For education technology entrepreneurs, things are looking up. On the heels of a four-year low in 2016, edtech investments are on a marked upswing, on pace to reach $1.4 billion by 2017’s end by PitchBook’s account.
Still, edtech investments are likely to fall short of the $1.5 billion high-water mark of 2015. Especially with the U.S. federal education budget likely to face cuts for 2018, entrepreneurs and investors alike are eyeing edtech with cautious optimism.
To be sure, 2017 has been a good year for edtech startups in certain niches. Introductory coding tool littleBits, for example, debuted a new kit this year to rave reviews and became the star of the year’s National Principal’s Conference.
Some adaptive learning startups, such as Nearpod, had a good year as well. Nearpod announced $21 million in funding back in March, according to TechCrunch, which enabled it to debut more than 300 digital lessons in a partnership with Education.com.
Investors also signaled interest in gamification platforms such as Classcraft, which turns attending school into a role-playing game over the course of a schoolyear. In September, PE Hub reported that Classcraft closed an impressive early-stage investment of $2.8 million to scale its tool.
What do these edtech success stories have in common? They make learning fun for kids and easy for educators, and they’ve been rigorously tested both in and out of the classroom. While that might sound simple, educators have understandably high expectations for products that purport to improve student learning.
Becoming the teacher’s pet.
Administrative and support staff, who are often the ones ordering products for districts, often default to teachers’ judgment when making classroom purchases. For entrepreneurs hoping to tap into the education market, teachers are the right people to reach.
So what, exactly, are teachers looking for in an edtech product? Typically, they want to see that it:
1. Solves actual problems.
Any product designed primarily to “wow” users won’t work in education. Teachers and classrooms are stretched thin as it is, and a tool won’t make its way into schools unless it’s necessary. Unfortunately, many of the tools available at the moment simply aren’t cutting it. Just 59 percent of teachers think the tech they use is meeting student needs, according to research from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The problem, more often than not, is that edtech companies assume they know what teachers and students need. When an edtech company decides to create a gamified math program, it’s because it believes that’s the only way to make math fun. But for every app that tries to gamify a subject, there are already thousands of teachers making it fun without a fancy new product.
For the real story, talk to teachers about the challenges they experience every day. ClassDojo, for one, has succeeded because its co-founder Sam Chaudhary committed to listening to teachers, parents and students throughout the development process.
As a result, ClassDojo solves a real teacher need: communicating student progress to parents outside of the parent-teacher conference. It’s the type of problem that you wouldn’t think about unless you’re a teacher — or talked to one. Now ClassDojo is used in 90 percent of U.S. K-8 school districts, as reported by the San Francisco Business Times.
2. Is tested and proven.
In the early days of edtech, getting products into the hands of teachers was enough. Teachers would pilot the tool, and if their classes liked it, they’d ask administrators whether they could purchase it. These days, competition is much fiercer. So many products have hit the market that teachers don’t know which are wise investments.
Fortunately, edtech accelerators serve not only to help entrepreneurs develop their products, but also as trusted testing grounds. In 2015, the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education created its Jefferson Education Accelerator to give promising edtech startups a jump-start. So far, none of the companies the accelerator has worked with have failed.
Accelerators help entrepreneurs validate products, of course, but the trials don’t end there. LEAP Innovations, for instance, works to match Chicago-area schools and edtech investment experts. Not only does this help teachers find the right technology, but it also helps edtech companies find the perfect audience for their products.
3. Has a plan for implementation and adoption.
Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen great steps forward to modernize schools and classrooms. Today, nearly all schools are online, and 88 percent of classrooms have robust broadband internet, according to Education Superhighway’s 2017 State of the States report.
That broadband access is due, in part, to E-Rate, a program I was lucky enough to help create and launch in the late 1990s. But while broadband access is a real accomplishment for rural schools, in particular, not every teacher at newly connected schools instantly embraced online learning tools. Participating in the program reminded me that a tool alone can’t change how a teacher approaches her day.
Simply creating a new product isn’t enough; edtech companies need to consistently support teachers as they adopt and implement that product in their classrooms. For example, there have been several programs to get iPads into schools. Although it seems like they’d be a big hit, taps and apps are a big shift from paper and pencils.
One company that bridged that gap was Schoology. The company’s learning management system facilitated a one-to-one iPad implementation program for a school district in Pennsylvania. With Schoology’s program, teachers could provide customized instruction for their students, making use of the tech they’d been provided.
Don’t make the “build it and they will come” mistake with teachers. Without a proven product that fulfills a need of theirs or their students, any attempts to sell to teachers will tank. Teachers know what they do and don’t need in the classroom, and no amount of venture investment will change that.