How To Link The Chain in Education

My daughter is going to be entering kindergarten this year, and I’ve been thinking recently about the dynamics that will determine what and how she learns. The minute by minute breakdown of daily activities in a public school classroom like hers will be determined by many adults who make decisions on her behalf.

In a typical day, there will be very little wiggle room for my daughter and her peers to decide what to do; activities are highly prescribed by the teachers and administrators higher up the chain. But the students do have some choice about how they behave during an activity. A child who loves what they are doing can be highly engaged and focused, while one who is dissatisfied may become distracted or disruptive. When it all boils down, the students hold tremendous power over the learning that takes place on any given day.

There is a complex chain of inputs and outputs that needs to fall in sync in order for an education technology to be successful. I’ve often seen products fail because they meet the needs of only a subset of the three key stakeholders: students, teachers and administrators.

Understanding the connection between the interests of each group, and the returns on serving them effectively, is the key to creating a useful, successful education product. One way to think about it is as a chain, connecting students to teachers to administrators. If one link in the chain weakens too much, the whole chain will break.

Keeping student impact front and center, it’s useful to measure outcomes of education technologies in terms of what each group values and how they demonstrate it. If you introduce a feature or product intended to improve things for one group, such as students in a classroom, but measure the outcomes by what another group values, such as revenue from a district budget, then you’ll find that the metric is very noisy.

Let’s go back to my daughter’s classroom. If the students like an activity, they’ll respond positively and productively, while if they don’t like it, their engagement will often be interrupted. This is the first possible break in the chain; fail to engage students and you’ll lose their attention.

Students value engagement and spend attention.

Moving up the chain, teachers are the next factor in the success of an education technology. Teachers spend hours each week planning out their lessons and figuring out how to squeeze it all in. Because they are crunched by multiple demands on their time — and pressing needs from students that are almost by definition impossible to actually fulfill in a standard work week — teachers’ most precious resource is their own time. One teacher recently explained to me, “I could be at school every day until 7pm but it’ll hurt the kids in the long run.”

Products that can make their work more efficient will be highly prized by teachers. There are already many edtech companies latching onto this knowledge, including Google for Education, which touts tools to “save time and stay connected,” and Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT) which emphasizes the time saving opportunities for teachers who buy, sell and share original education resources on the company’s online marketplace.

Teachers adopt Google Classroom and other products to save time and drive engagement.

eSpark is designed to save teachers time by creating personalized student-centered learning plans for students to work on independently. One of the challenges we’ve run into is that tools for individualized instruction can sometimes create more interruptions and consume more of a teacher’s time than they save. We found that by adding features that enable teachers to quickly assign specific lessons to individuals or small groups of students, we’ve gotten positive feedback about the time-saving nature of our product, and ultimately more buy-in from teachers.

Within the guidelines set at the administrative level, teachers have a lot of control over the minute-by-minute plan of daily activities in the classroom. If a product saves them time, they’ll spend time using it. If not, it’ll quickly fall by the wayside; another break in the chain.

Teachers value time savings and spend time.

Finally, we have the administrators, ranging from superintendents of large districts to instructional coaches within a school. Leaders’ responsibilities can vary at different levels, but what they share in common is that their primary job is to manage resources within an educational setting to produce positive outcomes.

Educational funding in the United States can vary significantly between states, between districts and even between schools within the same district, with district administrators holding a lot of control over how budgets are allocated. Teachers have little control over budgets, with many dipping into their own pockets to cover hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of basic supplies for their classrooms.

Administrators at all levels will make decisions about how to allocate funding based on the return on their investment, which in most public schools bubbles up as academic results. Exactly how those results are captured can vary, so it’s critical for edtech companies to understand how the schools, districts and states they’re working with measure results. If you’re able to show a valuable return, admins are likely to continue to invest in those outcomes. On the other hand, if there is no tangible, measurable return, you’re facing another break in the chain.

Administrators value return on investment and spend money.

We can see that students, teachers and admins are inextricably linked in the chain of edtech adoption. Unengaged students will interrupt their teachers with behavior issues, and students who aren’t learning will need extra remediation. Teachers will find their time squeezed further if the products they use are not highly engaging and effective, and if they reject a tool because it takes too much time, then admins will eventually reflect that in their budget allocations.

It sounds straightforward enough, but the relationship between the links in the chain can take some time to manifest as each group tries to optimize for their priorities.

If you’re building an edtech product, there are three steps that you should take to determine whether a particular product feature is serving all three of the links in the chain:

  • Measure student engagement through time on task and direct observation. Many students relish an opportunity to tell product manufacturers how they feel, and the authentic feedback is an invaluable source of input to the product.
We give students periodic surveys that approximates Net Promoter Score.
  • Measure time teachers allocate to a product. If a feature saves them time, teachers will use it more regularly, whereas if it causes frustrations then they may reduce their investment. Surveys and observations can let you know if teachers value the time savings as well.
  • Demonstrate results to administrators. If admins find that your product helps them achieve demonstrable increases in achievement, then they will spend their scarce resources on it and will support adoption within their school or district.

In practice, the ability to understand what students, teachers and admins value is indispensible. Don’t make the mistake of fixating only on student impact or return on investment at the expense of a teacher’s time. Take a step back and evaluate how your product creates value and demonstrates impact for each of the three stakeholder groups involved. It is not enough to appeal to just one or two; you need to sure up every link and build the strongest chain you can. With these techniques, we can all create a better future for my daughter and all students.