The Five Biggest Misconceptions in Ed-Tech
A how-to guide for anyone interested growing an online education company
Thanks in part to the global Covid-19 pandemic, the global education technology industry is on track to be valued at nearly $350 billion USD by 2025. It’s no wonder that droves of investors and entrepreneurs are rushing to take advantage of the surging demand for tools and resources to support online learning.
Unfortunately, the education market is notoriously tricky to navigate, and I regularly encounter aspiring ed-tech entrepreneurs, investors, and employees who don’t fully understand the challenges of this space. That being said, with the right approach, which I’ve tried to outline here, there is a ton of potential for impact.
Misconception #1: Students Will Love It
My product provides high quality, engaging educational content that students will prefer over traditional ways of teaching/learning.
Reality Check: Great teachers have a way of bringing even the most boring topics to life through interactive activities and hands-on learning. Unless your product enables teachers to do what they do best, or you’re creating educational content for TikTok or YouTube, students probably will not go out of their way to consume your content. There are a few exceptions to this (especially at the elementary level, for example Prodigy), but for the most part, if your product is educational content, you will most likely struggle to get traction and usage from K12 or college students.
I’ve seen countless ed-tech companies bringing their product to market only to discover that students won’t go out of their way to use it, even if the benefits are huge. For example when I worked with NexusEdge, a platform that provides micro-credentials to help users pre-qualify for job opportunities, circumventing the need for a college degree, the benefit (a free credential, a potential job) was obvious, and still, students who were provided with the opportunity to participate didn’t jump onboard until we worked more closely with community college leaders to set aside classroom time to work on the platform or assign badges as graded homework.
In other words, don’t expect students to log-on to your platform unless it’s implemented during school hours or assigned as homework by a teacher.
If you really care about impact, make sure you’re not just focused on students or parents as users, but on teachers as implementers. Nearpod and Reverb are great examples of tools that enable (rather than replace) teachers.
Additionally, as you onboard teachers (whether that’s through webinars, 1:1 demos, or in-app tours), be sure to emphasize implementation options and case studies.
Misconception #2: We’re Better Than the Competition
My product has a better UX and relevance to students than what is currently on the market.
Reality Check: Educators care about more than the look and feel of a tool. Having a fresh look and feel is great first step to engage students, but educators will also want to know your answers to the following questions:
- Does it align with curriculum?
- Does it integrate with their LMS?
- Does it provide helpful reporting and data to assess their students?
- Does it suggest or provide interventions if students aren’t meeting expectations?
- Does it provide enough content/value to make the effort to implement a new tool worth it?
- Does it comply with data privacy standards?
- Is it recommended or approved by their district administrators?
Even then, compelling answers to all of these questions won’t be enough. Though educators are always looking for new resources for their classroom, they’re still humans, and humans are creatures of habit. If they’ve been using a resource year after year in their classroom without too many issues, it’s unlikely they’ll be that motivated to put in the time to explore a new tool, let alone familiarize themselves with it, no matter how great it is. Reworking lesson plans to replace an outdated resource to incorporate your new product takes time, and that’s one thing teachers are especially short on.
Furthermore, teachers are often making decisions about resources as teams, whether that’s by grade, subject, school, or district. Switching from one resource to another might not be as simple as one teacher deciding they’re ready for something different. It might mean having to convince a group of peers who are less inclined to innovate that it’s worth the risk.
In other words, switching costs are high for teachers and you shouldn’t assume that just because you have a snazzier looking site or more engaging content that a teacher will be motivated to adopt something new, especially if they are among the first to do so.
When I started working with Find Your Grind, a self-discovery and career exploration platform, they correctly determined that existing K12 career exploration platforms were outdated and uninspiring. However, they incorrectly assumed that educators found this to be a pain point. It turns out that Naviance was already entrenched in schools across the country. The legacy platform had the benefit of a piggy backing off the sophisticated sales force of their parent company Hobsons, and though their video content is not especially engaging for students, their multi-year contracts, their extensive reporting capabilities, and their breadth (self assessments, course planners, resume builders, and college search tools) & depth (7,000+ videos) of content made them very sticky with educators. In the end, Find Your Grind was able to complement Naviance by pivoting to focus on a direct to consumer model targeted at 16–22 year olds, and by offering Lifestyle Fairs for high schools.
