Well spoiler alert....it can absolutely be a solution but only if we (teachers and the edtech people) know what all the problems are to start with.
In the teachers vs edtech arena I have had one foot in each camp for a very long time. I was a primary school teacher using a lot of tech. I loved it. I was the annoying one in staff meetings trying to tell everyone that podcasts ARE the future and not just for potentially bored celebrities during any possible lockdown.
I worked long and hard on implementing a VLE for our school which actually worked so well in the end that they refused to give it up even when I left. Even when the headteacher left and the new headteacher wanted to bring in all new things and change things, Fronter stayed.
That is one of my proudest achievements. Everyone who is the tech advocate in their school knows that when they leave a lot of it will fall by the wayside. So to discover that something I worked so much on was still standing at that the very staff who hated me at the start of that were ones who refused to let go of it. was a huge sense of pride to me. This for me is what every tech shiny person should be aiming for. Something which stands the test of time as a valuable resource for teachers and students.
Yet when others hear the word "Fronter" they will tell you it never worked. It was awful. It could never do the job. Yet ours did. Because of me. Sorry that is really big headed but also necessary information. It could easily have failed the first two years we had it. I could have given up many times. I cried. It was NOT as intuitive as I was told it would be. It was hard work. It was an endurance challenge. But when we turned the corner with it we never looked back. And it became a "we" project instead of an "I" project because people joined me in realising the potential and started to help instead of block. (and I must say for disclaimer that many tried to help all along but it was a marathon for us all)
I also never believed in one answer to everything. We gave loads of options for tech in the classroom and beyond and I believe in full on support so I was there for them. Sometimes 24/7 on a snow day. to support and guide and encourage with anything people needed. That was my role though. I came out of class to work full time on ICT across the school as we knew it would help unlock barriers to learning for some of our children specifically. Also it was a force for good for everyone to extend learning and offer chances for learning at home.
Access was an issue, we cannot pretend it wasn't, so we offered all sorts of help for that too. We reformatted and loaned old laptops and dongles for home. We made sure everything we did was as usable as possible on any device. However for the most disadvantaged there were huge gains from what we also offered in school. One child who had trouble writing down her thoughts would have the most amazing story ideas and poems. I gave her access to a portable dictaphone-type microphone and she frequently recorded her stories. She was then able to play them back so she could stop and write them down one line at a time. ICT was enabling her to go further with stories without being impeded by her lack of confidence over her physical writing skill.
We worked with loads of people to provide access to careers ideas; for even our Year 3s who had no idea what possibilities lay beyond the 1 mile radius of school. The internet allowed us to open up the world to them. That may sound like the cheesiest thing ever but it really did. I cried happy tears for those times when I saw their awe and wonder and when parents came to tell me the impact. We also ran parent sessions. I helped them to write CVs, and to move their payments online to save money on direct debits for utilities. And random skills they wanted for making wedding invites to save money; and one parent who went on to earn money making websites for local businesses after I showed him a few possible sites for that. It was transformational. But not in some magic out-of-the-box way. It takes time, energy, and strategy. And biscuits and bribes for the other staff sometimes. The payback is huge though. However, I wouldn't advocate doing all that in two weeks...
Now fast forward a few years and I ended up leaving school to try and help more schools. I was doing a lot of that around my work anyway and to be honest I didn't intend to leave teaching completely. But a lack of finding the right part time job to go alongside, and also being asked to apply for a job that suited me and helped me work with hundreds of schools, sent me into the realm of "ex teacher" status, working for edtech businesses instead. I got increasingly frustrated by claims of edtech companies, as well as seeing some really innovative (and exciting) new tools. Tools I would have loved when I was school based. I decided to become freelance to help bridge the gap between schools and edtech as I do think it can help when it goes right. I am a realist though so I know there is work still to be done.
The gap, indeed gulf at times, exists for a number of reasons:
1) Edtechs tend to be started by one of two types of people: tech people with no real education background past their own school days; and teachers/ex teachers who have great ideas for the classroom but very little business acumen or experience.
