Why Schools Are Superior to Startups When It Comes to Building Edtech


Why Schools Are Superior to Startups When It Comes to Building Edtech

By Brendan Laughlin     May 8, 2018

Why Schools Are Superior to Startups When It Comes to Building Edtech

Today’s teachers are expert innovators. They create classrooms designed to maximize student learning, and do everything from fine-tuning lesson plans and homework assignments to organizing the physical layout of their learning spaces. It’s an occupation that requires flexibility, as they accommodate different student needs, and a certain level of ingenuity and responsiveness for when things don’t go according to plan. Not incidentally, these are many of the same skills valued in the founders of startups creating the tools used in edtech.

Innovation in the classroom can (and sometimes does) lead to innovation in educational technology as well, but it is the private sector—usually the startup community—which often leads the way here. Startups have their advantages, but they face unique challenges, such as the catch-22 of product testing, in which schools won’t buy untested products, but the startups can’t test their products if no schools will buy them. Startups are also working against what is known as the “Empathy Gap,” where companies must quickly close sales to stay alive, while educators need more time to properly integrate tools into their teaching.

These problems stymie edtech innovation and prevent schools from profiting from faster, more responsive technology—a key advantage of startups in other markets. There is a way of meeting this challenge, however: the school-based “Edtech Innovator,” which functions as a kind of startup incubator where schools themselves foster a culture of innovation and enable faculty to develop their own tools.

Schools have several key advantages that make them perfect for innovation. First, schools are full of teachers, the true “doers” in education, who are best positioned to identify their own needs. Startups use time-consuming surveys to learn what teachers want, but innovation-empowered teachers can shortcut this. Teachers are also great at judging the effectiveness of new edtech tools—after all, no-one understands students’ connection with the classroom better than they do. Combining these two advantages yields another: a tight feedback loop where teachers can introduce a tool, measure success and quickly make adjustments, all while remaining responsive to their busy schedules and limited free time.

Finally, an EdTech Innovator can skip the process of finding pilot schools for edtech tools—a school with an EdTech Innovator is the pilot school.

The Wellington School in Columbus, Ohio, has taken this idea and run with it by developing multiple software tools in our own innovation lab, WelliVentures. Our first was PeerView, an app for facilitating faculty-to-faculty peer review and feedback. But our best known creation is the Wellington Engagement Index, a tool which gives students a way of providing feedback on their level of classroom engagement with teachers and administrators. It was immediately popular when we debuted it here, and is now used in 16 other schools nationwide.

Wellington is not the only school today with an Edtech Innovator—and we feel any school can do the same. The trick is to build a system that encourages teacher innovation and to take advantage of the unique resources afforded both by a school and by the proliferation of free tech tools on the internet. Here are three important lessons Wellington’s experience in software development taught us:

Be Lean

Minimizing cost is deeply important to ensuring that a new project is sustainable, given stagnant or declining school budgets. Luckily, coding new software only requires a computer and some know-how. Microsoft Visual Studio is a free and powerful tool for writing and organizing your code, and there are numerous free or cheap tools for learning how to code, from w3schools.com to CodeAcademy. It might take time to get up-to-speed, but it can be done on a lean budget.

Recognizing that an Edtech Innovator is essentially a startup, let’s take advantage of cost-effective entrepreneurial strategies. Lean methodology, as explained in “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, meshes well with the advantages a school has in innovation. Ries’ approach of building a minimum product, quickly testing and pivoting focus to the most-wanted features meshes perfectly with an Edtech Innovator’s tight feedback loop. Ries’ book is an invaluable resource for building an efficient Edtech Innovator—if your innovation budget is $20, spend it here first.

Be Rewarding

Building an Edtech Innovator means incentivizing innovation. People need concrete rewards for their efforts, or they will not put in the extra work innovation requires. At Wellington, we created a Student Engagement Grants program that gives teachers funding to cover both materials used for, and time spent on, innovative new projects. There are other ways of providing incentives, too: extra vacation time, gift cards or public recognition can all work. What is important is understanding that encouraging innovation means rewarding innovators.

It is important to note that teachers should not only be given resources to innovate, but also the time. Teachers are already overworked—creating an Edtech Innovator should not exacerbate this problem by demanding even more of their schedules. By ensuring teachers have adequate lesson planning periods, you can ensure that teachers not only have plenty of time to provide their best to students, but also give teachers time to flesh out new ideas and implement innovative practices in the classroom.

Be Connected

Just as getting rapid feedback is important in the context of a lean methodology, it is also deeply important to how your edtech tools will be ultimately received by the outside world. To that end, consider looking beyond your school’s walls. Collaborating with peers you don’t work with every day is an important way of learning what other schools would want in a product. Peers can help make a project more accessible for other schools, as well as illuminate bugs that need fixing or even help provide funding. Leveraging your school’s network will not only gain you additional perspectives and resources, but will also help better expand your personal network in the process.

Schools stand in a unique position that provides amazing opportunity. While our school’s lessons can help provide you with a framework for building a system of innovation at your own school, the ultimate goal is to find what works for your environment—empowering you to find new ways of improving teaching and learning for your students.

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