A few weeks ago now I asked for usage stats from any edtech companies who would be happy to share. I said that I wanted to show that learning IS happening at home, to combat some of the stories in the media, and from certain high profile Lords, which seem to think that all is lost while schools are "closed" to the majority of pupils. I apologise this blog has taken a while to write in the end as I got ill but that is by the by really as the time has given me chance to really try and reflect on what is happening with education at home during a global pandemic.
There will likely be a number of caveats in this blog and firstly, I want no-one to confuse the idea that learning is happening at home with the idea that every child is learning at home. I think we will all know that the picture we see via the stats in this blog will be reflective of a big picture but will not shine a light into any specific homes. It is highly likely, I believe, that in some homes students are doing more work, longer work, harder work, more intense work, than they would ever be expected to do in school, especially given the 1:1 nature of home learning. In some homes there will be students who are doing no work. But what is evident is certainly that there are huge numbers of schools at least attempting to provide work, and a huge number of students and parents getting that work into the home as well as some not bothering for whatever reason. As someone who came from absolute poverty and a childhood full of ACEs I will not, and would ask that noone else does either, deduce anything about the "type" of home or "type" of student that difference shows either. That is something for individual case by case investigation which is not appropriate in this discussion. (I am getting off my personal soapbox again now!)
Later in the blog I will share some very interesting stats I have been sent but first will put in place my own thoughts and feelings through this. I am not a data analyst by trade and there are likely some very clever people reading this who could make much more clever deductions from the data but I am taking this to a place I believe based on the stats plus my own chats with many parents and teachers, as well as applying what I know about school roll out and take up of edtech in any normal time too.
The next big big caveat is that this is all edtech stats. And only some edtechs are included though I suspect all are seeing similar figures. I know for a fact that loads of schools are sending paper worksheets home. Chris Dyson of Parklands School in Leeds has stated on Twitter that 85% of his pupils would not have access to online learning. So any school with numbers like that are likely to provide work in ways we cannot gather evidence on. We can only assume, for the purposes of this blog, that there are many similar schools providing home learning via printables where possible or at least pointing parents towards them. Some schools will also be providing not much work where they firmly believe that the most important thing right now is the wellbeing of parents and pupils so will not want to add home schooling stress into the mix. They will not be sat doing nothing in those cases but be taking care of food parcels and calls home and sending fun ideas for family activities. They fully expect to pick up learning full throttle once children are safely back to school.
There are also many parents who will be finding things themselves via Google searches and the like or buying books when they go to the supermarket or downloading apps to devices which may not actually fall into the usual edtech space but are parents doing their best to find what their children may engage with.
What we will never ever be able to quantify really is the quality of the chosen home learning. This is my final big caveat before we get into the data. If every school did the same thing - all did live lessons, for example - we may hope to gain some insight into the effectiveness of live online lessons. However, what we would actually be getting is a kind of performance management view of how good each teacher is at delivering live lessons. The reality is, also, that not every school is doing the same thing. In fact at no other point in history are schools likely to ever have been so different (And that really is saying something!) Schools with similar cohorts even down the same street will suddenly be making decisions based on their own tech capabilities and confidence, coupled with online access of their families, rather than simply picking the schemes and pedagogies they think will provide the best learning outcomes. A school who desperately wants to offer 6 hours a day of live lessons but has no idea where to start is likely to have chosen either a) not to bother or b) to do it anyway and muddle through. In scenario b) that will have very varying levels of impact and we cannot really provide a reliable test for that. A school which is really confident and has all the tech (private schools have often been mentioned as having this capacity or making sure they have it) are providing loads of live lessons but they will not be comparing it to other methods within their own school so again we cannot reliably test the impact of that as a comparison to other methods.
Within each school when students are back we will no doubt start to see gaps. Within that there will be a multitude of reasons to pick through. No-one will be doing it to figure out which was the best edtech. That just is not, and should not be, the focus. They will simply be picking up gaps in learning as fast as possible and moving those students on. Providing booster classes, grief counselling, food parcels, and numerous other things which schools do all the time. Some will tell us their choice of edtech was absolutely brilliant and totally worked for us. Others will tell us their choice was awful and the tech is a load of rubbish. They will often both be talking about the same tech. This is the nature of edtech on the whole anyway. Edtech sits on the periphery of education and relies entirely on the school to implement it whilst trying to ensure that is as smooth as possible. Where it succeeds it is brilliant and where it fails it is an expensive pain in the a***,
I have seen articles and blogs asking for a revolution of the tech. I.e. where is edtech in all this? Why are you not all creating amazing new tools? They are suggesting loads of ideas of tools which could be made and developed. And it's quite funny really as I am yet to see a suggestion for a tool which doesn't already exist but they don't know about it. Because the revolution in edtech is happening right now. The revolution needed was not at point of development but at point of use. Finally most schools are using it, and not just as an after thought for the occasional bit of homework or a special project in July for Year 6. And that is what the following stats, I think, are mostly showing us. Later, when the dust settles, and when the edtech industry has licked its own wounds financially, we can look at what impact all this use has longer term. For now let's just look at what is happening.
