The Most Important Issues in Edtech Right Now

Someone asked me what I thought were the most important issues in edtech right now. This was my answer.

The debate of whether or not technology really aids learning

The dirty secret of edtech is there has yet to be an unbiased scientific study on how technology has quantifiably changed the learning outcomes of learners. I even know a tech-savvy teacher who once conducted a study of edtech that was as scientific and controlled as possible. He didn’t find a significant difference in the learning outcomes of his students. And if you ask a random sampling of teachers, you will probably get as many anecdotes of the benefits of technology, as stories of the detriments of technology.

In my view, technology is a tool that is meant to augment human interactions, not replace them. We are still in the very early days of understanding the effects and consequences of technology, especially social media. So naturally, there is and should be trepidation and caution. Hopefully, as a society, we can continue down this path in an enlightened way while continuing to study technology’s holistic effects. Efforts to teach digital citizenship to parents, children, and educators is a step in the right direction, as are plans to study the actual efficacy of edtech in the classroom.

I look forward to reading these studies and seeing more of these efforts. If technology is determined not to be a game-changer in education, I hope it is relegated appropriately while new methods continue to be explored.

The tension between raising investor capital and doing good

Being in the startup world, raising investor capital is a frequent topic. I get emails almost every week from edtech entrepreneurs about this. Which is ironic because I didn’t raise funding myself. Just about all of them go into the education world with the intent of doing good. But many aren’t aware, or are naive about the tensions between offering value to their investors vs doing good. The way investors make money is if your startup is acquired for a large sum or you have an IPO. So far, only a handful of edtech companies have had an IPO, with many more going the acquisition route. This means only a certain kind of edtech company can get funding; if you aren’t the kind of company that can have an IPO or acquisition, you likely won’t attract investors. And if you do, you’d better show progress towards one of these goals eventually.

Investor capital isn’t the only way to finance an edtech startup, however. Many bootstrap their startups with their own money, or build a revenue plan from the beginning. For those that sell to schools, they can rest easy knowing that most, if not all learning institutions want to see an edtech company that is making money. This is an indicator that the company will be around for a long time, and they care about longevity more than price, because the total adoption and deployment cost of using an edtech product includes the training and support costs. Also, selling to learning institutions is an enterprise play, which means requiring an effective sales strategy. This is something that may be too expensive or impractical for most cash-starved startups.

My preferred approach isn’t a glamorous one. To make it in edtech, I prefer the slow and steady, “in it for the long haul” approach. Bootstrap yourself in the beginning and start with a revenue plan that can cover your monthly operating costs, then grow from there. That way, you can concentrate on making sure you are constantly listening to educators and learners without the distraction of investors, and can explore features that help them, rather than features that might make you more “acquirable.”

The ethics of advances in technology

This is a broad topic that covers many areas, not just edtech. Within edtech, concerns include student data privacy. Fortunately, more and more companies are beginning to self-police and address these issues, but it still remains a concern for many. This coincides with the general consumer market’s concerns over data privacy as well, especially with social media.

Outside of edtech, concerns include artificial intelligence, artificial superintelligence, or at least artificial intelligence in weapons. Or “simple” miscalculations in algorithms that may lead to biased conclusions. And many others, of course.

I mention AI specifically because such advances are already being applied to edtech. In some cases, it can help make great strides in offering an adaptive learning environment. In others, it may contain unintended biases and errors that may lead to a poor learning environment. Uncovering such biases might be difficult, even expensive. Would a technology company be responsible for any such consequences a learner may face? Should they? How would such consequences even be tracked and determined?

Also: Will advances in technology be bound by ethical considerations? Should they be? Who would determine what these ethical considerations are? How would they be taught, monitored, and enforced? Many computer science programs offer an ethics class, or at least have it in their curriculum. I hope these classes are kept up-to-date, so programmers will have the right frame of mind when building these innovations. Technology can be a powerful tool, but a bad tool is still a bad tool.

