Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: The Business of Ed-Tech

Part 10 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011 series

On a personal note: I started 2011 as a (consumer, Web) technology blogger -- one that, much to the consternation of her editors, wanted to write about education technology. "No one cares about ed-tech," I was repeatedly told. "It's just your personal passion." Focus on page-views, mainstream readership, and stuff. (See: Chiliphone Changes Color of This One Button. April Fools! Except not really.)

Me, I felt as though it was an important time to focus on education technology (which, yes, I realize you could have said for the past 30 years, but there you go…). We'd reached an important tipping point with the ubiquity of consumer electronics, Internet access, Web technology, social networks, and mobile devices (See: every ed-tech trend I have just covered). I knew people cared about education -- surveys suggest that people want more news about education). So in July, I quit that tech blogging job to focus pretty-much-almost-totally-full-time on my education technology writing.

I'm not the only person crazy enough to think ed-tech journalism was worthy of full-time attention either. Former Forbes editor Betsy Corcoran, along with Inigral's Nick Punt co-founded Edsurge this year, a razor-sharp, must-follow weekly newsletter chronicling all the latest business developments in the blossoming ed-tech startup world.

"Really? You just write about education?" other tech journalists ask me, like it's weird or something. But the fact that folks like Betsy, Nick, me (and others too) could form several new education technology journalism startups is the least weird news in a completely weird year for technology journalism. That's probably a different story...

Maybe.

Or maybe the frothy weirdness of technology journalism is just a reflection of the frothy weirdness of the tech industry this year. Apple became the world's most valuable company in terms of market capitalization, surpassing the oil company Exxon Mobil. (Indeed, The New York Times' Nick Bilton says kids want iPhones, not cars.) The makers of some of the most mundane and repetitive videos games (Zynga) and coupon company with an email list and a very funny CEO (Groupon) both filed for an IPO this year, for crying out loud. While the rest of the economy faltered, the tech industry boomed.

The interest in tech startups bled into education, something that is noteworthy simply because so many people in Silicon Valley -- entrepreneurs and investors, at least -- have long turned up their noses about education, arguing it's a tough market to enter, one that's dominated by giant companies and enterprise sales cycles.

Indeed it is. The education industry has always been sizable. Billions of dollars a year for textbooks. Billions of dollars for standardized testing. Billions of dollars a year for school supplies. Billions of dollars a year on tuition. Billions of dollars a year in tax dollars. Billions of dollars a year in advertising -- rising this year to the number one market for ad revenue in fact. Billions of dollars a year for educational software -- some $7.5 billion according to figures released by the SIIA this fall.

That tech expenditure, while growing, isn't necessarily a new thing either. As several New York Times stories tried to highlight this year, schools have been spending a ton of money on education technology for decades, and test scores (gasp!) aren't rising. But like it or not, technology is having a substantial impact on the entire education industry (and I mean here both companies and schools, teachers and learners): it's changing how textbooks are produced, how digital content is distributed, how hardware and software enter the classroom (on laptop carts or in kids' pockets) and how they're used, which companies and brands are the big players, who teaches, who issues degrees, who profits, who pays, what's public and what's private.

The institutions that have long profited from the current education system (and again, I'm talking here about both formal learning institutions and education-related companies) are having to scramble in the face of all of this. As such it's been particularly interesting to watch the rise of education startups -- something that's clearly got the attention of publications (like this one, Edsurge and Edukwest and from others, heck, even "mainstream" tech blogs) and of investors. New on the stage this year, a startup incubator specially devoted to education: Imagine K12 which launched this spring and graduated its first class of education startups this fall.

Some of these startups are tackling new problems. Some are taking on more entrenched problems -- areas in which the big education companies have dominated (content publishing and distribution, for example, or learning management systems). Most startups are taking advantage of the ubiquity of mobile and Web technologies to sell directly to students, parents and teachers, bypassing that old enterprise-sales route. As these startups aim for grassroots adoption, however, they are challenged to find new business models. What does it mean to ask parents and/or teachers and/or students to shoulder the costs of ed-tech? What will people pay for a high-quality educational app? If the answer is "nothing," how will these new companies survive and what will happen to users' data?

One of the most exciting developments this year was the establishment of an education vertical for Startup Weekend. These 54-hour-long events bring together entrepreneurs, engineers, and yes educators to pitch, build and demo a "minimum viable product" over the course of the weekend, and there were Startup Weekend EDUs held in San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC and London (with lots more planned for 2012). As I wrote in a story for MindShift, it isn't just that Startup Weekend EDU means more EDU startups:
In some ways, the emphasis on building a startup might be the wrong thing to tout. There are viable ideas that come out of the weekend. (LessonCast, for example, a startup that was founded back at the first Startup Weekend EDU in San Francisco in June and that I covered back in July, is still going strong.) But the most valuable outcome of Startup Weekends aren't just the products built or the startups launched. It's the process itself.

And it is an intensive learning process. For many who participate, it's their first hands-on experience in product pitching, product design, customer validation, and business model creation. It's a hands-on learning experience in what it means to build a tech product and potentially a tech company. That might sound appealing to the entrepreneurs and engineers who participate, but for the classroom teacher (particularly one with no intention to leave the field to start a business), not so much. But if you ask teachers, there actually is a reward. It was the most incredible and immersive learning experience I have ever have, said Sharon Grimes, from Baltimore County Schools.

Despite all the talk about implementing project-based learning in the classroom, much of educators' own professional development still looks a lot like the sorts of teaching practices and experiences that are beginning to be eschewed in the classroom: lectures, the sage on the stage, no participation, little to no interactivity, no opportunity to identify a problem let alone work towards designing or implementing a solution. Participating in Startup Weekend, on the other hand, provides a project-based learning opportunity, one where teams must be coordinated through research, development, and marketing — something that educators may be incredibly well-suited to do here.

Some of the startups that were pitched last night at the end of the DC Startup Weekend EDU were clearly teacher-driven projects: a tool to translate student data into easy-to-read and actionable infographics for parents, an openly licensed bank of assessments created for teachers by teachers, an app to make the notion of our global world more engaging for students based on their own interests, a browser-based plug-in for language-learning.

Again, it's the experience itself, not just the products that were built over the course of the last 54 hours — that's what Startup Weekend EDU seems to be working towards. It isn't simply launching startups; it's building a network of educators, engineers, and entrepreneurs who've worked together and who are beginning to think through problem-solving and hands-on building in order to address needs in education.
Of course, all of this excitement in building new education technology companies -- whether built by teachers or by students or by engineers or entrepreneurs -- occurs alongside deep cuts to education budgets. It occurs alongside concerns about the growing corporate influence on education. It occurs alongside changes in what and where and how we learn.

Will the innovation in education technology prompt us to scrutinize more closely how we spend those billions of education dollars -- what's efficient, what's effective? Will the business of ed-tech be good business (and if so, for whom?), and will it make for good teaching and learning?


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