I received the email from Knack for Teachers on Wednesday that the classroom data tracking and visualization tool would be shutting down. There's also a blog post on the site to that effect. The servers will remain in operation for the next 3 months, the blog post explains, a time frame that "should be enough for all users to archive data and/or find another online gradebook solution."
The app developer, Jarrod Drysdale, has written a longer piece on his personal blog about his work on the project. Knack for Teachers was, as he describes it, "a labor of love" -- one that he dumped about $2000 of his own money into, but that almost no teacher used (and even fewer paid for).
Drysdale's post is, not surprisingly, pretty bitter about the failure of Knack for Teachers, and while he chronicles the efforts he made in order to promote the product and to change it to help woo new customers, his conclusion to the whole affair is that teachers are "lousy customers."
There's a lot of blame in Drysdale's post, some aimed at himself, but far more aimed at teachers:
"I should have done more research about teachers before I started coding. I thought what I’d learned was enough. There were quite a few online gradebooks that charged money and seemed to be healthy businesses. I had found research that said most teachers spend their own money on their classrooms. I asked educators I knew if they’d pay for a web app. None of this was enough. I didn’t learn about the simple psychology that drives teachers’ desires and purchasing decisions. I didn’t realize there is a stigma amongst teachers—that they deeply resent having to spend money on their classrooms and careers. Many businesses, both online and off, have special discounts and freebies for teachers. This has warped teachers’ sense of value and fostered a sense of entitlement. (Whether teachers deserve free stuff is a different debate. I personally don’t think anyone deserves a free lunch.)
Beyond this, I’ve learned that teachers do not want technology solutions for their everyday problems. Teachers say they love tech. Some blog about it. They tweet about it in #edchat and #edtech. They even coin their own special tech terms. (PLN anyone?) This is a farce. Talking about tech and being on the Twitter make teachers look good to administrators and to the public. They can add “Technology Committee Member” to their resumes and congratulate themselves for being innovative. But using tech to do work requires a small minimum of effort and change, and any amount of these is too much for teachers."
I've debated penning an excoriating response to Drysdale's psychological profile of teachers. But why write a rant, I figure, when Knack for Teachers is closed, and now Drysdale is on to working on other projects. Considering the stance he takes in his blog post, I doubt very much it'll be a tool for teachers.
Nevertheless, it's worth responding -- as calmly as I can -- to what Drysdale has written. It isn't simply that what he's written about teachers -- about their usage of and desire for educational software -- strikes me as being unfair and inaccurate.
I take exception with some of the other aspects of the post as well. It overlooks some of the alternative explanations for the failure of Knack for Teachers: maybe his competitors built better products; maybe the business model -- charging teachers versus creating a white label product for schools, for example -- didn't make sense considering the tool's administrative bent; maybe the emphasis on data analysis and visualization simply wasn't compelling for his customers, even tech-savvy ones. In light of all the talk to "data-driven decision making" in education, maybe a data tool -- even a personal tool -- seemed onerous and punitive, rather than helpful. Maybe the data teachers want to examine in order to assess how students are doing includes far more than just gradebook information. Maybe teachers simply don't see learning and performance in terms of "data."
Of course, there are a lot of challenges in building a successful Web startup, whether it's in the education sector or not. But to perpetuate the notion that teachers are simply "lousy customers"; that teachers (unlike other professionals, I guess) believe they're entitled to free software; that, as Drysdale says in a Hacker News thread, that "teachers are just not a ripe audience for software in general; that teachers are Luddites -- these all feed into a larger political narrative about what's wrong with the current education system. (Namely, "teachers.")
But Drysdale's take on the failure of teachers as customers is an interesting one, particularly as it runs counter to another new but commonly-held belief about how ed-tech startups should now approach the space. As more tech entrepreneurs are becoming interested in education, they're realizing that customer acquisition can be done by wooing individual teachers as customers rather than having to go for the more traditional (and expensive) administrative contract in order to get their product into the classroom. However, when those entrepreneurs fail to win over individual teachers as customers, it shouldn't be seen as "proof" that the education system -- whether approached from the bottom-up or from the top-down -- is impenetrable and immutable. Just like any consumer Web product, educational apps should still be good, and they still need to solve some sort of problem.
And even if both those things hold true, startups still fail. In fact, I predict we'll see a lot more education technology startups fail in the coming months and years, if only because we're seeing a lot more education technology startups, well, start up. They'll fail for a variety of reasons: poor product, poor design, poor pedagogy, poor market fit. My fear is that failures will discourage more entrepreneurs from entering the space. My hope is that these failures will prompt entrepreneurs to listen to their potential customers -- teachers, students, administrators, parents -- and build tech tools that they actually want and need.