Edtech is ubiquitous in classrooms today, especially considering that the COVID-19 pandemic did something that previously seemed impossible. It thrust virtually every school into the deep-end of edtech, starting with remote learning.
When it comes to products that teachers are using to buoy student success, the stakes are high. Congress is earmarking millions in relief to combat COVID-19 learning loss and everyone—from students to teachers to administrators—is feeling frayed as schools try to get back to some semblance of normalcy, whatever that looks like in an ongoing pandemic.
Amid those struggles, the global edtech market has surpassed $100 billion in value. And there are hopes that the growing market will play some role in getting students back on track.
That left us at EdSurge to ponder, how are edtech companies making sure their products are working best for teachers, the people responsible for weaving them into lessons each day? How much influence do teachers have on the edtech tools they use? And what—if anything—can we glean from the number of former educators in the leadership ranks of edtech companies?
Edtech By Design
When Dan Carroll was teaching science to Denver eighth graders in the late 2000s, it would have surprised him to come across an edtech product that had any signs of input from teachers in its design. It was a time when edtech companies dealt with the rigamarole of getting into schools by focusing on strong sales teams and relationships with people at the top of the district.
“And hopefully the product was usable by teachers,” he says of the era, “and hopefully the district paid for a lot of support that could help teachers learn how to use these really confusing and non-intuitive products.”
It used to be accepted as fact that, no matter how much work a district did to try to help implement a new tool, roughly 10 to 30 percent of its teachers still wouldn’t touch edtech, Carroll says.
“They would just kind of say, ‘Sorry, I don’t do technology,’” he recalls.
Things have changed a lot since then. Schools have had to become one-to-one device providers, making sure every student has a tablet or laptop so that students are sure to have a consistent experience. And Carroll co-founded the learning platform company Clever, where he’s chief product officer. He says that when companies adopt a “teacher-first mentality,” whatever they’re creating becomes easier to roll out in the classroom.
“And what we’ve seen is when you take this approach, you can be incredibly financially successful,” Carroll says.
That’s because if teachers are enthusiastic about a product they found themselves, he says, it’s a sign it will be a good fit for other teachers in the district, too.
“When you think about these kinds of products that are designed for teachers to pick them up on their own, without any training, without any mandate, the uptake is just so much easier,” Carroll says. “You don’t need to have teachers go through hours of training on which buttons to click. It’s intuitive.”
What Investors Want
As a former teacher, Carroll was already well-versed in the problem his company was aiming to solve. But what about the investors that back edtech companies? Do they need to see former educators in leadership positions to be sold on the product?
The short answer is—it depends.
Investors want to know that the companies they support are cultivating communities around their products, says Jessica Millstone, co-founder and managing director of Copper Wire Investors. The fund backs women-led tech companies and has several edtech companies in its portfolio.
More specifically, she says, companies need to have a way of getting the voice of stakeholders—particularly teachers—into product designs. Engaging on social media is a de facto expectation from teachers, Millstone says. Companies like Google and BrainPop have had success with their educator certification programs, she adds, where teachers can get recognition for their expertise with a product, have early access to new features or test new ones.
“Building a community of educators can not only help the company understand more about needs of their users, in or out of the classroom,” Millstone says, “but building an ambassador crew, who can be power users of your product and amplify new features to that community.”
But do edtech companies need to have former educators in advisory boards or in their c-suite? Millstone says that depends on the type of edtech product they’re making. For a company focused on the special education sector, for example, she says “it’s absolutely critical to have educators that are really knowledgeable about special ed and the teachers and students your products might serve.”
“When you’re talking about a tech company, there’s not always a strong crossover between an educator and the skills that might be needed to build a strong product,” Millstone says. “I do think edtech products have to walk the line of being able to recruit talent that is specific to the technology they’re building and have checks and balances of educators to speak to the community.”
Another factor to consider is that when educators leave the classroom for an edtech company, she says, their experience with what teachers need day-to-day gets stale over time. Companies that are talking directly to working teachers—which Millstone says can be tough given educators’ jam-packed schedules—are getting a steady stream of fresh insights.
