An industry leader offers others insight into getting funding right—and an opportunity to elevate solutions and goals.
GUEST COLUMN | by Sabari Raja
Before COVID-19, schools and districts were looking to education technology (edtech) providers to fill in their learning gaps. My own company came out of a real need we heard from educators, industry leaders, professionals, and community partners alike, to reduce the barriers between industry and education, by connecting industry professionals to the classroom.
Often, afterschool opportunities were managed by third-party vendors and curriculum providers were regularly offering updates to better reflect digital learning. And while each of these platforms and products presented an opportunity for students, they also posed a big question to district leaders: what works and what’s my return on my investment (ROI)?
A Key Component
Answering this question has become even more critical for superintendents, who are now inundated with over $170 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) funds and little direction on how to spend them. A key component of the COVID relief packages is the call for “evidence-based” as a requirement at least a dozen times. Edtech providers must be able to show promising, moderate, or strong evidence that their product positively impacts student outcomes.
This is an opportunity not only for our students to have access to new and engaging platforms, products, and services that will elevate their learning, but also for edtech providers to elevate their own offerings and end-goals. We have an opportunity to better understand what works, what has an impact on our children’s learning and career-readiness, and where to direct superintendents’ attention and budgets.
‘We have an opportunity to better understand what works, what has an impact on our children’s learning and career-readiness, and where to direct superintendents’ attention and budgets.’
As a startup founder, hearing the need for “evidence-based” can seem daunting. How, then, can we ensure that small, yet impactful and beneficial edtech providers aren’t getting left behind? Here are a few tips to help navigate the new normal of “evidence-based” as you work with districts and states:
1. Do something. Sure, there are the “gold standards” when it comes to impact, evidence and research, but these methods can be expensive, time-intensive, and frankly, impractical endeavors. But, now especially, as an edtech provider, you cannot ignore the call for evidence.
A strong reference will only get you so far. You need to show that what you’re doing is working for your education customers. Look into pilot programs, case studies, or surveys. For example, think through what you’re trying to solve with your service or product (“why does your company exist?”) and then craft a survey that you can easily send to your past and current partners. While this may not be a true efficacy study, you are gauging outcomes and producing evidence. This proved incredibly beneficial in our own work with our impact investors.
2. Research the research options and potential partners. When you are ready to engage in a more sophisticated impact study, i.e., one that can be authenticated by a third-party, brace yourself. Academics and researchers will often promote research options that are either too “cookie cutter” or too customized, leaving smaller edtech providers in the lurch. No one wants to spend thousands of dollars on research that doesn’t reflect your product, outcomes, or impact goals.
Instead we partnered with LearnPlatform to conduct our third-party research with their offering, Evidence Services. As an edtech company themselves, they not only understood our product, the K-12 field, and our goals in a way that many other researchers and evaluators did not, but they also delivered research that met ESSA requirements in a matter of weeks not years. Now Nepris is catching state level attention.
3. Keep up with the inevitable changing funding sources. In any conversation with a district or state leader, you need to know where the funds will come from to support your product or service. It’s critical that you are familiar with available funding streams and any changes made to help districts know how they can or can’t use the funds available. Resources like RedRocks reports are incredibly helpful to keep you up-to-date.
4. Be able to integrate research upfront and continuously. Edtech providers should consider integrating the evaluation framework as part of the larger implementation and post-sale kickoff with customers including states and districts. This will ensure that rapid-cycle evaluations are on-going and allow providers and practitioners the opportunity to agilely pivot on the correct dosage amount needed of your product that drives all students’ outcomes.
COVID-19 brought about more demand for technology and remote learning, but it also (rightfully so) raised the stakes when it comes to the services and products that are being integrated into classrooms. And with the acceleration of edtech use in K-12 since the pandemic, districts and states need to start using evidence to determine which edtech resources they want to keep in their ecosystems. If we are to realize the promise of edtech, we must also quickly realize the critical importance of evidence, not just for our own businesses, but for education leaders, practitioners, and the students they are working so hard to serve.
Sabari Raja is the founder and CEO of Nepris, connecting educators and learners with a network of industry professionals; they also provide a skills-based volunteering platform for organizations to extend education outreach, and build their brand among the future workforce. Sabari has a strong track record in building and launching successful edtech products in markets around the globe. Prior to starting Nepris, she worked for 15 years with the edtech division of Texas Instruments to lead product and content strategy, publisher relations, business development, partnership and alliance ecosystem for new edtech products. Sabari has an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from India, Masters in Computer Science from Louisiana State University and graduated Beta Gamma Sigma with an Executive MBA degree from Cox School of Business, SMU. Connect with her on LinkedIn.