I’m an Ed-Tech Investor and I Don’t Want to Create Useless Technology

How about we ask teachers what they need?

(Getty Images)

Anyone who has taught or taken a class knows the endless creativity and mental mobility required to effectively engage a classroom of students. Today more than ever, there are countless resources, tools, and technologies aimed at helping teachers do just this. 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 ed-tech 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 ed-tech 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 disconnect leaves teachers feeling unheard and frustrated. Research from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation shows that only 59 percent of teachers find the digital products their students use to be effective. For example, according to one teacher, “Digital resources tend to be ‘one size fits all.’ A more flexible approach would be welcome.”

Meanwhile, ed-tech 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 user input so 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 causes many an investor to shy away from the ed-tech 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. Ed-tech test beds are real-world environments where developers and educators closely collaborate 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 a product’s development—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 (teachers), which allows them to adjust their designs on the fly and shorten the development cycle. For investors, this approach provides a valuable snapshot of a product’s usability and growth potential in a rapidly changing industry.

Take, for example, the Short-Cycle Evaluation Challenge (SCEC), a project from the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Innovation. Last school year, 40 teachers piloted 10 new ed-tech products through the SCEC, everything from tools for visualizing student progress to online assessment platforms. Developers visited the schools to see how teachers and students used their products and benefited from face-to-face feedback on ways to improve their products. “The access into schools is crucial for us,” said Jamie Piecora, content developer at Buzzmath, an SCEC participant. “We can design and create… but until our actual users are using it, that’s the only way we get to see if it’s actually meeting their needs.”

At LearnLaunch, an ed-tech accelerator, we’re also bringing together educators, entrepreneurs, learners, and investors in the Boston area to build technologies that support student achievement. Last year, for example, Quill, a startup in the LearnLaunch Accelerator portfolio, 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.

When educators and entrepreneurs come together, educators can share their thoughts on the tools they are using, and entrepreneurs can brainstorm ways to incorporate the teachers’ insights into future development efforts.

“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,” says Melissa Corto, co-founder and CEO of Education Modified, a platform that recommends the latest research-based learning strategies for students with diverse needs and tracks their progress.

The digital-learning revolution is underway in the classroom, with 93 percent of teachers reporting that they use 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 in learning and technology. These efforts have the potential to transform the ed-tech industry and ultimately the way students learn.

Bright is made possible by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Bright retains editorial independence.