By Justin Wedell, Associate Partner, NewSchools Venture Fund
What should ed tech companies keep top of mind as they navigate our new COVID-19 reality? NewSchools recently brought together a diverse group of current and former superintendents from around the country to share their perspectives on this question. Our guests included:
- PJ Caposey, superintendent of Meridian CUSD in Illinois,
- Kevin Chase, superintendent of Yakima-based Educational Service District 105 in Washington,
- Joseph Davis, superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri,
- Traci Davis, former superintendent of the Washoe County School District in Nevada, and
- Danny Merck, superintendent of Pickens County School District in South Carolina.
Below, we’ve outlined the top takeaways from the discussion.
- Be a partner, not a vendor. Across the board, superintendents voiced how impressed they were by their current vendors who had doubled down as partners in problem-solving through the crisis. These vendors became crucial in supporting their transition to distance learning and, in the process, built deeper loyalties in their relationships. It’s expected that these actions won’t go unnoticed as superintendents decide what to prioritize and expand in the coming years.
- Trust in relationships. Superintendents are currently receiving a deluge of outreach from ed tech companies. It’s overwhelming, and superintendents were candid in saying that if a vendor isn’t already in their circle, it will be hard to break through. However, superintendents were amenable to recommendations from other administrators or educators. This reflects with findings from 2019’s NewSchools-Gallup survey on ed tech, in which more than 80% of educators said they trust “teachers” most when deciding what digital learning tools to use. Ed tech companies shouldn’t be afraid to ask their customers for recommendations or advice on who to reach out to — they may be surprised by how much a customer is willing to help.
- Understand district priorities. The COVID-19 crisis has surfaced many new challenges and priorities for superintendents. Parent engagement was consistently top of mind throughout the discussion. Superintendents are now searching for new solutions to support keeping parents informed and involved as they take on new educator responsibilities within the distance learning context. Professional development for teachers is also a massive priority. Besides learning how to manage the features and functions of their technology, educators need to learn what best practice looks like for using it to create engaging learning experiences in both distance and hybrid learning scenarios. Ed tech companies should ensure that their customer support and professional development plans align with these unique needs.
- Think beyond core subjects. While tools for core subjects are crucial, superintendents emphasized the importance of finding tools to support social-emotional learning and mental health. Students, parents, and educators are all going through a lot right now. It’s a high priority to find tools that align with their needs and ensure implementations and use that maintain a safe space for users. To the latter point, tools that require students to video chat may inadvertently expose them to social pressures based on their homes’ background. Both educators and ed tech companies must be mindful of such scenarios and bake them into usage best practices.
- Plan for the long haul. Superintendents took care to emphasize that everything that was a problem before the pandemic is still a problem now. They caution ed tech companies against completely overhauling their products to fit the conditions of the current COVID-19 moment. Those core and supplemental learning needs that companies were previously seeking to address are not going away (and are likely being amplified). Superintendents will still be making these a priority, albeit looking for tools that can address them from various implementation scenarios. Finally, with an eye toward budgetary uncertainty, superintendents recommend that ed tech companies consider implementing multi-year subscription plans with potentially-higher first-year payments. This can mitigate risk for ed tech companies as our schools and economy enter an uncertain road to recovery,
The full recording of this discussion is here if you want to hear more great advice from these superintendents. At NewSchools, we’re focused on supporting a more equitable ed tech ecosystem. We hope that this and other resources can help educators, administrators, parents, and ed tech entrepreneurs do just that.
If you’re a school leader or a school system leader, check out our #DistanceLearningLessons webinar series for lessons and resources that can inform the decisions you’re making now to reopen schools safely in the fall.