EdTech companies that succeed usually do so for several reasons. First of all, they study the market to see what is already out there. Second, they reach out to educators, students and officials to understand whether a potential solution would be of interest and could be implemented. Third, they collaborate and run trials with their prospective users to tailor their products to the specific learning conditions. Fourth, they adapt to be able to market.
Learning environments vary significantly across physical locations, socioeconomic contexts and cultures. These environments transform slower than new technological features become available, which means that the role of technology is to complement the educational process and not vice versa. Therefore, successful EdTech startups should adjust their products in order to innovate and transform learning.
This text will focus on the role of product trials in the EdTech adoption process.
First pilot and then market
EdTech developers use a wide array of programming and technology solutions in their products. They use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to personalize teaching experiences; virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AG) to facilitate distant and immersed practice-oriented learning for specialists and students in various fields; and blockchain to ease administration, application processing and more.
The modern state of technological progress opens almost a limitless potential for the use of technology in learning. However, a good EdTech product is not simply a combination of technical innovations but is also a platform that is aimed at solving particular learning needs. You could land a shuttle on a highway, but why would you?
Understanding this problem, some EdTech companies and technology adopters launched a series of initiatives that allow both sides to test and evaluate pilot educational products tailored to specific learning environments and needs.
For example, the EdTech Pilot Framework initiative is a collaborative platform that combines general guidelines and resources for developing, testing and implementing technology in education. Another similar initiative, Learning Assembly Piloting Toolkit, is a network of seven NGOs that collaborates closely with schools and educational institutions across the US to introduce and test education technology in classrooms.
Piloting is an efficient way of system bug-fixing and validating product functionality and its applications in real-time teaching and learning conditions. EdTech Pilot Framework and Learning Assembly Piloting Toolkit are among the initiatives that facilitate such testing procedures.
Collaboration between developers, educators and learners is critical
EdTech collaborative initiatives start with identifying educators’ needs in order to come up with a list of technological solutions that can address these needs. Further, both users and developers create a roadmap where all the general features, metrics and goals are discussed to avoid misconceptions on both sides.
When the pilot is introduced into the educational setting, developers provide guided training for teachers, students and administrators to make sure they understand how to properly use the product. Then, both educators and developers collect data on the pilot’s performance to evaluate its efficiency, introduce necessary adjustments and make informed decisions on the final product’s implementation.
As a result, the developers get a product that could be further implemented in similar educational settings, while the educators get a solution tailored to their teaching and learning requirements.
Besides, such initiatives as EdTech Marketplace Today collect voices from stakeholders in the field of education technology that provide educators and developers with ongoing insights on the most common issues associated with technology adoption in classrooms and other learning environments. These include social and economic inequality, technological transparency, distant learning and other issues.
Early-stage trials may help improve EdTech products
Carnegie Learning ran a pilot trial of their MATHia software at South Middle School and Brockton High School for 20 weeks during October 2018 and March 2019. The main idea was to test a blended learning approach — a combination of online and offline educational activities.
The pilot was facilitated in cooperation with LearnLaunch — an education innovation hub, which provided blended learning instruction coaches and financial support to Brockton High and South Middle schools to implement the pilot.
As a result of this pilot, school teachers became familiar with the blended learning techniques available for the middle- and high school math classes, the students learnt the online tools that can facilitate their math learning, and Carnegie Learning received valuable data that allowed them to improve their EdTech software.
The pilot showed that MATHia software was more efficient for middle school students. It also allowed Carnegie Learning to scale up the product and implement it in two more middle schools after the trial, while the high school implementation was postponed.
Pilot projects drive social change, too
Apart from business impact, one of the main benefits of pilot projects is their potential in creating positive social change. During the pilot period, EdTech developers not simply test their products but also create conditions for development of educators and students, who can learn digital and communicative skills and also gain additional knowledge in specific subjects.
A good example is a pilot facilitated by FamilyBookform — an online tool that allows collecting family stories, photos and uploading text and voice-to-text information. As a result, users can automatically assemble content into digital books that can be downloaded as PDFs or purchased as hard copies.
During this pilot, six students from different schools from Ohio, Texas and California had one year to complete the family heritage project as a part of their school curriculum. The students were given access to Athena’s online learning environment, which introduced them to family heritage studies and Bookform tutorials for the period of 9 weeks to set-up their class projects.
In addition to its business needs, the project focused on facilitating social-emotional learning and communication skills (teaching the students how to interview, create questionnaires, listen and gather information) and allowed the students to master the creative and editing process by navigating templates as well as uploading and systematizing content. The pilot also facilitated relationship development skills as it involved ongoing coordination with relatives, classmates and the instructor.
This way, the Bookform pilot project integrated learning aspects (editing skills, digital literacy, relationship development) as a part of the trial process, which is an example of how collaboration between EdTech developers, educators and students can benefit all parties involved and lead to positive social consequences.
Successful pilot does not automatically lead to successful business
Piloting is aimed at creating a useful and marketable product. If the pilot fails, there is nothing to market. However, good pilot results do not automatically guarantee product success as further marketing and business strategy shortcomings may sink the whole project.
For example, InBloom was intended as an open source platform that would improve learning by providing better data to teachers and administrators. The product was supposed to let users store data from different systems in one place but stumbled upon the prolonged data privacy debates in education and legislation. Eventually, the InBloom team failed to adapt to the slower pace at which education and policy evolved and became a victim of its own startup mentality.
Another example is SharpScholar — a product that at its peak had 12 professors on board and was used by 5,000 students across five major universities in Canada. However, the product required multiple layers of approval from different stakeholders (teachers, students, university administration, and the government), which made the selling process rather complicated. As a result, the teachers switched to other products that required less dependence on third parties.
Lastly, TutorSpree was a platform that connected tutors and students who required mentorship in various subjects. The platform was successful in achieving this goal, but after the tutors and students were connected, they mostly chose to work with each other directly. As a result, the platform was closed after two years of its existence.
Conclusion: Adapt to be adopted
Education is a multiparty process and any technological solution aimed to enhance learning has to account for that. Piloting and early-stage collaboration with educators, students and other stakeholders allow enhancing EdTech products and adjusting them to specific learning conditions to facilitate further technology adoption.
This does not mean that piloting is a universal cure and a must for everyone. However, as the MATHia example showed, there might potentially be several slightly distinct products based on the same solution where a developer initially sees only one. The MATHia trial showed that it was better suited for middle schools, but making changes to the original platform based on the pilot study could result in having an additional separate product aimed at high schools.
Successful pilot projects are also good sources of added value — they allow marketing a technological solution with a bundle of specific social and educational outcomes and applications that a customer gets as an end product. This, in turn, may increase the chances of further adoption of the specific EdTech product.
However, piloting is just an initial step in the technology adoption. As the InBloom, SharpScholar and TutorSpree examples show, having a good product does not mean that the business will succeed. To be successful, EdTech developers must be flexible and adaptive to account for policy, legislation, monetization issues, cultural environments, existing social relationships and much more.