The most important issues in edtech right now

In my humble opinion, these are the most important issues in edtech right now. What do you think are the most important issues?

How to Recruit and Build an Effective Team of Developers

Hiring great developers is one of the top challenges cited by many technology startups, if not THE top challenge. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here is a technique that will help you put together a high-performing, cost-efficient, and loyal team of technical engineers. I’m writing this from the standpoint of software engineers, though I have been told it could apply to hardware engineers as well.

The premise is to have the right mix of junior developers to veteran developers (perhaps a 80/20 mix), because:

  • New developers are relatively easier to find, especially from schools and development boot camps.
  • New developers can be easily trained and don’t come with a lot of baggage.
  • New developers can bring new ideas to the team that may challenge traditional ways of thinking.
  • Veteran developers can act as mentors and share best practices.

From a recruiting standpoint, it is easier and less expensive to find and hire novice developers than experienced ones. A lot of large corporations already know this. That is why you often see Google, Facebook, and Microsoft on college campuses. Startups need to do this too.

Changes to Recruiting and Team Building

This has repercussions in the recruiting process and team dynamic though.

Recruiting Senior Developers

  • Strong technical skills are of course required. System architecture and design skills may also important, though it depends on your needs.
  • Interpersonal skills are especially important in this model, specifically the ability to coach others and communicate abstract concepts clearly.
  • Including other developers on your recruiting team to help you attract senior developers will really help.
  • This person does not necessarily need to be a manager or team lead. There can be separate manager/lead and senior developer on the same team, where the manager/lead handles more of the interpersonal tasks and the senior developer handles more of the technical tasks. The key is to have someone experienced enough to coach and guide the junior developers. This is both good for career progression and recruiting ease, because good developers are attracted to teams from which they can learn.
  • A person that embodies the first two points well is not easy to find, though you will have an easier time having to find a few of them vs a whole team of them. If you find one, compensate that individual well. You can also train someone for this role with a combination of opportunities within your company and workshops outside of your company.

Recruiting Junior Developers

  • Interviews need to be more about assessing potential, innate talents, and the ability to learn, than gauging existing skills. These are traits that interviews would assess anyways, but most technical interviews aren’t set up that way. Most interviewers may find it difficult to assess such traits, but this is an interviewing skill that can be learned.
  • Include your senior developer on the recruiting team. Junior developer candidates will get to meet their potential mentors right away and both sides can ascertain if there is a good fit.
  • As a startup, you won’t have the same salary and perks a large corporation can use to attract candidates, so sell them on your mission, impact, team, and learning opportunities instead.
  • I should add that “junior” does not mean “young.” Age has little correlation here. Some of the best developers I know changed careers later in life and still share the same energy and ability to learn as recent college graduates.

Training Junior Developers

  • Both the manager/lead and the senior developer (or the same person, if one individual has both roles) hold a key role in training the junior developers. Work with them to set up training plans for each of the junior developers.
  • Establish an environment for constant learning and collaboration. This can include code reviews, paired programming sessions, informal brownbags, formal mentoring programs, etc. For informal brownbags, encourage the junior developers to host them and share something they learned, even if they aren’t considered the “expert” of that particular domain. Teaching a topic is a great way to learn that topic.
  • Such an environment also requires a company culture to match. The culture needs to be supportive, open-minded, and willing to take risks. Setting such a culture needs to start with the company’s founders and leadership team.
  • This also means giving junior developers opportunities to own aspects of the codebase while getting support on their system design and code. Don’t simply throw junior developers into new features all on their own. Have regular check-ins and code reviews to guide them along the way.
  • Training doesn’t need to only be technical. If a junior developer aspires to be a manager one day, offer leadership opportunities and training. And if not, make sure your organization has a technical career path.

With the right environment and guidance, these junior developers eventually became senior developers that can help mentor other new developers and continue the cycle as your organization grows.

