So I’ve been thinking a lot recently about startups that are popping up in the education ecosystem. And my thoughts have scared the heck out of me.
Obviously, I should intellectually support the appearance of smart/talented people willing to solve problems that teachers, students, schools and districts face. The more people involved in this space means the more problems they might solve, thereby improving the outcomes for students.
However, I fear that as more people inevitably enter this space there’ll undoubtably be more VC money to chase. Because of this, we’ll see more and more people, many without any educational backgrounds pitching ideas for the sake of a high money exit. I’ve chatted with VC’s about this very dilemma, and they’re very excited at the prospect of a billion dollar market completely open to technology and disruptions.
Education is a funny industry though, especially since it’s something that nearly EVERYONE has had experience with, and therefore feels entitled to think critically about (which in most cases, is a very very good thing). The best of these startups will search for authentic problems. The worst of which, some of which I’ve seen very recently, will either create or exacerbate problems that don’t really exist for the sake of improving authentic learning. The most glaring of these examples are startups, some of which have raised recent rounds of a couple million of dollars, that help schools plug student achievement data through API’s from student information systems.
While products like these make adults’ lives much easier, they don’t translate into the future of learning. In fact, they help schools become more efficient at clinging to outdated models. From the types of people attracted to the startup life I’ve met, I would guess very few loved school as much as they loved building or creating things.
What they don’t understand (because so few are teachers), is that we could invest the same amount of time (let alone the money) in building diverse communities of critical learners. That we should invest as much money building the infrastructure for students in all communities to access online tools and global connections.
With an amazing group of teachers, volunteers, and community members we’re building a non-profit organization that runs like a very lean startup. Following the suggestions of Eric Ries in “Lean Startups”, we’re going to start with a set of assumptions about the problem, research them by creating a “good enough” product, learn a lot, and then change. We don’t care about an exit, we don’t care about valuation. We just care about providing tools to kids so they can do awesome things. We cost much less ($24,000 for 2013), and can do much more.
We didn’t do this because we couldn’t start a business. I’m confident that if I built a company with Allison DeSmet, Andrew Goodin, Basiyr Rodney and Ted Frigillana, we could be as profitable and innovative as the best education startup out there.
Instead we do this because we think it matters. A lot.
If you’re interested in chatting about lean non-profit startups, you can find me @mrsenorhill on twitter.