Teachers often complain that technology tools don't meet their instructional needs. Meanwhile, technology companies don't always know how to gather insight from teachers at the outset to help them design a tool that will work for them. 

But it doesn't have to be this way. A July case study by Thomas Arnett at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation reveals three keys that allow schools and companies to work together toward better student learning outcomes.

The two major players in this case aren't in it for the money either. Leadership Public Schools is a not-for-profit network of four Bay Area public charter high schools in California designed to prepare underserved students to succeed in college. Meanwhile, Gooru is a nonprofit devoted to making education accessible for everyone by creating technology tools that teachers can combine with effective instruction. The two organizations combined their separate efforts on instructional and technology tools so they could be scaled up more effectively across the four schools. 

1. Teaching practices guide technology 

Leadership Public Schools spent several years developing instructional methods that worked for freshmen who came in below their expected math level. An instructor also created a tool that fit well with the instructional method, and provided an easy place to track student work and personalize their learning paths. Gooru got involved when the schools needed a way to spread the instructional practices and a better tool across four schools. 

"Teaching practices are one of the most important — if not the most important — aspects of a quality education, so to really improve student outcomes, tech should focus on facilitating effective teaching practices," said Thomas Arnett, an education research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a nonprofit think tank focused on disruptive innovations that will improve the world.  

2. Sharing business models and missions 

These two organizations avoided some of the typical pitfalls in school-company partnerships for two major reasons, Arnett said. Gooru doesn't have to make a profit on schools because it receives its operating revenue from licensing its back-end technology to other organizations. They also both received grant funding for the project to design Learning Navigator, which allows teachers to create and assign assessments, track data and identify learning resources for each student based on assessment results. Instead of measuring their success on the number of users who accessed the system, they measured success on how well students were learning.

"The key is that you've got to find a way to make sure that the funding you're getting is focused on student outcomes and not just adoption," Arnett said. 

3. Investment in time

Oftentimes, companies will go to educators after they've already developed a tool, so they will just ask for their feedback and make minor tweaks, Arnett said. By starting the collaboration early in the product development cycle, however, educators and technology makers can create a tool that works well in schools. This collaboration involved frequent meetings between the school and company teams to design it. 

"In terms of making the partnership work, it's important to recognize up front that the type of collaboration they did is costly," Arnett said. "It's costly in terms of the amount of time you have to spend working together."