By Guest Contributor Jeremy Cesarec
Along with my CB&A colleague, Saul Hafenbredl, senior director of business strategy & development, I recently had the opportunity to join the edtech community at the 2023 ASU+GSV Summit. The event returned to post-COVID form, with overflowing sessions, packed social events, and a hotel lobby rivaling Grand Central Station at 5:05 PM.
Topics were wide-ranging, but a few key themes relevant to edtech marketers and vendors really stood out. We have compiled the most-relevant takeaways and considerations for businesses looking for a competitive advantage in the edtech space.
“IS THIS THE LINE FOR THE AI SESSION? THEY’RE ALWAYS THE LONGEST ONES.”
That we overheard this statement while in line for yet another over-booked AI session sums up this year’s summit well. While many sessions were crowded, the AI-focused panels almost always resembled a can of sardines, and we sometimes got turned away at the door.
With the recent release of tools with many potential classroom applications—like ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion—the crowd was curious to hear how generative AI is already being implemented in edtech, and how it might evolve in the future. Topics ranged from Jestsons-level virtual chatbot tutors, to serious concerns about AI’s potential impact on equity and access.
EdTech Marketer Takeaways:
Always keep a human in the loop.
While AI will automate menial classroom tasks and help across a number of dimensions, nearly everyone associated with its development warned that we are a long way from jettisoning a flesh and blood component. These tools will need human oversight during development, deployment and ongoing use. If you are adding AI to your edtech product, remember to have people in the mix to ensure that equity and safety concerns are top-of-mind.
We cannot separate the human from the tech.
When adding humans to that loop, ensure that they are diverse and representative of the population you are serving. Be conscientious about who develops the product, who interprets the data and who makes decisions. In the past, that has been a homogenous group, and we need to invite diverse voices to avoid creating new blind spots. Skeptical edtech customers will need to see those efforts before they are comfortable using AI-enabled solutions.
AI must augment, not replace, teachers.
Cutting-edge tech has a habit of displacing humans without considering the consequences. Teachers will always be the lynchpin of a quality education, and new solutions need to help them do their jobs better, not give them the impression they are being replaced by bots.
TUTORING WORKS, BUT SUPPLY DOES NOT MEET DEMAND
High-dosage tutoring has been one of the few bright spots in the quest to reverse COVID learning loss.
While we have long known the impressive impact that individualized, differentiated instruction can have (thanks, Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem), the urgency of COVID coupled with the influx of funding —an estimated $1.7B in stimulus funds are being used for tutoring—has accelerated the need for more tutors nationwide. Unsurprisingly, at the summit there was significant emphasis on how to continue providing more tutoring to students—virtually and in-person.
EdTech Marketer Takeaways:
Teachers need to see tutoring as a complement, not a threat.
If you are providing a tutoring solution, it should be framed as a way to offer students differentiated learning that a single classroom teacher cannot. Tutors should free up the lead teacher to focus on forging relationships with students, supporting their SEL needs, and providing high-level lesson planning and activities that tutors are not well-suited for, especially virtually.
The long-held perception of what a classroom “looks” like is a tension for innovation.
The pandemic shake-up provided some radical predictions about the classroom of the future—from one lead teacher overseeing small pods of students each paired with a virtual tutor, to giant classrooms of 75–100 students supported by a mix of fellow teachers and tutors providing highly specialized and differentiated instruction. But districts—and the vendors that would support these radical transformations—will need to overcome status quo bias. If these arrangements can outperform a traditional model, they will still look and feel different to teachers, parents and students.
As we heard during one panel: edtech is currently built for the one teacher / one classroom model. Solutions providers need to be part of transforming the system, and cannot just build for the system we already have. There is an opportunity to help open the door to some of this ambitious innovation and build a vision for classrooms that meet today’s needs.
HELP WANTED: RE-PROFESSIONALIZE TEACHING TO INCREASE RECRUITMENT, RETENTION AND JOB SATISFACTION
There are many reasons that teaching is increasingly seen as an unappealing career choice, and some factors fall into the purview of edtech and other vendors (assessment and data-focus, a proliferation of classroom tools, constant updating and on-boarding, etc.). We heard a labor leader suggest that the de-professionalization of teaching is a key teacher complaint, but also that edtech can re-professionalize teaching by giving educators the space they need to use their expertise.
