How and why should Learning Technologists engage with start-ups?

A conversation between Anders Krohn, CEO at Aula Education, and Dr Maren Deepwell, CEO at ALT.

At the recent ALT Annual Conference in Liverpool we started a conversation about how Learning Technologists can engage with start-ups and we quickly came across a whole range of barriers that stand in the way. The way in which colleges and universities procure, implement and develop their use of technology for learning, teaching and assessment doesn’t easily align with working with small, agile businesses just getting started at the cutting edge of innovation.

Anders suggested that together, with contributions from ALT Members, we could draw up a guide that helps bridge the gap and provide a starting point for working together. Here is what we are thinking we’d like to achieve:

MD: Anders, tell us what are the key reasons why ALT Members should engage with start-ups. What in your experience are some of the biggest benefits?

AK: The main reason educational institutions in general can benefit from working with start-ups is that start-ups are defined by their ability to have a laser sharp focus on solving a specific problem and quickly iterate to ensure the product fits the reality of the first users/partners/clients. That means the first adopters can have a huge influence on ensuring that a product adapts to their specific needs and problems.

For the learning technologist community this is an interesting opportunity because there are clear synergies in terms of start-ups giving e-learning/TEL teams ‘digital super powers’ and e-learning/TEL teams providing start-ups with pedagogical knowledge and feedback from years of experience working with educators.

MD:  We have been working with start-ups in a number of ways in recent years including having a launchpad exhibition zone for start-ups at our Annual Conference; we promote initiatives like Bett Futures and we also have active engagement with consortia like Edmix. In my view professional bodies like ALT form an important network via which innovators and developers can engage with professionals who have a wealth of experience in research and practice. What made you engage with the ALT community?

AK: Most of the institutions we have been in touch with or are working with are very active in the ALT community, so it was a natural place for us to get product feedback, learn more about institution-specific innovation initiatives and find partner institutions.

I think what is particularly interesting about ALT is that it bridges the ‘human’ part with the ‘tech’ part and enables us to understand the actual problems educational institutions have (funnily enough writing ‘innovation’ into their education strategies is not one of them :-) ). For example, I participated in Dave White, Peter Bryant and Donna Lanclos’ session ‘Hack your way to influencing pedagogical and technological strategy’ at the ALT conference. When you spend all your waking hours thinking about how to place the buttons in the right position (the most exciting part of my job) in order to enable people to drive pedagogical change, engaging in those communities is very rewarding.

MD:  It was your idea that we could produce a guide for how Learning Technologists can engage with start-ups. Tell us more about what you’ll be contributing and your thinking behind it.

AK: Over the past year I’ve had some fantastic experiences working with educators, learning technologists, CIOs and decision-makers at universities. However, I’ve also had some surprising experiences where it is clear that there’s a disconnect between educational institutions and start-ups.

I think learning technologists can play an important role in bridging the disconnect and I think building that bridge starts with being more transparent and having some very very practical guidelines on ‘how universities can get to work with start-ups’ and ‘how universities should work with start-ups’ as well as the other way around.

For example I imagine the guide(s): Covering specific advice such as: If you want to work with start-ups ensure that your institution doesn’t put prohibitively high revenue requirements into the procurement documents.

Covering general strategic advice to enhance the strategic position of e-learning/TEL teams in working with start-ups such as: Raising to the PVC/DVC/Dean that it would make sense to allocate discretionary funds and approve a standard set of data requirement terms that allows learning technologists to run small pilots without having to go through the full procurement shabang. There’s sometimes a tendency to make small decisions big and big decisions small, which is a barrier to innovation. ‘We definitely need a Shanghai campus ASAP because Coursera, but God forbid that that browser extension doesn’t pass through our SSO-accessed bicentennial HEFCE-reviewed third party security assessment brand review committee.’

And then topped up with all the cute examples that make all of it worth it:

  • Like that time they asked for support tiers and all the teachers just got the phone numbers to the entire team
  • Like that time a CIO helped me edit our framework agreement
  • Like that time a teacher said in front of hundreds of students: ‘Today we will use this super visionary product that will probably not work, because, well, that’s how great products are built.’ So much for risk management.

MD:  One of the ways I hope ALT Members will contribute is by posing questions they have and sharing examples of their own experiences. Our community brings together professionals from across sectors and it’ll be valuable to have a dialogue to inform the guide and collaborate on it.

What we plan to do is to share a draft Google doc of the guide, work in progress, and invite the community to contribute. We’ll have a dedicated session at ALT’s Online Winter conference, 12-13 December 2017, at which we will have a final opportunity to get input and after which we will finalise the guide for its publication under a Creative Commons licence.

Keen to contribute?

Between 9 October and 17 November we invite you to contribute to this guide.

You can contribute by posing questions you may have or sharing examples of your own experiences. You can add comments or suggest edits.

We are looking to collate what works and what doesn’t and share that with the wider community under a Creative Commons licence.

Maren Deepwell, Chief Executive of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), @marendeepwell

The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) represents individual and organisational Members from all sectors and parts of the UK. The ALT community is made up of people who are actively involved in understanding, managing, researching, supporting or enabling learning with the use of Learning Technology.

Anders Krohn

Anders Krohn, Co-founder and CEO of Aula, @anders_krohn

Aula is a communication platform for education – a ‘conversational’ alternative to traditional Virtual Learning Environments.

Anders founded Aula during his studies at University of Oxford. In addition to working on Aula, Anders is advisor to the educational non-profits Project Access and Young Global Pioneers and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Shapers Community.

1 Comment

  • pierce says:

    I may well have missed some nuance here but the overall vibe of the start-up’s position seemed to be ‘make it easier for us to sell you things and if you get in early enough we might even modify our product to suit your needs’.

    I’d be far more excited by ‘we worked closely with x and investigated these issues to build a new product from the ground up.’

    As a Learning Technologist, it’s not my job to make a vendor’s life easier – it’s my job to provide the best possible options for better learning and teaching.

    I won’t deny that many ed tech implementations have been mishandled by institutional management but I’ve had far more problems with vendors that wildly over-promise and under-deliver. Particularly those that consistently bypass learning technologists by going directly to academics with ridiculously unachievable sales pitches because they know that they won’t ask them the hard questions.

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