What Education Technology Companies Need To Know About Schools

As an innovation team focused on improving the world through education, my colleagues and I are often the first port of call for ed tech startups hoping to go to market or to scale their products globally. As such, we review hundreds of ed tech products per year and, in some cases, set up pilot programs to assess impact and usability.

Many of these products that we review help build student skills, and some even enable teachers or school leaders to work more effectively or efficiently; however, few seem to understand the K-12 market well. Proclamations about the ed tech space abound, but they are often confusing and contradictory. In the past two years, we’ve heard the following claims: Ed tech is the new fintech and ed tech is oversaturated.

In fact, both may be true, if a bit exaggerated. After several years of decline, ed tech is seeing a resurgence of investment with notable funding rounds closed by Examity, Xuebajun and Alt School. At the same time, many promising ed tech companies have shuttered their doors, including Kno, Knack for Teachers and Alleyoop. All three companies had significant funding and support — and products that seemed like they would be well-received by schools and learners.

To access the K-12 market, ed tech companies should understand the following:

Education is a complex market. While the education market is large, it is also fragmented. Aside from infrastructure and, in some cases, textbooks (digital or analog), getting products into schools still requires door-to-door sales.

Schools want impact data. Principals and teachers need to know how a product they may purchase will impact school performance and student outcomes. As such, it is important to understand how both of these are measured in target schools, districts and regions. Startups should run pilot programs to capture this data before endeavoring to make sales.

School budgets are annual and require an approvals process. You’ve met a district head of curriculum at a conference. She loved your product and was impressed by the impact data. She would like to purchase 200 licenses for your product. But it’s June 2017, so the earliest she may be able to do so is likely to be in August 2019.

Why? In many schools, purchase requests and recommendations are made by April for the following academic year. Miss the window, and you could be looking at a delay of over 12 months. And yes, in some districts, the curriculum leader could request funding as an unbudgeted spend, but this takes time, and people working in schools often find time is more elusive than funding.

Speaking of time … Teachers, curriculum leaders and principals are focused primarily on student learning and well-being. Make everything about your product — from review to purchase to implementation — as easy as possible for them. Don’t suggest unnecessary meetings. Don’t ask teachers to collect data for you. Don’t suggest they have a secretary create passwords for students.

Keep it core. As a team, we have seen some wonderful apps for learning that fall outside of the core curriculum focused on skills ranging from financial literacy to art. Individual schools may choose to purchase these but will be making very careful decisions with limited budgets for enrichment.

According to the Condition of Education 2017 report (via EdWeek Market Brief), 61% of K-12 school budgets in the U.S. tend to be dedicated to instruction and instruction-related costs, including teachers, training, curriculum, assessment and instructional technology. Out of this budget, just 8% will be spent respectively on supplies (including licenses) and training, the overwhelming majority of which will be spent on resources and development of math, literacy and science. In an earlier stage of my life, I also took the leap of starting — and then closing — a small ed tech enterprise. Schools simply did not have a line item in their budgets for what I offered.

But differentiate yourself. While the first generation of ed tech companies was focused on doing things better, the second generation of successful ed tech companies is focused on doing better things. So, while K-12 learning products should be focused on core curriculum, those that integrate artificial intelligence, mixed and virtual reality, the development of cognitive skills or the support of robotic tutors are the ed tech companies currently receiving interest from investors.

Engage with your stakeholders from the beginning and be open to feedback. Despite their lack of time, many teachers and school administrators are happy to provide feedback to startups. We want great products that can impact student learning and are happy to share our insights along the way. Be sure, though, to respond to their constructive feedback. Several years ago, a colleague sent a series of recommendations to a regional startup. Two months later, they asked for a meeting with a school to pilot their product but had not made any changes.