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Technology

The Secret To Building Great Edtech Products? Teachers.

The gap between Silicon Valley and real, live classrooms is finally narrowing.

[Photo: Flickr user Martin Cathrae]

Dave Cho, a South Korean elementary school teacher, never intended to become a startup CEO. "I’m an educator before an entrepreneur," he says. "I miss my students."

But for the last several years he has been focused on Classting, the classroom-based social platform he launched in 2012. "I used social network services like Facebook and Twitter in my classroom, but it was very difficult because of privacy issues," he says, calling from his office in Seoul late one evening. "I decided to make a more fun educational service, and a more safe service to communicate in the classroom."

His idea has become a runaway hit in South Korean schools, where students and teachers now discuss assignments via the Classting app, which combines practical features like document integration with kid-friendly touches like animal "stickers." As of June 2015, Classting had won 1.7 million student and teacher users spread across more than 12,000 schools.

Now Cho is taking Classting to the U.S., in addition to China, Japan, and Taiwan. Here, he’ll face stiff competition from established classroom management and messaging tools like ClassDojo and Remind. He’ll also join the growing ranks of educators getting involved in education technology—a few as startup founders, and many more as engaged early adopters, ready and willing to provide critical feedback.

Technologists and educators used to operate in separate spheres, resulting in frequent classroom-level frustrations. While software developers were hard at work refining the adaptive algorithms behind their curriculum apps, teachers were hard at work helping two dozen eight-year-olds reset their forgotten usernames and passwords. When the two groups did come together, in hopes of solving those practical challenges, cultural differences would often stand in the way of progress. But recent developments suggest that teachers are finding their voice, and that technologists are increasingly eager to listen.

"It seems to me that programs are becoming more intuitive to teachers than they used to be," says Marlena Hebern, a veteran educator based in Mariposa, Calif. She attributes the shifting dynamic to the competitive landscape: "There are a lot of companies vying for our attention." As a result, "they’re listening more to what teachers want."

Indeed, the edtech market has exploded over the last two years. In 2010, venture capital firms invested $414 million in education companies, according to CB Insights. By 2014, that total had quadrupled to $1.6 billion, spread across over 200 deals.

Even a dominant company like Google, which has built a significant education business through Chromebook sales and Google Classroom, is taking pains to design alongside its classroom users. Hebern, for example, found the text size of a particular Google Classroom interface too small for her students to read. She raised the issue on a message board, and "the next thing I noticed they had changed it," she says.

Educator Anderson Harp has observed a similar shift. He recently left the classroom in order to oversee technology initiatives at the Browning School, an elite private school in Manhattan. "I have contributed feedback, and I know other teachers have," he says. Though he still sees many products focused on multiple choice "drill and kill" or distracting bells and whistles—"I’ve seen some things get better."

Efforts on the part of nonprofit leaders within the education community have also had an impact. Phyllis Lockett, founder and CEO of Chicago-based LEAP Innovations, left the charter school sector in order to, as she puts it, more efficiently "link up supply and demand."

"Technology companies, honestly, are sometimes developing in a vacuum, too far away from what students and teachers need in the classroom," Lockett says. "We are bringing educators and tech companies together to collaborate. We’re also training educators on how to personalize learning."

In the LEAP model, teachers are the judge of which apps are worthy of their students. After participating in a professional development program alongside their principal and technology specialist, teachers interview a set of edtech companies that have been vetted by a national panel of experts. The companies that survive their turn in the hot seat win an opportunity to test their software during the school year.

"The teachers get to choose what they want to pilot," Lockett says. "They’re in the middle of that experiment; they have to be." As for the companies: "Many are hungry for that feedback and innovation."

It doesn’t hurt that, in parallel, investors are rewarding companies with strong school ties. "Some of the most promising, exciting companies have a teacher on the founding team—that's a signal to us for sure," says Stacey Childress, CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund. She nods to a few—Clever, Motion Math, Schoolzilla. Teachers' understanding of school-based workflows, among other factors, she says, is an "incredible advantage."

In July, Childress announced NewSchools Ignite, an accelerator program designed to encourage aspiring education entrepreneurs to build technologies for often-ignored areas of need. As much as $1.5 million in funding will be distributed to the first cohort focused on science, via $50,000 to $150,000 philanthropic grants.

"Even with the real explosion over the last few years in innovation and capital going to edtech, there’s still some gaps in market segments where we’re not seeing vibrancy," Childress says. "The call that goes out to the entrepreneurs takes the voice of teachers from classrooms and turns it into a language that they can hopefully understand." Startups that make the cut will have access to the fund’s long list of school contacts.

There's still room for improvement, however, despite these signs of progress. Education, says Matt Candler, founder and CEO of 4.0 Schools, needs to find a way to embrace change without abdicating its responsibility to families. "For educators, you have the world on your shoulders; these kids’ lives are at stake," he says. "There’s a huge aversion to taking risks."

The workshops that his team at 4.0 runs are designed to foster a spirit of hospitality, in the hopes of sending the message to educators that their ideas are welcome, no matter how zany. "It takes a lot of sustained hospitality to make a space where you can explain the trouble you’re having and get out into the open the things that you want to see solved," he says. "Teachers and parents and even students are so hesitant to talk about their dreams for schools because of this pressure to not screw up"—a far cry from Silicon Valley’s "fail fast" ethos.

Once upon a time, California-based Hebern might have been one of those teachers. Now, in part due to connections she's made through EdCamp, a loosely affiliated network of "unconferences" for educators, she feels confident evaluating new classroom technologies and recommending the best ones to her peers. She's the founder of EdCamp Yosemite, and has even started a website where she reports on her favorite resources and lesson ideas. Whatever technology emerges next, she and her fellow teachers will be ready for it: "We're professionals, and we can improve our practice with each other."