Closing the knowledge gap on edtech investments

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Closing the knowledge gap on edtech investments

I attended the ASU+GSV Summit this past week and spent an hour in a session focused on procurement as a root cause challenge that slows effective technology adoption in schools.

The moderator had been part of a Gates-funded study on the issue, and cited three categories of challenges that align to stages in the adoption process:

1. Discovery

  • What tech solutions are out there?
  • What problems do they solve?
  • Who’s using them?

2. Evaluation

  • What features should a buyer prioritize?
  • Where are there trustworthy appraisals of a particular vendor or of a solution?
  • How can we balance speed of decision-making with scale of buy-in?

3. Implementation

  • How will interoperability be managed?
  • Can we pull useful data from the system?

The problem lies in the fact that all these questions are so hard to answer. Why? Because the inefficiency of gathering and evaluating product information drives up costs for buyers and sellers, and takes educators’ limited time away from their core mission of teaching.

Here’s what ASU+GSV Summit is, in its own language: “the Knowledge Economy’s Mecca of conversation and activism devoted to accelerating learning innovation around the world.” Stated in plain terms, it’s a meeting place for edtech businesses (seeking funding) and funders (seeking the next Twitter) to find each other. Educators are also involved. All the pieces are there. I’m not confident that we’re fitting them together right.

Are startups doing an end-run around key customer groups?

Watching the “company presentations”—7-minute rapid-fire pitches by ed tech entrepreneurs seeking partners and funding—offered a glimpse into the “discovery” phase confusion. All of the eager and committed startup CEOs assured the audience that their product aimed to comprehensively treat some nagging problem that, left untreated, poses an existential threat to educational institutions.

In those 420 seconds they name-dropped partners and early clients and while they may have glossed over features, almost all of the presenters exuded a credible passion for helping customers achieve success. The other attendees, bankers and VCs in expensive shoes and stylish blazers, jotted notes.

Notably, the educators seemed to be the overwhelming minority in these sessions, presumably potential clients would consider these info-blasts as “not for them”…but why not? Shouldn’t teachers and administrators want to see what features and services are incubating in the bootstrapped dreams of entrepreneurs? More importantly, at “the Knowledge Economy’s Mecca of conversation” shouldn’t bankers and VCs be intentionally and directly connecting with the educators—the actual purchasers and end-users of the products—to round out an assessment of any investment target?

“Legendary investor” Vinod Khosla delivered some very candid remarks during a Day 3 luncheon session while I picked at the fifth fruit cup of the conference, backing up my suspicions about the possible mismatch. He was dismissive of “education experts”—professors, journalists, investors—and stated that while their advice could be a handy input, they were not as well-suited to truly innovate, to break tradition and make measurable change happen, as outsiders who were willing to question the status quo and let their passion drive them to successfully introduce a new model.

…So who can help close the loop?

Back to the procurement questions. I was attracted to this conversation because it hit close to home as a topic EAB could tackle: it’s a tangible manifestation of inefficiencies in a marketplace, it represents an opportunity to demolish a roadblock that stymies institutions large and small, and it’s likely that best practices exist that can be cheaply implemented to substantially reduce the problem. EAB could potentially serve as a type of clearinghouse for curated opinions about solutions.

Will our members direct our focus there in 2015 or in the future? Stay tuned. In the meantime, please send us your thoughts on the “procurement problem” at perspectives@eab.com.

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