The NYC Department of Education's iZone developed this guide to help edtech startups and entrepreneurs consider the challenges and needs of school communities in order to design and develop smarter technology solutions.
Working With NYC Schools: Insights for EdTech Start-Ups V1.0
INSIGHTS FOR EDTECH
Carmen Fariña, Chancellor
As an edtech professional,
you know that technology has
drastically changed the way we
live our lives and continues to
shape how we engage in learning.
EdTech has the potential to help
educators more effectively and
creatively personalize learning
opportunities for their students. It
also has the ability to create and
improve systems that help schools
better serve our youth. Now
more than ever, educators and
schools are seeking high-quality
edtech tools, apps, and software
to support and transform teaching
and learning. To meet this demand,
we created this introductory guide
to help entrepreneurs and start-ups
build better technology products
with and for New York City public
schools (NYC Schools).
NYC Schools is the largest and one of the most
diverse public school systems in the country.
These conditions create an environment where
different schools may serve unique student
populations with varying demographics
depending on their geographic location and
school admissions process. Additionally, each
school principal has autonomy over setting their
school’s vision, making budgetary decisions, and
establishing relationships with edtech providers.
As a result, technology access, human capacity,
and the use of edtech products varies widely from
school to school, and even classroom to classroom.
These factors can make navigating and working
with NYC Schools complicated for edtech
entrepreneurs and start-ups. However, they also
present an opportunity to innovate and test
new ideas that address the needs of students,
educators, and school communities as well as
the opportunity to debug products in a variety
of contexts. This guide will help you consider
the everyday challenges and needs of school
communities in order to design and develop
smarter technology solutions.
The iZone was established in 2010 by the
NYC Department of Education to explore how
technology supports new models of teaching
and learning. Our edtech ecosystem initiatives
over the past three years have focused on
improving collaborative relationships between
school communities, potential vendors in the
edtech market designing innovative solutions, and
professionals who are researching and evaluating
what works in schools. We engage closely with
educators to understand the challenges in NYC
Schools and help them assess how to fit and
integrate edtech products into their instruction.
This primer builds upon the lessons learned from
this work and countless conversations with the
larger edtech ecosystem.
To foster better relationships within the edtech
ecosystem and between developers and schools,
we needed to make intentional efforts to improve
information on effective strategies for building
and evaluating educational technology at various
stages of development. At the forefront, we
believe that it makes a crucial difference when
edtech product developers like you have empathy
for educators grappling with challenges that
permeate urban public schools, like the balance of
compliance with regulatory polices and issues of
equity and access.
Product recommendations work best when shared
directly by peers, and that is with good reason.
Educators have expertise and insight on the day-
to-day tactical implementation of technology in
the classroom. When you create value and demand
by delivering a stellar solution and support to
adopt and implement, educators become your
greatest evangelists. The key to success begins
before you even build the product. This guide
is intended to assist edtech entrepreneurs and
start-ups in better supporting NYC teachers
with technology in the classroom and to help
increase the adoption and usage of products that
effectively solve real problems. This guide also
aims to help entrepreneurs save crucial time and
maximize their resources as they begin to develop
new edtech products for public schools. A better
understanding of educators’ needs will help
entrepreneurs deliver stellar solutions for them to
adopt and implement, which in turn creates more
demand for the product.
Understanding how to best support educators
better with the use of your product is a critical
component of your work. This is a pivotal point
that can determine whether products are built for
success or doomed to fail. Educational technology
is only as effective as its implementer; and
therefore, better support leads to more effective
adoption and usage. Across the many stages of
product development, there are touch points with
your customer and user.
For the purposes of this guide to help you plan
and organize, we have identified three phases of
product development in K-12 edtech:
It’s expected that different edtech products will
have different paths through these stages and that
the stages for each product will vary in duration.
The time spent in each stage largely depends
on the objectives of the phase and how long it
will take to gather information and assess the
Problem and Product Validation:
Determining whether your product
addresses an authentic challenge or
instructional problem educators face
in NYC Schools.
Non-paid or paid implementation
of your product in one or a few
Scaling Support to More Schools:
Supporting product use with multiple
Understand and assess the motivations,
incentives, and risks for each staff role. Start by
researching what accountability metrics govern
their work. Interview each member to better
understand what might warrant risk for potential
Identify the relationship between the user or
influencer vs. the decision maker. Who needs to
see the value in edtech and in what terms?
Each school principal is ultimately responsible
for deciding which curricula and instructional
resources to adapt for use in their school to
best meet their students’ needs. Look at school
websites and speak with educators about how
their school’s vision and focus shapes instructional
Identify existing systems that schools in New
York City are using that your product can
integrate with, such as data systems and cloud-
based platforms, etc.
Tips for navigating
When working in NYC Schools, you’ll likely encounter multiple stakeholders with different roles
including school administrators, teachers, and students:
A school administrator (a principal or assistant principal) or a designated technology coordinator is often
the purchaser of edtech products. School administrators can purchase their own software, hardware,
and professional development services from district-managed purchasing portals. They may not see
immediate value in edtech tools that require additional resources to implement.
