Can EdTech and Educators Work Together Under the Same Umbrella?

by EdCircuit Staff

Dr. Berger from Mind Rocket Media Group caught up with Thomas Arnett, Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, about the need for more collaboration between EdTech developers and teachers. Arnett talks extensively about the rare success that can occur when two entities decide to work seamlessly together.


Dr. Berger: Well, I’m looking forward to this conversation with Thomas Arnett. Tom, I read your piece in EdSurge. I know you’ve got a case study that you’ve worked on, and the title alone of this Op-ed piece Beyond Build or Buy: The Case for Co-Designing EdTech, is one that caught my attention.

I know that’s the goal of the headline, but you caught me at the headline. (laugh) I want to talk about that Op-ed. I know your work at, The Clayton Christensen Institute and you’re the author of Connecting Ed & Tech; A Case Study on Partnership and Collaboration. Why does it sound like common sense that we would collaborate?

But yet, when I read your piece, and I looked up a case study, it was a light bulb moment, “wait a minute, there are different ways of collaborating.” Garnering teacher feedback for certain things, may appear okay, but there are lots of other solutions that are more complex, and we need to find better ways to integrate and provide feedback into the overall process of development.

Thomas Arnett: I think one of the big insights that came out in the research I was doing came about when talking to Amrah Humphrey, who is at Gooru. She described how Gooru before working with LPS had taken the more common approach for getting feedback at many EdTech companies. After they had come up with a tool, they found some school partners, helped train the partners on how to use the tool, and then solicited feedback to say, “hey, what’s working, and what’s not working?”

They found that that feedback was helpful. Minor tweaks to the software were made, and there were improvements, but they realized they had a fundamental challenge in that they wanted to shift the instructional model. It was not just a matter of taking what teachers are already doing and providing the tool to help them do it more efficiently. They wanted to help teachers change their practices, and it was difficult given they were engineers, and they had already thought of an idea. When they came to the teachers, that core idea had already been created. The core technology had already been designed and built based on their perspective as engineers. The teachers weren’t co-designers in the technology that enables new forms of instructions.

The main take away from the case study that I think was valuable for the field is; if your goal is to provide tools that just facilitate a lot of practices, and procedures that are traditional in many classrooms, feedback, is helpful, but if you really want to help teachers in their practice, you need to co-design the technology together. If you are coming to the feedback with preconceived notions of what the technology is, you won’t get to that level of feedback and insight to make the needed design decisions.

DB: Tom, let’s pull the curtain back on the EdTech industry from the company side of things. I’ve been in these meetings, and I’m sure you’ve experienced them as well; you are sitting with engineers, developers, CEOs of the EdTech companies, and they are saying, “Okay, great, we would love to integrate in the voice, and the experience of educators in a way that’s more thoughtful.”

But often, they are worried. It’s a cautionary tale about how to inform and prepare the educators or that community on what it’s like to build technology. It’s a slippery slope because you bring in 20 teachers, that are going to have lots of fantastic ideas, but they don’t exactly have the experience of what it means from a development standpoint or investment standpoint.

There are many complexities involved. How can we better prepare those that would participate in this collaborative fashion, so that each side has a better understanding of what’s at the table?”

TA: Well, the LPS and Gooru example, makes an important point that you’ve got to recognize upfront that there’s overhead cost to getting to that place where you have a common language.

When LPS and Gooru started working together, they noticed that they had different ideas for what basic terminologies like “platform” or “instruction” meant. It wasn’t until they spent time talking to each other, talking through the product, and talking through their ideas, that they were able to norm on, “Okay, we have a shared vision, we have a shared understanding, we have a shared language for discussing these things.”

But I think it’s important to recognize upfront that it takes time working together. There’s not a quick fix that facilitates collaboration.

DB: Do you see an evolution in the comfort level on both sides of the fence? If we’re on the education side, the practitioner side, we might be thinking about potential technologies for different instructional models that support student’s learning, or perhaps even professional development for teachers. On the other side are we seeing technologies that are saying “oh, my goodness, there’s pot of gold here in education, so let’s shift our marketing decisions.” I think there is a greater intentionality, do you agree?

