Ed Startup 101, Week 4

Duct Tape on iBook

It’s Week 4 of Ed Startup 101, and the class is moving on to tackle “The Pain Test.” That is, you might’ve identified your idea for an education startup, but does this idea really address a problem?

This week’s assignment asks us to write down what we think the problem is — what are its causes; what do people with the problem do (or what are they willing to do) to solve it; what are the current solutions; how long has this been a problem; how easily could something change to make the problem go away?

The problem that I try to address with Hack Education, to invoke the title of the panel I was on at SXSWedu last year: “ed-tech reporting sucks.”

The reasons it sucks include: lack of technological expertise among education reporters; lack of education expertise among technology reporters; an over-emphasis on the business of ed-tech rather than on teaching and learning; and a monetization strategy for online writing that focuses on advertising and pageviews, something that in turn often leads to stories like “Top 100 Ed-Tech Tools You Should Use In Your Classroom Right Now” — a great headline for SEO; a lousy way to think critically about the adoption of the right tools or about the future of teaching and learning.

But here’s the dilemma (or my dilemma, I suppose, if indeed I’m framing Hack Education as the counter to all this): the latter sorts of stories — ones that are link-baity — do generate traffic. Stories in major publications are read by more people. And even though my goal as an education writer isn’t to have the most pageviews, I can’t deny the importance of influence and reach. I’ve opted to stay independent (no advertisers, no sponsorships), to stay small, to maintain my integrity. These are my problems.

I’ve never actually surveyed my readership here to find out what others face in terms of “the problem” of finding quality education technology news and analysis. (Indeed, this site started as a personal place to write and rant about ed-tech, and it still feels very much like that to me. “This is my blog. I’ll say what I want!” sorta thing.) So when it comes to the “Pain Test,” all the frustrations with ed-tech reporting — the screams at the computer when there’s a ridiculous headline about ed-tech revolutions, when there are silly pronouncements about adaptive standardized gamified disruptive innovations, when there are crownings of math messiahs, when there are cheers when a startup with no revenue, no product, and no traction but a slick slide deck raises a couple of million dollars — well, these could very much be my frustrations alone.

I don’t think so though. I think people do grow weary/wary of churnalism (marketing that’s passed off as journalism). I think people do want news to be informative, accurate, timely, relevant. I think people like reading smart stuff (although I recognize the 200 million-plus views on the Gangnam Style video are a strong argument for silly stuff, too). Yes, people like list-posts and LOLcats. People like short blurbs and bulleted lists; yet people still read long-form.

And people do want more education news -- at least that was the finding of a Brookings Institute study from last year that found that parents in particular wanted to see more coverage of their local schools, along with more information about student and teacher performance. That report found that just 1.4% of national news coverage deals with education. I'd sure be curious to know what percentage of tech coverage and education coverage is "ed-tech" too. Because while I realize Hack Education isn't "local," I do think I'm addressing a gap in coverage -- a gap in the amount of coverage and more importantly in its quality.

The challenge (as I noted when I wrote about this last week): the sustainability of a site like this. (That's next week's class: the "monetizable pain hypothesis.")

Image credits: Brendan Landis

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