How Educational Mobile App Developers Can Sell to Schools

A common question I see asked is, “How do I sell my educational mobile app to schools?” Many people building educational mobile apps are parents and educators who are creating good products. A good product isn’t enough for a viable business though; a business also needs a good marketing strategy.

However, this is still a very new market and there aren’t any “tried and true” methods yet. I’ve heard of a handful of tactics though. If you are an educational mobile app developer, perhaps some of these may work:

  1. Focus your messaging, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and App Store Optimization (ASO) on schools. This means understanding issues that are important to schools, such as student outcomes, Common Core State Standards (CCSS), COPPA compliance, student privacy, data portability, School Information System (SIS) integration, etc.
  2. Get in touch with a school district’s technology integrator (also known as a technology specialist, technology coordinator, etc), whose job is to evaluate, integrate, deploy, and support the technology throughout their schools.
  3. Get information about which schools use mobile devices and may be receptive to or are currently seeking new mobile apps. This info isn’t cheap and can be found from organizations like MDR and EdLights.
  4. Hire an educational sales consultant to contact those people for you. LinkedIn can be a good starting point for finding one. Or try reaching out to some of the consultants who spoke at this previous Ed Market 101 session held by the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) in 2013.
  5. Get enough press that technology integrators take notice of you. This means targeting sources that schools pay attention to, such as conferences (e.g. ISTE), publications (e.g. Education Week), blogs (e.g. Edutopia), Twitter hashtags & chats (there are lots and lots), etc.
  6. Get into and integrate with online platforms and directories like Edmodo, Schoology, Clever, eSpark, EdSurge, and edshelf.
  7. Partner with a company that already has a contract with a school district, such as a Pearson or McGraw Hill.

Selling mobile apps to schools isn’t significantly different from selling other kinds of software to schools, in terms of requiring multiple licenses and school-wide deployment. But it does require knowing which schools use mobile devices in their curricula and understanding what schools care about and how to reach them (which is a question of both where and when).

The technology teams at school districts are constantly sold to, so many are wary of a sales pitch. Whatever you have to say, chances are they’ve heard it before. They need to justify their purchases, so sales pitches that include data on demonstrable improvements in student outcomes tend to be the most effective.

Edtech Trend: Content Creation

The impact Khan Academy has made on the edtech market is widespread. One such result is in the growing market of content creators.

Though there has always educational videos online, the simple bite-sized format of Salman Khan’s videos attracted a wide audience on YouTube. Then donations from prominent investors like Bill Gates propelled his humble efforts into a full-fledged non-profit.

With this attention came criticism from educators. Some reacted to the grandiose statements made about him in the press. Others reacted to the pedagogical content of Khan’s videos. And others decided to create alternatives. At one point, I was able to count 60 sites similar to Khan Academy. There may be more now.

At the same time, a handful of entrepreneurial thinkers realized they could make it easy for anyone to create Khan Academy-style (i.e. digital whiteboard) videos. Instead of using someone else’s videos, you could create your own that are tailored for your students and curriculum.

This is just one example of the educational content creation trend. Right now, I see tools creating the following types of content:

  • Videos – Digital whiteboards, lectures recordings, screencasts, etc.
  • Audio – Podcasts, songs, etc.
  • Images – Lesson plan illustrations, diagrams, infographics, etc.
  • Animation – 2D cartoons, 3D cartoons, etc.
  • Presentations – Lecture slides, project presentations, etc.
  • Lesson Plans – Online multimedia lesson plans, offline lesson plans, etc.
  • Books – Textbooks, ebooks, storybooks, etc.
  • Interactives – Math manipulatives, simulations, maps, timelines, etc.
  • Websites – Class websites, blogs, wikis, etc.
  • Games – Mobile games, desktop games, web-based games, etc.
  • Quizzes – Exercises, worksheets, polls, etc.
  • Video Quizzes – Quiz questions mapped to certain points of a video
  • Online Courses – Instructional media followed by assessments
  • Digital Stories – Animated multimedia stories
  • Portfolios – Examples of student work
  • Electronics – Robots, mechanical devices, pre-made kits, etc.