Teachers may be the end users or implementers of edtech, and for some products they may be both.
Many teachers view technology as a tool to enhance their practice or support student learning. Teachers
who identify as early adopters are more likely to take risks and try out new products. However, many
educators are less comfortable with technology and may be unfamiliar with or reluctant to try the latest
trends in edtech.
Students are often the end users of educational technology and present a diverse set of experiences in
terms of familiarity with technology, competency levels and engagement in products.
NYC Schools student
population by the numbers
students identified as English
students identified with learning
or physical disabilities
of eligible students graduated
students served by New York City
Department of Education
students living in poverty
INSIDE NYC SCHOOLS
What is the validation phase?
This phase includes the validation of
the problem and the validation of a
minimal viable product (MVP) solution.
During this phase, entrepreneurs
and start-ups focus on deeply
understanding the problem they are
trying to solve. As an entrepreneur,
designer, or developer trying to
solve a real problem, it is crucial
to understand the complexities of
the problem and how it manifests
in local schools in order to create
an effective technology solution.
These problems may be instructional
challenges, assessment and data gaps,
or operational issues that educators
and schools are looking to “hire”
technology to solve.
Have you accurately
understood and defined
the problem and the
As you begin the process of designing apps and
tools for learning, focus on solving problems that
will have an impact on your intended users (i.e.,
teachers and students). A common mistake that
many companies make is prematurely piloting their
product before they’ve effectively validated the
problem by fully understanding the instructional,
operational, and infrastructure challenges that
created it. A considerable amount of time should
be spent on this phase, or you might run the risk of
developing a product that does not offer the most
relevant solution or address the educator’s highest
priority. Fully validating the problem will prevent
you from wasting resources and retroactively
assessing where your product might have missed
As you move from problem validation to
building and validating your MVP, you should
be able to answer the following questions:
Who are my end users and how are they currently
addressing or working around the identified
Have you understood the root causes of the
problem and flaws in current “solutions” or
processes? Have you asked enough users to
really test your assumptions?
Are there incumbent players or systems that
teachers are required to use for some aspect of
your solution? What would it take for users to
adapt or change current behaviors in order to
adopt a new technology solution?
As you develop your MVP, consider these
Where and how does your product help the user
to make behavioral and operational changes
necessary to adopt your product? How can
What policies do you most prudently need to
understand as you develop your product?
How will you prioritize and incorporate feedback
to improve the product?
Find out how educators, students, and parents
(i.e., your potential users) in NYC Schools define
and talk about education problems. Participate
in meetups, local events, Twitter chats, and other
online platforms to engage with your potential
users. Asking open-ended and probing
questions about their experiences will help you
understand their pain points and other insights
to build a more responsive product.
Discover how different school communities
are currently trying to address problems with
analog or technology solutions. Does their
approach address the root cause of the problem?
What are the flaws or pain points in their current
approach or work-arounds?
Keep asking “why” to get to the root causes
of a problem. Otherwise, you might end up
solving for a symptom and not a cause.
Conduct interviews or focus groups with
potential users. Use mock-ups, wireframes, and
prototypes to get feedback from educators,
students, or parents before you build. While this
takes time, it will help you test key assumptions
and frame the problem appropriately.
Read the U.S. Department of Education’s
Ed Tech Developer’s Guide, which lists 10
opportunities for software developers, start-ups,
and entrepreneurs to make an impact in school
Tips for validating common
problems in education:
Avoid taking the top-down approach with
problem/product validation. It might be
more effective to go directly to your end
user. Initiate conversations with educators to
build meaningful relationships that will add
value to their profession and your product.
Build a “minimal lovable product” based
on your understanding of what your user
needs and values most. At this point, it’s
about building a product that your users
love. It’s up to you to really understand what
carries the most value for them.
Since usability is critical, glean from those
who already recognize the problem and
have attempted their own solutions, whether
analog or digital.
Use paper prototyping to get as much
feedback and input as you can before
investing time and energy into a technology
Research federal U.S. Department of
Education laws, New York State policies
and guidelines, and local district regulations
to better understand how education is
governed (e.g., the delivery of educational
services, student data privacy, scheduling,
standardized testing, etc.)
Learn how your product can solve
problems in the classroom versus over-
prescribing a use case to educators.
Tips to help you with
What is the piloting phase?
This phase includes non-paid and
paid small-scale piloting in schools
to further test assumptions and
validate product functionality, user
experience, and the features of your
MVP. The developer plays an equally
crucial role in pre-pilot preparation
as the educator. Technologists have
the opportunity to anticipate any
challenges in implementation and how
to troubleshoot them. When selecting
pilot schools in New York City, it helps
to find educators who have already
identified the problem and tried their
own solutions. If it’s effective, then the
pilot product will improve the school’s
capabilities and enhance existing
Are you ready to pilot
your product in schools?