Firstly this graph from Google Trends shows the sudden uptick in people Googling the search term "home learning." Another caveat here - I have chosen to use this term as it seemed to have the most use across social media and parents I know in the early days of lockdown.
This second graph, however, fascinated me. People have been searching for Google Classroom specifically way more than for home learning overall. This surprised me a bit but is actually really heart warming. Because while I feel many parents have searched "home learning" and many teachers did at the start of lockdown to find the free stuff edtechs are giving away etc, it seems the teachers MUST be pointing parents and students to the specific tool. I did this comparison with a number of tools i.e. Microsoft Teams and Zoom. The comparison of Zoom with Google Classroom and Teams shows Google Classroom lowest down. But when I looked at that in just the Jobs and Education category, Google Classroom jumped to the top. And this is likely because Teams and Zoom have been the choices for loads of businesses and also just personal lockdown activities such as quiz teams etc using Zooms for fun evenings. Whereas Google Classroom is only available for educational establishments. So even with the filter back to All categories we see this huge uptick in searches. The gap in April is the Easter holidays, of course, but even then it is being used way more than it is during holidays at other times. Which shows learning has continued a bit through holidays too.
Next here are some stats from the edtech companies who have been kind enough to share with me. Thank you to all. Please please read these stats with generosity. I know some companies and individuals are using publicly available stats to try and get "one up" on others but again we must not do comparisons of that type from tool to tool. It really isn't the point and there are so many reasons why one edtech will see higher jumps than others. I tackle some of these in the blog but others will not be part of this discussion. Now is the time to collaborate not compete for the benefit of all schools and edtech as a whole. (*puts soapbox away again*)
I asked companies to share, where possible, their stats from April 2019 and from April 2020. Although this covers Easter holidays in both cases it was the first full month of school closures and also seeing learning happening even with the holidays there I find very interesting too. I suspect in many homes they have continued a bit through holidays as a) they may not be able to have the children in usual holiday clubs if they are working parents and b) for some semblance of normalcy and routine.
First of all some stats from itslearning (whose remote learning starter kit you can find here):
"Regarding itslearning in April 2020 compared to April 2019:
•there was a 463% increase in the number of tests created in our platform
•there was a 450% increase in the number of 1:1 instant messages sent within our platform
•there was a 343% increase in the number of Assignments created in our platform
•There was a 189% increase in the number of Plans added in our platform
•There was a 155% increase in the number of concurrent users of our platform"
What is wonderful about the itslearning stats is the 1:1 instant messages sent. This shows that not only are students getting an increased amount of learning to do at home but they are also still accessing that personalised teacher support where needed, or being able to chat to friends. That might not all represent learning but does show connections being open and available. Vital work at this time.
Night ZooKeeper shared with us that they have seen a 600% increase in usage. Their creative literacy platform has historically mostly been used at home so a 600% usage increase now is really significant.
Third Space Learning told me that downloads of resources from their site are up 400% and reads of the blogs are up 140% - which shows that there is an appetite for downloadables too and people (likely teachers and parents) are reading more about teaching maths at home - as this is historically an area parents need help with as approaches to maths teaching have changed over the decades so parents often feel less confident with it.
Satchel (previously Show My Homework) shared the following comprehensive stats with us:
"Although our user numbers have increased year on year, we have seen unprecedented user numbers during the pandemic going into the summer term.
In addition to increased user numbers, when we look at the same group of schools, we have seen an increase in distance learning across the board in distance learning tasks set. When looking at the first two weeks of the half term (pre closures) vs the last two weeks of the half term (during closures), I thought I'd share some of the key stats for core subjects, and a stand out stat that we discovered in PE
Maths: 163% increase in tasks set at the end of the half term compared to the beginning of the half term
Science: 178% increase in tasks set at the end of the half term compared to the beginning of the half term
English: 208% increase in tasks set at the end of the half term compared to the beginning of the half term
PE: 636% increase in tasks set at the end of the half term compared to the beginning of the half term"
I also find the PE stat really interesting. Also really understandable. It is likely that maths, science and English would all have been commonly set as homework before so the % increase is reflective of an already very well used platform which we know is popular in many secondary schools. So the likely actual numbers are even more impressive at any given time. But teachers likely would not usually be sending PE homework! So this is a totally new use of the platform for many schools and teachers. This use will likely drop massively again when students are fully back to school but I would love to know how many PE teachers will start to set homework in this way more often in future.
epraise shared some interesting stats with us and have also written their own blog about the change in how their platform is being used in this time which is worth a read here
"- Messages +~2000%
- File downloads +~650%
- File uploads + ~1300%
- Classnotes (inc. homework) + ~350%
Perhaps unsurprisingly, despite the huge increase in online learning, the monitoring of achievement and behaviour has actually decreased - the first week of lockdown they both fell off a cliff, though this has picked up again as teachers have got used to all the things that are going on.