One of the newest types of content to the market are online video quizzes. I am sure there will be many more to come.

This trend is part of the larger maker movement that many teachers and students are wholeheartedly embracing. It empowers teachers to craft materials suited for their classrooms and students to demonstrate their learnings and creativity in an engaging way.

Content creation going into the hands of teachers and students is a significant shift for education. Though the largest publishers may continue to dominate the market for some time, content created from the bottom-up (teachers and students) will increasingly augment content from the top-down (publishers). Bottom-up content won’t replace top-down content entirely, as there will always be a need for standardized materials, but the growing number of new publishers with high-quality, low-cost content will certainly be a threat the big publishers. And many of these new publishers are working with or are a part of the content creation trend.

There is already a wide diversity of offerings. This number will continue to increase, as well the variety of content types available. This will mean a wider range of quality in the content too. That’s where aggregation and curation will be necessary, so the most relevant and highest quality services and content can be surfaced.

What do you think?

Edtech Trend: Aggregation and Curation

The market for education technology is exploding right now. As of this article, there are over 90,000 iOS apps in the education category of the iTunes App Store, and over 90,000 Android apps in the education category of the Google Play marketplace. That’s 180,000 mobile apps between iOS and Android. If you throw in the hundreds of thousands of educational websites and desktop apps as well, that is a lot of edtech through which to wade.

This explosion is fueled by:

  1. A growing group of entrepreneurs passionate about education, as well as tech-savvy, entrepreneurial teacherpreneurs
  2. Advances in technology that have made the development of websites, apps, and digital content easier and cheaper
  3. The introduction of Internet-capable mobile devices and apps
  4. Increasing investment capital from investors

But with all of this technology available, how is a busy educator to sort through this ocean of resources? Where would one start?

The answer is in aggregation and curation services:

  • Aggregation services gather all of the resources available into a single destination. Some aggregators also label and organize them into a searchable directory.
  • Curation services sort and filter the resources so the worthwhile ones rise to the top. This can be done using computer algorithms, human selection, or a mix of the two.

Such services are already emerging. There is a number of aggregation and curation services for educational videos, lesson plans, online courses, mobile apps, etc. on the market, and that number is growing. I predict that this trend of aggregation and curation services is going to continue.

The diversity of such services will also increase. There are many ways to handle curation, as mentioned above (i.e. computer algorithms vs human selection). While each has its pros and cons, we will see services experimenting throughout that range. I suspect the right balance will fall somewhere in the middle.

Personalization will also be a factor. To curate for a particular classroom or student, the resources selected must be personalized to each specific context, because in education, one size does not fit all. This requires some awareness of the students involved. Current trends in data privacy will have an influence into how this awareness is collected, but without a personalized service, you run the risk of “solving for the middle,” which is just as bad as “teaching to the middle.”

We will also see these services as features of existing products. Within educational content creation services, curation will be an important factor in surfacing quality content.

One last prediction: This trend of aggregation and curation services will put many new solutions on the market before they consolidate and the least effective services fall away, just like the resources they will be aggregating and curating.

What do you think?

How Can An Edtech Startup Enter the K-12 Market?

The answer is the same for any other market: Find an agonizing problem that a significant number of people have, then offer a better solution than the existing alternatives.

And I would add: Identify a sustainable business model for your solution as well. It does schools no good if you build a great solution, only to make no money, run out of savings, get no funding, and close up shop. I know this from painful personal experience.

It may seem difficult to make money in the K-12 market, but there is more money than most realize. If your customer is a K-12 school district, their total IT expenditure in 2011 was $9.4B.

