American education and its educators are caught suspended between a world of bureaucracy and failure, and the sheer gorgeousness of the world of our imagination.
It's this contradiction that edu-tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and angel investors are out to solve, or at least cause enough disruption that remedy can become realized across a much broken system.
Regardless of articulate, well-intentioned, compassionate and brave promises made by government, institutions, citizens, and parents, an education does not come freely, free of missteps, or without some form of struggle. This experience is levied upon individual learning, but is profoundly exacerbated across the experience of disadvantaged groups to whom the standard and status quo delivery of education does not live up to potential or promise.
Innovators, entrepreneurs, vcs and investors haven't shied away from edu-tech because it lacks Silicon Valley sex appeal or Wall Street-worthy revenue potential. Rather, the business of education itself is daunting, and the challenges of brokering with its particular brand of bureaucracy has been preventive to innovation and investment.
Much of the bureaucracy that has long turned entrepreneurs and investors away from exploring edu-tech's potential still exists in spades at both the public elementary - high school system and in post-secondary higher education. What has changed, however, is that the open education movement, namely led by the edu-punks and DIY-ers has successfully caused a kind of disruption to the edu-content industry, akin to the pains that Craig's list caused newspapers and iTunes caused to full album purchases. It's the kind of disruption visionaries seize upon to leverage, build, and monetize. It's potential for profit is palpable.
Education technology, edu-tech, is entering its third wave of application development with renewed excitement and interest. First and second generation edu-tech applications, like the behemoth Blackboard and other competitive content management systems, primarily focused on content distribution, moving traditional classroom workflow online, and familiar assessment practices. The third generation applications making waves distinguish themselves as self-directed, interest-driven, and at least partially peer-produced.
Edu-tech apps exist in a complicated eco-system, but entrepreneurs are working to change and expand it, and the distribution of mobile hardware and app market are forcing a Diamond Age.
The 2010 Venture Capital in Education Summit was recently held in Soho, New York, a packed event amid the many activities of NYC's SXSW-like Internet Week. The event was co-sponsored by NYC-based Startl.
Startl.org, launched January 2010, is an organization founded out of the need to link edu-tech focused entreprenuers with the social, technical, and fiscal resources they need as startups. It's a necessary layer in the education vertical that uniquely understands the challenges of appealing to and affecting education systems and facilitates relationships and networks that help early-stage edu-tech companies produce interesting learning products that can also scale and succeed.
Laurie Racine - seasoned entrepreneur and investor, as well as director of Creative Commons.
Although education reform and innovation have been both obvious and ambient in each of their careers, together Laurie, Diana, and Phoenix have co-founded Startl at a critical time when the destabalizing effects of open education, pervasiveness of mobile tech, and social networking have creatively crystalized.
Startl's Pilot Programs:
- Design Boost, a 5-day bootcamp, in partnership with IDEO, focused on the design and development of digital learning products, was attended by nine early-stage startups in March 2010 (there were more than 50 applicants).
- Accelerator, a 3-month residency and immersion, in partnership with Dreamit Ventures, to advance early stage learning enterprises to scalable and investable state.
Startl provides a real-world response that is helping to guide the vision that the edu-tech industry can and will be profitable in abundance v. more traditional endeavors rooted in non-profit models.
In a discussion with Laurie and Diana, three exciting opportunities created out of the developing edu-tech boom and its public-facing products stand out:
- New jobs for teachers - New professional roles being created around emerging products. These roles are expanding the teacher market and creating new possibilities for teacher/educator careers inside and outside of traditional classrooms. It is a reinvigoration of the teaching profession.
- New standards for assessment - The expanded opportunities for teachers and educators to work alongside and within emerging edu-tech applications, is the exciting reality that new assessment techniques, practices, and rubrics must also emerge.
- New prevailing education policy - It seems reasonable to posit that as a result of this disruption and destabilization that prevailing education policy will necessarily be forced to change in a not too distant future.
The opportunity to innovate and develop a "killer app" in the edu-tech space has never been this clear before. Yet, in spite of the possibility and the sense that there's a lot of ground to be covered in the space, there are many incumbent challenges inherent to the education space.
It's noble to want to create an application that can both decrease the rate at which youth drop out of school, and facilitate an acquisition at a high valuation.
In order to succeed in this wide-open frontier, understanding those problems with education, knowing and communicating regularly with educators inside classrooms, aligning oneself with investors who understand that the results of your work might not be revealed in test scores for months or even years, makes it as tenuous as its success stories will be tenacious.