For Ed-Tech Companies to Help Students, They Must First Understand Teachers
This post is second in a series about the challenges and opportunities that first-time ed-tech founders face when entering the space.
When my startup first pivoted into ed-tech, I assumed our most important users would be students. After all, the underlying goal of any educational technology ultimately is to improve student outcomes. Surely our efforts would be focused almost entirely on students.
It turned out that wasn’t wrong, of course, but it also wasn’t completely right. As a newcomer to the education space it took me some time to realize that students are only half of the picture.
Products Must Help Teachers to Reach Students
I learned that educational technology lives or dies based on how well it meets the needs of teachers. As an entrepreneur, if you’re not helping teachers, then you have little chance of helping their students.
If you’re reading this post then you’re likely aware of the myriad challenges that today’s teachers face. But it is possible—maybe even common—to know the truth and yet not fully grasp its consequences. All of us have been students but far too few of us have been teachers. That shortage of first-hand experience in the classroom can make it difficult to truly empathize with and thus understand teachers. And that lack of understanding can derail a product.
I’ve been there, myself. In building the very first beta version of StoriumEdu we put all of our focus on students. As an educational game we wanted to make sure it wasn’t just effective but also fun. And we succeeded! In our testing we saw measurable impact and students loved playing it.
But their teachers were a different story. Many found the game too time consuming to learn and set up. Consequently some told us that they couldn’t find time to squeeze it into their already-crowded schedules. We realized that we had created a product for students without properly considering teachers’ needs. Our product didn’t make teachers’ lives easier and didn’t save them time, and thus it wasn’t going to get enough usage to have an impact.
We were lucky to learn this lesson early, when we still had time to fix it. We went back to the drawing board and created the product we have today, which successfully serves the needs of both students and their teachers. But not every startup gets a second chance.
Build Understanding of the Needs of Teachers
That’s why I believe the most important thing an ed-tech newcomer can do is build an understanding of and empathy for teachers.
So how do you do it? Well, the best way to know someone is to walk a mile in their shoes.
That’s right: I’m telling you to get out there and teach.
To be clear, I’m not telling you to go back to school and change careers. What I’m counseling instead is to look for opportunities to teach what you already know to others.
If you’re a founder then you have quite a bit of first-hand knowledge on a range of subjects (product management, engineering, business, etc.). You’ve also probably built up knowledge from your personal interests and hobbies. Give yourself credit: you very likely know things that other people would like to know!
Local universities and community colleges are often looking for guest lecturers or adjunct instructors who come from industry. Professional education groups are another option, and a particularly good one for entrepreneurs who have practical experiences to share. Can’t find any of these in your area? Go to local meetups on relevant subjects and pitch an idea for a talk. Do the same at professional conferences. Investigate distance learning programs that are looking for experts. Start small and be creative.
Entrepreneurs Should Walk the Walk
Myself, I’ve been teaching an eight-week class on product management at Product School, which has a campus in my area. This has given me the opportunity to teach a subject I’m passionate about to young professionals who are trying to break into the field. Since it’s a weekend class it doesn’t consume too much professional time. And even though the setting is of course a long way from, say, a middle school classroom, it has still provided me with an invaluable education of my own.
No matter what path you take it will consume precious time, time that you won’t be spending directly on your startup. You certainly won’t make much money from it, if any. You might well be thinking that you literally can’t afford to follow my advice.
My take is that you can’t afford not to. You can read and listen and observe and research as much as you like, but there is quite simply no substitute for standing in front of an audience of learners who are looking to you for an education. There is no better way to truly understand the pressures teachers deal with on a daily basis. There is no more effective way to build the kind of empathy that could well spell the difference between product success and failure.
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