EdTech Marketer Takeaways:
Tech is best when it offloads the unimportant things and makes room for meaningful engagement.
You can position your product as a tool for providing more time to connect with students by giving them comfort and targeted support. To win teachers over, focus on those benefits as much as you do your product features.
Be patient and empathetic.
In one conversation, an insightful edtech marketer mentioned that we need to allow for teachers to process grief in the face of rapid or radical change. Unlike some careers, a teacher’s self-image is often highly connected to their profession. Especially after many years in the classroom, they can see their own pedagogical style as an extension of themselves, and major changes—especially edtech—can disrupt their self perception.
As marketers, we need to be empathetic and show that we understand the emotional impact of significant classroom changes. Remember that a major pedagogical change feels different to a teacher than switching to a new marketing automation software might to you.
JAILBREAK THE COLLEGE DEGREE
We continue to be in a world of rapid change—generative AI tools are just the latest innovation that will require adaptation and learning no matter the stage of our career. Many of the higher education conversations at the summit focused on providing employees with education records that reflect their skills, not just the schools they attended or diplomas they earned.
There were numerous experts who emphasized the importance of prioritizing lifelong learning, as well as many vendors focused on new models for professional development at any career stage.
EdTech Marketer Takeaways:
Universal education records will be key to an equitable future.
Our current model focuses on a narrow idea of traditional degrees. But diplomas are stagnant in a world that requires constant self-improvement and mastery of skills that likely did not exist when most degree-holders graduated.
Professional development vendors need to find ways to provide durable, universal records of credentials that employees can keep in a single place, and employers can trust. There is room for edtech vendors to address this need, and to work with peers in the space to build the type of universal records that will help improve the perception of the continuing education sector overall.
Employers are the fourth education sector.
Businesses have a lot to gain by quickly and accurately assessing their employees’ deficiencies, and providing them with targeted and differentiated upskilling. While there was a lot of discussion about providing younger students with differentiated education at the summit, there is also an opportunity to do the same for adult learners. Solutions providers who can diagnose deficits, prescribe a solution, and then deliver a differentiated learning path will thrive.
TO GET EDTECH BUY-IN, REMEMBER THAT “TEACHERS MOVE AT THE SPEED OF TRUST”
Teachers are ferocious protectors of their students’ best interests, and if they do not trust you, they will resist you. We heard many district leaders and classroom educators discuss their good and bad experiences with edtech integration, and offer ways to improve buy-in and collaboration.
EdTech Marketer Takeaways:
Not being represented in the software is isolating for students and teachers.
As one panelist said, many products prioritize exemplar users in their development and testing. They tap into feedback from groups of early-adopter teachers and straight-A students, then wonder why their product does not get results in the field. Instead, flip the script, and seek input from skeptical or tech-reluctant teachers and test your product with struggling students, too.
Honesty breeds transparency and trust.
If you exaggerate your products’ capabilities, you will invite disappointment and users will be harder on you than if you had been transparent upfront. If your district partner does not trust you, they will not be honest with you, and vice versa. You want critical feedback so you can improve. It also often helps to bring in a third-party service to collect customer feedback to provide a buffer between you and your customer.
Teachers love to laminate.
For onboarding and professional development resources, it is easy to default to digital materials. But one thing has not changed much since your own kindergarten days: teachers love to print and laminate! Give them something tactile: if they can print it, they will keep it—and reference it—for years to come.
Change teacher mindsets from “I have to use this,” to “I get to use this.”
Educators are overwhelmed with calls for their time and attention. While your company’s solution is the sun and moon in your world, to them it is just another thing to worry about. To build enthusiasm for your product or service, help your buyers understand what things teachers will be able to take off their plates when they add your product to the menu. And the fastest way to land in “I have to use this” territory is to imply that teachers are currently doing something wrong that your product will fix. You should position your solution as an opportunity, not an indictment.
Are you preparing for upcoming education conferences, like ISTE? Read CB&A’s recent post How to Make the Most of Your 2023 Education Conference Experience.
Jeremy Cesarec is Content Director for C. Blohm & Associates (CB&A).
Founded in 1991, CB&A is the most experienced marketing communications agency specializing in the U.S. education market. CB&A accelerates the growth of companies that provide products and services to K-12 school systems and higher education institutions. For more information about CB&A, visit www.cblohm.com.