Why EdTech Is A Good, But Not Great, Business

What I might have said at the ASU GSV Summit.

April 24, 2016

"The ASU GSV Summit, where investors and start-ups frolic…."

Scenes From Ed-Tech Heaven (or Hell) by Doug Lederman.

I’ve never attended the ASU GSV Summit, and 2016 was no exception.

If the universe ever aligns so that I can speak at the conference (an invitation, funding, time, etc.) here is what I think I would say to edtech investors and edtech companies:

EdTech Is A Good, But Not A Great Business:

Educational technology will never make you crazy rich. The problem is not technology, but education.

You see - education just does not lend itself to making the next digital fortune.

Digital fortunes are made on scale: Education works best at an individual, person-to-person level.

Digital fortunes are made with speed: Education is a slow process - one where the payoffs are years (if not decades) in the future.

Digital fortunes are made by unbundling: Education is best when it is bundled. When learning is bundled with living. Where hands-on practice is bundled with information and theory.

Digital fortunes are made by serving consumer wants: Education, or at least a quality education, needs to go against what the buyer of that education often thinks that they want. Any education that is not hard - sometimes painfully hard - is not an education worth investing in.

Digital fortunes are made by increasing productivity: Education, being an activity that is about relationships and people, resists improvements in productivity. The best education happens when educators are paid more money and are able to educate less learners - the opposite of productivity.

The fact that the educational technology business is a good, but not great, business should not depress or dissuade you. It is possible in edtech to make money by people paying for the services that you offer. You don’t need an exit strategy to do well in edtech.

Don’t worry about getting big and getting bought. Don’t worry about eyeballs and mindshare and justifying the crazy valuations that are driving this particular tech bubble.  Just worry about giving educators what they need.  Just worry about how you can become partners with the faculty and the schools in which they teach.

Educational Technology Is Not a Normal Good:

Why is the relationship between so many educators and so many edtech companies (and edtech enthusiasts) so broken?

The answer is that the people most central to the education business, the educators, have usually been the least listened to by educational technology companies and boosters.

The answer is that we have not found ways to move beyond traditional school / vendor interactions - and move instead to authentic partnerships.

When it comes to edtech, getting the quality and price of the service/platform right is completely insufficient to assure the success of the company. What is necessary is a focus on the relationship between the school and the company, and in particular the faculty and the company.

Future edtech innovation needs to begin and be nurtured on our campuses. The problems that edtech players solve must be the challenges that faculty perceive.

Often, those challenges will have nothing to do with the need for a better adaptive or more personalized learning platform. Rather, these challenges will have everything to do with issues of security, autonomy, status, and support around the hard work educating.

Don’t get involved in edtech unless you are in the game for the long-term. Going from pilot project to normal operations is hugely difficult and massively time consuming on our campuses.  Implementation is way harder than adoption. Solving real challenges, even if these challenges are frustratingly incremental, will be the way that edtech gains (much needed) credibility amongst educators.

What examples do we have of edtech companies that take a relational orientation to their postsecondary businesses?

Are there edtech players that faculty know and trust?

What edtech products and services were incubated and refined first on a campus?

What is an example of an edtech company that is committed to staying small, moving slowly, and building relationships one school at a time?

What is an edtech company that refuses to take VC money, and that is bootstrapping development by growing organically with their market?

What would you say if you were ever asked to talk the edtech money people and company execs at ASU GSV?



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