Feb 19, 2015

The Diary of an Edtech Startup: The Good, Bad and Ugly

It was a month after I started Smoocer that I realised it comes under the category of an Edtech startup. Edtech means much more than it appears to be. Its not just about online tools that teachers can use to keep track of their students. Edtech startups range right from technologies that sell to schools, products for MOOC takers to learning tools for individual students and learners.

By working on my Edtech startup and in trying to make sense of this industry, I have discovered a few common experiences faced by several Edtech startups whose founders I've interacted with. If you're looking to venture into this space, or if you are already in this space, here are some things that I consider must knows of the Edtech space:

The GOOD: There are tons of opportunity in the market. No matter where you look in the traditional education space, there is almost always visible scope for technology to swoop in and save the day. It can be in the form of Learning Management Systems for teachers or Massive Open Online Coursewares for learners worldwide. Problems, such as poor communication between teachers and students or low accessibility to quality education are well defined problems that have a well defined audience. And this is what makes Edtech such a vibrant and upcoming industry.

The BAD: Just because the problem is clearly defined and existent, doesn't mean people are willing to adopt your solution. Remember that the Edtech space is entirely and completely dependent on the education space, which is fairly resistant to new technology. The Education industry comes under the late majority in adopting technology. Many a time, you can talk to your customers, understand their problems and craft a perfect product for them. But getting them used to screens after decades of having used paper is like trying to train a human being to do a headstand. For them, computers and phones equate to distracting games and social media, which is nowhere close to effective learning and good grades. Online tutoring is an ideal example of a product that faces this kind of problem. So in other words, finding your early adopters might be as difficult as finding your soulmate.

The UGLY: Even if you come with an awesome product that people are want to use, it's hard to get it to them. While the market is well defined, the marketing channels are not. In case of B2B products or services, the bureaucratic hurdles that you may have to jump in educational institutes can really slow you down. In case of B2C products or services, like the kind I'm working on, its difficult to find online platforms and physical places where you can market your product. End users, like professionals taking MOOCs in my case, are scattered across the planet, several MOOC platforms and thousands of Facebook groups. It's not rare for me to be talking to a user who tells me about a very frustrating problem they've been facing, like choosing the right MOOC for themselves, that has already been solved to a large extent by services like Coursetalk and MOOCList. They're just not aware of the solution yet.

I'm not saying that its harder to operate in the Edtech industry than other industries. Just like any other space, this one has its unique set of problems. But despite these problems, Edtech has been the most exciting space I've worked in so far. Its vibrant, moves fast and is far from saturation. And the best part? It feels like a revolution.

Feb 1, 2015

When Education gets Creative with Technology

Reading Tom Wilson's post on good technology for education got me thinking about some of the popular and prevalent social technology that have been used very creatively in online education, or more specifically, in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Coursewares). I remember being awed by each of these things when I came across them, and if you’re an edtech fan like me, it’s likely that these will blow your mind too:
Twitterbot: MOOCs often have discussions on Twitter, wherein hundreds of people taking the course converse by tweeting to the MOOC’s twitter profile. These discussions can be quite fast paced and are usually more spontaneous than those on course discussion forums. A particularly innovative MOOC I came across, called E-learning and Digital Culture on Coursera created a Twitterbot for themselves which would answer the course takers’ tweets automatically by picking out certain predetermined words. And you thought video lectures were advanced?
TalkAbout: TalkAbout is a tool that helps people taking an online course to schedule google hangouts with other students taking the same course. I haven’t personally used it, but from what I understand, it also provides some add-ons that can be used during the google hangout to guide discussion. The simplicity of the idea and the way it makes use of exisiting technology (i.e. Google Hangouts) is fascinating.
Padlet Walls: Padlet may not be something you have heard of unless you’re a user of online project collaboration tools. Well, that’s basically what it is. It lets you invite people to share a ‘padlet wall’ to which all of you can post documents, pictures, links, etc. A few MOOCs which included a final project to be submitted by the end of the course request their students to post the final projects on a common wall like this one. Apart from enabling students to see each others’ projects, this is a great marketing tactic for the course too since the content on these walls is usually made public by the MOOC provider who can display all the work that has come out of their online course.
Facebook and Google+ Communities: Creating FB and Google+ groups for online course takers to interact with each other on social media isn’t particularly innovative. But its probably the most effective. If moderated well, these social media groups can play a huge role in giving MOOC takers a sense of community and comfort. Also, these mediums seem to be better at maintaining long term relationships amongst MOOC takers since people continue to use FB and Google+ even after their course ends.
Do you have any other cool MOOC technologies you’ve come across? Share them with me if you have, so that I can geek out over them too.