Why the Newest EdTech Companies are Focusing on the Oldest Problems

The team at Mass Innovation Nights — a group that helps startups get visibility and funding — recently brought together a group of EdTech companies. Despite the number of organizations showcasing innovative technologies, all had one thing in common — they focused on lasting challenges that have plagued students and educators for years. And there’s a good reason for that. Across industries, the companies that have the most success aren’t those that pack their products with the coolest new technologies or offer the greatest number of features. They’re the ones that help customers satisfy the important jobs that they’re trying to get done in their lives. And those jobs tend to be pretty stable from year to year. It’s the technology that changes, offering ways to get jobs done more easily or with fewer pain points. At this recent event, three companies seemed particularly attuned to the jobs that education stakeholders are struggling to get done with today’s offerings.

While many colleges have tried to streamline the college application process by adopting the Common App, students still struggle to fill out the application. The founders at inli.ne, who are former admissions officers at top universities, are trying to help students with a job they’ve consistently struggled with — standing out in a sea of applicants. Using a Chrome browser extension, inli.ne explains why colleges are asking each question, and it overlays advice directly onto the application that students are trying to fill out. inli.ne doesn’t stand out by advertising its technology, even though browser overlays are relatively novel in the field. It’s set up to succeed because it fits in with the way students are already working on their applications, because it offers expert advice that parents who have never used the Common App are ill-equipped to provide, and because it’s far less costly than the private consultants who are often called upon to supplement the work of overwhelmed guidance counselors.

Another company focused on satisfying customer jobs rather than simply promoting its technology was Dassault Systemes. The company’s newest offering in its SolidWorks software line helps educators work with students age 4 to 14 to express their ideas and develop an interest in STEM disciplines. To do that, it has adapted sophisticated CAD tools often reserved for professional engineers so that they’re intuitive for students. For younger children, the software helps them create 3D drawings that match what they’re actually envisioning, in a way that’s much easier than using traditional tools like Microsoft Paint. For older students, the tools allow the user to develop more sophisticated outputs, giving teachers a greater arsenal of tools to connect with students who may be interested in STEM subjects.

One of my final conversations of the night was with the team from Didart. The company started in Guatemala as a way to connect children with local artisans who could give them a better understanding of their culture. Recently, however, the startup has shifted its focus to a broader market. With its recent expansion into the U.S., Didart offers parents a way to expose their children to new cultures while also developing the skills that all children need to learn. The company offers kits that allow kids to make crafts with supplies from around the world. While kids are developing their motor skills, they’re also learning about a new country. The kits are also starting to integrate augmented reality technology. Holding your phone up to the “passport” that comes in each package allows you to watch videos that explore the local culture or launch into interactive games.

Technology gives us the potential to vastly expand access to a top-quality education. But as in any business, technology for technology’s sake will simply generate more buzz than benefit. The companies I met at the Mass Innovation Nights event are well-equipped to succeed because they’ve found ways to use new tools to satisfy the jobs that students, parents, and educators have long been struggling with. Successful innovation rarely starts with a brilliant new product idea; it comes from understanding what people are trying to get done and where current solutions fall short.

David Farber is a growth strategy and innovation consultant at New Markets Advisors. He is a co-author of the new book Jobs to be Done: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation (AMACOM, Nov. 2016).

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