In the last several years there has been growing interest from entrepreneurs, angels and venture capitalists in the K-12 EdTech space. Yet this interest has been primarily speculative in nature with little actual venture funding to back the “buzz” and few successful exits to date. In the public sphere, there is certainly much focus on school reform by the government—at the local, state and federal levels. Nonetheless large, bureaucratic education agencies, much like large private corporations, are ill equipped to pivot quickly enough to address the systemic challenges education faces today. Against this backdrop funding disruptive EdTech startups focused on changing education would seem lucrative, but venture firms have been slow to back EdTech entrepreneurs. On the flip side, entrepreneurs have not witnessed many successful exits in education to motivate further innovation in the K-12 sector.
Nonetheless, opportunities do indeed exist. Nancy Hanover, of the International Committee of the Fourth International, estimates that the education technology market is a $47 billion market. As large as this number seems—it number refers primarily to those directly as the forefront of education: namely students and teachers. This number does not include the broader impact of education players that are more on the fringe of the industry: parents, administrators, publishers, suppliers, test-prep companies, tutors, etc., An entrepreneur with an innovative product that focuses on just a small segment of one of these markets could in fact do very well.
Framing the Debate
With all this interest in education technology it has become less apparent who is getting the highly coveted venture funding and what ideas are the most valuable—both to venture firms (seeking a return on their investments) and society as a whole. Leading education technology researchers like Peter Knapp and Kathleen King have long discussed bringing technology into the classroom as a replacement for older methods of instruction or to learn traditional material in new, technologically enhanced ways. Others such as Zane Berg and Mauri Collins have focused on societal shifts and learning pattern changes as a result of computer mediated communication.
Despite the advances made in these research fields, most of these efforts have been focused on taking traditional practices that have been used for centuries, placing a new layer of technology on them and re-introducing them into the classroom—old ideas that are simply done in new ways. The smart board, for example, is a tool that allows students to do a number of useful tricks and makes it engaging to interact with. Yet, at the end of the day, one can’t help but notice that the smartboard is simply a modern blackboard with some bells and whistles. Very few agents in the EdTech community have proposed a fundamental shift in the way society views the intersection of education and technology.
This changed in 2006 when Marc Prensky published a bold article in Edutopia entitled “Shaping Tech for the Classroom.” In the article Prensky argued that in order for education technology to improve education in a high impact, long-lasting way, there needs to be a completely new architecture for learning and framework for the classroom. Education needs to be re-imagined in a way where technology is used to implement new ideas in new ways. I would argue that EdTech startups that are high-impact, disruptive players in the space think about education and the learning process in completely new ways. Likewise, venture capital firms looking to invest in EdTech should invest in companies doing “new things in new ways” rather than “old things in new ways.”