4 Important Lessons from 15 Years in EdTech

Last week, during the 2015 CoSN Annual Conference, I participated in the CoSN Camp FailFest where leaders in education shared professional failures in order to see future successes.

When I started Gaggle back in 1999, we were free email for students. The goal was “a million eyeballs,” a familiar term used during the first dot-com bubble. Almost all of those companies went out of business. Remember Yahoo buying Blue Mountain, the e-greeting card website, for a billion dollars? When was the last time you sent an online greeting card? If you are under 25, you’ve probably never even heard of Blue Mountain.

Today, Gaggle provides our Safe Classroom Learning Management System and Safety Management products for Google Apps for Education or Office 365 to millions of students who are creating, collaborating and sharing in a safe environment. Our customers purchase these services because they offer real value.

Lesson learned #1: Eyeballs are not a business model.

One of my very memorable failures was in 2003, when I went to Austin ISD to present to the technology team as the final step of a large purchase. I went by myself and didn’t bother to prepare because I knew my product inside and out. After all, “I’m the Gaggle Guy.” But, when the technology fails and you can’t take a breath no matter how hard you try, it’s called a panic attack. The order fell through my fingers.

Lesson learned #2: Show up prepared, or you are doomed to fail.

I constantly play contrarian with our marketing team around using the latest education lingo: Project-Based Learning; Web 2.0; Collaborative Learning, 21st Century Skills; Blending Learning, Student Engagement, MOOC; Flipped Classroom; Gamification; Big Data. The list goes on and on.

You may not know it, but education is a very “green” industry. We recycle all terminology and ideas. “Integrated Learning Systems” was used back in 1999, and then we moved on to other terms for more or less the same concept. We used the terms “Differentiated Instruction,” “Adaptive Learning Software,” “Individualized Instruction” and now, “Personalized Learning.”

Lesson learned #3: Don’t chase trends. Most ideas are not new. Just try to do it better, or cheaper.

Have you heard of SIF, the Schools Interoperability Framework? SIF was, and is still, useful for some school districts, but as far as Gaggle is concerned it might as well stand for “Soccer Isn’t Football.” We spent $25,000 on a SIF agent. Not one district took us up on our SIF integration. SIF was overkill for Gaggle and many districts; it was like using a hammer on a pin board.

Lesson learned #4: Don’t pursue every industry standard. (Note: LTI looks like the real deal.)

These are just four of the countless lessons that I’ve learned as we continue to work alongside you. After more than 15 years in business, I’m just starting to understand what teachers and schools really need.

We should be making products that work with each other. It’s time for vendors to stop trying control everything. I believe we should be sharing the ball and expect to fumble a few times along the way. More lessons learned.