Guidelines for Edtech Products

October 2016

Introduction

These Guidelines for Edtech Products establish a common set of expectations to which Y Combinator will hold edtech companies, particularly student-facing curriculum products. The guidelines have been developed in collaboration among YC / Imagine K12 and the educators making up Imagine K12’s Advisory Board, in consultation with edtech startup founders.

Summaries

The Guidelines for Edtech Products cover nine major topics. The links lead to more detailed explanations of each topic.

Product Information
Make it easy for educators to understand what your product is and how it fits into different school or classroom settings.

Curriculum Product Expectations
Align curricular activities and content with widely-accepted standards. Allow flexibility for students to work at levels appropriate to their own understanding and abilities within the same classroom implementation.

Demos & Pilots
Provide opportunities for demos and/or pilots that are of appropriate depth for evaluating product impact (e.g., 1-3 months).

Purchasing and Pricing
Communicate pricing information clearly. Allow for varying pricing levels or structures for different types of product implementations. Streamline the process for obtaining price quotes. Be transparent where possible.

Support
On an ongoing basis, provide exceptional customer support. Offer appropriately tailored professional development. Provide detailed guidance for all of the parties that need to be involved in a successful product implementation.

Student Data Privacy
Be experts in student data privacy laws. Clearly communicate your company’s data practices in a privacy policy and a terms of service agreement.

Data Access & Transparency
Give students and educators easy access to student data at all times, including allowing for exports and transfers of data.

Data Format
Optimize the formatting of data exports for educator utility and analysis with formative data.

Student Accounts
Streamline the processes of student account creation and management, ideally through a single sign-on service.

Product Information

Why This Matters
The edtech product landscape is increasingly crowded and complex. Decision makers may struggle to identify and select the right tools for their needs. Companies can simplify this process for educators by providing clear information about what a product does, what content it covers, how it accomplishes its objectives, and how educators and students should use it.

Must Haves

  • Clear articulation of type of product and its coverage. Is the product a supplemental program, a curriculum replacement, a tool to support teachers, or a central office tool? If curricular, what is the scope and sequence of the program? Is there research backing the efficacy of the product? Please make all this information easily accessible on your website.
  • Explanation of how the product is used in class. For curriculum products, is the program adaptive? Does a teacher assign activities, do students select activities, or does the program have set paths for students to follow?
  • Suggestions for successful implementation. What type of student or user is best served by the program? What are the expected outcomes if the program is used to fidelity (for example, X years of growth in math if used Y minutes per week for Z weeks). This recommendation should be rooted in research or case studies.

Nice to Haves

  • Suggested models of implementation. For curricula and classroom tools, vendors should suggest ways to implement programs in various classroom models (station rotation, lab model, traditional classroom, remediation) and suggest the number of minutes to be spent on the program per week or other time period for optimal outcomes.

Curriculum Product Expectations

Why This Matters
It is important for teachers to know what standards are being covered by supplemental curricular programs, particularly for states that have adopted the Common Core, so they can align other parts of the school day to ensure a cohesive learning experience, even if the program is adaptive.

Must Haves

  • Clear alignment of content with CCSS, NGSS, lexile, and other national standards. By tagging activities and content with relevant standards, companies can make it much easier for teachers to understand and track how students are spending their learning time. This philosophy also needs to translate into product data dashboards, as educators can make better use of dashboards if they deeply understand the data and can tie it to other reports.
  • Teacher override of student placement diagnostics. Within a given classroom implementation, students should be allowed to work at different grade levels in a product, so no students are working at a level too easy or too hard for them. A product’s internal placement diagnostic should be more informative than definitive. If a teacher knows that a student’s ability is not accurately reflected by the initial diagnostic, the teacher should be able to manually adjust the student’s level based on the teacher’s understanding of the student’s ability, or based on common assessments such as the NWEA MAP. This data/level should optionally follow the student to future classrooms, so future teachers can continue keeping the student on the right trajectory.

Nice to Haves

  • Service to align program to core curriculum. If the company is willing to do custom work to align its curriculum to a customer’s core curriculum, please ensure this is stated up front in marketing materials. Include the cost and estimated timeline for such custom alignment.

