Emma Collins writes a guest post for me today with an article on sustainable innovation — in education. Innovation in education has been slow to arrive, but recently there have been some significant shifts, for instance the free courses Stanford is offering. i’ve heard amazing things about the virtual course conducted by Tina Seelig.
As Emma notes, getting a good idea off the ground is often harder than it looks — even under ideal market conditions. Emma works for a web company that just released an MBA schools report 2012 on distance programs, and her expertise is in education; this article focuses primarily on ed-tech initiatives, but the lessons learned should apply to a much broader range of startups. So, without further introduction, here’s the interesting guest post:
Innovation in Education: How Entrepreneurs Turn an MBA into Changes to Learning
The educational space has seen a number of big changes in recent years. Some of the most obvious come from institutions themselves: budget cuts, student assessment critiques, and pushes for more standardized learning often top the lists. Some of the more profound changes come more as undercurrents, however, and typically have to do with technological innovation. The rise of the Internet culture has coincided with a period of great innovative need in schools, both at the K-12 and university levels. Never has there been greater demand for cutting-edge technologies and wired educational tools—and never have the opportunities for those with an entrepreneurial bent in this direction been stronger. Though the climate is near perfect for innovators, there are still a number of challenges to success that new entrepreneurs need to keep in mind before wading too deep.
Ever since online universities proved that there really is a market for education online, the Internet has been leveraged in numerous ways for learning’s sake. Most of the pioneers in the field were sponsored by big-name corporations, else underwritten by major foundations. One laptop per child initiatives, projects to make America’s classrooms wireless, and programs designed help tablet computers like the iPad replace or supplement textbooks are, in many ways, just the beginning. These larger frameworks have set the stage for smaller, more niche innovators to bring their products, apps, and ideas to the mainstream market.
“A closer look reveals that many of these business owners pair a desire to prosper financially with a genuine sense of mission,” TIME magazine reported in early 2012. “They aim to ‘disrupt’ education in productive ways, to introduce tools that will transform the way we learn just as other technologies have transformed the way we work, the way we communicate and the way we entertain ourselves.”
TutorTrove is but one example. Founded by Cornell graduate Trey Billings, the TutorTrove program began as a way to connect tutors with students over the Internet. It has morphed into a robust full-service website for tutors and teachers who want to find clients, bill for services, and connect with a like-minded community. The success of the company has inspired Billings to go on to found a range of other software-based educational ventures, including the graphing calculator program Desmos.
Billings is not alone: hundreds if not thousands of innovative “edupreneurs” are making strides in the educational space nearly every day. Most of their programs are somewhat understated, but all are designed to fill a palpable need in classrooms, among teachers, or for student learning. “Their companies, nimble, flexible and fast-moving, can respond to the genuine needs of students and teachers in ways that the big educational software, hardware and publishing companies often haven’t,” TIME has said.
Part of the struggle innovators face when looking towards long-term viability has to do with funding. Though few innovators enter the space looking to make huge profits, the need to remain at least solvent means that fundraising and venture capital investments quickly become quite important. There is also a question of viability when it comes to the traditionally slow-moving educational bureaucracy. The speed with which technology innovators are creating does not always match the speed with which schools are ready to commit either resources or funding.
“The problem is not a lack of creativity or great ideas. Nor is the problem one of effectiveness — educators have had access for decades to sophisticated, personalized, and highly-effective online instruction and tutors,” Joanne Weiss, chief of staff to the U.S. Secretary of Education, recently wrote for the Harvard Business Review blog. “The problem is rather one of culture and capital. The demands of practitioners and the market supply of innovation from entrepreneurs are simply mismatched,” she said.
“If we can match highly-effective educators with great entrepreneurs and if we can direct smart capital toward these projects, the market for technological innovation might just spurt from infancy into adolescence,” Weiss speculated. Getting there, though, is likely to be the biggest challenge yet—bigger than coming up with great ideas, resourcing their innovation, or shepherding their ultimate implementation.