Is your edtech product the most valuable thing you can offer schools?

Last week I hosted a meeting between several English edtech startups and the senior management team (SMT) from Sydney’s Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS).

For those of you unfamiliar with NBCS, they are one of the most innovative schools I have visited in my twenty years in the business of education (I’ve previously blogged about them elsewhere). They have an inspirational Principal (Stephen Harris), a strong SMT and a distinct educational ethos/culture that is always pushing the boundaries (BYOD, team teaching, gamified, learning etc). Most countries have one or two similar institutions like ESSA Academy in Manchester and Avenues in New York, but they are often dismissed as outliers and subsequently misunderstood by other educators, parents and politicians.

Meet and greet sessions like this often become ‘dog and pony shows’, where startups pitch their products and services, rather then engaging in a genuine dialogue with the very people who should be helping to shape their business.

The standout topic of the meeting came from Stephen Harris’s comment. ‘The way you develop products is probably of more interest and relevance to us as a school, and educationally, than your actual products’. His team went on to point out how their school, like many others, was anti-marketing and never try, buy or even consider edtech products that are ‘pitched’ at them. Instead they rely on recommendations from schools or educators they have met via events like SXSWedu, BETT, WISE and ISTE and social media; primarily Twitter but also a few influential blogs and specialist sites on communities like Pinterest, EduClipper and similar. What they don’t use are, major edu-media sites like TES Connect or those of well-known education companies.

Prior to ed-invent, I spent a year unsuccessfully trying to build a project that based teams with early stage edtech idea in schools. During that year I was actively involved with two major incubators and visited scores more around the world (from San Francisco to Singapore, Sydney and beyond). I only found two I liked; one was an incubator, Imagine K12, and the other a pre-incubator, 4.0 Schools. Since then several new ‘education focused’ incubators have launched, a couple out of big education companies like Pearson and Kaplan and others attracted by a wave of money from investors who think edtech is ‘hot’.

Yet, there is still a gap between idea-building programs like ed-invent and 4.0 Schools, and edtech incubators. Stress testing early stage ideas and teams in schools makes sense for everyone. It improves the filtering process for both incubators and investors but perhaps more importantly builds a direct bridge between the world of work and enterprise and educators, students and developers.

10 weeks away from the ed-invent finals and we are already thinking about the ‘what next’ questions for ed-invent. Have we reached the goals of the joint venture partners, has it made a difference and what needs to change to make it better for students, educators and edtech startups? In all the potential complexity, Stephen’s basic idea about fundamentally altering the relationship between schools, educators, student and edtech startups, may yet be a beacon to the most important opportunity in education, that I have seen.