“One of the goals of user research is to get the needs of any kind of customer or audience, no matter your background,” she says. “I think the more established edtech companies that have moved beyond relying on educators within the organization to intuitively know what teachers want or [how to] serve students best, they are actually building UX research departments that could source that from teachers.”
Tony Wan, head of investor content at Reach Capital (and a former EdSurge editor), likewise says that while seeing educators in an edtech company’s leadership does boost confidence in the product, a lack of them isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker to investors.
Edtech companies are commonly getting teacher input in other ways, he says, like establishing advisory boards or ambassador programs where teachers are tapped for input. His firm does want to know if a company has staff with appropriate training based on the product’s subject matter, and it talks to educators who have used a product as part of its own due diligence before investing.
“If it’s going to be used by teachers actively, the majority [of companies] have either a former teacher on their team or teacher outreach in the product development,” Wan says. “If it’s not used, then it’s hard to justify it in the school budget.”
For back-end edtech products that aren’t used by teachers directly, though, seeing an educator in leadership isn’t a high priority for investors, says Wan.
View From the Trenches
Alfonso Mendoza, Jr., has been using edtech for over two decades, first as a teacher and now an instructional software specialist for schools in Sharyland, Texas. He also hosts the My EdTech Life podcast.
Mendoza is staunchly in the “yes” column when it comes to whether edtech companies need to have educators at the helm in some form.
“When you can speak our language, and we feel that you’ve been through the trenches like we have, it does make a difference because you’re able to connect not just at that business level but at that teacher level,” he explains. “[Teachers] feel with more confidence that somebody who understands what they’re going through can take that piece of feedback that they’re asking for … and relay that back to [the company].”
He says that too often, teachers are excited to join edtech companies’ ambassador programs, where they may receive a free t-shirt, sticker or other incentives in exchange for the educators spreading the word on social media or at conferences.
Mendoza notes that he’s joined such ambassador efforts for maybe 20 edtech companies over the years, but these days he passes on such invites. The problem with the model, he says, is those teacher ambassadors typically have little or no influence over the product.
“There’s a lot of edtech companies that are using educators to be that free voice and advertising as an ‘ambassador,’” Mendoza explains. “Oftentimes as teachers, because we may not get that recognition in our districts, we flock to an edtech company that will give a shirt or sticker. They’re going to go out there and speak the world of a product, but it might not be the best thing a specific teacher or student needs.”
Even edtech certification programs have lost some of their shine as, in his view, companies have lowered the thresholds to receive these seals of approval in favor of getting more teachers sporting their company’s name or badge on their social media profiles.
Now that he’s been on both sides of edtech implementation—first in the classroom, now as a teacher trainer—Mendoza sees the edtech social media universe as a bit of a hindrance.
Teachers at times want to use a product that’s getting a lot of attention on the internet, without giving a fair shake to the programs selected by the district that might be just as good or better, he says. And if teachers branch out on their own by using a different product, the district loses access to students’ performance data.
“It’s not about how many tools you use,” he says, “it’s how effectively you use those tools.”
Taking a Deeper Look
So where does that leave us? With a few more questions, as you might have guessed.
We still want to know: How prevalent are educators among the highest ranks of edtech companies? What might their presence—or lack thereof—tell us about how well a tech tool will work? How are teachers shaping the products that end up in their classrooms and, ultimately, in front of students?
To find out, EdSurge is surveying a selection of edtech companies to look more closely at how teachers influence their products. By analyzing the data we collect and talking to industry experts, we hope to create greater understanding of how edtech businesses bring to market products that are used by millions of students. Beyond that, we want to learn more about the level of care they take to understand how those products fit in with the tools teachers need to successfully run their classrooms. Look for the results of our analysis in the coming months.
Teachers, we want to hear from you about this, too. Share your edtech (success or horror) stories with us via this form. You may be contacted about an interview for this project.
This project is made possible with fellowship support from the Education Writers Association.