Is Ed Tech Serving Man?

Educational technology companies have some trust issues and should be required to prove that they're pursuing more than their own financial bottom line, John Katzman and Stephen Bailey argue.

October 24, 2018
 

In a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone titled "To Serve Man," a friendly alien tribe called the Kanamits lands on Earth and works to end war, hunger and disease. A group of skeptics in the episode wonder if the aliens might be our enemies, but they are put at ease when they discover a book in the alien leader’s possession entitled "How to Serve Man."

Tech companies are the aliens of the education world, offering flashy solutions and promising rapid improvement -- but how do educators decipher who is really here to help and who is just hungry for profit? From the skeptical educator’s perspective, ed-tech companies seem like an invading army, disrupting an ancient industry with unclear intentions. As founders of and investors in several of these companies, we acknowledge that it’s on us to make clear our measurable goals (e.g. “to lower the cost of higher ed while maintaining or improving on engagement, satisfaction and career outcomes”) and our desire to be held accountable for achieving those goals.

In the meantime, the question everyone should be asking is, “Is ed-tech here to serve man?”

Billions are being poured into software to bring technology to K-12 and higher education instruction. These companies building modern tools for education should, in theory, have a common goal: to enrich learning for students and educators. On the surface that’s a dual bottom line, which means that positive social impact is measured as an equally important performance metric alongside revenue. But tech companies aren’t nonprofits, and unless a company explicitly states that it intends to have measurable social impact, we shouldn’t assume it does. Good intentions are just that with no accountability.

As a thought exercise, imagine you invented a teaching helmet that, in a minute’s time and at a cost of less than a dollar, could zap into someone’s brain all of the knowledge, skills and even contacts that could be otherwise acquired only through a $40,000 master’s program. How much would you charge customers for the zap?

When we ask this question, the range of responses from ed-tech professionals has been astounding. People from nonprofits unsurprisingly lean toward zero. Answers from investors tend to be much higher, often over $100,000 -- why not capture the opportunity cost of the hard work and time of the traditional path? But there seems to be no consistent trend from the employees and leaders of the companies themselves. Education may be the only industry in which everybody in a single company has a different answer to the fundamental question of “What is a dual bottom line, and are we pursuing it?”

Simply being in the education industry isn’t enough to claim your company has a dual bottom line. The now-defunct for-profit university Corinthian accounted for around 75 percent of all fraud claims from college students, for example. ITT Tech similarly closed its doors in 2016, after years eating up billions of dollars of federal financial aid and GI Bill cash. Some of the most predatory for-profit schools have been taken out, but don’t let your guard down: the Department of Education is looking to undo the Obama-era regulations placed on for-profit colleges designed to hold them accountable for student success.

It’s also not enough to say that for-profits are often no worse that the worst nonprofits, given the industry’s promise of capital and innovation. The CEOs of mediocre education companies and institutions sleep well: after all, they’re selling education, not cigarettes. But a dual bottom line means more than doing no harm.

Finally, there’s a huge difference between a company proclaiming its inclination to have positive impact and proving its results. A new wave of education investors, including City Light Capital, Rethink Impact and Emerson Collective are explicitly looking to fund companies with a real, tangible dual bottom line by requiring them to capture data evaluating their social impact. To do so requires decisions that benefit students or schools over shareholders. And lest it seem that we’re claiming moral superiority, neither of us can prove -- yet -- that our young companies have delivered the outcomes we promise.

One organization trying to help clarify things, B Corp, encourages morality in business by offering certifications to companies that rigorously meet its standards of “social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability, and aspire to use the power of markets to solve social and environmental problems,” somewhat analogous to a fair-trade certification for coffee. The organization is still working on conceptualizing the education area (only 116 of over 2,500 B-corp companies work in education, barely a handful of those are in tech, and the standards themselves are still evolving), but its work is promising.

It should be noted that the state of education metrics does not make it easier to know what is helping and what is a waste of time. Despite overwhelming evidence that graduates make more money and have happier, healthier lives, few colleges can provide hard data to prove their own efficacy and value, and public support for higher ed has waned in recent years.

There is a lot of great teaching being done in U.S. schools and colleges, but there’s ample room for improvement, and the challenges of globalization and artificial intelligence continue to raise the stakes.

Much like the Kanamits, we in ed tech can provide critical help. To do so, capitalists and technologists must be clear as to both of our bottom lines. Why should educators welcome us, and exactly how do we intend to deploy our capital and technology prowess to serve them?

Bio

John Katzman is chief executive officer of the Noodle Companies. Stephen Bailey is founder and CEO of ExecOnline.

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