hese days, it’s hard not to overhear a conversation about a new app on the market or software product development. Some creations are superfluous—do people really need another photo-sharing app? But the burgeoning world of technical tools is solving real, important problems in society, from healthcare to environmental preservation to education. Educational technology, or edtech, is one such industry that is receiving increasing attention and investment, and entrepreneurial individuals are taking note of this. TechCrunch is even touting edtech as “2017’s big, untapped and safe investor opportunity” and forecasts its worth to be $252 billion by 2020.
One challenge facing educational start-ups is that many technologists don’t have real world teaching experience or have been out of the school system for so long that they’re out of touch with the classroom experience. And teachers who may have dynamic ideas for software or apps in education don’t have the technical know-how, access to investment, or experience starting a company from scratch.
Technologists need to seek out the engagement of the teaching community. Teachers must inform the product development and implementation processes in the classroom in order for edtech tools to achieve their promise. Teachers have the best insights and guidance to offer edtech companies as they understand the learning process and subtleties that may not be obvious to people who haven’t been in their position of running a classroom and designing curriculum.
In special cases, teachers have taken the development of tech solutions for classrooms into their own hands. Several edtech startups have been founded by teachers who became inspired with an idea for how to improve the education industry. These new ventures might have started as a way for students to better study and prepare for tests, or were launched to offer a more concise grading and learning tracking system.
Here are three such examples of such companies with a teacher as a founder or co-founder:
Edtech Start-Ups Founded by Teachers
No Red Ink
Entrepreneur Jeff Scheur taught high school English for eight years. Many teachers struggle with a broken feedback loop with their students when grading essays, and rather than just sitting back and complaining about the problem, Jeff founded No Red Ink in 2012.
“Like so many educators, I graded well over 15,000 papers, wondering how I could develop more efficient systems to help my students quickly address their misconceptions,” he writes on the company’s website.
No Red Ink helps thousands of students develop their writing skills via fun and engaging exercises on the platform. Students can rearrange sentences, edit and mark-up text, organise ideas into outlines, and manipulate multi-paragraph passages.
It’s not one-size-fits-all thinking, either—the platform is adapted to each student’s needs and pace to make a personalised experience. Teachers can use color-coded heat maps to see the progress of each and every student.
Now, one in three US school districts uses the platform. Jeff has been able to solve the problem he faced as an educator and feels that he is “empowering students to become skilled, creative, and confident writers.”
Teachers Pay Teachers
Teachers Pay Teachers is an online community for educators to share their work, insights, and educational resources with one another. Rachel Bragg, an English teacher at a bilingual international school in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, finds it to be extremely helpful in her work. “I find the majority of my resources on my own. The school doesn’t provide text books in English at the moment, so before I would spend hours and hours trying to find the perfect resource. Now, I can alter the filter to free and still find thousands of things. It’s amazing.”
It’s no wonder the platform suits Rachel and millions of other teachers’ needs: it was founded by Paul Edelman, a New York City public school teacher. Edelman developed Teachers Pay Teachers after realising that there was phenomenal, untapped potential in the work that teachers create for every lesson on a daily basis.
According to their website, when Edelman first started working at a Brooklyn middle school after graduate school, “he quickly realised that his students did the best when he incorporated ideas from other educators. At the time, he only had access to the teachers in his school. He created Teachers Pay Teachers to provide a solution.”
Now, teachers all over the world (like Rachel) are using the platform, and the needs of students everywhere are being met.
“It’s not until you’re in the classroom until you realise and really understand the pain points,” says Benjamin Levy. While teaching eighth graders in California, he realised the potential beneficial outcomes if educational videos could be more interactive.
He created PlayPosit, which lets teachers add questions to online videos. The site is backed by AT&T and Stanford’s Startx, and now has over two million users.
If you’re an educator looking for ways to become more involved in creating new tools for learning in the digital age, here are several recommendations to get the ball rolling.
How to Get Involved in Edtech Development
1. Build your product development and entrepreneurial skills.
Don’t be intimidated by lack of technical skills or knowledge; it’s never too late to develop such skills if you have the passion and motivation to learn them.
General Assembly is one such resource that can be useful if you desire to become proficient in coding, UX design, and other skills needed to develop edtech tools. The company has campuses all over the world and offers short-term and longer-term courses in the various disciplines. Courses can be pricey, but the company also offers scholarships to underrepresented groups.
Even having a basic understanding of these disciplines can allow you to more easily communicate and collaborate with developers and designers that you may work with to create such tools.
2. Look for advisory positions at edtech companies.
While some teachers create apps and tools on the side, juggling both careers can be challenging. However, teachers don’t need to leave academia or their position as teachers to impact edtech development. Rather than creating and founding a company, teachers can become advisors to existing companies.
Companies will benefit in the long-run. According to a report titled “The Top 20 Reasons Start-Ups Fail,” written by CB Insights, a venture capital research firm and database, “ignoring users is a tried and true way to fail. Tunnel vision and not gathering user feedback are fatal flaws for most startups.”
Bragg uses several tools in her classroom, such as Pinterest, Class Dojo, and Teachers Pay Teachers. But she has several ideas of her own for what could make her job and the learning process a lot more efficient: “It would be awesome to have an app that finds educational videos from multiple resources by grade and age level,” she says. “A general Youtube search takes me a while to filter through what’s appropriate and engaging based on my students’ English level and age.”
It’s ideas like these that technologists could put to good use. If you’re a teacher, it might be worth reaching out to companies and offering to advise their product ideation or development process. The input is incredibly valuable, not only to the company but to the end users, whether they be teachers or students.
An EdSurge article published in March this year profiled Sarah Rich, a former teacher who became a FUSE RI Fellow with the Highlander Institute after learning about and developing a passion for blended learning.
Subsequently, a reading skills-focused edtech company called Squiggle Park reached out for help with development, and she became the Lead Teacher on their Leadership team.
3. Collaborate with or hire developers to build tools to fit educational needs.
As they are often siloed from the technical product development world, educators and academic administrators often hesitate to explore technological solutions to problems they face, and it can seem intimidating to reach out and co-create solutions.
Christopher Shanti Burkey is an open source developer who created EnterMedia, a media database utilised by universities for storage of video and other digital content used for curriculum and teaching. He was first approached by a department head at South Dakota University to create a media storage database.
After Burkey developed the first product solution, he began receiving similar requests from department heads at various schools, including Harvard and Yale. He realised that the world of academia in general lacked a widespread solution to these archival storage issues, and “the actual storage of faculty media and video in the classroom is just developing.”
Christopher puts it in simple terms: “I think there’s a real fight between the techies and non-techies.” As stated earlier, educators don’t usually have the technical know-how to create systems and tools that will be useful in their industry, and developers don’t have the deep insights and experience needed to create products best adapted to the needs of users in education, whether they be teachers or students.
The point? Increased conversation and collaboration between both worlds will significantly benefit the future of learning.