Closing the Gap Between Educators and Entrepreneurs

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There appears to be no shortage of new businesses looking to apply technology to education. An entire ecosystem has emerged in recent years to develop and promote the latest product or service for the classroom or district. But a major hurdle remains: the divide between what entrepreneurs build and educators need.

The ecosystem stimulating the “edupreneurial” activity ranges from startup instigators (Startup Weekend EDU) and startup showcases (LAUNCHedu, SIIA Innovation Incubator), to startup incubators (Y Combinator, Imagine K12) and startup investors.

But in many cases, enthusiastic edupreneurs are propelled from this starting ramp to run full speed, like Wile E. Coyote, into an oversized anvil -- actual teachers. It doesn’t matter how good the concept, how cool the technology, or how pressing the need. There can be a fundamental disconnect between passion and reality.

And that can keep good ideas out of the classroom.

To dissect the disconnect, the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Northwest recently brought together a group of insiders: traditional education company executive Randy Reina, senior vice president of digital product development at McGraw-Hill Education’s Center for Digital Innovation; a not-so-recently-startup edtech company CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson, who's chair and president of DreamBox Learning; and teacher/entrepreneur Lindsey Own, a Seattle-area middle school science and health teacher and co-organizer of Startup Weekend Seattle EDU.

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A handful of key themes emerged, casting light not just on what entrepreneurs need to know, but on issues parents and educators should expect as ed-tech startups get more attention.

TECH ALONE WON'T IMPROVE EDUCATION.

The biggest misconception that entrepreneurs (and even parents) have about the role of technology in education today, said DreamBox Learning CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson, is that, “you can overlay technology on whatever is happening in education and you will see improvement.” The reality, Woolley-Wilson noted, is much more complicated. “Technology can help scale greatness” like a good teacher or teaching practices, but “the underbelly is that it can help scale bad things, too.”

But technology isn't necessarily needed to "improve" education, said Own, a middle-school teacher, regarding her earlier experience in Chicago with project-based learning. “We didn’t need a computer (for every student) to do that,” though it would have made it easier. “We’ve had education reform for a very long time without technology.”

That’s something entrepreneurs -- and parents -- should consider when blindly pushing for technology in the classroom. Avoiding, as Woolley-Wilson calls it, too much “exuberance for technology for technology’s sake.”

TIME -- NOT COMPETING PRODUCTS -- ARE ENTREPRENEURS' BIGGEST CHALLENGE.

Teachers are busy. But startups tend to forget that.

From implementing Common Core State Standards to preparing for high-stakes tests, educators have their hands full. Entrepreneurs, Woolley-Wilson said, might look at competition as products and funding, “but they often underestimate the competition for time. Teachers just don’t have that much time. So the solutions have to be easy to implement. They have to make the teacher feel inspired, rather than stupid.”

McGraw-Hill’s Reina agreed, pointing out that “when entrepreneurs come in with a great new idea they don’t necessarily think about the ripple effect the idea may or may not have with the rest of

[RELATED: The Rise of Educator-Entrepreneurs, Classroom Experience to EdTech]

the organization. Education is a complicated system and, in many ways, it’s a political system.” With a nod to author Malcolm Gladwell, Reina said, “We are at a tipping point -- but that tipping point is going to tip slowly.”

Even with that caution, Woolley-Wilson noted there are a lot of innovative teachers willing to look at new things. But choose the moment carefully. “They’re focused on shelter and food, and you want them to talk about self-actualization.”

THE BEST PRODUCTS INVOLVE TEACHERS AND FIT WITHIN THEIR PRACTICE.

Another area of disconnect: A clear understanding of how a product will actually be used. “You can come up with a sweet widget. It might be great,” Own said, “but it really has to be rooted in what is going to be happening in the classroom. In the pedagogy. In the learning objectives.”

That problem tends to surface when entrepreneurs wait too long to get teacher input and feedback. And beta, Own said, is too late: “There need to be teachers involved from day one.”

Finding those teachers, though, is another matter. Reina, Woolley-Wilson and Own suggested contacting foundations that work with teachers, attending small, local education conferences, and soliciting help on Twitter and from LinkedIn’s ed-tech groups. Once startups make a connection, Own predicted, “Teachers will tell you all day long what they need.”

RISK IS A BIG OBSTACLE.

Startups fail. Startups “pivot” (the current euphemism for abandoning a product or a business model that isn’t working). Both are anathema to education institutions which may trust student data -- and a student’s education -- to consistent, reliable use of a product or service.

Then there’s the core matter of trusting that an entrepreneur’s educational solution will work.

Some support for entrepreneurs facing a skeptical school on the last point may come from a surprising source: foundations. Woolley-Wilson says she’s very hopeful about their role with educators: “What I think foundations can do is generate data that will help ‘de-risk’ a decision to try something new.”

Reina agreed, pointing out foundations have done a lot of good work on, for example, using games in learning. Having that kind of support, “changes the conversation with both educators and parents.” It’s a kind of research-based heavy lifting that foundations can do -- which others can later review -- that most startups cannot do for themselves.

[RELATED: What the Heck is a Teacherpreneur?]

Another way to reduce the risk of seeing if a product actually works is to adopt a “freemium” pricing model, in which some or all of the product can be used without charge. “The teachers need the opportunity to see it, to try it out and see if it’s worthwhile,” Own said.

There are other areas of disconnect, from entrepreneur assumptions that all districts -- or schools in a district -- have the same access to computers and Internet bandwidth (Own: “There’s no safe assumption (of what) even 50% of schools have”) to teacher expectations that good tech products will be completely free, forever (Reina: “You need to be able to get funding coming back to the people who are building the products so they can reinvest in the product”).

But overall, there’s hope the gap can be closed if K-12 educators and technology entrepreneurs listen to each other, often and early, and realize theirs is a symbiotic relationship. “The teacher is there to inspire kids and to help kids work together,” Reina said. “And do a lot of the things technology can’t do.”

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Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He tweets @FrankCatalano, consults as Intrinsic Strategy, and writes a column for GeekWire. He moderated this MIT Enterprise Forum session, co-authored a companion paper, and really likes it when edtech proponents and teachers just get along.

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