Post by Liam Pisano, Managing Director of LearnLaunch
Education technology can and will have a powerful impact on teaching and learning. Teachers use digital tools to get real-time information about student progress, share information more effectively with families, and engage students in collaborative, real-world projects. But developing edtech products is a complex process that too often leaves teachers, entrepreneurs, and investors dissatisfied and discouraged. It doesn’t have to be this way. New, collaborative models are showing that educators and developers can work together to create products that allow teachers to customize instruction and boost student learning.
Teachers are experts on what their students need — and the tools that will help them learn — but unfortunately, teachers often have little say on the edtech products in their classrooms. Many decisions about technology are made at the district and state levels, without direct input from educators who use the tools every day with their students. This is a disconnect that leaves teachers feeling unheard and frustrated. Research from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shows that only 59 percent of teachers find the digital products their students use to be effective.
Meanwhile, edtech entrepreneurs and developers often struggle to get feedback on how their products work — or don’t work — in classrooms. Software development often requires rapid-fire feedback. Developers need timely input from users so that they can iterate their designs and go to market as quickly as possible. But because districts face complex regulations and procedures when making decisions and implementing pilot programs, user feedback often gets bogged down in delays or dead ends.
These same constraints also limit investors’ abilities to understand which products show promise and have potential to grow, potentially leading them to make unwise early-stage investments in products that wind up going nowhere. This risk still causes many an investor to shy away from the edtech sector, despite a new generation of tech-savvy students and teachers who are creating a demand for new products.
What’s the common thread in these dilemmas? It comes down to a lack of communication, collaboration, and knowledge-sharing among teachers, developers, and investors.
Innovative approaches to fill this gap are springing up around the country. Edtech test beds are real-world environments where developers and educators collaborate closely to pilot and evaluate products. These projects lower barriers to communication and encourage the rapid development and adoption of powerful learning technologies.
These environments help educators find new products, learn how to use them, and see how their input matters and shapes the development of a product — which ultimately makes them more invested in using the technology in their classrooms. Collaborative test beds also give entrepreneurs detailed, real-time feedback from end users (i.e., teachers), which allows them to adjust their designs on the fly and shorten the development cycle. And for investors, this approach provides a valuable snapshot of a product’s usability and growth potential in a rapidly changing industry.
At LearnLaunch, we are supporting this model to grow the edtech ecosystem in the greater Boston area. We bring together educators, entrepreneurs, learners, and investors for educational events offered through our LearnLaunch Institute. We provide collaborative co-working space for more than 30 edtech startups at our LearnLaunch Campus, and we also support especially promising startups with seed funding, coaching, and tools through our LearnLaunch Accelerator program. Everything we do revolves around increasing student achievement through the development and adoption of digital technologies.
Here’s how it works in practice. Earlier this year, Quill, a LearnLaunch Accelerator portfolio company, introduced its web-based literacy activities and tools to a group of teacher-testers. According to Quill founder Peter Gault, early feedback from teachers was critical. “Within four months of launching, we were able to participate in a pilot test as part of the Literacy Courseware Challenge. During this pilot, teachers made it clear that 10 minutes was the sweet spot for the time length of a single learning activity. This insight became a key aspect of our product and our future success.” Quill’s experience demonstrates the power of bringing together teachers and entrepreneurs to learn and benefit from each other.
Recently, LearnLaunch and the Gates Foundation co-hosted an event where a panel of educators shared their thoughts on the data tools they use and entrepreneurs brainstormed ways to incorporate the teachers’ insights into future development efforts. For edtech entrepreneurs, the insights were invaluable. “We heard from teachers and administrators that want and value technology, but need a voice and need to hear from their peers. Two teachers could have the same experience, level of expertise, drive, and passion as teachers and tech users, but completely different experiences with technology because of where they teach,” said Melissa A. Corto, cofounder and CEO of Education Modified, a platform that that recommends the latest, research-based learning strategies for students with diverse needs and tracks their progress.
The digital learning revolution is well underway in the classroom, and it’s up to us to accurately quantify it. We know that almost all teachers report using digital tools as part of their instruction. The question, then, is whether these tools will be effective in meeting the needs of teachers and students. Collaborative environments allow teachers and developers to combine their expertise on learning and technology. These efforts have the potential to transform the edtech industry by facilitating the teacher, entrepreneur and investor — and ultimately transform the way students learn.