The most effective educational tools and services are ones developed and informed by those with firsthand experience in schools. (Sorry, simply being a former student doesn’t count.) But the reality is that there are not enough people with this background in the edtech industry. So how do companies hire and develop standout talent who may be new to the sector?
The journey into the edtech industry is different for everyone. Like many fellow founders in this space, I left the classroom to create solutions to the challenges that I faced as a teacher and tech director. Having that prior experience has been a huge advantage in building products for educators. As a former teacher, it has been relatively easy for me to empathize with the everyday challenges that they face.
But that isn’t always the case for some of my colleagues, who didn’t have that perspective or prior experience working in education. In fact, I found myself explaining a lot of the ins and outs of the education system, and the hardships that teachers and administrators deal with everyday.
As much as I loved being the “voice of the teacher,” I wondered how I could continue to provide that perspective as Clever grew. Limiting hires to applicants with prior teaching experience just wasn’t scalable. We recognized this problem as we started to grow quickly past 25 employees.
Over the past seven years, we’ve continually developed and tweaked a seminar-style onboarding course to help all new employees, regardless of their background, catch up to speed on key issues in education and technology. The program is designed for our employees to build knowledge of what actually happens in classrooms, as well as an understanding of the deep tensions and issues with our educational system.
Engage Edtech Employees in Extended Learning
We call the program Freshman Seminar. It’s a 6-lesson course that gathers coworkers to discuss trending educational topics and philosophies, and our colleagues have found that it has been helpful in helping them succeed in their roles.
One of the sessions is dedicated to examining education standards. The class reads about Common Core and completes a few samples of Common Core assessment questions to understand the student and teacher experience using these materials. Then as a group, we try on different perspectives and opinions of how Common Core assessments are shifting the focus of American education.
Another session examines the business of edtech, first by asking the class to read a seminal paper authored in 2007 (but still relevant to this day) about the industry. The piece frames a follow-up discussion around how technology has changed since it was written, and what new strategies there may be for entering the market.
Then, we ask Seminar participants put their entrepreneurial hats on and pitch ideas for a business. I always look forward to this final exercise. Recently, one group pitched “SummerStride,” a way for teachers to recommend free and paid resources for parents to help prevent students’ “summer slide.” With each purchase, schools would collect a cut of the sale. (Not a bad idea, right?)
The primary goal of the course is to start conversations that continue throughout an employee’s tenure. We don’t expect to solve deep questions around policies and accountability in education, but we do debate these topics and apply our knowledge during in-class activities. It’s really fun to gather a variety of perspectives—designers, engineers, marketers—and discuss issues that help us keep in touch with what’s happening in classrooms right now.
In order to equip your new hires with the industry knowledge that comes with working in education, consider creating a special onboarding for those folks once they join your team. You can even borrow and build on what we’ve created. The Freshman Seminar curriculum is publicly accessible, and aims to help any edtech company looking to help employees better understand the people they serve. (By the way, if you have any suggestions for the course, leave a comment on the doc!)
“To someone fresh out of college, think of the Freshman Seminar as Education 201—a behind-the-scenes look into the world of education,” says Abena Anim-Somuah, who joined our customer support team in May 2018. “While this may sound super nerdy, I thought it was great to have academic research to dig into and understand how people across the aisle felt about topics such as pedagogy, teacher accountability, and school operations.”
5 Highlight Reads from Clever’s Freshman Seminar
If you aspire to or currently work in education technology, equip yourself with industry knowledge along with empathy for the teachers and students you hope to impact. Here are some suggested readings (taken straight from our syllabus):
To learn more about the business of education technology:
- “K-12 Entrepreneurship: Slow Entry, Distant Exit” by Larry Berger and Dave Stevenson: This landmark paper, written back in 2007, captures the challenges of building and scaling an education company that are still relevant today. Read the updates too: parts one and two.
- “Class Clowns” by Jonathan A. Knee: A set of case studies about some of the biggest edtech failures, with amazing lessons for current companies.
- “Disrupting Class” by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson: A look at how the theory of “disruptive innovation” applies to education.
To learn more about school operations:
- “Schools and Software: What’s Now and What’s Next” by Julia Freeland Fisher and Aylon Samouha: An examination in how technology is changing school operations.
- “Wrong Answer” by Rachel Aviv: A powerful piece on the human impact of high-stakes testing and school accountability.
Do you have any thoughts on the reading? Let us know in the comments or ping us on Twitter!