Din Heiman
Apr 17, 2020 · 6 min read

The handshake. Snow days. Spectators at major league baseball games next season. So many aspects of life before COVID-19 are now being questioned.

One thing we might all be able to agree upon is that, love it or hate it, the term ‘edtech’ is a thing of the past.

For many years, we in this industry have been anticipating an era in which we no longer consider ‘education technology’ as separate from ‘education’. That time is suddenly upon us.

Whether you’re a college student once again studying from your parent’s kitchen table, a K-12 student watching a recorded video of your teacher trying to convey her empathy as she communicates the daily assignments, an educator getting to know the most obscure features of Google Classroom, or a parent suddenly being drawn into your kids’ learning in ways you never imagined — there’s little need to belabor the point: Technology is now an inseparable part of education.

A sincere hat-tip to the visionaries and inventors that created our space as we know it. Kudos to the entrepreneurs that built upon that foundation and introduced consumer internet hyper-growth models, who popularized engaging digital content and developed rich and adaptive assessment tech over the last decade or two. I know many of you (or knew, as some are departed), and truly admire you all. Without your efforts we would not have been able to step up so quickly to facilitate any level of classroom continuity. Yet this is hardly a time to celebrate.

For all the recent exposure in the spotlight, we will not remember 2020 as the year of Coming of Age of edtech. 2020 will instead mark the start of the Age of Responsibility.

The age of responsibility. As an industry, it is now we who are being put to a test. We are providing the backbone of educational continuity, the arsenal fortifying the critical efforts of our own first responders — administrators and educators around the globe. We will collectively be held accountable for how we bear the mantle of that responsibility; let’s do all that we can to ensure that history will judge us favorably in the important support role we’ve been thrust into.

What does this responsibility consist of? What are the implications and specific imperatives to best serve the education community we’ve dedicated our professional lives to? Those are questions I’ve been grappling with.

Answers will differ by company; each executive and leadership team must create its own, prioritized response.

Here are a few areas to focus on, viewed through my subjective lens:

Survive. You probably don’t want to be surprised in the midst of a crisis to discover your solution doesn’t effectively scale after all. Or that your cash situation can’t bear the expenses created by spiking usage. At the extreme, the last thing you can afford is to see your company collapse — precisely when your customers (not to speak of your employees) rely on you the most. Think about that in the context of both your existing business model, and any immediate changes or campaigns you are considering.

Plan. We don’t know how long the current remote learning situation will last, but now’s neither the end…nor the last. Whether you need a major refresh or a first go at it, a set of meticulous contingency plans is now a top strategic objective. What are the benchmarks and measures you will hold your plan to? Your offerings cannot suffer downtimes, even as your team pivots to working from home. How will you continue to safeguard student privacy? When schools are in urgent need, can you accept higher customer service response times? What becomes of implementation and teacher support when they become remote?

Parents aren’t stakeholders. No matter what your specific offering is or who you sell to, start considering parents (a.k.a. #AccidentalHomeschoolers) as customers. Just because they aren’t students doesn’t mean you can treat them as teachers. Consider factors like ease of use, lack of professional training, methods of communication, reality of working parent/s… Consider whether your offerings are tailored and curated enough, or just adding to an already daunting pile. Don’t assume it’s for the teacher alone, much less principal or administrator, to bridge between your offerings and parents. They themselves have plenty on their plate. If you can’t get your offerings to an appropriate level of simplicity, factor in extra capacity for layperson support.

You’re in the equity business. Yes, you. This one may be the hardest for many of us to fathom. If you’re not actively planning for decreasing equity gaps, you’re liable to be inadvertently increasing them. Do your plans account for the needs of different populations of special learners? Do they factor in English learners (whether students or parents)? Do your offerings work across devices? Without devices? In different bandwidth situations? Do they inadvertently contribute to stress, or alleviate it? Can you identify in advance any other unintended consequences of your plan, and if so what can you do to prevent them?

What’s next? These are a few issues we should be prepared to address as essential providers in newfound roles. They were sparked by preparation for a recent panel organized by the Technology Business Group at Columbia Business School (which of course took place on Zoom.) My hope is that these reflections will in turn spark internal discussions in your organization, and that you might share-out your insights with the rest of us learners. #BetterTogether

Update — April 20, 2020:

It’s only Sunday — my thanks to the dozens of readers that have already commented on this article since it was published late Friday. Whether you commented here on Medium, responded to the LinkedIn post, tagged me on Twitter or sent a direct message — I’ve tried to capture the additional insights you contributed or sparked below.

That you shared these insights over the weekend bears reassuring testament to the fact that so many in this industry have their hearts in the right place.

S-i-m-p-l-i-f-y: transitioning teaching to a remote environment, let alone under the current rushed and high stress circumstances, represents a huge challenge to educators. While I mentioned we as providers shouldn’t burden teachers with a new task of bridging between our offerings and parents, a couple readers correctly pointed out that given their new realities, we owe teachers simplicity and ease of use across the board.

The future is (also) print: Preparing our offerings to work in homes where there are no reliably connected devices appeared as part of the equity considerations above. It warrants spelling out: the addition of a print option — never a bad idea — is one fix that may be under our control as individual providers in the short term. As others have noted, bridging the device-access gap is paramount too.

Blended learning, redefined. In the US and a number of other countries, we were just getting comfortable with the notion of enriching the traditional classroom with online and digital learning. “Blended learning” may now however take on an utterly new meaning, as teachers get called upon on a regular basis to teach a blend of physically present and remote students. To add complexity, which specific students need to self-isolate and which are cleared to return to school may change multiple times in the year.

Superheros. True, they are; and many are already “running with it.” But it is both unfair and naive to expect teachers to make this transition without training. Our prospects as companies are intricately tied to the education system successfully adapting to this new form of blended learning. And, as one insightful reader reminded, in addition to teachers, school and district administrators have their own needs.

Lifelong learning. Education is more than K-12, pointed out another reader. If you are in the early childhood education space, higher ed or adult learning, your challenges and ensuing list will look different. What would you add?

I can only imagine how challenging this period is for vulnerable kids and families. One reader pointed me to this resource. My jaw dropped when I saw it. I hope you’ll take a moment to explore and acknowledge it.

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Din Heiman

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I’ve filled a variety of roles in the industry formerly known as edtech. I’m currently Senior VP of Strategy at Renaissance Learning. Views expressed are my own

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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