Among a growing number of eduprenuers transforming education, Gary Hensley (pictured, left) and Matt Hartman (right) are making it easier for educators to get their jobs done, despite tightening budgets and time constraints. Here, Gary and Matt respond to some basic questions about their work, the power of crowdsourcing, the implications of acquisitions, advice for edtech start-ups—and the future of education in a digital age.
Victor: What is the RTImatrix?
Gary: On one hand it’s a simple, easy-to-use organizational tool that helps educators with their RTI planning process. On the other hand, it’s a resource for educators to find intervention and assessment products based on the reviews and ratings of other educators that have used them. Recent research suggests that lack of planning resources is a major hurdle to educators trying to implement RTI in their learning communities. We’re tackling these two important challenges now, however we plan to chip away at others in the near future as we see RTI as a growing and necessary movement in K-12.
Matt: Crowdsourcing has proven to be a powerful tool in creating best practices and evaluating products. We’re bringing the crowdsourcing model to RTI in a big way. We will not only show educators what works, but what works for learning communities similar to theirs in demographics. The application will also allow easy communication and collaboration between stakeholders within and outside their learning communities.
The original idea for the actual planning matrix came from working with Dr. Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University and we’ve expanded it to what we consider a strong viable product for RTI professionals.
Victor: Why is it free?
Gary: Free is a concept that we’ve discussed for some time as edtech entrepreneurs. It hasn’t seemed to work that well in edtech and we’ve discussed some theories why. We have seen companies make the mistake of ‘giving away’ a product because they can’t sell it or worse, we’ve seen people try to just win the ‘race to zero.’ In both cases, they start by hoping they can support the business through ad revenue. The problem with such a basic ad-supported model, is that it runs the risk of communicating to people that they shouldn’t place value in your product. It also becomes a page view and clicks numbers game that drives your development rather than user experience. It’s like saying, I’m going to give this to you for free, but it will seem cheap (limited) and be annoying to use.
Matt: RTImatrix, however, has value and could be sold but we have a longer term strategy that requires us to gain a lot of users and fast. We didn’t want to wait for normal purchasing cycles that in K-12, as we all know, can be long and seasonal. Our message to customers will be that we gain monetary value from how they use the RTImatrix and from their feedback on other products and services within RTI. People understand that data has value and that creating a free community has worked for many of the largest technology companies that we see all the time in the news.
Gary: Similar to other great free products on the web, people may wonder how it is free, rather than say ‘no wonder it’s free.’
Victor: Thoughts on education these days?
Gary: By its nature, education is going to be examined and questioned constantly. Whether it’s policy, teaching and learning best practices, or any philosophy, you’re going to have opposing viewpoints and constant change. However, as budgets have increased in K-12 education and you have billions of dollars being spent each year, people are challenging motives and putting spending decisions through more scrutiny.
There are four barriers to smaller companies innovating in this space.
· Long and extremely seasonal purchasing cycles – advantage goes to established companies that can wait these out.
· Relying on limited peer recommendation for decision making (either piggy-backing on bids or choosing what your neighbor has) – advantage goes to companies with existing market share.
· Relying on sales demos and white papers/research provided by selling company – advantage goes to companies with large product marketing budgets.
· RFP Processes – small companies don’t have the resources to participate in the same volume of RFPs as larger companies- advantage goes to established, larger companies.
Matt: The bottom line, what we’re getting at, is that K-12 purchasing is not an ideal environment for innovation from new edtech companies and our thought on education, as K-12 entrepreneurs, is that this needs to change. By crowdsourcing and leveraging online communities we can allow everyone to share their voice with regard to the best technology out there, similar to what amazon or yelp does for consumer products. Of course, for larger purchasing decisions, educators may want a little more meat (pronounced ‘expensive research’) going into such review sites, and we have plans for that as well. We figure this is just a good first step in leveling the field a little and allowing the best solutions, not the best promoted, to rise to the top.
Gary: In addition, there are so many changes in the education it can make your head spin (common core, reauthorization of ESEA, teacher accountability). It is easy to forget that there is a Human Element to all this. Dow Chemical had a commercial a couple of years ago that spoke of the element that is missing in the periodic table. The element so essential that its existence is just understood. The Human Element changes everything. The goal of the RTImatrix is to make sure that educators have a plan in place that can be shared and if you don’t know what to do for a student you have other educators as a resources to find out what is working. Technology can accelerate this process but the Human Element makes the difference.
Victor: Thoughts on the future of education technology?
Gary: It’s almost cliché to discuss how technology has come so far in recent years—but it’s true. From smart phones to smart houses, technology is making us better. The problem that this revolution has created as that you have schools and districts literally divided in half between those that understand these advances and those who struggle with them. Furthermore, it’s much easier for those born in digital, so to speak, to adjust to any new technology than it is for those not. Thus, as we see the younger generations making up more of the education community, with many baby boomers retiring over the next few years, the percentage of digital natives in all roles in education will be sliding quickly towards a strong majority.
Matt: So we’ll see quicker adoption of technology existing in the private sector, whereas now it lags between 5 and 15 years. However, the other side of this token is that we will see greater scrutiny placed on user experience, which we’ve started to see a little lately, but people will also know to a much greater degree what they like and what is possible in functionality.
Victor: What has being acquired taught you about edtech?
Gary: We both had successful startups in K-12 that were eventually acquired. Our stories are slightly different but the lessons learned and our overall thoughts towards our experience are very similar. We both know that edtech is not geared towards the little guy and that innovation comes slowly because of it. We also know that ease-of-use for the end-user, such as a teacher, is not necessarily as highly valued as the features benefiting the purchaser, like security and scalability. Obviously, those two things are very important, but so is productivity for the end user.
Matt: We want to open up dialog and shine a light on the products that work best, rather than the products that sound the best because they have a lot of money behind them.
Gary: When we came together we both agreed that, whereas on our first ventures a liquidity event was the main goal, this time we wanted to focus on a long-term and positive disruption to the edtech space. Of course, we both care about K-12 and are passionate about the space—however, our business goals are more aligned with gearing everything towards building a lasting footprint in K-12. We achieved this already as our products are living on…but this time we would like to live on with them.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com