October 24, 2023 | By Rebecca Griffiths
Scaling evidence-based education technology (edtech) products in the postsecondary market is challenging. Developers need to figure out how to break into classrooms long dominated by commercial publishers – and how to attract funding when investors tend to focus on the much larger and less fragmented K–12 market.
At the Institute of Education Sciences’ ED Games Expo in September, a panel of experts provided insights and practical advice on these challenges based on their experience as entrepreneurs and investors as well as in research and practice. In this blog post, we present some of their key takeaways.
Be clear about who your customers are. In higher education, faculty members are often the target “customers” who select edtech products, while students are the ones who purchase them. Even though instructors don’t pay directly for the products, they are increasingly aware of the financial pressures on students. So cost is still an important factor.
Panelists cautioned that edtech products designed to appeal directly to students face an uphill climb. Because students are often cash-strapped and “age out” of the market quickly, edtech developers need to constantly attract a new base of users.
Delight your core users. A big advantage of higher education is the abundance of innovative faculty members with autonomy to choose instructional tools and resources. A good strategy is to focus on deeply understanding the needs of a core group of, say, 10 early adopters and co-construct your product with them. Then, recognize them as groundbreakers and contributors – for example, by naming them in the product release notes.
Address a high-priority problem. Panelist Meaghan Duff, vice president of programs for the Minerva Project and associate lecturer in history at UMassOnline, shared, “I have specifically looked for products that solve a pain that I have as an adjunct educator.” For example, tools powered by artificial intelligence are appealing because they can allow instructors to personalize a course for 50 students. In general, the key criteria instructors consider are interoperability and ease of implementation, particularly given the growing numbers of part-time adjunct faculty. Edtech developers need to not only collaborate with their target customers early in the development process, but also understand those customers’ priority needs so they can target their pitch.
Figure out what users actually want, even if they don’t know it yet. Working closely with users can also reveal important nuances in how they will use a product and what they need it to do. Duff noted that instructors may say they want products with data dashboards, but what they really want is to have data from all their tech tools integrated into a single dashboard. In other words, edtech developers should ensure data can flow from a product into a platform like a learning management system, and not just build all the displays within the product itself.
Research and evidence matter – but so does word of mouth. Investors have started to value research. According to panelist John Gamba, entrepreneur and director of innovative programs at the University of Pennsylvania, the most important part of a pitch may be in “the footnotes — what is the evidence that you are using to substantiate your value proposition?” Panelist Jason Palmer of New Markets Venture Partners agreed. He shared that the role of evidence has increased significantly over the last 10 years, but warned that customer experience often still matters more. In Palmer’s view, innovation is more important to customers than proven effectiveness in the postsecondary market.
Faculty members may place more value on word of mouth and the experiences of their colleagues when selecting edtech products for their classrooms. They may be most receptive to research around usability and want to know how similar instructors used this product successfully.
Be clear about what it takes to use a product. Panelists stressed the need to acknowledge challenges with implementation and to be clear with target customers about how much change in instructional practice will be needed to fully adopt the product. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s possible. The market around edtech is mature in the postsecondary space, with learning management systems in place for years. Developers can capitalize on this groundwork, but they also cannot minimize the challenges associated with adopting a new edtech product.
Be strategic about the target market segment. Palmer urged entrepreneurs not to focus their early design work too much on elite universities, which represent a relatively small share of the market and have distinctive needs. Instead, investors want to see that edtech products have made headway in universities that enroll large populations of undergraduates. It’s also important to consider that about a third of postsecondary institutions are community colleges with minimal resources for innovation. These colleges are more likely to be late adopters and prefer mature, accessible solutions.
Also be strategic about timing. Developers seeking to launch edtech products targeted to institutions can look for strategic opportunities tied to external funding streams, such as Title III grants, which often lead to major software purchases. Panelist David Yaskin, CEO coach and consultant at Ed Tech Coaching and founder of the successful Starfish advising system, observed that target customers need to have “pain and a budget.” Yaskin also noted that new presidents are often open to new solutions and able to get funding. He advised looking at institutions’ strategic plans to find out where they will direct resources.
Ultimately, edtech developers and entrepreneurs need to dig deep into the pain points and priorities of faculty and institutions. From there, they can direct their pitches to clearly demonstrate alignment between their proposed products, faculty priorities, and institutional strategic goals.
Interested in learning more? The Postsecondary Collaborative promotes dialog between practitioner and edtech developer communities by hosting capacity-building events, like the one featured here, and sharing lessons learned from our institutional partners – bringing the customers and producers together. Stay tuned for more from our panelists in upcoming posts.