Buying Technology for Our Schools

by Charles Sosnik

I am hearing some very interesting discussions here at the FETC conference in Orlando. I just attended a panel discussion called Looking into the Future to Purchase the Right Technology. The panelist included Graham Forman, Managing Director and Founder of Edovate Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in early stage and growth stage companies that are innovating education. Also on the panel were Sara Kloek, the Director of Education Policy, Programs, and Student Privacy at the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) and former Senior Privacy and Technology Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education, and Tony Martinez, the Vice President of Cyber Security Services and CTO of MGT Consulting, a nationwide professional services firm that delivers a diverse range of capabilities to public sector organizations and nonprofit groups.

The buying of technology for our schools is going through a maturation process. Plenty of districts have been burned by purchasing a lot of what was “cool” or trendy in the moment, and ended up with devices that didn’t deliver results. So, what do we need to know now? We have infinitely more choices to evaluate. By some estimates, there are 100,000 education startups underway. Many are garage or kitchen table startups that you’ll never hear about, but many will find their way to funding thanks to Graham Forman and his ilk, and you’ll be evaluating them at some point for your school or district.

Currently, we need to be looking through a lens of privacy and compliance. At this point in time, that’s a tough nut to crack. There is no unified system – every state and many districts have their own requirements. It’s a nightmare for new companies and an equal nightmare for the people that buy the tech. It’s such a hurdle, in fact, that it can bankrupt an early stage company trying to bring a product to market.

The biggest development in the future of buying EdTech is that teachers are getting involved in the R&D – companies are involving teachers in the development of products and then making the products available to teachers for adoption – virtually skipping the traditional model of developing EdTech to appeal directly to the district or state buyer. And while the freemium model is nothing new, developing products according to the educator’s needs instead of developing in a vacuum and hoping that it sells is a relatively new development.

I remember talking to an EdTech company a couple of years ago that had spent eight million dollars developing a platform. They had virtually no educator input – and no clear plan to market. I don’t remember the name of the company and I’m reasonably certain you don’t either. That eight million dollars is still on a shelf somewhere. I feel sorry for the investor, but sorrier still for the kids that won’t be helped by that enormous investment.

Involving educators in the development of technology products is definitely the way forward. Products that solve a problem in an educational goal. Tech for tech’s sake is so 15 minutes ago. I like technology, but I love my children. If they are not the focus, then the technology doesn’t matter.