Just in case it's interesting for the blog, our infrastructure costs are currently running at about +180%."
I am not at all surprised by the increase in running costs, an issue I raised in a previous blog, and this is a worrying trend at the moment as it means edtech companies have been unable to furlough staff as they are coping with their highest user numbers ever, but with so much being available free they are shouldering a lot of burden too. I hope this does repay their loyalty over time as these stats show platforms being used more than ever and that means more teachers will be more confident using tech going forward. All of us in edtech know what a huge impact teacher confidence has in the take up of tech in school.
Our next interesting stat comes from TechSmith who make screencasting video creation software which is ideal for creating tutorials and teaching videos but has not always been particularly a pure edtech product, although they do have a market there of course, as many businesses use the software to make their product training for customers and also staff training videos etc. But here are their stats during lockdown which shows an impact both in education and in training at home for all companies using their software:
“TechSmith has experienced more than an 800% YoY increase in content consumption, and more than a 1,600% YoY increase in engagement features like adding in-video quizzes across our cloud portfolio that is optimized to help Camtasia and Snagit education customers effectively share content.”
This is fascinating due to the engagement features particularly. What may have been passive videos previously are now more likely to have quizzes, i.e. mini assessments, added in. I hope this trend continues too as in-built little assessments improve training in all industries.
Purple Mash have shared their stats with us too:
"April 2019: 8 million hits
April 2020: 44 million hits
March 2020 had 24 million hits. "
So we can see that again a very popular site anyway is seeing a huge increase in usage. I also know from seeing what they are doing on social media that their staff have been constantly developing and adapting through that time too and with so many parents now using it they are inundated on their Facebook group with questions and are answering them pretty much 24/7! I hope that gives them loyalty which continues, as with all edtechs who are working flat out right now.
A few more things I have been told but more anecdotally or snapshots such as the below quotes which are all worth including:
"Our blogs aimed at parents supporting from home are being read more than ever."
This one is fascinating and brilliant - I wonder how many parents are upskilling themselves at home whether the school is pointing them to it or not? Speaking to mums in our local Whatsapp group (caveat - dads are invited too but none of them have joined yet!) I know many who have no teaching background at all who have really taken to home education and one of them has such brilliant ideas I have asked her to write some down so I can blog them for teachers and other parents as I think they are great for home learning!
"I have no stats for you but my son is now a reader which he was not in March"
Again we must not underestimate the impact of having 1:1 teaching for a child at home. These are not educator parents just interested and engaged ones who are doing their best. I suspect they are not alone. We cannot assume that parents are not doing a brilliant job. Again there will be pockets but they are individual cases to be dealt with. Most parents are doing all they can for their children with love and dedication.
"Hey! Our #Spanish reading comprehension digital platform double-sized the number of users during April. #ELL #DualLanguageChat" - Beereaders
This stat is great but also got me wondering about languages in general from an EAL and an MFL perspective. I wonder how many children will have another language under their belts after this? I suspect some children who are EAL will be struggling to access content from many edtech providers (work to be done on accessibility in general in edtech as this is also the case for many pupils with SEND) but may be progressing in their home language through parental help. All that will still increase grey matter and should not be ignored as good progress.
"I haven't any full stats right now but at the end of March there was a 16x increase in usage"
As well as this one, there will be companies who are not able to gather comparable stats as they are too new or had a huge change this year anyway.
So many more companies shared with me their information and sorry I could not get everything into this (already very long) blog but I am grateful to everyone who input even a nugget of info.
Also one last piece of information.
At last check Oak National Academy had delivered 8 million online lessons. This was a couple of weeks ago so likely lots more since. This initiative was set up within 2 weeks to deliver a national curriculum. BBC Bitesize also created a daily lessons area to support a more national approach to home learning during the pandemic. Lots of other people have also set up their own initiatives during lockdown but these two had government support and a bit more advertising! There are pockets of brilliance across edtech and beyond in all of this and many have no comparable stats to before as they were all created purely to help now.
No there is no consistent national picture. No there is not going to be learning happening in every home. But frankly, and I mean this realistically not meanly, there are also classrooms in which whole cohorts or some individuals make little to no progress at any time. What we may see and hear about anecdotally later are children who blossomed in home education. Those who, away from the pressures of the classroom and the gaze of their peers, found their feet and progressed and recovered from previous trauma of bullying or anything else going on. We must look for where damage has been done by this pandemic. Of course we must. But we must also look for where it has been good for some children. And where we could make changes to the education system we have at every level, not just in tech or exams or whatever else changes due to this year. We need to watch this cohort all the way into adulthood even if just through stories to see what we can learn from lockdown education.
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.