Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Shark tank reflections, a letter to tech start-ups

It isn't new for me to talk about tech start-ups.  I actually remember when I didn't even use words like tech-startups and vendors.  I have spent over a decade identifying technologies to bring into my classroom, our campus, and our System.  Also, I have a scholarly background in organizations and technology, in particular, implementation and diffusion (see DeSanctis, Poole, Orlikowsky, Bales, Giddens, Fulk, Daft, Lengel, Rogers are some names that come to mind for some research in this field).  This led to me developing some pretty concrete and practical ideas about emerging technologies (see "Emerging technological and pedagogical initiatives: A strategic model for pilot, implementation, evaluation, and diffusion").

Here is just a little bit about my perspective and my reflections based on a recent event.

I had the honor of being asked (I think after someone bowed out) to sit on a Shark Tank-like panel at #et4online hearing about some new tech start-ups in the education space.  This awesome panel consisted of @gsiemens @bonstewart and myself, @tjoosten.  This event led me to think even more about the information I'd like to hear from tech companies when it comes to teaching and learning, so I am going to share it here.

Now, to be clear, I have long been frustrated with tech companies which are just trying to "partner" with me, which means "sell" me something that I don't need that isn't really helping me solve any of my problems.  And, I have a bigger issue with sales pitches that lack any evidence which led to my pontificating about ed tech start-ups not including educators in their equation, or at least, it felt like that (see Educational technology cannot be created in a vacuum).  I greatly dislike most decisions that are made without considering any evidence or at a minimum are grounded in some theoretical underpinning of how we teach, learn, communicate, and/or interact.  There are too many shiny balls out there.  People that chase them are irritating.  Wait -- where am I going with this?  I don't know...back to my main points.

We were given 5 criteria on which to evaluate (see below).  As you can see from my strategic model referred to earlier, I have dozens of things that I think about when exploring a technology for use for myself as a teacher, but especially considering it's potential for diffusion on my campus or within the System. Therefore, these criteria weren't fully fitting for me although they helped us evaluate the companies...for the most part.

Shark tank panel at #ET4Online
1. relevance of the problem solved by the ed tech startup's solution

2. potential scope of audience that would be served by the solution

3. perceived ease-of-use for teachers and students

4. uniqueness

5. has it been tested? results or feedback so far

So, I received the urge to blog describing things that I think are helpful for higher ed to know from tech companies, especially start-ups.

Here they are:

1. What is the problem?  I always ask faculty this as well.  Specifically, what problem are you trying to solve and then linking up to a technology that will effectively solve that problem, otherwise called one's pedagogical need.  In several keynotes I have discussed avoiding having technology drive you.  I want to know this first from a start-up.  I was reading an article the other day from the Eventbrite CEO talking about how to be successful and she stated -- solve a problem!  Using a story/narrative or some data to back it up is always nice too.

2. How does the functionality solve the problem or make it different from other tools?  Many times I hear non-stop about all the functionality.  I can't consume all of that. I don't need to know, at least at first, everything it does.  I just need to know how it solves the problem.  We can get into details later when we do a demo.  If the problem doesn't resonate with me and/or I don't think your solving it, I don't want to hear too much more.

3. What evidence do you have that this technology solves the problem?  How do you measure the construct?  What is the research question?  I find a lot of vendors using the marketing buzz words, especially engagement.  However, I rarely hear vendors show me data that the technology actually increased engagement.  Actually, some vendors know very little about what engagement is.  If you don't, please read this piece by Kuh, The National Survey of Student Engagement: Conceptual Framework and Overview of Psychometric Properties, and the associated references articles (See http://nsse.iub.edu/pdf/conceptual_framework_2003.pdf).  Take some time to show us some evidence that it solves the problem, even if preliminary.  Or, showcase the work being down on campuses using your product.  This is one area a friendly ed tech research can "partner" with you to figure out for a discounted rate in using your product or a small summer stipend ;)

4. What is your financial model?  Through my time at the university, I have been very cautious of resources.  First, I am attentive to cost to faculty and students.  Second, I am not looking to spend months trying to acquire a technology just to pilot.  Therefore, it is important that tech start-ups provide affordable opportunities to facilitate campus pilots.  I understand...you need to make money too, but provide flexibility in options.  For example, maybe you have a business-student model that passes on the cost to students while waiving the institutional fees (like publishers).

5. What development, training, and/or support is provided to faculty? staff? students?  This is a huge resource when considering bringing in a new technology to a campus.  I have found that this is an afterthought for tech start-ups.  However, it should be part of your strategy.  Make sure to considering how you are going to support instructors and students whether through web conference, digital documentation, and just in time support.   Also, consider setting up zendesk or some sort of services to alleviate support for campuses.  Caution!  Some campuses may have this system down.  Back off.  Let them handle it.  However, many campuses won't, and it will hurt your diffusion. This is one area a friendly faculty developer can "partner" with you to figure out for a discounted rate in using your product or a small summer stipend ;)    

6. How does your technology fit in the larger learning technology ecosystem, possibly an LMS?  Many times I see these stand alone technologies, and I think to myself, "how do I use this in my course."  My course is fully online, it uses the LMS pretty extensively, and I already use a lot of other tools -- let's call this my learning technology ecosystem.  Now, you show up with this new product that I love, but how does it fit.  If I can't conceptualize it, I'm out.  Same for most instructors.  So, show me how it fits (LTI, custom nav bar with link, etc.).  Again, show me what it looks like in "my" class.  I don't want to hear about partnerships with LMSs, I want to see them.

Well, I hope this helps someone.  Thanks to all of the companies, @dropthought, @getjunction, @zaption, @Yellowdig, and @GoREACT, for their presentations at #et4online!  Thanks to my wonderful colleagues (@bonstweart and @gsiemens) for their refreshing perspectives in this muddied sea.

Look for more reflections of #et4online and #et4women in the future.

See #ET4TTank for more of the convo!


Addendum 5.1.15 --

Just was reviewing an academic article I wrote.  For those of you interested in engagement:

"Engagement is a construct developed from the effective practices in undergraduate education (Chickering and Gamson, 1986) with a focus on decades of research not only time on task (Tyler, Hertel, McCallum, & Ellis, 1979) and quality of effort (Pace, 1980), but more recently a focus on the social.  Since the 1980’s, research has started to focus on student involvement (Astin, 1984) and social and academic intergration (Tinto, 1987)."