2) In 2010 all funding from the DfE was pulled which was backing a lot of edtech initiatives. Crucially this money was backing the time and money schools had to train staff and make tech any kind of priority.
3) Schools and teachers tend to distrust edtech as they fear the "snake oil" element of business. Edtech also distrust teachers often seeing them as luddites or blockers. Neither view is healthy or helpful but there are elements of actual truth in both.
Dealing with 1) is fairly easy and is my bread and butter in my line of work honestly. It is pretty easy to teach teams in edtech about how teachers and schools actually work. We can then put in place all sorts of training, as well as product developments, to ensure the workflow and content of systems actually matches what schools need. Slightly harder but still possible is creating adequate support for schools and teachers to embed these products well. This meets a bit of resistance due to 2) and 3) but is possible although is a longer term goal across the whole sector. It is a goal I am committed to trying to solve. Teaching ex-teachers to have more business acumen is also easy if teamed with the right investors and mentors. That might sound all very snake oil like already but money is needed to help edtech survive. And there should be a lot of enthusiasm from teachers around ex teachers making products - these are absolutely the most likely to be making something which works for schools as they understand them inside out. Unfortunately there is some resistance here though as the teacher is then seen as selling out or turning into the business people.
2) can only be sorted from a top-down approach again unfortunately and I do not see that happening any time soon. Ex Secretary of State for Education Damien Hinds seemed keen to do more to push edtech. His stance was fraught with potential mishap however. He focused heavily on edtech for efficiency and cost saving. Whilst I fully agree that is where edtech is kind of an unarguable force for potential good, it's not very .....exciting. Which makes it hard to drum up business that way. And, without the government also providing financial backing into the edtech sector, it means that in reality all the banners on the stands at BETT just change from "Will improve learning outcomes" to "Will save money and make your school efficient." It is just buzzword bingo in the edtech world sometimes. Everyone wants a piece of the pie at this stage. Edtech has suffered for years due to the devolved nature of school purchasing. Even the best products, which schools would all embrace if they saw them in action truly, have sunk without trace. There is just no foolproof way of getting your message out en masse when you compete with everyone else pushing the same message as you.
I always say that if these people were really in it for the money they absolutely would not be in the education sector. It is the absolute hardest sector to break. There is no quick win or easy sell. At all. If there was I would be utterly without a job or purpose. Yet I am not by a long shot and (much as I would love to big myself up ) it is simply because every single edtech is struggling one way or another. And I work with some great products. Exciting products. I also work with products who are not particularly different to all their competitors in the market but are cheaper. Business who, according to me, really great at their job and are the loveliest people. Even that will not push them to the front so we have to try all sorts of other things to get them ahead of the game. They will also be insulted every step with comments about them making money out of education as if they are ripping cash from the pockets of children. Such is the nature of social media. Such is the nature of the business vs teachers perspective.
It hurts. I see the long hours these people work. I see the founders with a wife/husband and children at home who have taken out a second mortgage on their homes and are paying their staff but taking no wage for themselves. You might say "well the business is not viable then" but in any other industry it would be. Any other. Edtech is hard. Really hard. It didn't used to be as hard as it is now.
So then...what is my point? Why am I writing this now? Well frankly we have now hit a crunch point that none of us wanted or asked for. And edtech will become more useful than ever if teachers let it. But so many are still not letting it, and a minority are even vocally fighting against it.
I am always stuck with a foot in two camps. I have my edtech foot who wants every edtech to succeed if they care enough about education. I also have the foot that still works free with any school I can. I try to help them to do things on the cheap and just get ICT embedded somehow. I know it will save them workload and time and money if we get it right. And that foot also doesn't like to hear edtech call teachers luddites or blockers. That foot knows how hard teachers work just to keep going and how little they need to have edtech thrown at them with very little support on a Friday afternoon or a Monday INSET. I believe it is the fact that I keep both feet active that makes me good at what I do. But it means I essentially end up never being happy!
