Why edtech should be about enriching learners, not investors

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As the edtech market continues to grow apace, when does choice simply become confusion?

Most journalism on the topic of edtech tends to fall neatly into one of two categories. Either it examines the efficacy and impact of edtech on learner performance, or it looks at the industry’s growth, perhaps as a barometer of things to come.

While weighing up the former can be difficult (for a host of reasons), there’s ample evidence on the latter to be clear about one thing: edtech has grown into a global juggernaut.

By some estimates, investment in edtech looks set to reach $252 billion by 2020, priming it to become, in the words of one commentator, “2017’s big, untapped and safe investor opportunity.”

Though such claims are more an enticement for venture capitalist funding than they are a sober assessment, there is no denying that edtech’s growth since 2010 has been remarkable. In the five-year period from 2010 to 2014 investment in edtech grew by 503%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this period of abundance was followed by a notable dip in investment in 2016. However, early reports suggest a strong start to 2017, with two edtech companies hitting valuations of $1 billion a piece.

It’s likely that such figures will set further investment cogs in motion as modern-day prospectors seize a golden opportunity for enrichment. But does this kind of activity help or hinder the cause of edtech? Who actually wins if the allure of high ROIs creates a rush to get undercooked products to market?

EdTech’s Sustainability Problem

The problem with rapid edtech expansion is that an increase in volume doesn’t equate to an increase in quality. Sometimes big ideas are blighted by poor execution.

This is often due to a lack of available resources. It’s rare that an edtech vendor gets the opportunity to develop a product by harnessing a perfect storm of conditions that include quality user feedback, generous funding, top-tier technology, and good timing.

The unfortunate fact is that a large number of products are brought to market without sufficient care or consideration for the end user. As Rick Segal and Matt Greenfield of Rethink Education wrote in a piece for CB Insights:

“We realized that many venture capitalists were approaching education technology companies in a peculiar manner. Many investors were unconcerned about the research on how people learn. Some invested in hot companies without ever talking to a single customer. Many believed that the only education businesses worth funding were those that targeted consumers. And they were convinced that school districts, in particular, made terrible customers.”

Such an approach may well bring a flood of new products to market but it ignores crucial issues of usability and sustainability. No matter how good a product’s initial concept is, its chances of having any positive real-world impact are slim to none if its modus operandi is to put revenue ahead of users.

When Choice Becomes Chaos

Added to this problem of real-world compatibility is the problem of choice.

As the catalog of edtech offerings continues to grow, so does the risk of educators simply becoming overwhelmed by a market with which they cannot keep pace. Developed in isolated silos, competing products must vie for a user’s attention by making promises of greater personalization, performance, ease of use, or the chance to fulfil one’s true potential.

A product will not affect positive learning outcomes if it puts revenue ahead of users. Click To Tweet

The pitches may sound great, but what happens in practice is often another story entirely. Some classrooms may not be equipped to properly implement a product, or educators may not yet have developed the know-how to get the most from the technology in which they’ve invested.

“As the ed-tech market grows, companies will, by necessity, first serve the classrooms with the infrastructure to support their technologies,” wrote Angela Chen in an article for The Atlantic. “This can lead to a widening in the so-called ‘connectivity gap’ – which activists say can directly contribute to the achievement gap plaguing K-12 education.”

While it would be wrong to suggest that edtech vendors and investors need to shoulder the blame for this, it does highlight the difficulty that educators and decision makers face in assessing which offerings actually best serve their needs.

In another noteworthy piece for EdSurge, Chris Lian-Vergara and Kerry Gallagher further outlined the confusion that many end-users experience:

“Relying on multiple devices (remote, clicker, iPad, computer mouse) to launch or navigate technology can be difficult. Additionally, teachers may start to use a tool, only to realize it is not flexible enough to meet their original needs, fit into the constraints of their particular school or classroom, or allow them to integrate their own content or supplemental resources.”

When products don’t meet important user needs, it’s very likely that they won’t remain on the market long enough to affect learning outcomes in any kind of meaningful way. Often it’s quite the opposite as struggling vendors are forced to close shop, leaving users who’ve come to rely on their offerings in a kind of edtech limbo.

