educationtechnologyinsights

Embrace or Distance from EdTech Startups

By Sharyne Miller, Associate Vice Chancellor of Technology and CIO, University of North Carolina, Wilmington

Sharyne Miller, Associate Vice Chancellor of Technology and CIO, University of North Carolina, Wilmington

In most industries, the old becomes new and traditional seasons blur, even within higher education, requiring consistent focus to manage challenges 365 days a year. CIOs often feel as though they are spinning many plates, hoping none of them will fall and break. With that mindset, when is a good time to take a risk rather than taking the safe path? The answer: when innovation is a necessity. Now more than ever, technology provides a competitive advantage and has elevated the CIO into an innovator, business strategist and lobbyist within the college or university.

With budgets tightening and the ongoing focus on academic achievement, retention and enrollment growth, there is constant pressure on the technology team to increase services and decrease costs. CIOs have to get creative at times to break the status quo, looking beyond their comfort zones for new solutions in addition to reengineering processes and disrupting normalcy. The old adage still exists: IT is a delicate balance of people, processes and technology, and changing one element can have significant effects, producing either positive or catastrophic results. Many CIOs are now looking towards EdTech startups for answers.

"EdTech startups approach the market with a clean vision for the future, but sometimes are not aware of the baggage of their predecessors, legacy applications and existing systems"

One growing trend is the increasing number of EdTech startup companies that find their way on campus through admissions, alumni, deans and, yes, IT. Their stories and promises are often incredible as they look to solve today’s problems, but they often ignore the reality of what is required to assimilate their vision into an academic environment and campus culture. EdTech startups approach the market with a clean vision for the future, but sometimes are not aware of the baggage of their predecessors, legacy applications and existing systems. Projects like driving student success and student experiences require a large volume of data and growing partnerships, on and off campus.

Educause’s 2017 Annual Conference spotlighted “Startup Alley,” which included approximately 30 of the best and brightest EdTech startups who must be under five years old, earn less than one million in revenue, and have under 50 employees. The spotlight provided them with a small voice compared to their legacy goliaths, who had 2,000-square-feet of professionally cultivated trade floor spaces hosted by a myriad of talent. Each startup had a small booth with one or two individuals, usually including the founder, pitching their solution to address a need that other giants either ignored or cannot address. Without a doubt, the discussions were refreshing and insightful, requiring a seasoned IT professional to ferret out those who have the capacity to fill a needed gap and forge a path to the future. Whether IT selects a legacy partner or an EdTech startup, the technology team is essentially collaborating on a solution rather than purchasing one, and that can be viewed as a cultural positive or negative.

A CIO needs to remember that EdTech startups are just that, a germ of an idea that has received funding and most likely partnered with a college or two to build out their vision in lockstep with those schools. These seed schools chose to accept the risk as they were able to mold the direction of the solution and probably paid little-to-nothing for the partnership. EdTech startups are attractive, especially when you have been slogging through a challenge with few solutions that feel promising. These startups look for opportunities to disrupt the norm. They are more nimble and open-minded in addressing the needs at hand since they are still in the process of refining and building their solutions. Academic institutions often have the opportunity to influence product development to address specific school needs. On the downside, there are risks, such as the startup’s financial stability, ever-changing roadmaps and few references, which limits opportunities to validate a company and its solution. What is often ignored is the reality that many colleges and universities do not have the luxury to start with a clean piece of paper. They rely on legacy applications and technologies that are the lifeblood of the school, regardless of how a user digests the information. The fact that IT departments are successful, making things seem easy, reflects a balance between art and science, but opens the doors to suggestions and criticism.

Flexibility, adaptability and agility are attributes not commonly associated with campus IT due to the necessary dedication of time to administrative computing and network infrastructure. Couple these expectations with the high rate at which technology changes and the result is great pressure on a university’s infrastructure, personnel and budget. EdTech startups challenge CIOs to intertwine new innovative technology with the traditional and legacy systems that have long defined our campuses. EdTech startups can provide technology opportunities to move our institutions forward and serve as pivot points to attract and engage our students, faculty and staff in ways we have previously not imagined.

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