I do not even have my foot in two camps anymore. I have a foot in three. I didn't even know I had a third foot until the lockdown happened. But I now have my parent foot. I have been a parent for 6 years. And a parent of two for 3 years. Yet only now am I seeing the extent to which edtech could impact my parenting past me just getting my child on Scratch Jnr and Purple Mash from time to time. Suddenly I am getting a daily text from school telling me to go to the website for links to learning for the day. Our school is pretty reasonable. And I am lucky (and it is luck I assure you) that my eldest is well ahead in school so we have no need to worry about lost progress. In fact it may be a blessing in disguise for his teachers in the long run!
I am imagining, however, if my child did need catch up. Or SEND support. And all of that has just disappeared. Yet I am being expected to maybe get them online all day for access to all kinds of constant bombardment of free resources, live lessons, edtech tools the school haven't learnt to use yet...and Joe Wicks making me pull muscles I didn't know I had. And I am weeping for those families. The government have just announced sorting laptops for Year 10 pupils to ensure they could get online. Yet I could not think of anything worse than being told "we gave you the laptop so you must be online from 8.30am to 4.30pm now." While I am trying to work from home, source food without leaving the house, and keep both children entertained yet also fulfilled with constant opportunities to broaden their horizons and experience with baking, gardening, bird watching...and scrolling the mums' Whatsapp group to see if I am keeping up with the Joneses.
It's exhausting. I am exhausted. I know what I am doing in this world of online learning but I am exhausted. Because I do not know what I am doing with the world of virus and working around my children 24/7 and worrying about family I cannot see. And keeping everyone happy and healthy. And missing people. And not being sociable. And my only contact with edu people is all online (and frankly the arguments have started between the sides and that is why I am now writing this!)
Imagine looking in at all this from the outside. I have seen everything from "just let the parents do what they think is best" to "we must ensure parents are mere facilitators while we provide all learning." Both extremes are going to create a massive gap. Not just rich to poor. But "techie" to "luddite". Working parent to non working parent. Rural to city dweller. Relaxed school approach to strict school approach.
Edtech can absolutely be a solution. Please find the way it is. I will help anyone I can. Many others of us love edtech but in very very realistic ways. We won't all shove the "online learning forever, no school ever again" stuff at you. We are best placed to advise. I say that not for any financial gain whatsoever. My whole reason for being edtech is all bound up in exactly this and I won't be selling that out for cash. I will help any school I can for free with advice. I cannot do much practically (as I have all the actual work parental stuff I mentioned!) But if I can help you make edtech the solution and not the problem I absolutely will. Edtech should not become the problem in this current climate. I can see where it is. But it shouldn't. It should be as innocuous as a calculator. You should know when to use it. We should never use it to deskill, only to enhance and improve. It will never replace the usefulness of mental maths skills or face to face contact.
And my one bit of actual edtech advice to you all: Video conferencing (Zoom et al) is not a good replicator of content delivery.... at best the online courses many of us have done are the ones to replicate - teacher videos or voice over on PowerPoint with text, and maybe a quiz, and a forum for questions is good for that. But video conferencing IS the best we currently have for replacing the face to face stuff - not for 30 people at once though. 1:1 or small group. Just like we all are doing with family and friends. Find the tech but also find what it works best for and do that. Nothing will hammer a round peg into a square hole even with a crisis and a steep learning curve.
The image above is probably looking familiar to a lot of people working in edtech right now. This particular image shows the website traffic stats for Mangahigh where my brother works in the dev team. Thank you to the team for allowing me to publish these. They have also shared with me their new sign up statistics. These are new account signups per week since January:
1/1/2020 - 44
5/1/2020 - 163
12/1/2020 - 136
19/1/2020 - 175
26/1/2020 - 204
2/2/2020 - 233
9/2/2020 - 401
16/2/2020 - 204
23/2/2020 - 332
1/3/2020 - 368
8/3/2020 - 694
15/3/2020 - 2735
You can see how these statistics might look really exciting for a company. Mangahigh has always done a pretty steady trade. I have known of them since 2011 when seeing a school present at a conference about using their maths games. They are really good for primary all the way through to secondary school students for reinforcing many maths concepts. So it is great to see so many people signing up now that schools are "closed" (except for the key worker children of course) and parents are turning to online resources to support their children with home learning.