Also, all school districts want to know that you have a sustainable business model because they want to know that you will be around for years and years, rather than be a transient startup that could disappear at any time. This is a very important point that many aspiring edtech entrepreneurs don’t realize. Selling to schools is a B2B business model. Both businesses and schools prefer to procure products from companies that will be around – and schools even moreso, because integration can be such an intensive process.

This is in stark contrast to individual classroom teachers who don’t control a budget, however. Selling to teachers is a B2C business model where most consumers have come to expect free products.

My suggestions for an aspiring edtech startup entering the K-12 market are:

  1. Validate that your product is solving an agonizing problem.

    This problem should make your solution a “must-have” and not a “nice-to-have.” The average teacher does not have a lot of extra mindshare for new products that are only a nice-to-have. They have to need it. A lot can be written about this. If you have not done so already, go read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, since his methodology can apply well to B2B businesses.

  2. Validate that your solution solves that problem effectively.

    Find some local teachers or students and watch them use your product. Test the outcomes using the scientific method. See if there is a demonstrable and repeatable improvement from the use of your product. Finding teachers or students willing to do this is not an easy task, but if you are truly solving an agonizing problem, it shouldn’t be that difficult. Being able to come up with quantifiable data to prove your solution will help you win more customers and provide you with a valuable case study and testimonials. These teachers or students are essentially your innovators, as detailed in Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm.

  3. Identify your actual buyers.

    In the K-12 space, the end-user is often not the same person as the buyer. There are many buyers in a school district. They can range from superintendents to principals to IT directors to curriculum directors to department heads. Some end-users can at least be influential in the buying process than others. If you cannot identify the buyer, your end-users may be able to help you too. Note that schools often pay with purchase orders (POs), which could take the form of a check that will arrive in months.

  4. Validate that your buyers will pay for your product.

    Concentrate on making that first sale. Your price point doesn’t matter that much in the beginning. As long as it is not absurdly low, don’t obsess over the right price. If you are lucky, you will have a buyer who is willing to work with you on a reasonable price. Look at competitive products and their pricing structures as a basis for yours. Understand the issues that the buyer cares about. Having a case study to validate your efficacy will go a long way in convincing them. Some may even require this kind of proof first.

Once you have made that first sale, listen to your end-users and buyers, then tweak your product as necessary. Meanwhile, go focus on your next 10 sales. Then your next 100. Then 1000. Going in small incremental steps will keep you realistic.

Or even better, look into different distribution and viral growth models that can accelerate your sales. The best kind of growth is the kind where your customers naturally want to tell their colleagues about you.

This is a simplified view and each step has many nuances, depending on the exact nature of your solution. Hopefully this provides enough of a starting point for any aspiring edtech entrepreneur.

This article was originally posted as an answer on Quora and modified for this blog.

How to Find Developers for Your Edtech Startup

Are you an educator with a great idea? Need a developer to help you build your product?

Note: This article is written for educators who are interested in creating a startup, though aspiring founders from other fields may find it useful as well.

You are unfortunately part of a large sea of people with great ideas. The startup world is littered with more idea people than implementation people. Being an educator, you probably aren’t exposed to many developers. But don’t worry, there are still ways you can find developers.

