Three Lessons for Edtech Startups: From the 2019 Education Technology and Computational Psychometrics Symposium

By Ada Woo, PhD, Senior Director of Strategy Implementation and Operations, ACTNext

Ada Woo, PhD, Senior Director of Strategy Implementation and Operations, ACTNext

Our team just wrapped up hosting the third annual Education Technology and Computational Psychometrics Symposium (ETCPS) in Iowa City, Iowa in October. The ETCPS is an annual two-day conference focused on the research and practice of edtech. This year, more than 30 groups of researchers and edtech startups presented their work. Among these presentations and product demos, three important lessons on developing impactful edtech products emerged.

Equity is a Central Consideration

Our speakers and pre-conference workshop panel focused on promoting education equity as a paramount theme that the edtech industry must understand. If we are indeed at a moment when many of edtech’s promises of bringing high quality education to all people are primed to be fulfilled, prioritizing equity and understanding the ground truth of our learners’ needs, means, and motivations will be central for not only leading, but realizing the edtech revolution.  

EdSurge CEO Betsy Corcoran cited research saying that teachers in high poverty school districts aren’t asking for edtech solutions in their classrooms, they’re asking for help to meet their students’ basic needs, like clothing, food, and personal hygiene products. How can one expect students to learn, or even think about learning, when their basic needs are not being met?To develop products that are impactful, edtech researchers and developers need to consider equity and access for different populations and identify where our users are starting from. It is our job as edtech professionals to consider these factors from day one and build in solutions as we create the products. Equity should not be an afterthought or something to be retrofitted after a prototype has been developed.

"There are many encouraging advances in edtech that deserve our careful attention, as do the issues that inevitably rise alongside opportunity"

Getting Learners Engaged

Many of our presenters spoke about personalizing the learning pathways of each individual with the help of cutting-edge technology. To develop products and build solutions that people will use, we can involve teachers and students early in the design process. This helps us understand our learners, meet our learners where they are, and get them engaged. BenchPrep CEO Ashish Rangnekar, who leads a successful edtech startup focused on lifelong learning for adults, described how his company found success by working with busy adult learners and developed products that fit their lifestyle. Our learners come with various constraints. More than likely, their learning environment is not optimal. It is not our job to change these constraints, or pretend that they do not exist. Edtech can help learners learn, despite existing constraints. Ultimately, the goal of developing cool edtech and doing cutting-edge research is to get our products in the hands of the end users who will benefit from them.

Everyone Needs a Good Team

Developing useful and widely used edtech products is a monumental task. The stakes of improving education are too high with stakeholders that are too varied. We cannot rely on the myth of the lone genius. Solving these problems requires smart and dedicated teams of people collaborating and working together in supportive communities.

New Bohemian Collaborative Executive Director Eric Englemann, who runs the Iowa Startup Accelerator, noted the importance and challenges of establishing an edtech ecosystem that nurtures entrepreneurs and an infrastructure that encourages innovation. Innovations are inherently risky;a supportive environment can help lessen the risk.

I am happy to report that edtech is a focus area of economic development in my home state of Iowa. At the conference, Governor Kim Reynolds announcedthat the Iowa Economic Development Authority, along with several key technology and education companies in the state have partnered to build the Iowa EdTech Accelerator to leverage Iowa’s strategic advantages in this area. It is my hope that by building a supportive and robust edtech community, coupled with state-level support, Iowa will be home to many edtech companies that help people learn and achieve lifelong success.

There are many encouraging advances in edtech that deserve our careful attention, as do the issues that inevitably rise alongside opportunity. As edtech professionals, we must collaborate with one another to discuss the strengths and challenges of our craft, with a sharp and unyielding dedication to making products that benefit and assist the end user: the modern learner. I always look forward to the annual ACTNext symposium to learn from colleagues, engage in hearty debate, and unite under a shared cause. I hope you can join us in Iowa City for the next one. In the meantime, keep equity at the forefront of your product design, engage learners in the process, and build your network of supportive collaborators.

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