Is your product interoperable? Meaning, does it sync with other tools that a school or district is using, and make it easy for educators and school leaders to turn data into insights and action?
For some startups, the idea of dealing with interoperability sounds just as daunting as the word is itself to pronounce. But Erin Mote, a coach at EdSurge Immersion NYC on Sep. 13 and founder of the Brooklyn Lab Charter School and InnovateEDU, says early stage companies should prioritize this if they want to get an edge on the bigger competitors.
“Sometimes young entrepreneurs have a hard time competing with well-known brands or the big publishers,” says Mote. “But the reality is that the big publishers are so cobbled right now by tech debt around interoperability and building to a standard. This is a place where young entrepreneurs and nimble companies can actually slide in, and gain market share in places where they might not traditionally be able to get that foothold.”
In fact, according to Mote, school districts in cities such as San Francisco, Boston or Providence will not even consider companies that have not taken the Project Unicorn Pledge, a commitment for companies to “increase secure access, privacy, and interoperability in their products.”
A quick primer on interoperability: It is the seamless, secure and controlled exchange of data between different applications. It enables many of the conveniences that are largely invisible in our everyday lives. It allows, for instance, pharmacists to verify and prepare your medications after your doctor’s visit. It allows companies to pay employees via direct deposit, and for you to pay others via mobile apps or online banking services.
In education, however, interoperability has lagged behind other industries. Data is fragmented across different systems, which means records are not easily transferable between tools used within the same school or district. Many times, products don’t even record student or achievement data in the same format, which can make it difficult for educators and school leaders to know how well a student is doing.
Interoperability is an easy sell in theory. Making it happen is not. With different types of data and changing data standards, many entrepreneurs understandably find it daunting to know where to start. Mote advises startups to refrain from trying to tackle everything at once.
One of the simpler, but most important, tasks to start with is rostering, which deals with how user accounts for your tool are provisioned, and how they are updated as students and teachers move between classes and grade levels. “There is not a single superintendent I talk to anymore that does not expect rostering” in education software, says Mote.
Rostering solutions no longer need to be built in-house. There are companies that can help such as Clever or Classlink. Clever helps you to do rostering for any school but you will have to pay for the integration. Classlink is free for companies but you’ll need to ensure that the schools you are working with are Classlink customers. Early-stage entrepreneurs should do a cost analysis of whether to develop it yourself or use one of these providers.
Next, talk to schools to get a sense of what types of data educators and administrators want from the product. Maybe they want information about attendance or test scores. Or perhaps they want to see how long students engage with content and work through the activities. In any case, don’t build something you think users might want. Spend time talking to them to understand what they can’t live without.
Giving access to the right data isn’t the endgame, though. Mote says that it’s just as important for companies to help educators know how to make use of that information. From her experience, she says, “most products die on the vine because of implementation failures.” Providing professional development resources and training support goes a long way in helping educators know how to effectively integrate new tools into their everyday practice.
After all, building a successful education product doesn’t end with the first sale. It’s also about ensuring the renewal.
Want to hear more advice from Mote? Join us at EdSurge Immersion NYC on Sept 13!