Frontiers in ed-tech entrepreneurship

Zach Frailey, flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Zach Frailey, flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At the Seedstars Global Summit in April, the Transforming Education Prize will be awarded [was awarded – Ed., April 2017] to the most innovative start-up focused on improving education in developing markets. In the forefront of this event, my colleagues and I have gained invaluable insight into the education challenges faced in these markets as reflected by the very diverse types of entrepreneurs and start-ups that participated in the competition.

As someone who focuses on supporting the private sector for social good, I could go on and on about the business aspects of the competitors: What are their revenue models? Who are their core clients? Are they B2B or B2C focused? While all of these questions are important from a business viability perspective, none of them really answer the core question: Will (or how will) education technology companies improve learning?

The first response is: Not all of them will, nor should they, nor are they trying to. Education ecosystems – whether in Europe or here in Ivory Coast – are vast and complex, with private companies providing a variety of critical products (online document repository) and services (class registration software) that may only have indirect or tangential connect with how students actually learn, but are important and valuable nonetheless.

“Does increased access by making content available online or on cell phones automatically increase education quality or learning outcomes? My simplified answer (and occasional mantra) is no – digitization is not education.”

The second response is a little more complex, and touches upon questions on what does improve learning? Does increased access by making content available online or on cell phones automatically increase education quality or learning outcomes? My simplified answer (and occasional mantra) is no – digitization is not education.

That is not to discount the important role that online or mobile-based learning products play in democratizing access to quality education content, but we should not automatically assume that I will learn how to use the subjunctive clause in French just because I downloaded the content to my phone.

As these companies mature and develop, we do expect them to go beyond rote digitization – merging content, curriculum, pedagogy, new media, and Science of Learning principles – and as more companies head to this direction, things will begin to get very interesting.

Perusing the applicants for the Transforming Education Prize – tech entrepreneurs dedicated to improving the education ecosystem from Dakar to Baku – reveals some interesting insights on the intersections between technology and learning, as well as serves as a mirror to reflect what the private sector perceives as the major gaps it can fill in the education value chain.

  • 16% of businesses focus on actually improving learning via new approaches to pedagogy or interactions with technology – interesting examples include interactive toys that bridge the real and digital worlds and experiential learning and challenge-based learning simulations
  • 22% of enterprises (the most common single business model) focus on increasing access via digitization of content and the wider availability of learning materials, accessible online or via mobile phones
  • 29% of entrepreneurs focus on strengthening the education ecosystem, such as matching students with resources (tutors, scholarships, etc.), improving communication between schools and parents, and improving school management through data
  • The remaining 33% are a real hodge-podge of ideas, including student social networks, hardware, websites for all sorts of things, and infrastructure

The group of competitors is also notable by what is missing, with less than 10 companies focusing in the following areas:

  • Low tech access: very little focus on dumb phone, SMS, or offline access to education content; this essentially cuts out rural learners as a market (at least in here Ivory Coast and likely throughout rural Africa writ large), which could continue to exacerbate education and social inequalities which contribute to poverty in these areas
  • Generalized education apps: this is likely due to market saturation (over 80,000 educational apps in Apple’s App Store alone, as noted by BOLD writer Meeri Kim)
  • Improving parenting or teaching: noting the incredibly important role that people play in education, we hope to see some interesting innovations emerge in the human aspects of education in the future

While all of these start-ups have a ways to go in proving their business models, generating revenue, and providing value for their clients, we look forward to keeping a close tabs on innovations emerging from the marriage of education and technology.

 

To our blog readers – parents, teachers, and scientists: what are some interesting companies or innovations you have seen in this space? What type of companies are impacting how the students in your life are learning? We are interested in your insights and opinions. Please share them via the comments function. Let’s discuss!

TRECC, a program of the Jacobs Foundation with the goal to transform education for communities in rural areas of Ivory Coast, has partnered with Seedstars World to offer the CHF 50’000 Transforming Education Prize, which will be awarded to the most innovative start-up that is focused on improving education in environments with inconsistent or limited access to electricity and connectivity.