The Key To Innovation In Educational Technology

Educational technology companies face a unique challenge in finding ways to innovate: their products don’t have to work in order to succeed.

In fact, many educational products don’t work, yet they still sell and even find passionate proponents. Plenty of ideas in education drift along, find purchase with the right crowd, and as long as they present a more engaging method of learning than traditional schooling, are hailed as innovative. This is a fallacy that stands directly in the way of true innovation in ed-tech.

Setting the stage for true innovation in Educational Technology

For the vast majority of industries, innovation is a straightforward concept: a product exists, it does something, and an innovator makes it do that thing better. Simple to comprehend, harder to achieve. The crucial assumption that defines “innovation” is that the new product works. If I innovate microchip technology, it’s presumed that my chip not only works, but also works better than what existed before.

Educational products are judged against criteria that’s much harder to pin down, so they can often get away with just being different. The challenge is inherent to the nature of learning. Whereas most technology functions externally from our brains, educational technology augments our natural ability to learn, something that is so innate and universal a skill that it’s not even exclusive to humans. We are primed to start learning from birth, and we never stop.

In assisting a natural, lifelong instinct, ed-tech products have more in common with an artificial heart or a breathing machine than with technology we typically think of as “innovative.” But a heart and a pair of lungs have specific functions, which makes them straightforward to innovate. Education has no obvious indicator of success or failure. People learn in different ways, to different degrees, and for different purposes.

The ed-tech company that wants to truly innovate needs to think of its product as something that performs against objective criteria, and then it needs to try to improve that performance. In short, they innovate by making sure their product works.

How to cultivate ed-tech innovation

  1. Find out what you want to do.
    Recast your educational technology as a tool for achieving a specific function. By confining the scope of what your product accomplishes, you’re freed to go about definitively improving it. This isn’t to say that you can’t deviate from your original focus — just the opposite. Focusing on particular outcomes is the best way to see what works and what doesn’t.
  2. Be open to a pivot.
    There’s a difference between deciding on particular results to improve upon and being married to that definition of success. You learn your product as you build it. If you’re honest with results and incorporate feedback into the product, you may end up building a tool with stellar results in a use case you never imagined.
  3. Pay attention to results.
    The purpose of narrowing your focus is to be able to cull honest results and judge outcomes as objectively as possible. It’s hard to go too far astray if your product is continually improved in response to concrete data. This is what separates novelty from learning science.
  4. Ignore usage as a success metric.
    Most companies can reasonably equate their product’s usage with success because most companies sell products that don’t survive the market if they don’t work. We in ed-tech are in a more interesting situation. Listen to as much feedback as you can, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that good sales represents objective data on your product. Your success metric is whether the product achieves the goals you set out for it. If it achieves something different, it’s time for a pivot.
  5. Make sure your people are using it.
    This may be the hardest challenge in the whole business of acculturating innovation into an ed-tech company. The best results you can get are from the people around you, but in order to be able to get good results, you have to establish a culture of absolute honesty. Listen to the reviews from people you trust — nothing is more valuable when you’re building a product.

Every step is a leap

Most importantly, recognize that the world of education is enormous enough that any improvement you make to it is hugely consequential. A tremendous amount of money is spent on education and the digital skills gap, and the market for effective learning is so large, that even an improvement that looks minuscule to the ambitious ed-tech product manager can represent a revolutionized area of skills training.

In order to innovate, educational technology companies need to view their products in terms of concrete results that can be improved. It may be slower than some ed-tech companies are used to, but it’s the only way real innovation happens.