TA: Yes. I think so. I mean you look at different players, and they ‘re across the spectrum, but I think more and more people are recognizing that there is a better approach than approach just saying, “Oh, yeah, and one, we can do that, and two…”

It may get you in the door, it may get you an initial contract or license, but to have the staying power to remain engaged with the schools, you need more intentionality, more, in-depth collaboration to find what’s going to work well for schools.

DB: Let’s go down the path that is not exactly fun for most parties, and that would be the money or the contracts through states or districts. How does the money affect cooperation or perceived opportunities for collaboration between the EdTech communities and schools, districts and states?

How does that flesh out because there are lots of challenges and red tape around how to collaborate. I think that there are some misnomers around pilots, beta testing, and how that might or might not impact a future contract.

There are a lot of moving parts and pieces. What have you seen through the research that you’ve done? How can people better understand the players in the space to navigate in a way that has great intentions that do not come from a negative space?

TA: I think it is a critical piece that I hope people don’t miss if they read the case study. I believe that it’s easy to look at how they interacted together, and then try and model that from their form of interaction, but foundational to all of that is the business models of Gooru, the business model of LPS and their funding. At the Christensen Institute, one of our big insights from our research is that funding shapes the priorities of an organization.

The type of funding you get, despite all your best intentions, has a heavy-handed influence on what you can or cannot do concerning collaboration, regarding innovations and new types of projects.

So in LPS and Gooru’s case, a real key piece was, LPS, before partnering with Gooru talked to many different EdTech potential partners, and one of the barriers that they kept running into is partners would say, “Oh, yeah, we would love to collaborate. We would love to work with you.” But really, what that meant was the same thing you described earlier, “We’ll tell you why our product can already do 90% of what you are doing. And then get some feedback to do 10% tweaks.”

I think what they realized is, most companies’ financial metrics didn’t fit with doing an in-depth collaboration with the school system because those companies were trying to address a much bigger market and trying to get to that market quickly. A slower more intentional collaboration didn’t fit their priorities.

And so the interesting thing about Gooru is their funding was very different. Their operational funding comes from a technology that they’ve developed and that they licensed to other organizations. They do not depend on getting licenses in the districts or sales to teachers. They do not rely on that kind of revenue to sustain their operation.

So, when they fund projects like their collaborations with LPS, they go out and get grants from philanthropic donors whose funding tends to come with different sets of priorities. Philanthropists are not looking for an investment expecting a 5X or 10X return in two to three years. It is more of, “We are going to give you this money, and we want to see the impact you are having on students.” They recognize you are going to have to solve some tough instructional challenges, and meaty organizational challenges to have an impact.

It was key that the product was funded with philanthropic money that focused on impact and not just on adoption, scale or immediate sales revenue.

I think I am cautious, but I do not want to give the impression that the only way to do it is the way LPS and Gooru way. Or the notion you have to be a non-profit organization as a tech company, and you have to get philanthropy. I think it does lead to some important comments and insights around finding ways to make sure that your revenue streams align with prioritizing the impact on student outcomes. There’s leeway to do the in-depth collaboration experimentation to find out how to have an impact.

DB: Let’s talk in that regard about the freemium model. Some people swear by it while other companies avoid it and believe it to be a slippery slope. I wonder how the freemium model from a lot of these legacy systems has potentially impacted the field in what we’re even accessing from an innovative standpoint. How do you see the freemium model when it comes to negatively or positively affecting collaborative opportunity?

Quote about two organizations coming together into one

TA: Well, I think that is a great question and an interesting question. I have to say candidly, upfront, I do not know that I understand the whole lay of the land of how different organizations have benefitted or not benefitted from the freemium model.

I think some general high-level comments that I think are insightful and cautionary is when you have a freemium model; there is a strong impetus to get lots of adoption because you are expecting X-number of users, but only 5% maybe ten percent of those users sign on for the paid version. It is a numbers game, “We better reach a lot of different users, so hopefully some of them sign on to the paid version and send us back that revenue.”

