What I learned from my side project in education technology: Formata

Screenshots of what the student would see, taken from the deck I sent to teachers.

Last winter, I built an MVP for an ed-tech product, called Formata. Here’s what it was, why I did it, and what I learned from it.

Why Education

I had been (and still am) trying little side projects in different industries because I like learning about and understanding new things. At the time, I had done some stuff in productivity and fintech, and I knew I wanted to have an impact on education eventually in my life. It’s been so influential on me and and is a huge lever to get us closer to what I call “opportunity equality” worldwide, so I decided to do a small project in education this time.

Principles of Educational Impact

I did a little thought experiment: I imagined myself as a middle school kid again, and thought about what influenced me the most, in my education. “My teachers” was the answer. Students spend the majority of their week day in school, and it’s the teachers that interact with them, and understand each and every child. I saw it first hand on a farm on the other side of the world: way more than the facilities and the curriculum, it’s the teacher that inspires the student and really has an impact on him or her.

Next, I asked, “Ok, so if teachers have the most impact on a child’s education, what makes a good teacher? What does “good” even mean? And how do you measure it?” I did some research, and came across the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project, a project backed by hundreds of millions of dollars and pursuing these exact questions. Awesome!

Some more research led me to the interesting and sometimes controversial world of teacher evaluation. Traditionally, teachers have been evaluated by two methods: student test scores (also known as “value added”), and observations by someone like the principal. The thought is basically that student test scores, as the outcome of a teacher’s teaching, should correlate with his or her teaching ability. Sometimes, administration has a rubric for what they think makes a teacher good, and so a few times a year, the principal might sit in on a class for 15 or so minutes to observe and evaluate the teacher.

There are some fundamental issues with both methods, which I’ll mention briefly. It’s hard to see the principal observing each teacher a few times a year, for 15 minutes, having any strong relationship with how good the teacher actually is. The Gates Foundation has done research that shows that teacher observations are less reliable than test scores; however, tests on which teachers are usually evaluated (usually state-wide standardized ones) only happen once every year, and if they know this is tied to their employment, there’s a strong incentive to “teach to the test”.

Who interacts with teachers the most? Who would be best at evaluating them? The students themselves. Again, the Gates Foundation did a bunch of research on what exactly students should evaluate teachers on, sort of quantifying the aspects of a good teacher. They narrowed the most important characteristics down to what they called the “7 C’s”: caring, control, captivate, clarify, confer, consolidate, and challenge. Structured in the right way (e.g. low-stakes and anonymized, so the students aren’t incentivized to fudge), student perception questionnaires that asked about these characteristics were pretty reliable in discerning high performing teachers from the rest.

Building A Product

I noticed that in the Gates Foundation’s research, the student perception surveys were being administered with pen, paper, envelopes, stickers, etc. I felt like the surveys could be administered much more efficiently with technology; the results could also be tabulated and organized much better for teachers and administrators to learn from.

To further validate my idea, I went to a bunch of ed-tech meet-ups, talking to teachers and asking them what they thought about my idea. They all agreed that having more feedback, more frequently, on their teaching would be helpful.

I thought this was a pretty quick MVP to build, I could even do some of the analysis of feedback for the teachers manually myself at first. All the teacher would have to do was give me the email addresses of his/her students, and I could auto-generate emails and questionnaires, send them off, and aggregate the results.

Visualizations of student feedback I could generate for teachers, so they could pinpoint where to work on
Visualizations of student feedback I could generate for teachers, so they could pinpoint where to work on

Moving On

After a month of reaching out to teachers, those who I already met or knew and also those who I didn’t, and sending them my slide deck about Formata and its benefits, I finally got a few who said they were willing to try it. They were extremely busy though (all teachers are overworked), and had to get permission from their department heads, who had to get permission from the principal, to use it. Their effort fizzled out, and I did a re-evaluation of my own time, and moved on.

What I Learned

I learned about a lot of different things, but overall, I think this project reinforced two principles for me:

  • Ask better questions when doing customer development, and solve a problem.
    • My idea never really solved an important problem for my target audience, teachers. I should’ve talked to more administrators, who may care more about teacher evaluation. Also, you’re bound to get positive but not very useful answers when you ask someone what they think about your idea: whether it solves a big enough problem for them to actually integrate your product into their life is a different story. Not solving an important enough problem for teachers coupled with lots of bureaucracy and the fact that they’re overworked was not a recipe for excited users.
  • Keep doing things, don’t worry about failure.
    • I got to learn about an important and fascinating area of education by doing this project. I also got to learn about the realities of the space. I learned more about the power of customer development: that through observation and/or asking better questions, you can get to true pain points that people will pay you to solve. I learned that some types of problems and tasks excite me more than others. This project was also a great way for me to practice first principles thinking.

Thanks for reading this journal of sorts.

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