Good Networks Are a Startup Education Company’s Best Friend

Partnerships Manager, Cognitive ToyBox

With many educators being overloaded by emails and calls after the emergence of COVID-19 and the move to fully remote learning, it’s no surprise that some are shying away from vendors providing information on products.

The App Store alone features over 75,000 apps labelled as “educational.” There are tens of thousands more on the Google Play Store, as well as web-based apps for computers.

Competing for eyeballs is an exercise in marketing dollars, and the best products often do not win. Yet utilizing high-quality ed-tech products can make a substantial difference at this time when virtual learning is becoming the norm rather than the exception. One way for ed-tech companies to break through the noise is by leveraging the power of networks.

Here are a few strategies for education companies to make networks work to their advantage:

Tap Into Federally Backed Networks

Edward Metz, the Small Business Innovation Research program manager at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, recently spurred the creation of a number of EdTech Innovation Networks, including the Early Learning Innovation Network, which consists of a group of early childhood researchers, educators and software developers from across the country.

ELIN includes a group of developers and researchers who have created an array of research-backed solutions with awards from SBIR and other programs at the department of education, the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Given the unprecedented needs in this time, we felt it was important that the developers and researchers who have created research-based ed tech through government programs begin working together to find new ways to get the word out that their innovations are ready now, whether for hybrid or fully remote teaching and learning,” Metz told Cognitive ToyBox.

“The hope is that the networks will lead members to find ways to collaborate and maybe even create new models for sustainability during what may likely be a challenging time ahead in the marketplace.”

Turn to Resources Developed by Networks

ELIN’s first event was the Young Child Expo COVID-19 Response in May 2020, in which 11 government-funded education technology developers in the early childhood space presented their work. Nearly 3,000 early childhood educators registered, with 71 percent attending live. The conference garnered a 4.5 out of 5 average score in attendee satisfaction among the 200 attendees who completed a survey.

One attendee shared: “The quality of the products/resources is simply outstanding. I didn’t feel like I was being sold products; rather, that we were being offered entry into a world of high-quality learning experiences.”

Building off this momentum, the group recently released a READY NOW Early Learning Distance Guide to present the research behind each of the products as well as how to access each innovation. Similar to the ELIN, other organizations that have received government awards recently released guides with education technology resources and launched networks as a strategy for dissemination and sustainability.

Look to Funders of Smaller Ed-Tech Companies for Support

“It may seem like ed-tech is thriving, but if you look more closely, only the most well-capitalized ed-tech companies are doing well,” said Sandro Olivieri, founder and president of consulting firm Productive. “Smaller and emerging ed-tech companies have had a hard time breaking in, and based on our survey of 104 ed-tech companies, 70 percent have had to give away or discount their products during this distance learning period.”

Fortunately, funders and foundations are also stepping up to support small and mid-sized ed-tech companies during this challenging time. Olivieri is creating a new organization, Project FoundEd, which will consist of a network of small and mid-sized ed-tech companies working together to raise awareness of the challenges they face.

Funders, including Schmidt Futures and the VELA Education Fund have also launched funding opportunities to support ed tech companies that are addressing COVID-19-related learning loss.

For example, our small but growing ed-tech company, Cognitive ToyBox, has participated in these broader networks and been awarded a Meet the Moment grant from VELA Education Fund.

Through those connections, we have been included in a wider national conversation on how to collect assessment data when teachers can’t meet with our youngest learners in person. This support has helped us to compete with larger companies in the space.

Other ed-tech companies may want to consider the power of networks as they explore ways to support virtual learning this school year.

Image courtesy of Cognitive ToyBox

Co-authored by Nikki Navta, Partnership Manager, and Tammy Kwan, CEO, of Cognitive ToyBox

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