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What EdTech Entrepreneurs Sometimes Forget

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This year’s first-quarter investments in the edtech sector reached record highs, filling the $1.3 trillion-dollar space with new companies eager to get their products into the hands of every teacher. This growth presents challenges for entrepreneurs and educators alike. As the cofounder of an edtech company who originated in consumer and B2B technology, I’ve learned some critical lessons that apply to entrepreneurs in any sector.

One of the biggest challenges in the edtech space is finding alignment between what teachers need and what innovators are creating. This hurdle presents itself in every sector, and entrepreneurs must ask an essential question: am I putting my user’s deepest needs at the core of my product?

As an edtech entrepreneur and cofounder of ThinkCERCA, an online literacy program that helps students develop critical reading and writing skills, I’ve learned that the best way to bridge the gap between educators and edtech developers is to collaborate. Working together across sectors, however, is easier said than done. It sounds great in theory, but putting it into practice often feels impossible.

This lesson is critical for every entrepreneur, edtech or not. To build a successful product, you must surround yourself with the people whose needs you’re trying to meet. In the edtech space, for example, it’s imperative that we work with and beside teachers to develop products that go beyond “cool” and “innovative.” Instead, we should develop programs that actually solve their problems, help them meet state requirements, and prepare more students for life after high school.

For entrepreneurs who are interested in the edtech space, I’ve discovered an approach that makes education technologies more viable for all parties involved. Put simply, focus on solving the principal’s problem, and develop an understanding of what that problem is before offering a solution. As an example, consider the school district we recently spoke with that is switching all of its teachers to a unified learning management system. There are seven high schools in the district, and many of their teachers are already using technology in their classrooms. Each teacher has spent countless hours developing curriculum to take full advantage of their resources, but by switching to the new system, they’ll have to completely redesign their approaches. While switching to a unified technology plan benefits the school in the long term, it feels like an uphill climb to the teachers who have to adapt in the present.

Rapid edtech development will only continue, so this scenario is likely to present itself repeatedly among our country’s 3 million teachers and 55 million students over the next few years. With that knowledge, why don’t we help solve the problem? Edtech entrepreneurs are poised to play a supportive role in education reform by helping principals implement school-wide, comprehensive approaches to technology adoption. They can develop products meant to help teachers succeed and even make their lives a little easier.

As every entrepreneur knows, the key to success is developing a product that people actually need. To do that in edtech, approach business and product design collaboratively with the teachers and principals who will benefit from your work.

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About the Author

Abby Ross is co-founder and COO at ThinkCERCA, a web-based literacy education resource in use at more than 4,000 schools nationwide. ThinkCERCA was an Impact Engine Accelerator graduate and won a Literacy Courseware Challenge from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On August 14, 2014, ThinkCERCA will host the EdTech Startup Collaborative Summit, bringing together edtech startups and educators in Chicago to discuss needs and implementation.

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