A digital marketplace for everyone, including teachers?

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By Brigitte Ricou-Bellan, Managing Director of TES Digital

Scaling a two–sided marketplace is among the most daunting tasks for entrepreneurs. It can also be the most rewarding one. It takes time to build both supply and demand, and requires significant volume to drive meaningful revenue and get the fly wheel running. But the barriers are falling—and the implications for education may be profound.

The success of companies like Etsy, Airbnb, LoveHomeShare, eBay, and StubHub means that teacher–consumers are familiar with—and increasingly reliant on—two–sided marketplaces outside of the classroom. Big data, multivariable frameworks, and NPS tracking enable new marketplaces to test, learn, optimize, and scale more efficiently and faster than ever. And mobile payment technologies are making it easier to facilitate buying and selling, domestically and globally, which means it is less expensive to act as the intermediary.

As a marketplace entrepreneur who’s relatively new to education, I spend a lot of time trying to understand the unique patterns and priorities of teachers. What’s similar? Why might education behave differently from other “markets”?  What are the implications of introducing new collaboration and distribution models in a field where the outcomes are far more profound than revenues or user engagement?

Why Now?

Two–sided markets often thrive where niche vendors tap “economies of unscale” to provide specialized products that transcend geographic boundaries dominated by just a few major brands. Typified by the dominance of traditional publishing—and the historic chasm between teacher choice and district/school purchasing—education, in many ways, represents the model context for a new market to thrive.  

The adoption of high–speed internet and mobile computing in schools means that, for the first time, teachers have the infrastructure in place to discover and share digital materials in the classroom and beyond. Implementation of new, more rigorous standards is driving teachers online in record numbers to tap the collective genius and experience of their peers through social media and cloud-based platforms like Google Classroom.

Teachers increasingly view online marketplaces as a source for not only content, but also new opportunities to connect, engage, and collaborate with each other. Recent research from Stanford professors suggests that teachers value more than just the membership aspect of online communities; sharing resources with peers can have a positive impact on how they feel about their career and profession. It helps them be better teachers. Much as GitHub helps developers be better developers by leveraging the power of the community to learn, review, and contribute.

We’re Not So Different, You and Me.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a market like education might be too fragmented or parochial to create a multistate, let alone global, two–sided market.  But harmonization among internationally benchmarked standards means that teachers are beginning to view themselves as part of a global profession, and one of the largest in the world. Online collaboration is teaching us that while languages or content may vary, instructional strategies and challenges are often more similar than different. Teachers are savvy enough to recognize the benefit of someone else’s teaching experience and expertise, wherever in the world that comes from. And two-sided education marketplaces can thrive because of the unique professional affinity that exists between teacher authors and teacher downloaders that transcends a simple transaction.

The scale and momentum behind the sharing of resources demonstrates how teachers around the world are enthusiastically embracing the sharing economy. This shouldn’t be surprising. It reflects the fact that the sharing economy is becoming an everyday feature of modern society: 19 percent of U.S. consumers have already made a shared economy transaction.

Implementation Matters.

With most consumer marketplaces, the products are the same, but the purchasing mechanisms are different. Consumers can buy shoes from a store down the street or on eBay. They can rent a room from Hilton or AirBnB.

Two–sided marketplaces in education today are, in contrast, one part eBay, one part iTunes. Music, unbundled, ushered in the MP3 player and iPod—new categories of hardware and software that enabled consumers to store and manage their new stores of digital content. 

Education marketplaces are, for the first time, providing teachers with unbundled digital resources. We discovered, early on that the tools teachers need to store, share, remix, and adapt content weren’t always in place. Neither were the digital tools that they needed to take advantage of unprecedented content choices to deliver more personalized or differentiated instruction to students. In education, implementation is half the battle. Building a successful education marketplace requires product extensions that consider the real world challenges of the classroom and provide not just products, but the tools to use them, including remixing, adapting, bundling, delivering and sharing.

Seller Incentives

Two–sided markets demand an equal focus on the buyer and the seller. Successful markets incorporate seller motivation into every aspect of their product to make it easy for sellers to upload and showcase their content. eBay, early on, grew its community with non-monetary incentives. Before gamification was a thing, eBay awarded “power sellers” with badges based on sales, which gave them pride and motivation to keep selling. They were also among the first to institutionalize the power of the community with social proof, such as reviews and ratings, now commonplace across the online experience.

Today, we’re seeing the emergence of maven educators, with massive social media followings and influence. Big–name teachers are gaining influence over publishers and, increasingly, public policy. Stories of the “million-dollar teacher” abound. But great teachers aren’t always motivated by money. Our research shows us that the development of content for teachers, by teachers fosters deeper understanding and evolution of practice in ways that advance the field and support their peers. Will two–sided markets lead us to professional development 2.0? How might districts or schools harness the potential of two–sided markets to reward or incentivize development and sharing of resources online?

During my time at eBay/ StubHub (where I launched StubHub internationally), I saw the early days of marketplace growth and best practice development. We made some mistakes, pivoted and learned a lot. Many of the best ideas came from our community, both sellers and buyers across the globe. It’s too early to say how and whether a similar approach might benefit teachers and students around the world. Early returns are promising, but the stakes are high. I’m betting on teachers to tell us what’s working. If we listen closely, they’ll lead the way.