Guest Post: The Missing Piece: What Most Edtech Companies Need & Only a Few Have - Digital Promise

Guest Post: The Missing Piece: What Most Edtech Companies Need & Only a Few Have

January 24, 2020 | By

Have you ever checked out the website for an edtech product only to close your computer knowing less about the product than when you started?

This common experience illuminates how challenging it can be for educational technology (edtech) companies to communicate what they do and why it is important. This challenge is even harder for edtech companies innovating on the cutting edge. They struggle to articulate the purpose and value of something that has never existed in the world before. Remember the first time you heard of Facebook or Snapchat or even smartphones? Like these society-transforming innovations, when they first emerge, new approaches to teaching and learning often make us wonder, “What is it?” and “Why would I want it?” Most importantly, educators wonder, “What will this tool actually do for my students?”

These are the right questions to be asking. When schools interview a candidate for a teaching position, they ask for a lesson plan that makes clear what the teacher is doing in a demo lesson and why. When you build a new house, you work with a contractor who works from a blueprint. Without lesson plans and curriculum maps, a teacher’s effectiveness is deeply undermined. Without a blueprint, a contractor compromises their chances of building a sturdy, reliable house.

In edtech, the closest thing to a blueprint or a lesson plan is a product roadmap. This is a prioritized list maintained by a company’s product team that indicates what will be built, when, and by whom. Sometimes these lists are informed by user stories explaining who might use a new feature and why, but even in these cases, a product roadmap fails to convey the big picture in the same way that a blueprint or curriculum map does. So what can a company do to capture that big picture perspective?

The Missing Piece: Logic Models

A logic model is a framing document that most edtech companies desperately need, but that few have spent adequate time developing. In my work with edtech companies, I have learned that “logic model” is one of those phrases that invites people to check out of a conversation. At first blush, the brain knows the word “logic” and it knows the word “model.” But when you put them together, a jargon sensor is set off and your thoughts drift back to your to-do list or dinner plans. (The same is true for the siblings of the logic model: theory of change and conceptual framework.)

Because logic models are cursed with this thoroughly disengaging name, the value they bring surprises even the most nerdy among us. Logic models afford substantial insights and can be used to guide edtech development, evaluation, and adoption.

What is a Logic Model?

A logic model is a document that captures the essence of a product on a single page. It explains who uses the product, what they do with it, and the outcomes they can expect from using it. Done correctly, a logic model is simple to look at but challenging to create (rambling is easy, concision is hard). When done well, a logic model captures language and framing that is later used in sales and marketing materials (i.e. websites, one pagers, social media campaigns).

Logic models also provide a big picture view that guides product development and efficacy efforts for the company moving forward. Creating one can help companies get clear on how key features are intended to support desired outcomes, what the indicators of success will be, and what should be improved to increase efficacy related to desired outcomes moving forward. An exceptional logic model can also be used to explain a product’s features and value add to decision-makers and potential users.

Let’s take a closer look at two examples to see how such a lofty mission can be accomplished in a one-page document. In the first example from Purpose Project, you can see the typical logic model organization. It is divided into four categories:

  1. Inputs: Who are the users? What are the features engaged by the different users?
  2. Activities: What kinds of things do users do when engaged with the technology?
  3. Outputs: What does the data tell us about user experiences?
  4. Outcomes: What does the research tell us about the potential benefits of using the technology? What does research on the product indicate about potential outcomes associated with use of the technology?

In this example, Purpose Project answers these questions with a balance of clear readable headlines and explanatory details. One burden of proof for this kind of work is the “call home check.” If your mom, dad, or sister (who don’t work in edtech) understand what is written on the page, you have achieved the correct level of clarity. . From my work coaching this team, I know that every box on this document was tirelessly wordsmithed, that the output column resulted from a complete audit of the platform, and that usage data and the outcome column emerged after an in-depth review of relevant academic literature. This document was a culminating summary of months of work defining what the platform did, for who, and to what end. The depth and quantity of ideas distilled here reflect the company’s internal coherence, organization, and commitment to a clear vision.

The second example is from Outschool, another company that invested time and effort into capturing the DNA of their product in a one-page logic model. For this company, organizing the depth and complexity of their one-of-a-kind marketplace under nine simple headings was a challenge–but the effect was stunning. When the logic model was finished, my team facilitated a workshop with the Outschool staff. We asked each person to drop a token on the area of the model where they spent their time working. Afterwards, there were markers covering every bubble and the team discussed the ways in which the logic model helped them see the forest through the trees. The document provided a view of how the different elements within the Outschool platform interact in service of user satisfaction and research-aligned outcomes.

Purpose Project and Outschool are not alone in creating a document that frames their edtech tool from a bird’s-eye perspective. At MBZ Labs, we have worked with many teams to help them crystallize and articulate the vision of their edtech product. During one engagement, a client shared that they had spent so much time thinking of students as end users that they had never fully appreciated or designed for the equally important experience of teachers, who are the intermediaries between the tool and students. Another common experience is for a company to have a vague hypothesis about the outcomes they hope their product produces without any clear articulation of the outcome, research that supports it, or plan for measuring it. The act of creating a logic model helps a company get clear about any aspect of their product that has been accidentally neglected in the fast-paced startup world from which most edtech products are born.

The Role of Logic Models in Edtech Adoption

A school wouldn’t hire a teacher who could not articulate a coherent teaching plan. She needs a written account of what materials are needed, the learning objectives, activities, and assessments that will be used to determine whether the students are achieving the objectives. Why should edtech adoption be any different? Students deserve edtech products with a thoughtfully articulated plan that connects features to usage and outcomes in the same way they deserve qualified teachers and quality curriculum. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education considers a well-developed logic model to be essential enough to include it as the baseline criteria of evidence of efficacy (Tier 4 in compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act).

Despite this, it is common for companies to wait to prioritize efficacy activities such as logic model development until there is demand from potential customers and funders. When teachers, school leaders, district administrators, or potential investors are asking for something, only then does it become an urgent priority. Until then, it sits on the never ending to-do list. Or worse, it is not on a company’s radar at all. Given this, it is not only acceptable but appropriate for edtech decision-makers and investors to ask a company to provide a concise synthesis of the following:

  • target users/use cases
  • feature lists
  • typical user activities
  • adoption and usage trends
  • evidence of user satisfaction
  • research alignment
  • predicted outcomes based on research
  • evidence of outcomes

This information is essential in evaluating a product’s goodness of fit to your educational needs. A company’s willingness to provide timely, coherent information in each of these categories can also give you a sense of how organized the company is internally, as well as how committed they are to efficacy and outcomes for students.

Coincidentally, this is also the information that you can find in a well-articulated logic model. So when you are evaluating a new edtech tool or deciding whether to renew, start the conversation by asking your sales rep or customer success manager for a copy of their logic model. If they don’t have one, encourage them to convey the request to their leadership team and request that, in lieu of a logic model, they provide up-to-date information based on the list above. After all, you would not hire a contractor who wouldn’t provide a blueprint. Without it, there is no way to know if what you are building will weather a storm.

Demand Better Information from Edtech Companies

Join Digital Promise in demanding more clarity in the edtech industry by signing the Research-Based Product Promise. To learn more, check out their work developing product certifications.

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