But there is a side of these statistics which requires some caution too. Mangahigh are one of many edtech companies who have very generously made their site completely free for schools, parents, and students during school closures due to COVID-19. These huge numbers of sign-ups are, of course, a side effect of that generosity alongside an unprecedented time for us all. Providers of content such as Mangahigh, 2Simple and their Purple Mash platform, Twinkl resources and so on, are all "winning" at the minute with huge sign-ups as they have all started providing their resources for free. It's a true reflection of the wonderful world of edtech and the community within. It's a small world and I have known many of these companies for a long time and know that putting the students and schools first would have been on obvious decision for them all. They would not have taken any persuading to allow this free access to all.
There will no doubt be upsides to this generosity in the long-term for these large established companies as they have great resources and more people will see them and then hopefully some will continue with them when this is all over and they start charging again. Not everyone will - school budgets are still tight - but some will. That alone has led to some backlash from teachers and headteachers who think this is all a big marketing ploy. And yes OK...I am not going to say that there isn't a back-of-the-mind hope for all companies that there will be a good outcome for them later although I know that is not in the front of their mind at all as they are worried about the path ahead themselves as we cross into the utterly unknown.
And I have a worry...and it is a big worry. We must not underplay the intense pressure being put on these companies and the many other edtech and education providers who are offering free resources during this time. They are coping with their biggest ever influx of new customers, while they are also trying to cope with everyone working from home for the first time...AND they will also have staff shortages due to those who cannot continue to work at the moment for a variety of reasons.
It is also highly costly for the companies who are seeing these spikes in usage. For those not in the edtech or tech worlds: every bit of server usage costs £££. For those companies who now need much bigger servers (much of which is hosted remotely and paid for by the size and speed and reliability) are actually forking out a lot of money to keep schools online. They need to do this otherwise these spikes in use will mean the sites crashing completely and even their paid customers will lose connection to the resources. They are also having to hire extra resources where they can staff-wise to quickly create extra help resources to replace the usual in-school training they offer to new schools.
Therefore the expenses of these companies has just sky rocketed. Yet their income and potential income for the coming weeks (/months/a year??!!) has just plummeted through the floor.
These are also big names above. Companies who are generally stable and have enough current subscribers to help keep their staff paid and their offices paid for even though they are all at home. Out there are also smaller and early stage companies who now are seeing a whole wall of panic. I know of companies who have only recently launched after years of creating their products and services. This summer term should be for them the first time they start earning money as they would be selling to schools after the April budget ready for schools to roll out the products in September. For those companies this year is now another write off after the 2 or 3 or 5 years they have been building all their hard work for nothing already. For those who recently got investment they will now have investors (many not in education so do not "get" this time) breathing down their necks demanding they still try and sell to schools.
Imagine how that will play out. Schools are dealing with plenty of issues. Yes Edtech has come to the forefront in learning terms BUT they are deluged with offers of free resources from all and sundry. There are blogs going around with lists of 300-400 companies with free resources. Some of these are always free (but there is of course monetisation happening somewhere for those who are not charities so that is likely to mean giving away your data or seeing adverts pop up or later finding you need to pay to keep your information even if you don't have to pay now) but many are also just making their product free for a limited time during the current climate.
Teachers and headteachers are already starting some backlash too. Some who currently pay for subscriptions are demanding they now get it for free as others are getting it free. Some are saying that every company giving away freebies are somehow in the wrong for trying to capitalise on the situation. I do not want to share my views on those as I understand where they are coming from to an extent...but I do know the companies and know that they are genuinely doing what they feel is right for the time. And I also know that for many smaller companies this could send them under. That is a big worry for me. Some of the smaller companies and newer companies are no less worthy of a long career than those who are bigger. They have some wonderful products. Usually that would become evident in a couple of years. But for many they will fold this year. It will not be fair. It will not be the ones who deserve to fold just because their products are rubbish. It will be any who just got really bad luck with the timing.
