Ed-Tech: The market exists; cross-platform compatibility is lacking

A growing number of education technology start-ups, such as Kickboard for Teachers and Eduvant, seek to enable data-driven instruction. But, as detailed in a recent Education Week article, these companies face an uphill battle in the K-12 marketplace, where industry giants like textbook companies and testing providers already own the market.

The problem isn’t just that existing companies have the financial resources to weather slow budget cycles or the sales forces to sway district buyers. Education start-ups also face a barrier common to any tech company trying to break into an established market: The form of entropy commonly known as the “buy IBM” mindset. In a recent Education Gadlfy piece on this syndrome in the education sector, Chris Tessone of the Fordham Institute describes the tendency of risk-averse school districts to purchase and implement reliable, but uninspiring systems and tools. Tessone then argues that it’s critical that districts shake up that mindset.

His specific recommendation for changing the technological status quo focuses on what he calls “the simplest concrete step district leaders can take to foster innovation: … [Giving] principals and teachers more control over the instructional materials budget…[and] holding them responsible for their students’ growth but not dictating which software packages and other materials can be used for core instruction.” This, he concludes, “would allow promising startups to grow by convincing teachers, not bureaucrats, of the usefulness of their products.”

We agree that the current educational purchasing system tends to squelch rather than inspire innovation, and that empowering principals and teachers to make resource allocation decisions is one way to generate needed innovation in the ed sector. But we want to point out two considerations that should be weighed as the education sector moves away from the safety of big, known and uninspiring technologies into the fast developing world of ed-tech.

Education leaders must ensure that they have the plumbing in place to handle a proliferation of powerful new data and content tools.

First, a sizable teacher-buyer market already exists today, meaning savvy ed-tech start-ups already have a lot of room to maneuver when it comes to marketing low or no-cost tools directly to teachers. According to a report released by the National School Supply and Equipment Association teachers spend more than $1.3B per year out of pocket on school supplies–including an average of more than $180 per year out of pocket on instructional materials (including software) alone. With support from parents and parent-teacher associations, the classroom expenditure number rises to over $3.5B per year.

Which brings me to my second consideration: Education leaders must ensure that they have the plumbing in place to handle a proliferation of powerful new data and content tools. Otherwise, they run the risk of investing in new tools and data sets that can’t communicate or connect with one another – a huge miss in terms of leveraging the potential of “Big Data” to transform education. The foundation has begun laying the groundwork with the Ed-Fi data standard, but the sector at large is still a long way from ensuring the cross-platform compatibility to maximize the power of entrepreneurs or data in education.