Why EdTech companies are failing

Education technology, or EdTech, is a thriving industry, generating billions in investments in just a few short years. It seeks to improve the learning curve and enhance student performance by designing, implementing and managing technological resources in the classroom.

EdTech products and services typically target learning strategies used by teachers and students, seeking ways to complement current educational approaches. But unfortunately, many EdTech companies are losing support from teachers and ultimately failing.

>See also: A view from inside the education technology revolution

Choosing idealism over reality when evaluating educational issues and practices can adversely affect EdTech product design, making a teacher’s job more difficult.

For example, the mishandled iPad initiative in the Los Angeles Unified School District shows how EdTech can fall short – expensive tablets and a bespoke Pearson curriculum were hardly used by most schools.

EdTech developers: who and why?

Idealists are common among EdTech entrepreneurs and startups. From income inequality to crime and unemployment, education is viewed as the big fix, and it’s no wonder that idealists want to be a part of the solution.

American students are behind in global testing for math, reading and science, while other developed countries are forging ahead – proving our educational system is in bad shape and attracting the attention of idealists, who want to help.

Education has a rich history, and the pure joy of learning for its own sake has long been a worthy goal. But the modern economy requires specific skills for success, and EdTech is focused on making sure students learn the skills they need for their careers, as outlined in the new National Educational Technology Plan. The plan includes objectives like evaluating student progress against college and career standards and providing access to real-time data.

Technology-based evaluations and learning systems are among the tools proposed to facilitate success. The big picture view makes it clear that EdTech is populated by enormously talented idealists who want to solve very real problems. So why do EdTech initiatives so often go astray?

>See also: 30 years of technology in education: BESA report advises government on lessons learned

EdTech’s failing grades

Plain and simple, idealism keeps many developers out of touch with today’s problems. They relive issues from their own student days and imagine the problems their teachers must have faced.

Startups claim understanding of educational issues simply because we’ve all been there. For instance, Knack was the collaborative effort of a handful of teachers, but designed by a person with no actual teaching experience.

Students face changes in technology at an ever-increasing rate. New tools and different ways of using them quickly separate students from previous generations.

Differences in state standards, geographic location and cultural identity make it impossible to design an effective program based on one person’s experience, but EdTech companies don’t always see things that way, and that can lead to failed initiatives.

The best teachers make things look easy, unless you look at the hours of hard work put into preparing lesson plans. You have to talk to teachers to know what’s going on behind the scenes and understand what they’re up against. Developers who don’t make that effort will never understand the challenges teachers face.

In the final analysis, EdTech professionals inadvertently create an empathy gap, designing for their own reasons, and teachers often resent EdTech for it. The situation is made even worse when administrators push new technology without input from classroom professionals.

Closing the empathy gap

DonorsChoose.org is one EdTech company that is successfully closing the empathy gap with a crowdsourcing solution that links donors and teachers. Requests for technical support, equipment or resources for a field trip can be made by teachers anywhere in the United States.

Upon reaching the project funding goal, materials are shipped to the school by donors, who receive a letter from the teacher and photos of the project in progress, showing how money was actually spent.

>See also: Top 10 strategic technologies impacting education – Gartner

DonorsChoose builds direct relationships with teachers and involves them in the decision-making process, making a successful link between those in the know and those who can help.

Former teacher and DonorsChoose CEO Charles Best spoke recently in Michigan about the EdTech marketplace, noting that educators can go straight to the public with their best ideas to help students learn. Best also observed that creating a direct link eliminates the layers of approval and bureaucracy.

EdTech has the best interests of education in mind, but the empathy gap between developers and classroom teachers often results in failure. Closing the gap is going to take direct communication with teachers, identifying their needs and connecting them with appropriate resources. Designing educational technology that works depends on it.


Malcolm Stewart, YouEye

Related: London leads EdTech in Europe

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...