I think that’s the cautionary tale that emerges from LPS and Gooru is that when you have a financial model that focuses so much on growth and adoption, it can make it hard to prioritize solving the tough problems to improve student outcomes, improve instructional models and instructional practices.

DB: Yes. I have always found the freemium model very interesting. The larger companies or legacy outfits have used it as a way to continue to keep people within their brand. But there’s an impact on the smaller outfits that are trying to bring in innovation and a new way of thinking; they cannot compete in a world where their business won’t survive unless they use the freemium model.

Being cynical of the model is easy. If you attend any conference around the country or the world, and sit down and listen to participants, you will hear the conversation, Well, I’m going to use these free piece for the first three months of this semester.” And they keep layering it. If you extrapolate that out and look at the impact on the industry as a whole, you have to ask, “Is there a way we can this in a better fashion?”

We understand there are costs involved, and I think it’s a big misnomer in education, but there is a long term effect if we are going to keep people thinking that it should be in this bite size sort of free experiences might impact collaboration.

TA: Yes, I agree.

DB: So, tell me this, when you went into writing this case study, Tom, were there pre-conceived notions that were challenging as you went through this process? What was the big surprise to you?

TA: Good question. I think a big surprise I had was, I was skeptical, I think as to whether two separate organizations could do this type of work together.

At the Christensen Institute, the core of our research is guided by theories of innovation that have been developed by Clay Christensen and others at the Harvard Business School, as well as, other places. One of the core ideas of these theories is when you have an innovation that is not good enough yet, and it’s not meeting the performance expectations of what the field hopes and expects, you push performance forward as effectively as possible. You take an integrated approach where you have a single organization that puts all the performance to finding components of the solution under the same roof. The reason behind it is, if you have different performance components being developed at arm’s length, it creates constraints to the degrees of freedom with which you can experiment and figure out what is going to work.

The classic example we often talk about is in the computer industry when IBM developed its first main frames. IBM had to build all the components. They had to build the hard drives, the memory, the processors, and the operating system because they needed the freedom to be able to tweak all the pieces to figure out exactly how they fit together to come up with how the system should work.

Now later on down the line, once those standards fall into place, and you see the core components, and they should work together, then the industry can start to spread out a little bit. You can have different companies or different organizations producing different components. But in the early days when you are trying to push performance, it’s key to have the integrated approach.

I think my skepticism was looking at this and saying, you know, in education, the business models in education are not conducive to having tech development and school operation under one umbrella. States do not give schools money to go and run an R&D tech department, and tech companies do not have the business model to operate fast tech development alongside slow growth, capital intensive school operation.

I think there is a big challenge in bringing two business models together that makes this rarely ever happen. The question I have is, can two organizations come together and create the type of virtual partnership where there is a single virtual organization, even though they’re technically separate? What surprised me, is to see the way Gooru and LPS were able to align their priorities and bring their teams together in an in-depth collaborative way. The teams were not just working at arm’s length where LPS sends an RFP over to Gooru, and Gooru would build something and send it back to LPS. They were working together in an in-depth collaborative way that you do not often see from two separate organizations. It was an interesting surprise.

DB: Yeah, it is very refreshing to read, and I think it helps provide some realism to the challenges. It’s a nice example of where we can see successes and learn; whether it is non-profit like you were saying in some of these different channels, or avenues to drive funding in support of initiatives.

Keep up the great work. You are like a detective. (laugh) It’s fantastic. We look forward to the next contribution and work at the Christensen Institute.

Research Fellow, Education
Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also studies how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems. Additionally, he examines policies and innovations affecting technology access and infrastructure.
Thomas previously worked as an Education Pioneers Fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, where he designed and piloted a blended learning summer school program. He also taught middle school math and experimented with blended-learning models as a Teach For America corps member in the Kansas City Missouri School District. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University. He also earned an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was a William G. McGowan Fellow.

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