Mapping the universe of edtech that connects

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Aug 1, 2018

This week I’m excited to share a tool that my colleagues and I have been working on for the past few years: a market map of what we’re calling Edtech that Connects. We’ve captured a wide range of edtech tools that are bringing new relationships within reach for students. The tool lives—and will be regularly updated—at whoyouknow.org.

When I first joined the Christensen Institute over five years ago we were knee-deep in studying the fast-growing market of tools designed to support blended learning environments. Many consisted of adaptive learning content tools that could support students at different levels in a manner that traditional textbook and lecture-style teaching struggles to do. At the same time, cloud-based productivity tools to help schools organize their staff and streamline their data collection processes were becoming more and more mainstream.

But I had a lurking suspicion that something was missing from that booming edtech market. Beyond our education systems, communications technologies have advanced in ways that radically improved our ability to connect across time and space. Why weren’t there more edtech tools designed to connect studentsto new people, supports, and opportunities?

I went on the hunt for tools that did just that. We began interviewing entrepreneurs who were building tools for schools premised not just on content delivery and assessment but on using technology to forge new connections in students’ lives. Some of these tools were facilitating brief, one-off online connections with industry experts who could share their career trajectories with students. Others were brokering new, enduring mentoring relationships to support students into or through college.

Fast forward to today. Our free, searchable market map features all of the tools we’ve come across (so far!) over the years and the types of relationships they are bringing within reach for students.

The map is surely not a complete picture of tools that connect students. But as it’s grown over the years, our list of tools offers insights into how schools are starting to use technology in new ways beyond curriculum, assessment, and productivity.

Slices of the traditional edtech market

When we set out looking for edtech tools designed to expand and diversify networks, we used a simple litmus test: are these tools offering a relationship that otherwise would not be on offer for students? Studying tools that met that threshold, we started to see clusters of tools in particular pockets of the market: project-based learning tools, college access, success and guidance tools, and academic support tools. It’s pretty intuitive why these categories lend themselves to mentoring and coaching models that reach beyond students’ immediate networks. Bringing additional supports, real-world expertise, and increased guidance are all fundamentally human endeavors. There are still many tools in each of these three market segments are not actually brokering new relationships in students’ lives. Many aim instead to make project-based learning or academic support structures more efficient within existing human capital constraints.

To better understand the emerging market, we started tagging tools by these different market segments and value propositions. On the website users can filter by these different segments depending on the particular problem they are trying to solve. They can also filter by the type of relationship that these tools offer. For example, teachers can find tools that bring industry experts into their classrooms or diversify students’ access to peers and near peers beyond their school. School leaders and afterschool providers can see the range of tools bringing more mentors and tutors within reach.

Sourcing versus coordinating connections

A key distinction in this emerging market is whether vendors themselves supply new relationships and connections or are instead selling tools for schools to coordinate the existing supply of relationships in students lives. Coordinating platform companies are not in the business of recruiting new mentors or experts. Instead, they have built software as a service (SaaS) tools that could help schools and communities to more efficiently and effectively organize and coordinate existing supplies of relationships.  

For school systems or higher education institutions in areas awash with social capital or that are already running in-person mentorship or internship programs, these platforms can lend crucial programmatic efficiencies. For those systems just getting started or that are in rural or cash-strapped circumstances, sourcing additional connections and supports can prove challenging. In those cases, vendors that recruit those new assets will have a competitive advantage. Some toolslike iMentor and Neprisfit into both of these categories. Part of their business is to recruit mentors and experts that can connect with students online. But they’ve also been asked by some groups to white label their tool to simply provide the backend software for organizing local and existing connections.

The next frontier of school as we know it

Although still a relatively small share of the edtech market, we believe that network-expanding tools have huge potential. Over time, they stand to unlock classroom and school designs that effectively network students into opportunity in expansive and exciting ways. Innovative technologies could be game-changing tools for schools to invest meaningfully—and at an affordable price tag—in their students’ networks. Given the current landscape of opportunity gaps, these tools’ upside potential is enormous. Powerful webs of technology-enabled connections that diversify young people’s networks are increasingly within reach.

Want to learn more? In my upcoming book, Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks, we explore how these tools fit into a relationship-centered vision of school. We examine dramatic shifts in the way schools are empowering students to forge new connections—and ultimately opportunities—that would otherwise be out of reach. The book is now available for preorder.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.