Even the bigger companies may end up laying off staff after all this. They absolutely will not want to but it may become necessity. People with lives, and families, and homes to pay for. Whatever you think of the world of paid for edtech, these are people. Potentially people you taught in your school once. People who really love being in education in their own ways. They are not here for the money. If they wanted loads of money they could make it much easier in any other (and I mean ANY other!) industry. Gifted games developers. Intelligent customer service providers. Talented designers. Excellent technical support staff. Knowledgeable sales people who have learnt about education over the years despite never being on the front line. Imaginative marketers who tell stories that warm hearts.
Not every company can afford to make their product free. Even if the product is ready they simply cannot afford the level of staffing required to take on an extra 2,000 customers in one week in the way that Mangahigh is ready for. They do not have the teams of staff ready on the phones to handle the calls from all those new customers who will need tech support and training. So they will just try and still keep plugging away hoping to make a sale. Schools will mostly ignore them as they are looking at all the shiny free stuff instead.
There will be big winners in the coming months. But I am really worried about the losers in this race. They ran just as fast....someone just chucked a roadblock in their lane and it wasn't their fault. I hope the lovely edtech community can help pick them up and support them to limp to the finish line even if it takes a while longer.
I have seen a number of adverts for jobs with start-ups and they all want something called "start-up mentality" and I am afraid I need to burst that bubble - it doesn't exist. Nor should it. If you hired everything you want from "start-up mentality" it will destroy your business.
Firstly let's look at some of the things people expect to be part of this "start-up mentality" and what each of those will actually look like in business.
1) You want someone who loves your business/product as much as you do. I get that this seems dreamy. But you cannot expect to hire someone who loves it as much as you, can you? You need to develop that love within the role. Imagine your business is your baby. That's how it feels, right? You grew this perfect baby and now you need to hire someone to take as good care of it as you do. So you want a baby nanny. That is fine. But they won't arrive loving it. It's your job to create an environment that allows them to fall as much in love with your baby as you are. A nanny does not want to look after, let alone love, a toddler who kicks and bites and screams all the time because you aren't helping enough with discipline. If you want them to love your baby you need to work at it too. You can't just dump it in front of them and leave them to it unless you have already made sure the right scenario is in place. From a business perspective that includes being very realistic about where your product or business is at. If you are needing to launch something that isn't perfect yet then be honest about it. Don't try and blag your way through. And if you are too close and have your rose tinted specs on, listen to your hires when they tell you there are problems. And fix them. Then they will start to love your baby as much as you because they have become part of the nurture group themselves.
2) You want someone who will work all the hours under the sun to get the job done.Now any business, at any stage, can expect employees on a salaried wage to pitch in and work late when needed. If you have a big launch coming up, or an investor meeting, or a trade show...etc etc... then you can expect to rally the troops to add some extra hours for a week, maybe even two, to get things perfect. They will run on adrenaline and get the job done. Then they can experience the high of finishing and stepping back to see the fruits of their labour. That's absolutely fine, expected even, and helps to add to loyalty if you then reward it. Show your appreciation by bringing in pizza and doughnuts, or having a night out to celebrate, or give everyone a day off in lieu as thanks. Whatever you want to do to show you get that they have sacrificed their personal lives for this and they did it. Even if it wasn't perfect (cos you maybe overestimated the timescale or their capabilities) but reward what they attempted. HOWEVER, what you cannot do is have a team of people who will constantly work long hours. It's not sustainable. If the stress level hits a high for a week but then peaks and drops back after achieving an aim that's like the reward you get in a computer game. It's healthy stress. But an ongoing expectation or too frequent use of that goodwill and adrenaline becomes unhealthy stress. You are going to burn out your workforce.
