Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Myths, Reality, and Relationship-Building in the EdTech Community at #SXSWedu

SXSWedu this year has been incredibly different from last year.  Last year, I presented a workshop, met incredible new colleagues, dove into big new-to-me ideas in education, and visited two fantastic schools in the Austin area.  I also ran into terrible tensions between educators and entrepreneurs, including a habit of belittling and "teasing" teachers.

This year, I've been more focused on reconnecting with my many friends and colleagues from twitter and other conferences, rather than really reaching out to meet many new people.

Most heavily, though, I've been focused on supporting positive growth in the educator/entrepreneur edtech community.  Prior to the conference, Houston teacher Stephanie Sandifer compiled all the community-building sessions at SXSWedu so that we could coordinate and cross-pollinate.

My panel Tuesday morning with Stephanie and two fantastic edtech startup CEOs - Jay Goyal of Actively Learn and Dion Lim of NextLesson - went excellently.  We had outlined a careful sequence of introduction, our view of the state of the community, clearing up some specific myths about both educators and entrepreneurs, and finally giving some specific ideas for how each side can improve our relationships within the community.

My own summary is below, and a collection of the backchannel conversation tweets of the session can be found here.



Myth #1 - Entrepreneurs just make a cute product, then kick back and let the $ roll in.  Teachers work so much harder, and entrepreneurs are livin' easy.

Reality - Entrepreneurs are *stressed!*  They have multiple stakeholders to be responsible to: investors, employees, customers.  They're actually more similar to teachers than not: we're both responsible to a wide variety of stakeholders with different needs, and are trying to satisfy a huge number of constraints.

Myth #2 - Teachers don't want to pay for things.  They want free free free.

Reality - Free is nice, but we're both willing and able to pay for products that meet a real need.  Although the individual teacher doesn't always hold the checkbook, we have the ear of the person who does hold the checkbook, and will advocate purchasing those tools we need!

Myth #3 - Entrepreneurs only care about selling.  Selling is everything... Selling is the only thing!

Reality - EdTech entrepreneurs care about improving outcomes for kids.  If they only cared about selling, they'd just make the hot new Facebook app or timewaster game like Candy Crush.  Everyone who goes into education - teachers or entrepreneurs - cares about kids.  We might not always have the same understanding of the HOW, but we all agree on our ultimate goal: better learning outcomes for kids.

Myth #4 - Teachers don't respond to your requests for beta testing and feedback because they don't care and aren't interested in educational technology.

Reality - We receive dozens of shotgun requests without personal connection.  The signal-to-noise ratio is LOW!  We have professionally-established priorities for meeting our kids' needs, and those often don't match the requests that are thrown at us.

(An audience member also tweeted a myth that we added: Myth #5 - Schools want edtech materials that will "do it all."  We want silver bullet solutions!  The reality is that we DON'T want silver bullets.  I'd prefer a variety of small products that do one thing excellently than one big product that attempts to do everything but really doesn't succeed in any of them.  BUT we don't want dozens of logins!  As another tweeter said: "FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY please implement SSO in your product!")


So what do we DO?

We Build Relationships.  Personal relationships based on mutual professional respect and human connection.  I love to tell the story of how I met Dion Lim, one of my co-panelists.  At SXSWedu last year, several startup entrepreneurs approached me - business card already in hand - to tell me about their product and ask me to beta test.  This is a sharp turn-off.  How do they even know whether their product has any relevance to my classroom needs?  Dion, however, wanted to ask me about a comment I had made in the session we had just been in, and to better understand my needs in my particular classroom.  I didn't even know until several minutes into our classroom that Dion is a startup CEO.

This highlights the importance of relational  interactions rather than transactional interactions.  I don't have time to commit to starting a formal consulting relationship where I'm paid to give feedback, nor to I care to spend hours and hours of time giving feedback on products that have little or no relevance to my classroom.

However, I'll walk through fire to help a friend.  And, through professional conversations and shared learning, Dion Lim and Jay Goyal are my friends.

So how do you make these friends?

- Go into your interactions with teachers as a fellow learner.  Drop in on education twitter chats, and engage in those conversations as a fellow learner.  Ask questions - and NOT question for which your product is the answer. (#sessionbomb) Ask questions about what happens in the classroom, about the organization of learning activities, or about different learning goals.  Take the time to get to know teachers - even in these crowded twitter chats, you will learn so much about education and the state of the classroom, and you will meet and get to know teachers who can be friends and colleagues.

- Once you get to know them, let your teacher colleagues be your advocates.  Support them in fleshing out use-cases, hit the deck with tech support when they're enacting live in their classrooms, and they will be your best advocates!  Their colleagues are far more likely to adopt when this teacher promotes the product than if the principal pushes it down or if you send a shotgun of emails.


And teachers have their role to play in building this community, too!

Teachers: Just like we support our students, parents, and colleagues in improving all of our learning, we need to be active in supporting the growth of this important community as well.  Educational technology isn't going away, and we can't create the tools that will rocket our students' learning ourselves. (Well... Andrew Stillman can...)

- Be willing to give negative feedback.  If you get an impersonal shot-gun email, send some quick feedback that that email did not meet the sender's goal of finding a new teacher colleague and advocate.  Encourage them to reach out more positively and relational-ly.

- Be willing to ask clarifying questions when giving feedback.  If they ask "What did you like?" help narrow that question down... "What worked well towards some of your specific learning goals for your students?"  "What were the smooth parts of the user interface vs the parts where you/students weren't sure what to do next?"  Professionally, we know how to get AND give feedback.  Use this professional expertise to support this community.

- Be ready in environments where you know you will have short impromptu interactions with entrepreneurs.  SXSWedu and other conferences are perfect examples.  Keep a few "pain points" and anecdotes in your pocket to share when asked, so when you're just thinking of the last awesome session, you'll still be able to give a nugget of support to the asker.


The EdTech entrepreneur/educator community is incredibly important to me, and should be important to any educator who knows that technology genuinely has the ability to dramatically improve learning outcomes for kids.  Collaboration, global connection, personalization, student-driven content creation... All of these things are afforded by technology, AND we know that children and all people need human connection, social/emotional support, and plenty of offline learning too.  We need to work together to keep aligning goals within the community and supporting positive relationships.

Our ultimate goals is excellent learning outcomes for all kids.  Let's do this.  Together.


  1. The last part of this post (teacher's roles) is an incredibly important part of the process. And, in my experience, the part teachers are least likely to take on in their lives. "If we could get teachers to pause and reflect, then..." has been my cry for a few years now. They are always "so busy." I'm hoping we can encourage teachers to be willing to share, interact, and collaborate with others. And others are fellow teachers, administrators, and now, edupreneurs (trying to embrace that word after SXSW). Great post.

  2. I agree, Chris! Us teachers have to recognize and act on our responsibilities in this too! We are indeed "so busy," and I go back to our actions as teachers again... We take the time in our classrooms to have our students reflect and make plans for the future. We *KNOW* our kids need it for best learning and growth. We need to take the time professionally to also reflect and make plans. We need it too!

    Also, at least edupreneur is better than teacherpreneur. I hate portmanteaus!

  3. Amazing post. I am blessed to have a passionate Instructional Technology Coach that choose to share this with me. As a member of EdTech Entrepreneur company this is very eye-opening. I can not sum it up any better than my friend - "very candid, balanced, and well written." It was impeccable timing as we had just experienced what you described with my product. I plan to reference and share often. Thank you!

  4. Thank you, Jason. :-) Good luck with your company!