Demos & Pilots

Why This Matters
Schools and districts invest substantial funds and resources when they choose to roll out new products. In all cases, but particularly when considering relatively new edtech products, administrators are understandably hesitant to commit without an assurance that a product will meet their needs and be a good fit for their environment. By providing appropriate opportunities and support for demos and pilots, edtech companies can help schools and districts make wise decisions regarding the use of their resources, ensure that their partnerships are positive, and optimize for student success.

Must Haves

  • Free pilots of sufficient scope. Companies that do not offer a freemium product should offer free pilots that are long enough to allow students, teachers, and administrators to develop routines around use of a product. For curriculum products, one month is usually a minimum. Schools should show an equal commitment to the pilot by assigning a point person to funnel all communication to the company.

Nice to Haves

  • Interactive demos. Companies can help purchasers understand a product’s core value by providing easily accessible, interactive product demos. Ideally, customers should not be required to speak with sales representatives before accessing demos. Consider providing automatic access to demos for anyone with a .edu or .org email domain.
  • Clear pilot guidelines and success metrics. Companies should provide clear guidance and benchmarks for pilots. What steps will lead to a great pilot experience? What markers of success should schools expect / look for in one to three months?

Resources:

Purchasing & Pricing

Why This Matters
One-size-fits-all is rarely the right solution when it comes to product implementations or to purchasing and pricing. Different teachers, schools, and/or districts may have varying priorities and needs that can be addressed by the same edtech product. Thus, companies should be flexible in how content and tools are sold.

Additionally, the purchasing process may require involvement from parties at different levels within an organization. A streamlined procurement process will allow those parties to coordinate their efforts effectively. Schools will continue to purchase products that offer a streamlined and flexible procurement experience centered on minimizing inefficiency and maximizing instructional value. Transparency, flexibility, and fair practices go a long way in ensuring customer loyalty.

Must Haves

  • Complete vendor and product information on invoices. Invoices should include the product name in addition to the edtech company’s legal name, if different. Invoices should also specify dates, numbers of licenses covered and provide detail regarding licenses per school, per student or per teacher, if applicable.
  • Invoicing confirmation to necessary departments. On the purchase order form, companies should ask for a list of email addresses to which the invoice should be sent. When a purchase is complete, companies should provide an invoice to the person who submitted the purchase order as well as any appropriate accounting departments.

Nice to Haves

  • Easily accessible pricing information. Product prices and pilot prices should be clearly articulated on a company’s website. Standard price descriptions can include caveats for bulk implementations and other special cases.
  • Clear quoting process. If prices are not spelled out on a company’s website, the company should outline a clear process for requesting price quotes, including an estimated timeline from price quote to product implementation. Ideally, companies should create a web form requesting all of the information required to prepare a quote.
  • Price quotes should detail training costs. Pricing should include all professional development costs and clarify what amount of training is provided, required, optional, etc.

Support

Why This Matters
The customer experience makes or breaks a company. People will occasionally talk to their peers about how good a program is, but they will always talk about a bad service experience. One bad story may be enough to deter other educators from considering your product. On the other hand, with every support interaction, companies have an opportunity to impress customers with exceptional experiences that lead to successful product implementations.

Must Haves

  • Clear service level agreements (SLAs) for paid products particularly around support response times. For paid products, companies should establish clear SLAs for responding to support requests within two days, maximum. For requests such as data extracts, companies should ensure that there are clear protocols in place on the support team’s side and that customers know what the response times will look like. This is important as it respects the customer’s time. When vendors are delayed in their responses, it decreases the utility of their product and impacts the school’s perception of the vendor quality.
  • Clear, self-directed professional development and learning materials on the website. When new educators begin using an edtech product, immediately direct them to appropriate professional development resources. Based on the type of training needed at that point in time, the appropriate resource may be an online guide or instructions for arranging on-site professional development.
  • Clear implementation timeline, roles, and expectations for district and school site roll-outs. Provide a product implementation timeline with clearly outlined roles and responsibilities for all key parties, including district level implementation staff, school leaders, and primary users. While everyone wishes they could have just one priority, there are always competing ones. For a successful implementation, it is critical to have clearly delineated roles and expectations for all parties. Otherwise, a new program can be derailed by an incomplete understanding of the time and work involved. It is good practice to train one teacher as the lead when possible.
  • Customizable support if professional development is required. When edtech products require professional development to support their deployment, educators expect customizable training options. For example, customers may prefer the option of inviting an edtech company representative to train all of the users at the customer’s organization, or of asking the edtech company to train a local expert within the customer’s organization.