Another element of working people too hard all the time is actually that you create an inefficient business. If you expect people to show their "loyalty" and "start-up mentality" by working over and above their contracted hours time and time again then they start to do too much "busy work" so that you see them work, rather than just doing an awesome job in half the time. Effective systems and processes are essential if you want to grow any business. You cannot scale 70 hour weeks. So don't start with them. I work with so many start-ups who hit a plateau due to an inability to scale what they currently do. Most of that was created back when they had "start-up mentality" and were "winging it." Don't wing it. Start with great systems and processes from day 1. Act like you have 200 employees from your first hire. Make sure paperwork and every bit of detail is logged correctly. Buy in systems which are designed to help with everything from finance and invoicing to customer service. Make sure employees use great databases from day 1 even if there is only one customer on them so far! An experienced hire can do more in 8 hours with good systems than a winging it inexperienced start-upper can often do in 16 hours. Make it efficient. It's key for growth.
3) You want to hire them cheap and train them on the job. Well of course you do. Who wouldn't? And there is a lot to be said for a keen graduate coming straight in with bounding enthusiasm and no real cynicism and it can work out well. But it's harder work for you too. I am not saying don't hire cheap and inexperienced. But if you do, be prepared to put in the hours yourself on mentoring them properly. They will not stay with a low wage if you are not topping it up with your attention, time and TLC. They need also to have some good quality training outside of the business. Send them on industry relevant courses. The more people you can get on your team with industry standard experience the better. So either pay more to hire them or take people on who are willing to go get the training if you pay for it. If you build a business without industry standards (even if you have to pick a similar industry as no-one else exists in your niche) then your systems and processes will always be that bit more haphazard and this will impact growth when you hit critical size and scale.
4) You want them to be part of the "family" and enjoy the "bantz". This one is a bit icky. I am reluctant to say it is a male-dominated thing but it mostly is when I think of teams where this has halted their progress. I work in tech mostly so it might be just there but there are often a couple of "lads" who built a product at their house and are now scaling. They have worked together for the last two years with no-one else. They probably went to uni together. Sometimes they are even related. So they are happy to sit around working in their boxer shorts together. And yes, they sometimes then expect their new hire to not mind them doing that still when they book away days and conference trips. That's the extreme. But even the other end of this scale are inappropriate jokes in the office "because we know each other well so we never take offence" which leaves your new hire out in the cold not knowing whether to just leave or to report you for inappropriate working conditions. This same attitude also leads even some sizeable companies to hire in their own family into high up positions without warning staff and this can create tensions. No matter who in your family has supported your start-up, or how skilled they might be and perfect for the job, everything must be transparent and no-one should feel they are the outsider. If you cannot maintain a professional relationship in the workplace then you will not be able to scale your business effectively without some hefty bumps on the road when disgruntled employees realise they are treated as second best for having the wrong DNA.
5) You want to hire people who are agile and flexible to go with the flow. Again that's fine to a point. But anyone should be like that at work if it means being ready to move quickly when needed. That has nothing to do with being a start-up. Every job requires times when people need to think on their feet, or be prepared to drop everything and change tack when something isn't working. In the start-up world make sure mostly that you aren't mistaking 'having no real focus or direction' for agility. It's not the same thing!
You don't want start-up mentality to grow your business. You want FTSE100 mentality from day 1. Act like you are already in the big leagues. Otherwise you will struggle to ever reach them. Get the right systems in place, create proper processes before you hire people (or hire someone experienced enough to create them) and then hire experienced people or train up graduates or apprentices effectively.
Even nannies get to go home at the end of their shift. And they get a good wage! If you want your baby to be well looked after then hire the right people, ignore the "start-up mentality."
Jodie Lopez is an ex-primary teacher who won multiple awards for her use of technology in the classroom. Since leaving the classroom she has worked for multiple education technology businesses, from the multinationals to the one-person start-ups. She uses her teaching experience and her previous life in sales and customer service to help companies to bridge the gap between edtech businesses and the classroom.