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Tom Vander Ark

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Good Work in the Private Sector

Posted: 04/22/2012 3:01 pm

A few interesting reactions to the ASU Education Innovation Summit (#EIsummit) got me thinking about mission-driven work in the private sector, but let me start with the conference. In its third iteration, the ASU conference is the best on the calendar for "edtech" innovations that cross K-12, post-secondary and informal learning. As the host partner, ASU sets the tone for the summit -- a focus on learning, market relevance, and innovation.

The American K-12 "system" of locally controlled public agencies may provide universal access but they are not well suited to produce and scale innovation -- and that is what is needed to propel quality at scale and dramatically boost the percentage of graduates that are college and career ready. The round of $650 million of i3 grants were an attempt to boost district-driven innovation, but its just not in their job description to create and share new technology.

On the other hand, private capital is well suited to translational innovation -- taking something that worked somewhere else and introducing it to a new sector. Adaptive content, performance analytics, social networking, and customer relationship management technology have long been used in other sectors and are being successfully introduced into education.

The tough stuff -- often requiring primary innovation and lots of R&D investment -- often requires partnerships that allow each form of capital to do what it does best:

Government: frame public needs and aggregate demand
Philanthropy: extract risk and promote a long term view
Private capital: produce and scale innovation

I am working in the private sector because I want to make the biggest and best impact possible. After serving as a public official and working with more than 400 nonprofits and more than 100 school districts, I'm well aware of the limitations they face.

Like most people I interacted with at ASU last week, my focus is on making a difference. We choose to approach our work through the private sector to have a chance to do it at scale. We are working without a net; we won't retire with a pension. It's a different bargain than public employment, but for many of us it is as mission-driven as any nonprofit.

There are obviously bad actors in the private sector -- those that value personal gain over social benefit. But there are lots of nonprofits that act in predatory ways and public employee groups that appear more interested in political power than social outcomes. Tax status is not a proxy for intent. The real issue is leadership. I attempt to work with people of good intent -- people that appear to have social benefit as their modus operandi -- regardless of what kind of organization they work with.

There is new capital flowing into the development of learning tools. What's even more exciting is the level of talent entering the sector. Lots of the smart kids leaving top universities want to work in edtech because they think they can build a business and make a difference. The net benefit of more investment capital and more talent will help propel improved achievement levels before the end of the decade.

U.S. education needs more private capital and the horsepower of private enterprise to make the transition to personal digital learning. More broadly, we have an historic opportunity in this decade to extend quality secondary and tertiary education to every young person on the planet -- certainly one of the most important milestones in human history -- but that will take all three sectors working in collaboratively.

By and large the companies gathered at ASU last week are trying to make a positive contribution. They chose a return-seeking vehicle so that they could aggregate capital and deploy scaled solutions. We need more edupreneurs -- working hand in hand with public leaders -- focused on doing good work.

 

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