Why Edtech Executives Need to Go Back to School — as Teachers

Opinion | Entrepreneurship

Why Edtech Executives Need to Go Back to School — as Teachers

By Colette Coleman     Sep 1, 2018

Why Edtech Executives Need to Go Back to School — as Teachers

When I was a middle school teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District, I looked longingly at the work of sales reps and trainers at edtech companies. I’d daydream about how amazing their lives must be, with leisurely 9 a.m. starts and the freedom to take breaks whenever they pleased, since they weren’t tied to classrooms full of students.

How naive I was! Now, years later, the tables have turned, and as I work as the Director of Business Development at Zinc, I quietly envy classroom teachers’ work. And it’s not just the summers off I’m missing(!), but the purpose, fulfillment and knowledge that comes with the day-to-day work with students.

For this reason, and because of all the gems of wisdom and insight that come from teaching, I think it’s time for education technology leaders to head to the classroom—as teachers. Whether they’re MBAs, technologists, or literacy leaders, they can all teach a lesson or two about life and business. And in doing so, they might also pick up a quick tip or two that can help them build stronger products and businesses that better serve teachers and learners.

1. The educator’s ‘no’ isn’t (necessarily) personal

Sometimes the “it’s not you, it’s me” response isn’t just a polite response to turn someone down, but actually the truth. Even when a new product addresses a specific need and is easy to navigate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that teachers will use it.

If edtech employees were to spend a day teaching, they’d see just how many programs teachers are expected to implement, and just how little instructional time they really have.

This stressful combination of too many programs and too little time doesn’t just lead to initiative fatigue, but it also leaves educators screaming “no” (politely) to new pilots, free products and even tools they were “voluntold” to try by their admins.

A new offering might legitimately save teachers time. But once in educators’ shoes, edtech salespeople would see that the time it takes to get going with anything new, no matter how seemingly small and simple, can be too burdensome. Sometimes there just isn’t room to add in a new product—no matter how great it may be.

2. It’s about the numbers, but not only the ones you think

In the company boardroom, numbers matter: How many daily users? How much is in the sales pipeline? What’s the customer renewal rate?

Numbers matter just as much in schools. For many edtech companies, they are also concerned with numbers around the impact and efficacy of their products, in ways that can help educators see measurable student growth. Educators want to see measurable growth. Both educators and edtech executives are aligned on this question: How much better will students do on this year’s state assessment compared to last’s with this product?

Once in the classroom, however, edtech entrepreneurs will find that there’s another number that also shapes how a product is used and implemented: the ratio of staff to the hours of workload on their plate. Many districts and schools operate with lean technology teams, so what may seem like a feasible ask of an IT admin in reality gets lost among the infinite sea of responsibilities that they also have to handle on a daily basis.

At a recent webinar, an IT administrator from Greeneville City Schools in Tennessee explained that he has just a handful of folks responsible for IT support across the city, the town’s police department, and thousands of students, hundreds of staff and their devices. In this context, an edtech company’s “small” ask might (rightfully) take its place at the back of a long queue.

3. Your experience as a teacher (or with them) may no longer be relevant

Experience as a classroom teacher is invaluable for any education technology company. After all, teaching is like swimming; you can read all the books in the world about it, but until you’re thrown in the deep end, you can’t fully comprehend it.

That said, if your teaching experience was 10 or 20 years ago, you probably need to dive back in.

While the core of teaching won’t change with technology, if you’re creating tech for the classroom, it’s important to be up to date on today’s learning environment. When I was a teacher, iPads and Chromebooks didn’t exist, and Wireless Generation dominated. When I used edtech in my classroom, uncharged devices from the mobile laptop cart were among my biggest concerns. Browsing other websites wasn’t a common occurrence. None of my students had a smartphone, so they weren’t as conditioned as teens today to constantly check their social media.

Needless to say, a lot has changed since then.

In spite of this new edtech landscape and the countless new SISs, LMSs, devices and online learning tools, some challenges of teaching with tech from the aughts persist. Specifically, external, uncontrollable forces like power outages, internet loss and fire drills can still throw a wrench in carefully planned edtech-infused lessons. Time in the classroom will remind developers that often there’s more to smooth implementation than just a great product.

4. No matter how good it is, your product can be better

How many times have you designed something to what you thought was perfection, only to find countless hiccups once it’s placed in an actual classroom? And, how often has a feature release seemed to roll smoothly—only until the “power users,” those who use your product more frequently than most teachers or you ever would—burst that bubble? It follows (and is common sense) that edtech products must be tested in education settings.

It’s one thing to observe teachers using your product, which can yield valuable insights. It’s another to roll up your sleeves and dig into the product as a user yourself. Going along with this principle, many tech companies have their developers handle all customer support. Why? Because when they keep getting pinged about a specific problem, they’ll get sick of getting calls about it and fix it fast. Similarly, if edtech executives were to eat their own dog food, so the saying goes, they would really see how it could be strengthened—and get the changes made before second semester!

5. The product shouldn’t be designed for the purchaser

Designing edtech products for and pleasing four diverse groups—students, teachers, administrators, and parents—is no easy feat. Among these groups, the administrators are often the ones with the most purchasing power, and students are typically the ones with the least. That can lead developers to prioritize designing tools for administrators’ experience, even if the the product is meant to be used in the hands of students and teachers.

It won’t take long in the classroom to realize the flaw in this upside-down logic. It’ll become apparent that the most important consideration in designing edtech tools should be students’ joy, engagement and learning.

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