Spend a lot of time talking to your customers/implementers (ideally) before you invest in building your product, and as you shift your focus to marketing and sales. You’ll want to get a sense of:
- their biggest pain points
- the real costs of switching
- what they’re worried could go wrong if they adopt
- whether they need administrator or even district approval
- whether there is budget available for your product
- if they already have multi-year contracts in place
- whether there are data privacy concerns
- what features would compel them to try something new
Based on what you’re hearing, you should adjust your product road map, and/or your go-to-market plans including your pricing strategy, marketing channels, and messaging, accordingly.
Finally, address competition by being clear about how you’re different in your marketing and sales collateral and develop case studies of customers who have switched from a competitor.
Misconception #3: Using Our Online Learning Tool is a No-Brainer
The need/problem that we’re solving is so great, teachers will see the value for their students
Reality Check: In education, the mere existence of a problem doesn’t prove that there is motivation to solve it. There are endless problems and needs educators are solving for on any given day (especially now with Covid-19). The urgency an educator feels to address the problem you’re trying to solve might not correlate with the actual urgency of the problem (at least as felt by you, the founder or ed-tech company employee).
A variety of factors dictate how educators prioritize the issues they need to address — district mandates, public pressure, caregiver priorities, the actual interests/learning gaps/challenges of their students, how their performance is evaluated, and so on.
For example, a teacher may be passionate about preparing their students for the future of work, but still not have the budget for the technology necessary to do so. Or their students might be suffering from a culture of cyber-bullying, so teaching social-emotional skills and digital citizenship becomes their biggest priority. Or they might be struggling with attendance. Or parents might be pressuring them to spend more time on test prep. Or they simply can’t find the time to redo their lessons to be more career focused when they’re already struggling to squeeze in all the science standards they need to teach in the year.
You can build a perfect product that is engaging for students and easy for teachers to implement but none of that will matter if teachers don’t feel the responsibility, or have the time, to address the problem that you’re trying to solve. Even taking away the financial barrier, as we did at EVERFI, which provides over 20 online courses that teach critical skills such as mental wellness and financial literacy for free to schools, doesn’t guarantee a product will be adopted effortlessly.
Understand that there are many factors at play when a teacher is deciding what resources or tools to use. As much as possible:
- align your resource to the local curriculum
- make that curriculum alignment explicit in your marketing materials
- create Google alerts around issues your product addresses to inform where your marketing/sales efforts could be best targeted
- look for regional trends in adoption to lean into
- personalize outreach to decision makers in those areas where you see favourable trends
- make implementation/onboarding as intuitive and quick as possible (in-platform tutorials, clear messaging in marketing collateral etc)
- integrate with the most common LMSs
- offer professional development opportunities for educators (and eventually train-the-trainer models)
- in your sales and marketing strategy, build in ways to make potential customers feel responsible for and empowered to address the problem at hand
- as a part of your account management/customer success strategy, look for ways to make customers feel proud for going above and beyond by using your product to solve a problem
Misconception #4: Our Go-To-Market Strategy is Focused on Organic Growth
Because our product addresses a real need, we expect it to practically sell itself (by word of mouth, search, thoughtfully designed website etc)
Reality Check: It’s true that referrals go a long way in the education industry. Teachers trust teachers, which is why platforms like Teachers Pay Teachers and Pinterest are so popular among educators. However, teacher networks are often hyper-local, so personalized referrals from early adopters will only take you so far. Furthermore, teachers are skeptical as to whether a tool that worked in a different context will work in theirs. Breaking into a new market often requires relationship building with local leaders who can open doors for you or help you understand how your messaging needs to be adapted to meet local customs.
