Wednesday, November 20, 2013

5 things to remember about teachers when you are building your edtech product

1 - teachers are among the busiest people on the planet.  The best thing you can do for a teacher is to save them time so that they can focus more on their students.

One of the biggest uses for zeal is personalizing homework.  It is incredible how valuable saving a couple hours a week of assembly and grading of homework are to most teachers.

2 - a teacher lives and dies by how their school day goes.  Tools that make it go more smoothly (better instruction, better planning, better assessment, better management etc) are what teachers need.

A great example here is class dojo.  Teachers manage their school day with this tool and the adoption has been incredible.

3 - teachers are very social people by nature and care about human relationships.  The more your system unlocks that sociability, the more engagement you will get.

Edmodo figured this out better than anyone else.

4 - don't make the mistake of thinking a teacher's students are your customers.  If you are trying to improve the lives/performance of kids, you should, but remember that if the person choosing your software is a teacher, your value proposition has to be to them.

We spend a lot of time improving learning velocity of students on zeal, but make no mistake that an incisive report or graph that a teacher can use to better understand a student is worth its weight in gold.

5 - if you have not taught, it is a disadvantage, and the only way to overcome that is to spend a lot of time in the classroom user testing your product.

We have more than one teacher on our founding team, but we still spend at least 8 hours per week user testing with teachers and students.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Why Beyond Schools?

A bunch of folks have asked me about the title of my blog.  Since I worked and led schools for a decade, I clearly have a lot of affinity for them.  So why "beyond"?  I think we have reached the limit of what we can load on teachers and schools and expect them to do.  It is a bit like moore's law, every few years the linear improvements that yield to chips doubling in density every 18 months is threatened, and a new solution needs to be developed to get back on the curve.

I think parents in many Western nations went too far in giving up responsibility for our children's life outcomes to schools.  The only way I see our kids making the kind of gains we want is a partnership between teachers and parents.

I taught in very low income schools in Nashville, TN for three years.  I tried to work hard to get families involved in what we were doing in class.  My co-founder at Rocketship, Preston Smith, was much better at this and his ability to bring the community into the school is a huge part of what makes rocketship succeed.  It also made clear how far the norm had shifted at the average American school towards parents passing responsibility to teachers for their kids academic success.  I don't think that is good.  Parents have to pay attention to their kids, because everything doesn't go well socially, emotionally or academically and any of these areas can really take your children off-track.

In very low-income communities, people are often working multiple jobs and have a lot of things requiring their attention just to keep the lights on and family fed.  If education takes too much time or capacity at home, it won't happen.  Often there are language barriers to understand their children's academic needs or parents themselves don't have the academic background to help on their own.

That is a very difficult set of challenges to overcome in order to help your children.  But it has to happen.  Parents have to be clear on what their children need and have to have the tools to help them. The closer we get to every child walking into class academically prepared, the more we shift the norm back to a partnership between parents and teachers.

That is what we are working on at Zeal.  If we can help parents play a bigger role in learning, we think our superhero teachers will have a fighting chance of helping them to grow up to their full potential.