Recently, I had a conversation with a new founder of an ed-tech company. It was a good conversation. I learned about the product, but I felt the conversation didn't lead to anything that could help them become sustainable or grow long term.
So I write here what we would have discussed if the conversation had been able to continue.
The company was selling STEM-related products and services to a very large school system. (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.) It had been in operation for two years. The founder was excited about its growth because teachers were telling him that they loved the product. Indeed, it did sound like it was solving a problem (providing STEM curriculum and instruction) for schools that were unable to hire a STEM teacher.
STEM is trending right now in education (and has been for quite a while). It's a hot ticket item. Schools have many products for their selection. Some are good and some, not so much.
The purpose of this article is to provide insight for entrepreneurs who are in the ed-tech space by helping them understand what "trending" means in education.
First, trends in education come and go. We, teachers, are constantly pulled by decisions that are made from a variety of people to implement the next latest and greatest thing that will help prepare our students for their future. This makes the market reasonably easy to read because all one has to do is look at what the market is demanding at the moment. A current technology conference will be full of these products and services.
Trends go, sometimes, within a few years. This predicament is something teachers are used to, although they don't particularly enjoy going through it. Understanding this and adapting your content will help you stay current in the space because teachers and students are always going to value help. A retired teacher or someone who has been in the field for a while is a great resource because he or she has experienced the implementation, as well as the discontinued use of products and services. Find out what that cycle was like, how it impacted the implementation of a new product, and how long the previous product remained in the resource list of what teachers still use. This will help you onboard new teachers, as well as help you pivot should the need go away.
In may be true that teachers love your product, but sometimes they say this because it's what we say so you do not feel bad. We also love anything that keeps our students busy. Enjoy the praise, but rely on your data. Look at what happens after teachers sign up for your product. Do they apply your product? Teachers can be quick to abandon a product, but sometimes, application takes time, so do not give up too quickly. Teachers are super busy and pulled in many directions. Sometimes, it takes time for them to get around to using it. The other factor to consider is whether it is mandated by the principal. If your product is required, it will look like "love," but it's only because we love teaching students and want to keep our jobs. The bottom line, "love" is great, but engagement and use are much stronger indicators.
Second, get good at asking questions. There are three questions that you can ask teachers to get a better understanding of your product and/or service..
1. Time-related: Does it save you time? How much time does it save you? Does it take prep time to use this product? How much prep time does it take?
2. Instruction-related: Does this match to an area on your grade reporting system, such as science, reading, writing, or math? Or is this something that does not need assessing? Do you need additional help with the concepts?
3. Materials: Does this cost you out-of-pocket expenses for the materials? How much? What would you need to purchase? Do you need links to resources? How easy is it to organize and use the materials? Will you be sharing this with other teachers, and if so, how many? *Even though a product may have the materials provided, that doesn't mean that items will not get lost or broken. Keeping track of small items is not easy when shared. Plus, things break. Have an easy way to reorder materials and be aware that even when something is mandated, teachers still may have to pay out-of-pocket expenses to use it.
Third. Develop effective listening skills. Try to conduct follow up interviews with teachers. If teachers are using your product, they should be able to tell you more than they love it. They would be able to share a specific story about a student. We do love telling success stories, but also find out about the unsuccessful student. Find out which students struggle. This may be as a result of a learning disability or having experienced developmental trauma. These stories will help you get a good and solid understanding of how students learn. Understanding this is important because teachers are responsible for the learning of all of their students, not just keeping them busy. Student engagement goes beyond students having fun and keeping busy.
This leads me to my fourth tip - make it easy. Teachers literally have to pick up a lesson and be able to teach it, sometimes in real-time. Sometimes there is no planning time during the day, or it is spent doing other things, like calling parents, attending meetings, or going to the bathroom. A topic like engineering isn't something that we necessarily know, but we can learn when we have time. Planning time happens during evenings and weekends, and teachers need rest or time to spend with their families. Know that a two-day workshop is a great start, but that it's not enough. Be creative in the ways you provide ongoing support for teachers using your product.
Fifth, focus on the best parts of what you do and make them absolutely amazing! Teachers are always looking for that one-stop-shop where a product can do everything. Even if this did exist, there are too many nuances in teaching for a product to be amazing to all teachers. I have waited for products to become great only to learn that next season, the company is "adding features" to make their product better. When a product gets watered down or has features that detract from its main purpose is when I start looking for another product.
Last, if you are it for the money, I politely ask you not to build your product. This isn't to say that I think ed-tech products should be free. You need money to make a fantastic product, and free doesn't always make it valuable to teachers. However, if there is a decision to be about your business, I understand that you are responsible for making money, and sometimes those decisions can have a negative impact on teachers and students. For example, every student in our school has a learning disability. This means they have difficulty with reading and need features like text to speech. Other students experience challenges with executive functioning or multi-step directions. Leaving out features that help students or adding features that make it difficult for students may save you money, but you're making it more difficult for the teachers and leaving out a whole group of awesome students from experiencing success with your product. If your service is truly helping their students learn, they will jump through hoops to use it, but that doesn't mean you have to make them do that.
While I speak in the general sense, I do not speak for all teachers. They have more than enough education and experience to speak for themselves. However, with 28 years of experience in education and working with teachers, these are many of the scenarios I have experienced over time. Hopefully, some of it will help you enter the ed-tech space, stay in the space, and help us make a positive impact in the lives of our young people.