View from the Cloud: an EdTech CTO’s insight into technology in schools
By Ellen Richards
Ellen consults and works with the EdSmart founders and team to deliver business focussed solutions and value for K-12 schools, and to grow the global footprint of happy customers. She is passionate about all things digital and online education to improve teaching and learning outcomes. Travel, surf and sun are high on her priority list.
EdSmart’s Co-Founder & Chief Technology Officer, David Eedle, has witnessed an emerging trend in schools, accelerated by the global pandemic, which may not have occurred if schools had been left to evolve organically. He tells us about it.
“The emerging trend is the sheer amount of money that has been flowing into EdTech as schools and educators come around to the idea that technology is a benefit both for teaching kids and for running a school. And it’s important for schools to have in place in times of crisis,” David explains.
“There's been an absolute explosion in technology startups in education over the last five years or so. The Australian Financial Review ran a story in mid-2020 that showed there had been more than $A25 billion invested globally in EdTech, and Austrade research predicts, by 2025, EdTech could be worth more than $US130 billion globally. It's just phenomenal.”
It’s also been seven years since EdSmart began with a simple, singular mission – to create a transformative digital solution to replace the paper forms sent home to parents by schools. The germination of this idea came from a genuine need. As parents, both David Eedle and his partner Fiona Boyd (Co-Founder & CEO of EdSmart) were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of paperwork they were expected to exchange with their children’s schools. As the old saying goes, there had to be a better way.
“In building a technology solution for schools, it meant that we started to talk to schools and understand how schools work,” David says. “Really, it's been a case of identifying more and more use cases for how digitisation could improve school administration and, therefore, we’ve continued to build out EdSmart's platform.”
Accordingly, EdSmart grouped their functionality into modules, allowing them to present multiple price-points, but, as David explains, it’s not just about the money.
“Not all schools are ready to transform their enterprise from top to bottom. And that's what we do. We act as an enterprise layer across the school. If we were a single monolithic product, the onboarding, the change management, the training would be so much harder. By letting a school start in a small way, and then build up, that has proven to be an effective way to affect change in the school.”
Change is difficult in any organisation, and it's no different when it comes to change management in a school. Alarmingly, though, schools tend to lag behind other industry sectors when it comes to the uptake of technological advances, which can make growth for EdTech startups a frustrating and long-winded process.
“Schools are still very manually managed,” David admits. “For all of my points about digitisation earlier, if only 10% of the business world is digitised, it will be a smaller number in education. We still walk into schools and discover that they're doing everything on paper.”
“We were recently looking at a project with a large state government, and a task that's really quite critical is completed with a Microsoft Word form that they fill out and then email. It's not actually a piece of paper but it's as good as a piece of paper – it's still a totally manually-managed project. And this is for what would be classed as a really critical admin function across that government’s schools.”
David confesses that EdSmart looked at broadening the provision of their technology to other industries but reconciled themselves to the fact that there are still many schools in the world that do not yet have their technology.
“So, how do we sell to them?” he asks rhetorically. “One thing we have done is start bringing in expertise - making the link between private EdTech enterprise and the educators themselves by bringing them in as employees.”
“We've had a number of senior staff members come through the company who have significant expertise in the school market – for example, a former senior leader from one of the largest independent schools in Australia – who ‘schooled’ us in operations and risk and compliance and so forth. We now have a team leader whose last job was in a school running EdSmart – that was his day-to-day job. And then he moved over to us. It's something that I feel we'll do more of in the future for new staff: hire them out of schools.”
When asked about his greatest takeaway from 2020 as an EdTech provider, David says, “Our customers – K-12 schools – have had a massive conceptual, philosophical leap forward, and understood that what was normal won't be normal in the future and they're going to need flexible work arrangements.”
“They need really solid online systems that can be accessed from anywhere,” he continues. “And they need to be prepared for things to change very quickly – that they're going to be open one day, closed the next. And I think that's been really good for them to appreciate how making them step into certain EdTech products is necessary. Some organisations need the push or they’re not going to do it.”
“Given the constraints that schools have been under, I've been amazed at how well they’ve coped. It might've been a bit of gaffer tape and elastic bands behind the scenes, but it's shown us some amazing people are working in schools. They may be a bit constricted by the rules and the regulations and historical precedent but they usually work in schools because they really want to work in a school.”
EduGrowth research found that there are 600 EdTech companies in Australia employing around 13,000 people and generating about $A2.2 billion in revenue. With the education sector opening its eyes to the possibilities offered through EdTech, we’re really only starting to see the benefits of those figures – huge amounts of investment in companies looking to do something truly remarkable in education.
The faster the divide between schools and EdTech providers closes, the better-placed the education sector will find themselves when it comes to heading off the challenges of the future, foreseeable or otherwise.