No Place to Call Home

Josh Kim offers three reasons why educators from edtech companies don't have a space to collaborate.

May 10, 2017

There is a missing space in our edtech ecosystem, a place where digital educators employed by companies, not universities and colleges, can gather.

My goal is that this Inside Digital Learning blog can be that place (or at least one of those places.)

Here are my assumptions about why a space is missing for educators who work at edtech companies:

1. There are lots of educators working for edtech companies. I have this sense, one developed from conversations but no data, that there are lots of people who think of themselves as educators working for an edtech company. You have a background in teaching (K to 20) or you’ve previously worked in higher ed, and now you find yourself employed by company where you work on learning and technology. Many of you have some educational background or training in teaching and learning.  

Whatever your background, I think you ended up working in an edtech environment (be it a startup or a publisher or a software company) because you care about improving education.  You see your work in your company as an extension of your values. 

For some of us, the way we improve education -- whether that's focusing on increasing access, lowering costs or improving quality -- is through the partnerships your company makes with the colleges and universities you serve.

In short, I think that there are many people working for edtech companies who think about higher education the same way that I think about higher education. You can just as easily have my job at a college as I could have your job in a company. That we think the same about most things relating to higher education and digital learning, but we just work at different types of places.

Can we think of some way to put some numbers to this intuition?  I don't know of any surveys of edtech companies where the numbers and proportions of self-identified educators working within these organizations is quantified.  My fear is that education people in the corporate sector feel disconnected from the larger community of educators - as well as from each other.  We need, I think, a community of practice for educators working outside of the traditional non-profit education world.

2. There is no organization or publication that meets your specific needs. What is the organizational home for digital educators who work outside of higher ed? The problem with our existing postsecondary technology organizations, such as Educause or OLC, is that they divide university people from company people. There is the vendor area at big national conferences. Presentations or talks given by people who work for companies are positioned differently than those given by university people. Within these organizations, your role as an employee of a company overshadows your identity as an educator.

The same challenge of roles and identities is present in our digital community spaces. The discussions around articles and opinion pieces on the Inside Higher Ed website tend to assume a university starting place. Legitimacy is assigned by affiliation. If you are sharing your opinions as a faculty member or higher ed alt-ac person, then your views must be progressively pro-educator and pro higher ed. However, if you work for a company then, your views are seen as self-serving and driven by the bottom line goals of your employer.  

The reason that there are no associations or publications for you is because you are probably the customer. The business model of many associations relies, at least in part, on corporate sponsorship. The revenue model for publications such as Inside Higher Ed relies, at least in part, on corporate advertising and underwriting. This business model rests on the proposition that companies can use organizations/publications to reach the university market. The thinking goes that no company is going to pay to sponsor/underwrite/advertise to get in front of people who work for other companies.

What we are left with is a market failure. We have a group of people in our edtech ecosystem -- educators who work for technology companies -- who are not served well by any organization or publication. This is too bad because these educators deserve to belong to a community of practice just as much as university-affiliated edtech people.

3. Companies are fierce competitors and don't share information. One of the problems in creating such a space is that you are working with a different set of constraints than your university-based cousins. As someone who works at a non-profit institution, I can share what I know (and don’t know) with colleagues. Open sharing is deeply embedded in the culture of our universities. 

This sort of sharing is much more difficult for people who work for companies because corporate culture is not transparent. There is legitimate concern about giving away valuable intellectual property, and revealing roadmaps and plans to competitors. The edtech market is incredibly competitive because companies are fighting over the same limited number of customers. 

The other challenge is that edtech companies worry about offending potential customers.  There is a much stronger push for a unified and disciplined messaging approach in the corporate world than in higher ed. Those of us who work at colleges and universities have many more degrees of freedom to express our views publicly than our corporate colleagues.   We need to be careful that we are not publicly critical of our institutions -- particularly if we don’t have tenure -- but beyond that, we are more free to express our views.

These constraints, however, should not stop us from trying because it would be good for all of us to open up the conversation. We would all benefit if we found a way to talk to each other as educators, rather than as schools and as vendors.

One of these days I could imagine myself working at a company. But perhaps the biggest reason why I would not make that jump is because of the importance that I place of being part of a larger community of practice. The leadership of our edtech companies should be doing what they can to encourage a space for the educators who work at their companies to gather, learn, discuss, debate and share.

Would share your story as an educator working at a company? What sort of organization, association, publication or space would you like to see develop?


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