ARTICLE: Trevor Minton

Innovation in the EdTech space: Why it lags behind – and what you can do about it

Innovation within the EdTech space can sometimes feel painfully slow. That’s especially true when compared with digital products in other spaces, such as social media, finance, and health apps. This innovation drag is felt not only by EdTech companies themselves, but by users, too.  Student users, in particular, are quick to notice when EdTech products aren’t on par with the many other apps they use on a daily basis. 

So what gives? Why is it that EdTech products lag behind their counterparts in other spaces? And what’s an ambitious EdTech product team to do when it comes to product release management? 

Why are EdTech Companies Slower to Innovate? 

The reality is that even the most self-starting EdTech companies are unable to innovate as rapidly as they’d like. To understand why, it’s necessary to look at the structural constraints within which EdTech companies must operate. The reality is that EdTech companies must develop their products while responding to a challenging set of external pressures that have a “push and pull” effect on innovation. Taken together, these disparate factors form a sort of gridlock that negatively impacts the speed of innovation. 

Product Release Management in EdTech Means Slower Release Cycles

To begin with, EdTech product release cycles are necessarily much slower than that of the average digital product. Most all of the digital products we use on a daily basis, from Facebook and Uber to pizza-ordering apps, operate on a two-week release cycle. Whether we realize it or not, those apps are steadily being updated in the background on a biweekly basis. Some releases may be relatively minor, while others represent major updates that are immediately noticeable to the average user. The point is that these companies can push out bug fixes and new features as they are developed. The cadence of release cycles supports near-constant innovation and improvement. 

Most EdTech products, on the other hand, must align new releases with the academic calendar year. This means that release cycles are limited to the times between semesters, during the winter and summer breaks. When it comes to the products they use in their classrooms, instructors actually prefer this slower rhythm of releases. It means they don’t have to interrupt their flow mid-semester to relearn a product as changes to it are made. Practically speaking, though, this means some EdTech companies only get two opportunities to deploy new product releases per year. 

The slow-moving product release schedule of EdTech products undercuts innovation in two ways. First — and most obviously — EdTech companies simply have fewer opportunities to update their products. The rapid-fire cadence of biweekly releases that other tech companies rely on is more conducive to an iterative and agile approach. To achieve the same gains, EdTech companies must squeeze a lot more into each release. 

Second, the longer intervals between release cycles can make EdTech companies more conservative in their actions. After all, if they release new features and functionalities that end up being problematic, they know they won’t get a chance to address those issues for several months. That’s quite a long time for users to muddle through frustrating or broken workflows. Because of this, the stakes for each release are higher. And that can make it harder to take the sorts of risks associated with innovation. 

There is one potential silver lining: EdTech product teams aren’t forced to work at the same breakneck speed that biweekly release schedules demand. They can (and must) be more careful and calculating about each release.

Mixed Messages: Instructor vs. Student User Expectations

EdTech products typically have two sets of users: Instructors and students. And these two user groups have very different expectations and appetites for digital innovation. 

As we already mentioned, instructors don’t want to be interrupted by product releases. Beyond that, they can sometimes be more generally resistant to innovation. Once an instructor learns to use an EdTech product and decides she likes it, she may not want to see it changed. 

As a user group, students turn over at an extremely rapid pace. In higher education, they may be almost completely replaced every four years. Each new class of digital natives brings new product expectations and digital skills to the table. This user turnover far outpaces the reality of EdTech product development. As a result, students are much more likely to find EdTech products lacking as compared with the other digital products they use on a daily basis. 

The result is that one set of EdTech users is applying the brakes on innovation while the other set of users steps on the gas. 

Dependencies, Integrations, and Learning Management Systems

EdTech products rarely function as standalone entities. It’s much more common for them to be integrated with other products and platforms as part of a holistic program. Often, colleges and universities begin with learning management systems (LMS) and layer other EdTech products on top to create a customized package of tools and resources. 

For individual EdTech companies, working with dependencies and integrations is usually a nonnegotiable part of doing business. But the interlocking nature of EdTech products can stifle growth and development even as it amplifies a product’s marketability in the existing competitive landscape.

LMS’s (such as Blackboard) serve as the “anchor” in the average school’s suite of digital products. Because of this, LMS’s effectively set the pace for innovation across the industry. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Many LMS’s operate on long-term contracts with institutions and don’t face as much competitive pressure, which can put a damper on innovation.  

In order to build a product capable of integrating with an LMS, you must jump through a number of hoops to meet the LMS’s criteria for compatibility. Do that, and your product is at the mercy of the LMS’s pace of development. Jump too far ahead, and you risk endangering your product’s ability to integrate. If the LMS isn’t interested in pursuing fast-paced change, EdTech products that act as augmentations to the LMS are likewise forced to keep their ambitions for innovation in check. In this context, moving too fast with too many updates can be risky.

How to Approach Product Innovation in the EdTech Space

EdTech companies should pursue innovation regardless of the constraints that make this challenge more difficult. Following are some tips to help your product team approach innovation and product release management wisely. 

  • Beware of change for change’s sake. Pushing the envelope is good — as long as it doesn’t endanger your product’s marketability. If your product relies on integrations, you must respect the limitations imposed by those compatibility requirements and adjust your pace of change accordingly. If you don’t, you risk getting left out. That’s true even if you introduce a legitimately beneficial innovation. The fact remains that if your product doesn’t play nice, it may not have the chance to play at all.
  • Be ready to leap if the opportunity presents itself. Once or twice a year, conduct a collaborative session designed to explore the what-ifs of new thinking, paradigm shifts or redesigns with your team. Planning for future states that step outside of today’s limitations can open the door to your UX team’s ability to innovate and make leaps forward. In creating a product roadmap, you should make one set of plans for the coming year that reflects your current set of limitations. Then, make another set of plans on a 3-5 year horizon that reflects your wishlist of innovative solutions that disregards your present-day constraints. Don’t be afraid to step outside of what seems possible in the present moment. Document your potential solutions so that you can move as quickly as possible in the event that an opportunity to pivot presents itself. For instance, let’s say an LMS suddenly makes a major update or gets replaced by a new provider down the line. Will you be ready to step into that gap with ideas to improve your product and more meaningfully meet your users’ needs? The outcomes of future-focused exercises can find their way into current plans, introducing change at a pace that works with your landscape of integrations and limitations. 

The relatively slow pace of change in EdTech can be frustrating for providers and users alike. Unfortunately, it’s often necessary for product teams to keep pace with other players in the field rather than running laps around the competition. But ambitious companies can still keep an eye toward innovation and assume a ready stance so they are primed to leap ahead when conditions are right.


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    Trevor Minton

    As CXO at Openfield, Trevor collaborates closely with our clients and ensures that our team delivers world-class design thinking and execution that results in strong emotional connections between users and digital products. He is passionately enthusiastic about music, local and international soccer, automotive design and racing, and getting under the hood of his old but new-to-him BMW to keep it on the road for another couple of decades.

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