Look through your own network
Start with people you know. You may already have a developer or two as a 2nd or 3rd degree connection. The closer the connection, the better. This person doesn’t need to be an experienced developer with a Computer Science degree; someone who is willing to learn can be just as good. Building out your idea could be a great way for them to grow their skills.
Partner with technical students
If you are a K-12 educator, your school may have a computer class or workshop with budding technical geniuses. Some of the best developers started out programming at a young age. The chance to make a web or mobile app could be very enticing. However, be careful not to take advantage of a young student’s eagerness. As an authority figure, they will listen to you, perhaps even at the detriment of their homework and studies. Some may need some technical guidance as well. Though it’s not easy, try to find an edtech developer who is willing to mentor your student. If you are in higher education, your university may have programming classes. College students make better partners than high school students, since they have more life experience, need relatively less guidance, and may even genuinely be interested in starting a company with you. Their project with you could be bundled as a class assignment as well, and they have the added benefit of potentially bringing other students into the team.
Work for an edtech company
This isn’t a viable option for everyone. A colleague with whom you’ve worked is always better than a smart stranger. The only way to have technical colleagues is by having worked at a company with them. This method could mean a long journey however, as you can’t just work at an edtech company, than leave in a few months and expect to have formed deep relationships with their developers. (Not to mention potential bridge burning and non-compete clauses that some states carry.) It’s a small industry and you could lose a lot of goodwill that way. It may take at least a year at an edtech company to create meaningful relationships there.
Go to a Startup Weekend EDU
Startup Weekend EDU is a weekend-long “hackathon,” where various people come together to build a website or mobile app. It is an intense adrenalin- and caffeine-fueled event. The audience includes idea people, marketers, designers, and developers. The first day starts off with all the idea people pitching their ideas to the whole room. Then everyone is free to walk around to learn more about each idea. The best ideas eventually attract teams – which hopefully includes developers too. It’s not easy to attract developers, but it is possible if you know how to appeal to them.
Go to edtech meetups
Meetups are informal gatherings of people facilitated by the site Some cities, though not many, have a large enough edtech community to host edtech-specific meetups. Silicon Valley has one, but not many others do. These meetups tend to attract more entrepreneurs than educators, including some developers. Ed-Tech Meetup is one of the more popular ones in San Francisco.
Be an inspirational champion for an cause
Build up your personal brand both offline and online. Get involved in relevant organizations and volunteer groups. Become a recognized leader. I know of one charismatic individual who has done this on Quora, Twitter, and guest blog posts. He doesn’t have a technical background, but his passion and charisma is very apparent. This isn’t a guarantee of finding developers, but it can make it easier to convince one to join you.

These tips can also help you find a technical cofounder, though knowing whether or not someone will make a good cofounder is an entirely different topic. At the very least, these can help you find developers to help build an MVP (Minimal Viable Product) and get your edtech startup off the ground.

This article was originally posted on the Edtech Handbook and modified for this blog.

The Pros and Cons of Industry-Specific Startup Incubators

Startup incubators (or accelerators) have gotten very popular lately because they provide a lot of benefits to startup founders, from investor signaling to founder mentoring to fundraising opportunities. Their demand has risen so high that industry-specific incubators have appeared.

This is a natural evolution of the startup incubator model. Since each industry has its own dynamics, founders of incubators probably realized they can accelerate startups that much quicker if they provide industry-specific benefits.

But is this true? Are industry-specific incubators worth it?

On a high level, only a few incubators can really make a significant impact for a startup, whether they are general or industry-specific. If you are comparing these types of incubators for your venture, here are some pros and cons to consider:

Horizontal (general) incubators have:

  • Access to a wider network of investors
  • Access to a wider network of founders in their alumni network
  • A higher chance of getting you press in general tech publications
  • Little to no industry-specific guidance
  • Little to no industry-specific connections
  • A lower chance of exposing you to targeted and relevant investors
  • A lower chance of getting you press in industry-specific publications
  • A lower chance of industry-knowledgeable founders in their alumni network

Vertical (industry-specific) incubators have:

  • Access to targeted and relevant investors
  • Access to industry-specific guidance
  • Access to industry-specific connections
  • A higher chance of getting you press in industry-specific publications
  • Access to industry-knowledgeable founders in their alumni network
  • CONS
    • A smaller network of investors
    • A smaller network of founders in their alumni network
    • A lower chance of getting press in general tech publications

    I’m sure you can think of some exceptions to these points. Some vertical incubators are great at getting general press, for instance. The right choice for you depends on your needs, particular industry, and the strength of the industry-specific incubators open to you.

    It is also important to note that some incubators don’t mind if you participate in multiple incubators. There have been a few startups that have participated in both a general and an industry-specific incubator.

    Are there any other pros and cons I’ve missed? What do you think?