More than the sum of its parts – why edtech companies need to collaborate

Joe Mathewson and Simon Hay of Firefly advocate cross-sector partnerships in edtech

Early in the first lockdown, the Department for Education (DfE) announced an education partnership with Google and Microsoft to provide schools with technical support to start using these platforms.

The DfE announcement left schools confused, particularly those that were less technically mature. It implied that what all schools actually needed to support remote learning was Google Classroom or Office 365 for Education. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although a critical piece of school infrastructure, these platforms are a starting point rather than the endgame.

Along with many British edtech companies, Firefly handled numerous queries from customers – at times we felt like the DfE’s helpdesk! What these conversations highlighted was how quickly schools’ technology needs were changing. Delivering remote learning day in day out was helping schools understand exactly where platforms like Microsoft and Google worked well, but also where the gaps might be.

Meeting school needs

There are lots of edtech offerings, with a solution for every need, but there are also lots of overlaps. This makes it hard for schools to find one solution that does everything, or to make a number of solutions work together properly to meet their needs.

In those first few weeks after lockdown, our schools told us they were looking for systems that could talk to each other. We’re sure this is a message many other edtech companies have also heard.

Schools wanted two things:

  1. Systems that saved time for their staff – they were looking for systems that meant staff didn’t need to enter the same information repeatedly, that required multiple logins and where integration was well designed making it easy to use, for example a teacher being able to access their seating plans and curriculum material directly from within Teams
  2. Data to flow between systems – they wanted the data from one system to talk sensibly to another system, for example if a homework assignment was uploaded in Teams for a student, this should also be picked up by a school’s online parent communications platform and trigger a message to the student’s parents.

For us this meant moving forward faster with plans to integrate with Microsoft Teams, used by many of our customers.

It made sense to focus on how we could create a seamless integration for our schools that would help to save them time. It involved considerable investment, so this wasn’t simply a commercial decision. Rather it was driven by wanting schools to be able to use critical tools like Firefly as easily as possible.

Advice to edtech companies wanting to partner with large tech firms

The switch to remote learning and the announcement by the DfE regarding Google and Microsoft has changed what schools need from edtech companies and, to some extent, changed the UK schools’ market. We’re sure that many edtech companies that are as critical to their customers as Firefly is, are looking at how they can partner with these large tech companies.

We’ve learnt a great deal through the process and would offer the following advice to edtech companies considering similar partnerships:

  • Understand your partner’s objectives and strategies. Find out what they’re trying to achieve both corporately and at a business unit level. Think about how a partnership with your company can help them in the short- and medium-term. Quick results are good.
  • Take a long-term view to developing partnerships. We’ve been speaking to Microsoft for five years. We had developed multiple relationships across lots of teams and built up considerable trust and understanding.
  • Talk to your customers so you can understand where they feel the large tech companies fall short. Carefully identify where you can make a valuable contribution and check your analysis with your customers.
  • Make a strategic commitment. Our partnership with Microsoft was a key objective and supported by our board. We committed significant resource and reviewed lots of our internal workflow. It wasn’t something we did overnight.

It’s estimated that there are more than 600 edtech companies in the UK and we’re proud to be part of this innovative sector. The past year has brought into sharp focus where edtech is helping schools, but also where we could do more. One of the key priorities is joining up and aligning technologies. Collaboration is essential for this and we are keen to do more, whether it’s with the big players or smaller edtech companies, as long as what they do complements what we can offer to schools.

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