Plenty of ed-tech companies consult with teachers, some employ teachers on their staff to shape their offerings, yet there is a sense that much of ed-tech starts life outside of the classroom. Although this can result in valuable innovations there is a whole field of teachers out there who, every day, experience the challenges the solving of which could be the next ed-tech innovation.
Technology in schools has something of a history of being driven by the tech. Most classrooms in the UK are decked out with an interactive whiteboard, a technology that was conceptualised as a shiny way of doing what we were doing already rather than being created as a solution to a specific problem faced by teachers and learners. We have been experimenting with educational innovations driven by technology for a long time, but the increasing discourse in education circles is 'learning first, technology second'.
In such an environment it makes sense that we should be looking to teachers and learners to find the problems they are facing, and only then developing ed-tech to solve these.
Making this a reality is harder to do, but recently the 'ed-invent' initiative saw an attempt to explore such a pipeline for ed tech ideas. This programme of events organised by OCR and mediataylor saw teachers recruited in regional clusters to share the challenges and problems they face in their classrooms, and their ideas for solving them with genuinely useful ed tech initiatives. After some work developing the ideas into pitches, judges chose those teachers with the most potential to progress to the national event, which took the form of a weekend long 'startup competition'. Finalists worked with mentors from the ed tech industry, including entrepreneurs, marketers, and technologists to develop their idea for a pitching competition on the Sunday.
I've been to such competitions before, but this one was notable in that all those taking part were working in schools and developing ideas that had arisen from that direct experience. Authenticity here wasn't a challenge, but other things were given the lack of experience and knowledge of both business models and what was technically possible. To address this the organisers brought in a large number of mentors from across the sector who freely gave their time and advice. The ideas and projects stayed firmly in control of the educators who had conceived them, choosing where and how far to implement this advice without compromising the applications for schools.
Over the course of the weekend ideas were noticeably refined, with a number of the teams honing their initial propositions considerably into focused pitches that would fit a particular market place and be achievable in a business context.
One point of interest during these discussions was how to structure the ideas from solutions to practice based problems to products and services that could scale. A technology focus often seems to bring with it an assumption that the creation of a profit making company was the solution. As a default position this is understandable, technology may be great for scaling but it often involves significant investment in time, infrastructure and distribution. This environment involves other such companies, and as a cog within a wider system the creation of another such business makes immediate sense.
There is another side to this, an assumption that everything that is 'not school' is a commercial operation. I talked with a number of teams whose offerings began to look more like campaigns or charities rather than profit making businesses. When exploring the development of ideas from the education sector this assumption is one to watch, as it privileges certain types of ventures potentially at the expense of others that might address problems and challenges more appropriately. Financial sustainability and generation of profit are different, and these structures suit the implementation of different ideas.
There is another inherent challenge in generating business ideas from educational practitioners; the very fact that as professional teachers they are already heavily committed to what they do. Event organiser Richard Taylor kicked off proceedings by emphasising that this was not an attempt to tempt teachers out of school and into the world of ed-tech business. He situated ed-invent as an opportunity to generate ideas from practitioners, but more importantly to develop the entrepreneurship of teachers, to create change agents who could bring the ethos and values of risk taking and developing innovative ideas into schools and in front of young people.
He also aims to use events like this to change the conversation between the ed-tech sector, schools and investors, and bring the focus to new innovations that may only emerge from the practice of educators.
The difficulty is that we are lacking pipelines for these kinds of ideas to succeed without sucking teachers out of school with them. At the end of the competition we were left with some strong ideas for ed-tech products and campaigns, but to make the ideas in themselves a success would realistically require the time and attention of the kind of bright, enthusiastic and dynamic people that pitched the ideas. Without taking these great people away from working directly with young people it is hard to see where their ideas could go.
These teachers may have been experiencing challenges, but not so greatly that they wanted to leave teaching.
Commercial success for these ideas might be a challenge, but that is not to say that such events in themselves are not very successful. They bring cohorts of teachers into contact with entrepreneurs and businesses, creating links between two areas that are often poles apart. Giving entrepreneurs access to the thinking of teachers might help them refine their ideas, but also giving teachers access to entrepreneurs can only start conversations and collaborations that will ultimately benefit students.
They also act as testbeds or labs, raising key questions about pipelines for ideas from the real challenges teachers and learners face. Such questions will require innovative action on a more systemic level.
Events like ed-invent highlight the benefits and the challenges of developing ed-tech ideas from the lived experience of teachers. The conversation they start for both the education and ed-tech sectors is how to create structures for constructive collaboration towards addressing challenges in teaching and learning.