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6 Tips for Edtech Success

Eileen Murphy Buckley

Founder & CEO , ThinkCERCA

Innovation is the key to making equitable access to excellence possible. It is truly exciting to see the amount of talent, knowledge, skill and capital that education has attracted over the past couple of years.

Since my transition from educator and administrator to tech entrepreneur in March 2012, I’ve faced many challenges—and experienced many successes. I am happy to say that what was an idea two years ago is delivering instruction to over 70,000 students today. ThinkCERCA, a school-wide, online educational resource, provides a framework for students to analyze texts and form evidence-based arguments, helping them build analytical reading and writing skills across subject matter. Through the process of argumentation, kids develop the collaboration, communication and critical-thinking skills we all need to succeed in a world of innovation and globalization.

Here are six of the most important things I’ve learned along the way—and my top tips for fellow edtech entrepreneurs.

1. Edtech must engage.

What inspired me to join the edtech world? I saw that schools were trying to use technology to close the achievement gap, but most of the technology involved kids going into a computer lab to answer multiple-choice questions in a cubicle. None of it was designed to engage students in the ways that great teachers do. Great teachers help students engage with each other through discussions and debates about topics that are relevant and interesting. Edtech must do the same. For example, ThinkCERCA gives teachers the flexibility to assign different lessons to students in the same classroom based on their abilities. By giving students the opportunity to work through their own articles and to create their own arguments and share them with one another, ThinkCERCA provides teachers the flexibility to mold lessons to fit each student’s individual needs. Just as important, it gives students the ability to learn from one another as well as the freedom to develop at their own pace.

2. Time and a talented team are necessary.

Carve out plenty of time for research, development, testing, launch and optimization—more time than you initially think you’ll need. In my own experience, developing ThinkCERCA was a multi-step, multi-year process. We based the software on work we did successfully on paper and then launched a private beta for testing in October 2012. After tinkering with the MVP until February 2013, we started to build the enterprise product, which we launched in August 2013.

At the same time, be sure to surround yourself with the right people. As a career educator, I had an extensive background on the subject, but I worked with my academic advisory board throughout the process. Together, we’ve written over 32 books on literacy. In addition to this incredible team, we worked with teachers, students, and principals every step of the way to develop the technology. There’s tremendous power in partnership. One of the most important partners was my founding team. Their tech entrepreneurship skills helped us get from concept to product to business in a way that a group of educators couldn’t have done alone.

3. Tap into your unique strengths.

I believe that someone who has little or no domain experience can be successful in launching a product in a new industry. Anything is possible. But in education specifically, the challenge is often selling, not just designing. While someone may be able to design products that work for educators, understanding the ins and outs of education sales cycles can be harder. Because of that dynamic, deep industry understanding is an advantage, but it’s not a requirement.

4. Focus on your mission and measurements of success.

As time goes on and challenges arise, it’s very easy to get discouraged. Think about what’s driving you: What’s your “why”? What does success look like for you? Let your mission motivate you and look forward to your end goals.

For ThinkCERCA, our hope is to offer a huge selection of great content with global appeal and to bring learners through our core processes in a way that dramatically improves teaching and learning. We’ll know we’ve gotten there when our technology has become intelligent enough to deliver personalized learning, fueled by feedback from peers and teachers at districts and schools everywhere.

Most importantly, focus on student outcomes. I believe when all the dust settles at this time of innovation, the only products that will be valuable enough for schools to buy are the ones that actually deliver student outcomes.

5. Look ahead.

In the next couple of years, I see a lot of choices being made in the education field—especially as it pertains to technology. Administrators will have to choose between the nice-to-haves, the teacher-want-to-haves and the must-haves. Schools will have to carefully curate high-quality applications when creating an instructional plan. We will move beyond the current structure in which admins select hardware and student information systems, while teachers select learning management system, apps, and content. In the new structure, administrators will select everything, including content, with teacher consultation. Innovation in individual classrooms will continue—so competition will still be fierce—but the customer in education will likely be at the school or district level, not the classroom level. Technology is ever evolving—and education is changing too—so a future-focused mindset ensures that your work will fit and adapt moving forward.

6. Keep all involved parties in mind.

During the course of my career, I saw many technologies that automated every single task of a teacher. They were designed based on the idea that teachers would want to have their students work only with interactive and adaptive programs, read data and coach. Yet, that takes about 50 percent of the fun out of teaching for most of us. Educators are more interested in developing curriculum than many may think—and we’re often reluctant to believe that publishers and technology makers know what we need so well that they don’t need us to be involved in teaching. That is a fallacy. After all, we probably signed up for this tough job based on a combined love for kids and our subject matter.

My advice to you: Build things that have direct impact on student outcomes, and prove that as fast as you can. To do that, you have to get to know the people who will use your technology—the students, teachers, administrators. Gather input and feedback from your end-users throughout the process, but keep your eye on the ball of helping teachers help kids learn.

Eileen Murphy Buckley is founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, a school-wide, online educational resource designed to prepare students for career and college readiness by helping them build analytical reading and writing skills across subject matter.

Eileen Murphy Buckley

Founder & CEO , ThinkCERCA