Nice to Haves

  • Customizable and self-directed training materials. Every school has different needs and priorities. Companies should provide a set of training materials that school leaders can customize to their sites. Ideally, training materials should enable a self-paced learning approach so teachers can start where they need to and continue where they left off when they are ready to go on to the next step.

Student Data Privacy

Why This Matters

The security and privacy of student data is of paramount importance to educators and parents. The federal government and many state governments have established legislation to protect student data privacy. When considering an edtech product, many schools and districts begin by evaluating the company’s privacy practices and may quickly rule out products for which the policies are not robust and clearly articulated.

Must Haves

  • Compliance with federal and state laws. Edtech companies must develop a solid understanding of the laws governing the collection, maintenance, and use of student data in the regions where they operate. As a starting point for complying with all state laws, companies should become familiar with the laws of California and Massachusetts, which are especially comprehensive.
  • Up-to-date policies. Companies should regularly review their privacy policies and terms of service to ensure they accurately reflect current company practices.
  • Clearly articulated privacy policies and practices. Vendors should describe their privacy policies and terms of service in plain English on their websites. School customers will be looking for language that verifies the following, at minimum:
    • Student data will only be used for the purposes of delivering the product’s intended services, not for marketing purposes.
    • Schools own all personally identifiable student information, including name, ID number, and photo, as well as all student account data.

Nice to Haves

  • Pro-active communication when policies change. Vendors should send an email to notify all users when making any changes to privacy policies or terms and conditions.
  • Explanations of any limitations or assumptions built into privacy policies. Companies should explicitly communicate with users about any assumptions included in privacy policies. For example, if a product is not intended for use by students under the age of 13, it’s important to make the limitation clear to users from the start. Similarly, if a vendor assumes that teachers or schools will seek parental consent for the use of a product, they should state the assumption in the workflow of the product and provide relevant resources to help educators secure the necessary consent.

Resources:

Data Access & Transparency

Why This Matters
In February 2012, the White House issued a framework for protecting privacy and promoting innovation in the global digital economy, which clearly articulated guidance on what citizens should expect from those who handle their personal information and set expectations relating to access and transparency for companies that use personal data.

As schools move towards more student-directed learning models, students are becoming partners in owning their educational futures. To enable them to do so, we need to provide students of varying levels with access to their own data. Parents, teachers, and administrators are also partners in supporting students in goal setting and also need access to the same data. This is particularly relevant to curriculum related programs where educators want to understand how the program supports student growth in formative and summative assessments.

Must Haves

  • Student access to data for curricular programs (2nd grade and up). In order to set goals for themselves and become partners in owning their learning, students need the power to access, understand, and use their own academic data. To help students understand where they are and where they need to go, visualization tools are highly recommended.
  • Transparent and usable formats of data for central administrators. Teachers and administrators must be able to download student, class, school and/or organization data on-demand in CSV format in accordance with usage frequency (e.g., weekly for content-related programs, annually for annual surveys).

Nice to Haves

  • Customizable data downloads. Educators should have the ability to customize the fields and dates included in their data exports to align with their individual reporting and analysis needs. When on-demand downloads are not possible, companies should offer an option for providing regularly scheduled automatic data exports.
  • Central administrator access to data for programs purchased at the school or classroom level. District administrators need access to all of their student and/or teacher data, regardless of whether they or the schools are the ones paying the contracts. This data supports central-level decision making and student growth correlation assessments. In situations where a vendor's contract is with a school rather than with the district, the vendor can offer de-personalized aggregated student data to administrators at the district level, or sign a data-sharing MOU with the district in order to provide complete data access.
  • Option to export work products into other systems. Many schools use digital portfolios or other systems for collecting student work. If an edtech program has work products, the program should offer the ability to export those work products for import into a school’s chosen system.
  • Function to transfer student data to another account instance of the same product. Students often switch school systems, but their data does not follow them. Imagine how frustrating it is a for a student to be in a new classroom, finally finding a familiar program, but having to restart it from scratch. Students and parents should have the ability to request to transfer student data/levels to another school or district’s account.
  • This could mean that parents and older students have the ability to download student data and re-create the account in another account instance. At the very least, parents and students should have the ability to advocate for a transfer of data.
  • Vendors should consider establishing a protocol for transferring data and accounts to new schools/districts to ensure data can follow students as desired.