This phase is also a critical time to design, test,
and refine feedback cycles that you can replicate
in additional environments. Remember that each
additional environment will likely have different use
cases, challenges, and requirements for aligning to
existing priorities and practices.
Before you begin your initial pilot, consider
What level of tech proficiency will teachers need
to utilize this product?
What are some challenges to using the product in
the classroom that you may have intended?
How do the realities of implementing and
using your product in the classroom differ from
your expectations (e.g., connectivity, devices,
scheduling, competing instructional priorities, etc.)?
What information do you need to gather and what
actions do you need to take to implement more
During the piloting phase, consider
What are you learning from the usage and
engagement with your product in the classroom?
Are there opportunities or use cases for the
product that you had not originally anticipated?
How can you align usage and engagement
metrics with what teachers identify as indicators to
continue using the product?
How might teachers modify use of the product to
fit their respective needs?
Is the piloting group representative of groups
you anticipate onboarding in later stages? What
assumptions do you need to test in the future?
Consider if the piloting group is representative
of who you will onboard in later stages - what
assumptions do you need to test next?
By the time you complete your pilot, you should
be able to answer and assess the following:
What insights can you gather from the usage data
(e.g., engagement with features)?
What metrics would help you understand if
teachers and students effectively engaged with
What did you learn about the realities of
implementing this product from your user?
How much product usage time is realistic?
When is it logistically possible to use the
What are the barriers to using the product as
Who is the influencer and who is the purchaser?
What information and metrics communicate value
to each of those players?
If you are building an instructional product, how
can you better understand how the product
aligns or does not align with the school’s
instructional practices and priorities?
If you are working with student data, how will you
address issues of data privacy and security? What
are important data systems for integration?
Be intentional about your pilot classrooms
and schools. Be aware of the different
perspectives between users who have
already opted in and users you will
encounter as you scale.
Co-design your piloting process by setting
expectations for both types of users and
valuing terms that matter to both parties.
Make it easy for teachers to pilot so that
it won’t take away time from their other
Consider what basic classroom management
practices, including routines and procedures,
educators will need to have in place to use
your product effectively. Ask teachers how
using your product may or may not align
with their daily routines and schedules.
MVPs used in classrooms need to meet a
higher standard because you can’t smoke
test products with students.
Understand where exactly flexibility is
needed in the product to meet the varying
needs of different classrooms.
Develop relationships with users and
customers that extend beyond the pilot.
Be sure to communicate respect for the
challenges of teaching in public schools
and ways your product can offer powerful
solutions to specific tactical challenges.
Provide your teachers with a great user
experience and necessary support because
they could be your greatest advocates.
Tips to help you
run successful pilots:
What does it take to support
This phase entails growing your user
base and supporting a variety of
schools, which can vary greatly across
New York City. Think about how to best
leverage the information you learned
during previous phases and apply it to
your plans. If new customers ask for
references, think about which product
highlights existing customers will share
and why. During this phase you will
likely need to debug, determine any
variance in product usage from school
to school, and think about how to
effectively scale the product’s technical
capacity and customer support.
Are you ready to support
more schools after
Think about patterns for user activation flow in
differing environments and how that impacts
customer support needs and plans. Scaling
becomes less about maintaining high-touch
relationships and more about building efficiencies
into onboarding and support.
Before you begin working with multiple
schools, consider these questions:
Be aware of any inherent biases that early
adopters of your product who have opted in
might have. What can you anticipate from the
naysayers and skeptics?
How do different instructional practices and
curricula in schools influence how the product
How do you capture different use cases and
implementation models in different schools?
What additional technical and implementation
support do different classroom contexts need in
order to optimize use of the product and keep
What indicates and communicates value and
success to a user and customer? Where is this
success the same and where might it differ? Why?
What information do you need to collect to
understand your next phase of growth?
As you work with multiple schools and
classrooms, consider these questions:
As you scale, what differences are you seeing
between your earliest users and your new users?
What type of interoperability is a make-or-break
for your product in each new environment?
Do users need additional or different training
and support to onboard? What, if any, additional
support do users need to successfully use your
What are the key touch points that will get new
users invested in the product?
Based on data and capacity, what is the feasible
and logical next step to scale successfully?
Observe how teachers are adapting and
modifying the product for their classrooms
to support their schedules, curriculum, and
instructional practices. Work your support
plans as you expand.
Debug your onboarding and customer
setup process. This will help you immensely
to scale successfully. At this point, consider
developing an onboarding guide that
highlights key information.
Different NYC schools have divergent needs
based on populations served, instructional
practices, infrastructure, and operational
procedures — develop support models
tailored to each type of context.
Providing excellent customer support is
a defining factor in sustaining and growing
engagement with your product. However,
as you scale, you might have to adjust
your expectations for sustainable support
Share customer success stories with
educators and school leaders. Give clear
and specific examples of how your product
supports different classroom contexts.
Be sure you can communicate your
product’s value in terms that your customer
and user will understand.
Learn the policies and constraints that
govern and impact their work.
Tips for working with
multiple schools successfully: