This isn’t my usual kind of post.
After all, I’m a classroom teacher.
This has brought me back around with a sense of perspective to the industry of education. Lets make no mistake, education is a big business. There are are dozens of companies making millions (and possibly billions) of dollars from schools. This isn’t new. Textbook, desk and chalk companies used to make lots of money from the business of education as well.
I understand that and I am comfortable with that. Just as I, as a teacher, expect to get a pay cheque every two weeks for the hours that I work in my classroom, companies need to get paid for the work they do and for the supplies and resources that they deliver.
But I’ve been thinking about the companies that choose to involve themselves with education. Of course there are major companies which have been involved with education for years: Apple, Microsoft and Pearson come to mind. These three multinationals have arms stretching in many directions and have involved themselves with education in areas as diverse as software, hardware, teacher training, online courses and textbooks. They each need to be seriously examined and held to account regarding their policies and products surrounding teaching and learning. But they aren’t who this post is about. This post is about the small companies, the start ups and what they are bringing to education.
When companies first start up, they are often a side project or a labour of love from someone’s garage. Over time however, when people want to expand their company, they often try to acquire venture capital (VC) funding. Venture capitalists are people who are willing to take a large risk on a new company, often in exchange for owning a portion of that company. High risks sometimes lead to big losses, but they can also lead to big payouts if companies do well.
As our industry has changed, there are many more small companies looking to acquire some of the dollars that schools and school divisions spend. A walk through the trade show floor of any major conference will bring you into contact with dozens or even hundreds of different companies. While some of these are large booths staffed by a dozen or more people who work for a major company, many of these companies are small and are trying to break in to the business.
This is where my curiosity lies. Who are the companies that have been receiving VC funding lately? How do they want to change and improve education? What is the value that they hope to add to the enterprise of education?
I did a number of Google searches as well as tracking down information in a few other places and here are a few examples of what I’ve found:
Coursera – Acquires $43M in additional funding (July 10)
Brightbytes – $2.5M in new funding (July 15)
Desire2Learn – Opening a US Base in Boston after acquiring $80M in funding (July 15)
Engrade - Lands $5M in funding (July 3)
Top Hat Monocle – Closed an $8M round of funding (Sept. 2012)
Lumos Labs – Pulls in $31.5M in funding (Jan. 2013)
(the final link to the Lumos Labs story is well worth exploring as it contains, among other things, a list of the biggest edtech deals of 2012)
There are dozens of news and financial stories regarding edtech companies out there. This is a miniscule sampling of them. There are other stories that outline mergers and new products coming online. There are many press releases outlining new educational apps that are available.
But from all of these stories, there is a trend. And it is a trend that worries me. Each of the companies covered in this small sampling of stories, with the exception of Coursera, are regarding companies who look at education in a specific way. Each of these companies creates a product (or products) which circle around helping students to learn basic skills. Now, before everyone jumps on me, I understand that basic skills are important. I believe that students need to read and write at higher levels at this point in history than they ever have in the past. What worries me is that the grand majority of new products and investment money in education is not going to companies looking at the “big picture” of education. Again, with the exception of Coursera, none of the companies in my small list are concerned with connecting students in new or better ways. None of them are helping students to become more engaged with the important problems that our society faces. None of them are helping students to become more passionate learners. None of them are focused on creativity. Instead, millions of dollars is being invested in companies who are offering products to help students learn old skills more efficiently.
We talk about changes in education. We talk about a renewed, responsive and changing industry to meet the needs of a globalized, diverse society; but where are the millions of dollars headed in educational technology? To better A, B, Cs and 1, 2, 3s.
Once again, I get it. I know all about the need for basics and the pressure that legislation such as NCLB creates. But with funding heading to these types of companies, technology is not gaining any opportunity to change education. You may be able to argue that these dollars are producing better schooled children, but they certainly aren’t going to companies that will allow children the opportunity to become better educated, more passionate, or more connected.
Are there companies out there that do create products that connect students around the world in new ways and with new and different empowering sources of information? I believe there are. I think that Discovery is doing this. I believe that Edmodo creates a platform which can be used effectively in these ways. I would argue that some of the basic tools we had almost a decade ago have yet to be surpassed: Skype, WordPress and wikis in all of their various forms offer teachers the tools they need to transform education.
Data is important. Better data that we have never had consistent access to in the past will help teachers to be more efficient and effective. But better data will not transform education, or schools, or classrooms. It will not help students to have a broader, more global understanding of world cultures. It will not make students more creative or help them to become better at finding and solving problems.
Our best opportunity for all of those things still lies with talented, connected teachers.