop best practices to use with tech in schools.”

Fair, Honest Product Valuation

When a developer has built a new edtech product with blood, sweat and tears, it’s easy for her to see its worth. But this isn’t always obvious from the outside. Making matters worse, an early-stage startup may not even have the chance to give an elevator pitch to a district administrator, let alone have the product’s value evaluated in a meaningful way.

But today, procurement is often not an exclusively top-down decision; rather it’s frequently fueled by demand from a growing number of teachers who individually have tried—and may have purchased—the product. And third-party matching services are also stepping in to make sure the fittest, not just the biggest, players in edtech survive (and sell).

Admission into a district isn’t simply based upon long-standing relationships, brand recognition, or impressive customer references. Selection comes down to the educational value of the product, which ensures that teachers and students are getting access to what they need.

That said, getting the most innovative solutions is no small feat. The market is crowded, with new companies throwing their hats in the ring every day. Diversity and choice of products is great, but it can also lead to overwhelmed educators who are unsure where to begin or end their searches. Anticipating this deluge, the SCEC requires applicant companies to go through multiple layers of vetting, and provides participating educators direct access to the product developers for questions.

Similarly, a service like EdSurge Concierge appeals to schools and districts because they help define needs and narrow down product choices; once on the short list, a vendor must prove how and why they’re the best fit. With such demanding application structures, companies relying on hyperbolic marketing language will surely be outed. This level of scrutiny can save districts countless dollars of unnecessary spending based on empty sales promises.

Insight & Data

Once a product is implemented, the good, bad and ugly sides are quickly revealed. In the SCEC program, critical evaluation took place through structured educator feedback collected and synthesized by a third-party organization. Most districts can’t engage researchers to evaluate the full impact of a tool, but they can implement simple structures to evaluate product usage and ease of implementation. This data can be helpful to both administrators and early-stage companies that may be lacking usage data about their own products.

These evaluations helped us to go much deeper into understanding our offerings; we learned about unexpected use cases and implementation ideas. For example, as a vocabulary and reading company, we envisioned our program complementing a core English curriculum. However, at one of our SCEC high schools, we had no ELA users. Instead, we were placed in math, science and history classrooms. We were pleasantly surprised to see that our offerings were actually a perfect fit across courses. History teachers needed students to have vocabulary support to aid in comprehension just like ELA educators would, and math teachers needed engaging content to hook students into lessons and give them context. Without the SCEC’s vision for our product and insight from their teachers, this realization of Zinc’s broader applications may have taken much longer.

Time + Attention = Actual Adoption

Even if an educator finds the right product, adoption isn’t guaranteed. In the typical edtech adoption model, an administrator decides on a product and prescribes it for teachers to use. But this model often falls short and leads to waste. Without properly understanding how a tool should be used, it’s unlikely that teachers will have the comfort and confidence to use it.

The SCEC carved out time on Saturday for sessions designated for developers to learn about educators’ needs, and for teachers to learn about product offerings. Raven Connor, an English teacher, said these interactions gave her “the confidence needed to feel comfortable using the program with students.” Not all districts will have the luxury to do this on weekends, but dedicated training time during the working week is a must if adoption is the goal.

Leading Districts to the Lab

EdSurge recently reported that the NYCDOE’s iZone is moving from “'cool’ to cold,” noting the program’s massive loss of funding. Where these financial changes leave the SCEC is uncertain, but whether that particular program continues or not, the groundwork is laid for other districts to follow to help educators successfully and quickly integrate new technology into classrooms.

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