Choosing the Right Edtech Partner

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Monday, August 29, 2022
By Rita Shea-Van Fossen
Photo by iStock/Blue Planet Studio
As the educational technology marketplace undergoes continuous change, schools must constantly evaluate their edtech suppliers and solutions.
  • The edtech industry is expanding with the help of venture capital funding that is changing the dynamics of the industry.
  • Certain applications have the potential to help schools minimize risk and exploit opportunities, but schools must ask critical questions of their edtech partners.
  • To ensure they are employing the best solutions, business schools should regularly evaluate their needs and suppliers.

One of the most dramatic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education was that colleges and universities across the globe accelerated their adoption of digital technologies for both teaching and administrative purposes.

Digital technology in education—also known as educational technology or edtech—is a broad and multifaceted industry that includes hardware and software solutions that aid in the learning process. These solutions encompass everything from digital textbooks, virtual reality simulations, and gaming apps to learning management systems, assessment platforms, and faculty and student data management systems.

As of 2021, the edtech market was worth an estimated 106 billion USD, and it is expected to grow to half a trillion dollars by 2030. North America dominates the market geographically, due in part to investments that U.S. venture capital and private-equity firms have made in the edtech sector. These companies are looking to higher education for future growth.

For business schools and the universities that house them, the question no longer is whether they should adopt edtech tools, but which tools they should use. Schools also need to decide whether they should build their own edtech solutions or seek outside partners—and if they take the latter course, which companies they should choose.

A good edtech partner can bring in needed expertise that can minimize the risks associated with the adoption of digital solutions. But the edtech industry is changing quickly. Even if a school has worked with a firm for years, academic leaders should constantly reevaluate their needs to make sure their partner is still the right choice.

Interviews With Users

While the K-12 segment is the largest part of the market, edtech solutions offer both great opportunities and considerable challenges to higher education, as AACSB’s Innovation Committee recently documented in a report called The Evolving Role of Technology. Last year, my colleagues and I interviewed business school administrators in the U.S. and Europe to gain insights into how they selected and used faculty data management systems. Our interviews uncovered three significant challenges that administrators perceive in relation to the changing ownership structure of edtech:

Duplication of systems across institutions. In several of our in-depth interviews, university administrators reported that some edtech providers appeared to be taking advantage of the silos often found at higher education institutions. Without evaluating edtech solutions that were already in place in the business school or other departments, firms would reach out to senior administrators to implement a universitywide edtech solution that the firm marketed as unique.

In many cases, business school administrators still needed to keep their old systems to manage accreditation reporting and other functionalities that were not in the new system. This resulted in increased costs, additional maintenance, and the duplication of reporting efforts, which erased any efficiency gains from the business school’s edtech investment.

Relevant teaching knowledge and industry expertise are essential for the development of any applications that have to do with learning.

Changes in personnel at edtech companies. Several of our interviewees noted that, when they initially chose an edtech provider, one of their major considerations was whether the faculty data management system had been developed by an academic who had a deep understanding of the process. However, by the time we conducted our research, several major firms started by academics had been acquired by venture capital groups. This meant that schools now were working with developers who had little knowledge of higher education processes.

This phenomenon is not isolated to faculty data systems. Over a decade ago, higher education reporters and tech industry insiders predicted that algorithm designers, engineers, and programmers would become our most powerful teachers and higher education thought leaders. This prediction seemingly is becoming a reality, with uncertain implications for higher education. Our interviewees felt that, once venture capitalists acquired edtech companies, their developers minimized faculty input and the companies were less open to making necessary system changes.

Although tech skills are vitally important for the development of any hardware or software application, relevant teaching knowledge and industry expertise are just as essential for the development of any applications that have to do with learning.

Data and privacy concerns. Every educational institution needs clarity about how its edtech partner will use protected data. In the U.S., higher education institutions that receive funds from the Department of Education must comply with two acts—the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment—that protect student records and students’ personal information. Institutions in the European Union must follow General Data Protection Regulations that limit access to and processing of user data. To prevent regulatory consequences, institutions need to fully understand how their edtech partners are using student and employee data.

Best Practices for Partners

Despite these concerns, many edtech companies—including some funded by venture capital—are dedicated to student learning and committed to solving educational challenges in efficient, effective, and innovative ways. The following three suggestions are designed to help academic leaders find the right edtech partners and solutions for their institutions:

Align the solution with the mission and strategy of your business school. At the same time, make sure the new edtech solution fits within the overall technology strategy of the university. Seek transparency around the functionality, cost, and impact of the technology you’re considering. To make sure the edtech company is in alignment with your school’s mission and strategy, answer the following questions:

  • Why are you buying this solution?
  • How are others at your institution handling this problem?
  • Is this the best solution to accomplish your goal?
Does the company’s product address your challenges, or is the company making its solution fit what it wants your problem to be?

Evaluate the operations of your edtech partner. In addition to investigating the functionality and reputation of the edtech products you are buying, research the company and its ownership. Continue conducting these reviews on a regular basis to make sure the edtech partner has solutions that meet your current and ongoing needs. Also, to be certain that the company isn’t commoditizing its offerings, discover which other institutions can use the solution you’ve chosen. Finally, review your contract to understand cancellation penalties and the cost of switching providers, and do this well before you might need to end a partnership. Here are the key questions to ask:

  • Does the company’s product address your challenges, or is the company making its solution fit what it wants your problem to be?
  • Who owns the company, and who is involved in developing and servicing the application?
  • Has the company changed ownership since you entered the partnership? If so, is it still meeting your needs?

Don’t forget the human side. Find companies that engage with your faculty and staff, incorporate their feedback into the application, and treat them as partners in the goal of supporting positive student outcomes. When a company integrates user feedback into the edtech solution, faculty and staff will be more likely to accept the product and feel more accountable for its success. Ask these key questions:

  • Do you and your edtech partner have clarity on who is responsible for content and what changes you can make to the system?
  • Does the provider actively engage with faculty, staff, and other users to understand the issues your school wants to solve with the edtech application?
  • After the sale, does your edtech provider treat users with respect and respond promptly to problems and inquiries?

The Right Solutions

Edtech has great promise as a tool to positively change higher education. But business schools and universities must continually ask critical questions about which solutions to implement and which firms to choose as partners. Once schools have tools in place, they must regularly evaluate whether the solutions are continuing to meet their long-term needs. Only when schools allow such questions to drive their decisions will they derive the full benefit from their edtech applications.

Rita Shea-Van Fossen
Associate Professor of Management, H. Wayne Huizenga College of Business and Entrepreneurship, Nova Southeastern University
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