SXSW EDU starts today in Austin, Texas, and with any education convention comes dozens and dozens of people trying to sell you EdTech products for in classroom learning, student monitoring, or course materials. Here is a list of questions you can ask any salesperson you meet on the Expo floor or in any sessions. They might not all apply for any product you encounter, but there will be at least a few which will ensure you have a deeper conversation about the utility of their product.
1. Can you prove it makes a positive impact on student outcomes?
One of the biggest buzzwords in EdTech right now is “evidence based”. This comes from a very healthy place of wanting new classroom tech to be proven out by science and holding companies to a higher standard than selling something that “feels like” it would work.
But the use of the buzzword can sometimes hide less efficacious technology. Social Emotional Learning is evidence based and proven to be a useful thing for students to learn, but a startup might say that their SEL product is “evidence based” if it has SEL content. The higher and more important standard is whether the product itself has been tested and proven to improve the relevant student metrics, especially if it was tested by a third party.
Those products which meet this high bar, and don’t rely on anecdotal evidence, can be counted on with a much higher degree of certainty.
2. Are you interested in being acquired?
For companies which are already large, this question does not make as much sense, but for the many startups and smaller companies, acquisition is an important question.
In the current EdTech market, it is hard for a company to scale from small startup to large player, and the past year has had a lot of consolidation and acquisitions by both larger companies and private equity. In the post-pandemic market cooldown it’s happening less, but for many EdTech founders, acquisition is an exit strategy. And it can be difficult if your school chooses to go with a smaller company for whatever reason, only to have them acquired by the company you chose not to go with.
Now it is easy to dodge this question or even to lie, and many marketing people just won’t know, but asking the question might give you some insight from the kind of response you get. “Not at this moment” is a very different response from a clear “no”.
3. How financially stable is your company?
Even worse than the acquisition is the implosion. It is not uncommon for new companies to go out of business, and in the EdTech world, that can leave you with a product which you paid a lot of money for, which no longer works.
Currently the ESSER money that has flown into K-12 schools is ensuring that EdTech companies have a fair number of customers. But on September 30, 2024 there won’t be any more new purchases made using ESSER money. What will happen then?
Maybe there will be some new federal money that comes in, but that will also be an election year, so getting contentious bills through congress is unlikely. And if there is no new funding, there probably will be a mass tightening of belts in the EdTech space.
Buying into an exciting product that is currently surviving on float is not a long term plan. And if the data or coursework can’t be easily exported from a product that went out of business your school could be left holding the bag.
4. How are you protecting data?
Student data is a bit like gasoline. It is dangerous to keep around because of the bad press that comes from a breach, but any company looking to use AI or any kind of large scale data analysis will need it to be competitive.
And even if it isn’t interested in AI, things like names, addresses, or other identifying information can be valuable to hackers too. LAUSD refused to pay ransomware hackers and had 500 gb of student data leaked.
It doesn’t matter if the product is from a startup or a mature company, figuring out how to handle data and keep it secure is something that every company needs a plan for.
5. What does it integrate with?
EdTech products from the past several years have been bad about integrating with Google Classroom, digital grade books, Canvas, or any LMS that your school uses? If the product requires you to manually transfer grades or student information from one system to another, that adds work, and makes mistakes more likely to happen. Ensuring that the product can integrate well with the systems you already use means that you will have to do a lot less to incorporate it into your institution.
6. Does this reduce workload for teachers?
There are few products which can actually reduce the amount of work a teacher needs to do. Often the first expectation is that the teacher learns to use the new system and begins to work within it in some way that will eventually benefit student learning/
But the subtraction that Justin Reich highlighted matters so much for ensuring that a product will actually be useful in the long run and doesn’t continue to make teachers’ lives harder and continue to worsen your teacher shortage.
While the people in the booths might not know the answers to these questions, they can usually connect you to people who do, and no matter what, asking smart questions will ensure that they are no longer “selling” to you using a standard slick patter, but are instead focused on answering your questions.
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