From Legos to Raspberry Pi: The Most Creative Startups in Education Technology

08/28/2012 03:52 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2012

There are two separate challenges in education: access and quality. In the U.S., access to primary education is guaranteed -- but the quality of that primary education varies widely. With public schools across the country struggling to meet their mandates and funding decreasing every day, primary education is up there with the national budget and the war in Afghanistan on the list of problems we need to solve and can barely begin to confront.

As a technophile society, we are ready to embrace techie solutions for complex problems, but primary education defies easy solutions. Kids need attention, thoughtful instruction and a variety of engaging activities -- not something gadgets or apps alone can provide. But technology is an opportunity to stretch the education dollar a little further and add meaningful learning to each student's day.

Some tech startups are taking the innovator's approach to education and attacking the primary education quality problem with a fresh eye. Here's the top five most creative, innovative educational technology startups focused on the primary education sector today.

  1. Inkling -- This is the one you're most likely to have heard of. Better than just reproducing text in an online setting, Inkling makes educational text interactive, supporting note-taking, social discussion of content and internal search (like Google for your textbook!). This reinvention of the textbook experience takes advantage of the skills and instincts students already have -- and their expectation that they can access content in flexible ways and share it instantly.
  2. Knewton -- The Knewton Adaptive Learning Platform does just what it sounds like: It uses data from a student's interaction with learning content to design a personalized experience. Knewton is a platform that's content-agnostic, providing a key first step towards enabling teachers and learners to mix and re-mix content for different needs. If Knewton can get automated data analytics and course design right, they'll unleash the power of teachers to act as personalized coaches, intervening at the times when students experience the highest need.
  3. Raspberry Pi -- Taking a detour from our discussion of lush software, let's meet some cool hardware. To quote their tagline, Raspberry Pi is "an ARM GNU/Linux box for25." This may sound like another language, so let me translate: This is a computer, that can be used for computing, inventing, creating or anything else you might like. This makes engineering creativity accessible to anyone who wants to learn. It is particularly useful among tinkerers who use it to power gadgets or home automation devices.
  4. Nearpod -- Upsides? Nearpod is an excellent tool for creating interactive educational content creation and for consuming that information with an iPad. This makes each teacher a course developer who can control a synchronized iPad-based lecture in a classroom. When they change slides, students' iPads follow suit. Downsides? You need their app on an iPad to create or use courses.
  5. Lego MINDSTORMS -- While this robot-building kit isn't precisely a startup, it's a great example of a tool that supports exploration and application in a variety of classes and educational settings. This is a platform for creativity, with hardware and software for students to adapt and learn from.

What do these projects have in common? Versatility and simplicity. Every classroom serves different kids and comes with different technology resources and teacher capacity. Teachers need tools that are easy to use and have a low barrier to fluency.

What do these startups and projects have to do to win? Get critical mass. The largest challenge facing the primary education market is fragmentation. Each school district makes its own decisions, and each sale is hard-fought and hard-won. Furthermore, each district features its own set of existing technology resources and entrenched political and human interests.

The key to educational technology success will not only be solving a problem (although that's a necessary first step) -- it will be creating a tool that can be used universally, whether it's across classrooms or across devices, without special tools or special training. These startups are on their way to changing the classroom experience. Here's to hundreds more.