When I led EVERFI’s expansion into Canada, teachers quite frankly did not care how many teachers were using our products in the U.S., they wanted to know who was using it in Canada, in their province, and ideally in their district. Getting the first users onboard in each region was tough, but they eventually acted as social proof when we started to scale.
As we’ve already explored, there are also a number of factors that work against adoption of new resources, no matter how great they may be, so with only a passive marketing strategy, you will eventually hit a wall. I’ve worked with a number of ed-tech companies that thought they could avoid building a sales team by focusing on finding product-market fit and clever marketing strategies. But it’s one thing to build a product that a customer will love, it’s another to convince them to buy and adopt it.
Don’t count on organic growth. Especially in the early stages of growth, you might have to do activities that don’t scale well before you can become more efficient. Beyond investing in user/implementer research to inform your product roadmap and marketing strategy, as previously mentioned, you should develop a more active marketing and sales strategy:
- partner with teacher influencers to expand your reach
- present at regional conferences
- develop individual relationships with early adopters in as many regions and contexts (different student body demographics, rural vs urban, large district vs small district etc) as possible —
- leverage early adopter relationships for social proof to help you scale: collect written testimonials, film product being implemented, write case studies
- make it easy for customers to share your resource, and prompt them regularly to do so
- aim for diversity on your team from the start, so your product can work for as many markets as possible
- include a direct sales process in your go-to-market strategy
- think like a salesperson at every stage of the customer journey:
1. source high quality leads
2. have a clear next step with every touch point
3. consider what micro-commits you can ask for
4. manage your pipeline with a CRM which you keep clean and accurate
5. track conversion rates at every stage of the process and develop a strategy for how to keep improving them
Misconception #5: Our Pricing Model Removes the Adoption Barriers
I will reach a broader audience by making my product free (at least in the beginning).
Reality Check: Just because your product is free, it doesn’t mean teachers will use it. With educators, time is as big of a barrier as budget, so your product still has to provide a lot of value to them. If you’re thinking of a sales funnel that takes a user from unaware of your product to a customer, you might have the following categories: 1. lead 2. engaged 3. trained/qualified 4. active/customer, it’s easy to move a teacher from “lead” to “engaged” when the offer is free (whether that’s because it’s sponsored, a free trial, or a freemium type model). It’s a lot harder to convince them to take the time to understand and actually use the product so they become active customers.
At Edmit, we found that on top of making our college financial planning tool free, we had to offer professional development opportunities and additional resources, such as Financial Aid Night toolkits, to facilitate adoption.
Additionally, if you’re making your product free to benefit under-resourced districts, consider that educators in those districts probably are stretched the most thin — between large class sizes, higher turnover, and challenges outside the classroom — and might not have the time to evaluate your resource, or even the devices to easily implement it with confidence. Teachers in under resourced districts often have less figurative and literal bandwidth.
Other drawbacks of “free” are that:
- educators might not trust that you’ll be in business for long, and therefore, not worth the investment of their energy to adopt
- educators might perceive the product to be of less value, before they even try it
- educators might assume that the offer is too good to be true and there must be some strings attached, therefore not even considering it
In other words, don’t expect educators to move from engaged to active on a free product, unless it’s providing real value to them and you’ve built trust.
Don’t forget that there are more barriers to signing up customers than price. To convince educators to take the time to learn about your product and implement it in their classrooms you should:
- be able to clearly demonstrate how you are generating enough revenue to stay in business
- provide training and extra support to under-resourced districts if your focus is on equity
- focus on how your product is a value-add for teacher — does it save them time? align to the curriculum? improve student outcomes? make their jobs easier somehow?
The Bottom Line
Finding product-market fit and getting traction in schools is HARD. The education market is complex, users often aren’t the implementers who often aren’t the buyers. Developing a proper Go-To-Market Strategy, that addresses each of these five assumptions, using the suggestions I’ve provided, can help you start to develop traction that will help you scale and eventually become profitable in the education technology market.