Data Format

Why This Matters
Schools systems are often required to bring data together from multiple sources and are generally ramping up their ability to run efficacy studies and build predictive models on how edtech products impact student achievement. Varying or poorly defined data structures can introduce enormous complications into these efforts. By building certain data format standards into their tools, vendors can help schools better implement edtech products, and better implementation ultimately leads to wider adoption.

Must Haves

  • A school-defined unique student identifier. Edtech products with student accounts should allow, but not require, the entry of school-defined student IDs. These student IDs should be included in all data exports.

Nice to Haves

  • Numeric data categories for grade levels. When exporting grade level data, denote kindergarten with a number 0 (zero), not a letter K, and denote transitional kindergarten with -1 (negative one).

Student Accounts

Why This Matters
Student accounts are the keys students use to access online programs on a regular basis. Student account creation and/or sign-on is often a teacher’s, student’s, or data manager’s first meaningful interaction with an edtech program. If the process is clunky, it can instantly damage teacher/student investment in utilizing the program. On the other hand, automation of account creation streamlines the process of managing accounts as students flow in and out of classrooms and school systems. Similarly, optimizing the sign-on process for teachers and students removes friction and leads to better experiences and outcomes.

Must Haves

  • Rostering via SIS integration, CSV upload, or class codes. Companies should maintain up-to-date student account information by connecting with a school’s SIS either via single sign-on service or through direct integration. If SIS integration is not possible, companies should allow for a straightforward daily CSV upload of roster information. Consider that a teacher may be responsible for this data upload process, or it may be handled by a data manager at the school or district level. Outline clear upload procedures and specifications for CSV uploads in language that is accessible to both teachers and data managers. If neither SIS integration nor CSV uploads are possible, companies may use classroom codes to allow students to join classes.
  • Single sign-on or school-established structure for logins. Whenever possible, companies should integrate with single sign-on services in order to simplify the login process for students. When single sign-on is not possible, edtech companies should allow schools to determine the usernames and passwords for student accounts with no restrictions other than reasonable minimum lengths (e.g. six character minimums). This is particularly important for K-1 students who have trouble typing and may have logins for multiple programs. Also, every school should operate in their own name space (i.e., their user names only have to be unique within their school).

Nice to Haves

  • Classroom-level accounts easily linked to school- or district-wide implementations. Edtech companies may provide for classroom-level account creation via unique class codes or similar devices, but they should also define a clear pathway by which those classroom-level accounts can be integrated into school- or district-wide implementations, without losing student data. In situations where teachers sign up for a product individually, vendors should collect their school information so that both vendors and school/district administrators can at minimum understand where usage is happening.
  • Teacher ability to reset passwords. Allow teachers to reset passwords on behalf of students, and allow teachers the option of permitting students to reset their own passwords independently.
  • Teacher ability to view their students' accounts. Teachers get frustrated and nervous when they can't see what a student sees. It makes it harder to troubleshoot when there are problems, and harder to build trust with the educator in the room.

Disclaimer

These guidelines are presented with the understanding that edtech companies may not be able to meet all of the them in the earliest releases of their products. However, companies would do well to adopt the must-have practices as early as possible in order to meet the needs and expectations of their customers and, more importantly, serve students.

These guidelines are not intended to be comprehensive. For instance, they do not cover data privacy expectations that are already well documented in FERPA, COPPA, and other publications. Rather, the guidelines are meant to introduce recommendations and best practices that may not be obvious to edtech developers, but that significantly impact usability for educators.

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