“We are going to disrupt a market that operates on software that hasn’t changed since the early 60s. It’s transformational, schools ring up after using the system for the first time because they have received over 40% response within 24 hours,” David Eedle and Fiona Boyd say. Together they are the founders of ParentPaperwork.
Melbourne based startup ParentPaperwork is tackling the sticky world of edtech. It’s mission is to replace all the paper forms that fly between teachers and parents – literally billions of pieces of paper a year – and make it a breeze for parents to give permission by tapping their mobiles or clicking an email. Forms don’t get lost, data is safe and secure, it saves huge hours for teacher workloads and countless trees.
Disruption in any industry is not a new concept. Industries and executives love and fear it. Fortunately, the education sector globally is ripe for disruption. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet. Educators today have access to some of the most advanced tools to reach out to and influence malleable minds, yet none are being used efficiently to warrant actual disruption. Where is the Uber or the AirBnb of edtech?
It’s Saturday afternoon and we’re sitting in their office at St. Kilda. The four of us are split between two couches, Boyd and her nine-year old daughter Colette on the couch opposite to the one Eedle and I are sharing.
“We’ve got lots of interest coming out of Asia” explains Eedle. They recently arrived from Singapore after demonstrating to five schools, three of which were part of larger commercial networks. I’m told that ParentPaperWork currently have customers in six countries, “Singapore in particular shows promise to becoming early adopters,” he says. “They definitely understood our product offering and we’re talking more about network relationships with them.”
Eedle’s words take me back to 2012 when another Software as a Service (SaaS) company was beginning to disrupt an industry. Back then it was accounting and it was spearheaded by Rod Drury the CEO of Xero. The Xero team literally took the accounting platform to the cloud, stripped away the unnecessary clunk, streamlined and enriched the user experience. It was easy for Xero to carve out marketshare from a market that was in desperate need to be disrupted.
“We are seeing legacy players slap on a web-based interface into its enterprise solution and call it cloud, that’s not cloud!” Eedle explains. As was a similar case with Xero; its competitor MYOB also took a similar approach to slapping together a hybrid web solution to their existing platform. “The difference between companies like ours and existing legacy players is that they tick boxes for the sake of selling a product whereas our solution is the key value offering. The cracks are beginning to show and we are in a situation where schools are taking notice of our software.”
ParentPaperwork have signed up a number of schools including Oakleigh Grammar, St Columba’s Essendon, Sirius College, Albert Park Kinder and American International School, Riyadh. They are in an aggressive expansion phase at the moment, “We’re looking at targeting over 2000 kindergartens in Australia and are in negotiations with an international school network of over 130 schools,” he pauses as his phone buzzes.
For a moment, his attention is flanked. Boyd continues, “we’ve had a user create YouTube tutorials on how to use the software and it’s something that we are very proud to see develop organically.” It appears to be the sprouting of the company’s first few brand evangelists, every company’s wet dream.
The pair are in talks with schools in Pakistan, Canada and the Middle East. “I apologise,” Eedle says as he puts down his phone “I was just replying to a school in Guatemala, they are interested to talk.”
“We exist for teachers, administrators and parents – we seek to make their lives easier by automating paper processes that they find burdensome and often irritating,” Boyd says.
Ned Manning said it best in his article published earlier this month. In Australia and a majority of the world, teachers are drowning in paperwork and administrative tasks among a variety of other constraints. His article has oxygenated an issue that is everyday edging past the point of resuscitation. Our education system has transformed into a debate, a poorly constructed one that disinforms the masses and blames the frontliners.
The Australian education sector has turned increasingly messy and consequently, policy makers are looking at technological innovations that provide more engaging learning environments for students. First it was the laptop revolution and now it is the iPad’s turn on the carousel of failure. As a result, schools tend to be jaded from technology change. “Schools have very much focussed on technology change in the classroom and I think they confuse ParentPaperwork with that end of things,” Boyd says.
“Teachers go into their profession to teach – things that aren’t related to teaching, like compliance and other paperwork, are going to take them away from the core of what they trained to do, and what they’re paid to do. It’s time that paperwork processes were automated. We feel the most precious work a teacher does is face-to-face with students.”
Unfortunately in Australia, we seem to have forgotten (or have selectively ignored) that poor performance is directly attributable to executive decisions. Just like in any organisation, administrators and policy makers need to be held accountable for poor performance. Schools need to up their game and invest in administration in order to solve this issue.
Eedle tells me about a speech he heard recently about how Australia is in “absolute crisis”. He was referring the speech given by Matt Barrie from Freelancer.com at Knowledge Nation last week.
“Well I think we should abolish State Governments,” Barrie said, “The problems we face in terraforming Australia to be innovative are systemic. They are a result of regulatory duplication, confusion and duplication of responsibilities or the mindless populism of absurd policies of the State Governments.”
“How do you fix K-12 education in this country? It’s the remit of the bureaucracy of the State Governments. Trying to get them to all agree to modernise the curriculum is an exercise in futility. Or sadomasochism. I genuinely believe the Federal Government wants to fix K-12 education and understands the issues, but it can’t.”
In his speech, Barrie explained how nobody from Silicon Valley wants to come to Australia for any role. “I called the top recruiter for engineering in Silicon Valley not so long ago for a Vice President role. We are talking a top role, very highly paid. The recruiter that placed the role would earn a hefty six-figure commission. This recruiter had placed VPs at Twitter, Uber, Pinterest.”
The recruiter explained that Australia was seen as a backwater and they consider it as two moves – they have to move once to get over there but more importantly when they finish they have to move back and it’s hard for them after being out of the action.
Eedle agrees with Barrie and explains that the reason for greater acceptance of ParentPaperwork in Singapore is simple “their government is fundamentally dedicated towards driving innovation.”
Last December, the Singaporean government announced its innovation policy which is centred around becoming a Smart Nation. They’re investing SGD19 billion over 5 years to achieve their goals. “For a population of 5 million people in a geographically dense location, that is extraordinary and shows commitment to the creation of new enterprises and new technologies. They’re investing for the future of all their citizens,” he says. “Meanwhile here in Australia we are spending $28m on an advertising campaign to sell its innovation agenda with none of that money actually going towards any innovation at all,” he says.
This lack of foresight by the Australian government is common knowledge and its repercussions are being noticed by top tech companies as well as startups in Australia. Their remarkable lack of investment in schools’ administration as well as in business innovation culminates into media fodder where journalists and bloggers opine over what needs to change and eventually blame the workforce in a debate that never resolves itself.
Ultimately, there needs to be a shift and if it doesn’t come from government it will come from private companies. Case in point: How Uber is making Pakistan a safer place for women, in order to exist in a ride-sharing ecosystem, something that the Pakistani government could never solve.
Edtech is a rife with layers of issues that need to be addressed but Eedle and Boyd are confident that we are on the cusp of reform. I asked them why they chose to embark on such a hard road. They both looked at Colette, their daughter “it’s essentially for them” they were referring to the next generation of thinkers. It is very clear that today’s victims of a flawed education system become the antagonists of tomorrow’s technological, political and social system.