Why EdTech Products Fail

The ultimate goal of district leaders and educators is to create the best possible learning experience for students. Likewise with training and development officers who realize that the most efficient training programs are those that actively engage participants.

So why are so many edtech offerings failing to help realize this goal?

Finding an answer to the question isn’t easy. It’s possible to blame failures and shortcomings on a lack of focus and understanding, but on whose part?

The truth is that the source of the problem doesn’t lie with any single group. It is more of a collective challenge that springs from a basic discrepancy between the different speeds at which technology and education are evolving. For instance, it’s probably fair to say that change tends to occur more slowly in education than it does in other areas such as IT.

The reason for this is simple enough: education is a vast and particularly precious ecosystem. Even relatively minor changes can have unpredictable knock-on effects; and when dealing with the formative years of future generations, it’s natural for caution to be the order of the day.

Yet decision makers are in fact keen to embrace new technologies. This is partly born from a very real fear that failing to do so could mean falling behind. After all, the wider economic world will not wait for education to catch up. Its progress relies on finding and utilizing the skills of those best-placed to maintain its growth. And with other countries preparing for this by boosting their investments in edtech, it’s much better to lead the charge than it is to play catch up.

Decision makers are keen to embrace new technologies: it's much better to lead change than catch up with it. Click To Tweet

This creates a market need that edtech investors are all too eager to satisfy, which in turn leads to the aforementioned edtech product flood.

Surviving the EdTech Flood

Tackling how the same problem occurs at third level in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Fieldstein wrote:

“Competition forces the companies to produce features that colleges say they need, whether or not the colleges actually need them. Unfortunately, the procurement process all too often results in a long list of requirements that bear little resemblance to broad campus needs.”

“The real problem is that it is difficult to gather real teaching and learning requirements, and the people in charge of doing it on campus have neither the time, nor the training, nor the resources to do the job properly …  A bad selection process means a bad product to live with now and a bad set of options to choose from down the road.”

Without the feedback to furnish a proper understanding of user requirements, and investors looking for a swift return on their investment, many vendors have little choice but to release products that aren’t as flexible as they should be or don’t integrate well with other products.

This results in a disjointed experience for both educators and learners. Their dissatisfaction then perpetuates the cycle as a bevy of new products appear that promise to ease their latest woes. Adapting to such flux is extremely difficult – especially for educators, many of whom already report feeling reform fatigue.

Finding a Solution through Sustainability

Pumping money into an edtech company that delivers little to no value to its end users clearly makes no sense. Nor does wasting time and resources implementing such an ill-suited product.

Rather than saturate edtech with an endless supply of products, an alternate solution for product owners would be to improve their offerings through a collaborative effort – one that draws upon expertise from peers working across a range of areas. In essence, an ecosystem of edtech innovators who work closely with educators and district administrators. It’s a simple enough concept, as many of the strongest often are.

While some might claim that too much cross-collaboration could make products overly similar, in reality it should springboard more effective innovations as companies freely connect with leading developers, content providers, or technologists to help them genuinely improve their offerings in ways not previously possible.

If product owners have ongoing access to more resources, better technology, and greater expertise in key areas, they’ll then have the freedom to prioritize quality ahead of scale, develop a clearer product focus, and find new ways of integrating their offerings with others for a more fluid user experience.

With access to more resources and better technology, product owners can focus on maximizing quality. Click To Tweet

As noted by Phil Hill of e-Literate, a healthy and sustainable edtech economy relies on “investors who understand that the greatest opportunities in EdTech come when the technology enables new pedagogical approaches in the hands of caring and knowledgeable educators.”

By promoting longevity and reducing product churn, such an ecosystem would give educators a chance to familiarize themselves with the technologies that will best support learning or improve learning outcomes. And once integrated, these technologies can continue to evolve within the ecosystem, allowing end users to benefit from their ongoing improvements while minimizing disruption to learning activities.

Change may occur slowly in education, but the move from a vicious cycle to a virtuous one will be the payoff for collaboration, planning, and patience.

Micheál Heffernan

Senior Editor

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