musings & critique about hi-tech, academia, building startups, and a journal to building eKita
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
I had to write a reply to this post on quora...
Why is education so hot right now? Is it overrated or justified?
Edtech startups are pretty trendy right now and are getting a lot of press. What are the pros and cons of the online education industry, with numbers?
More importantly, is the growth going to die soon, or increase even more.
I have to first say that your question makes alot of assumptions.
First of which is that "startups" implies only the US market. Typical silicon valley syndrome (you ignore the rest of the world, where many bigger things are happening). I've built some companies in the valley so I know this too.

Secondly, that edtech (or what people who have never done anything in edtech before believe is edtech) is indeed a new "trend" in the valley. It isnt in the majority of the world however. Not out of the ordinary in any case (edtech has always been a relatively popular tech topic in other technology hubs around the world). Edtech is in fact the furthest behind in the states, so this is literally a very common california gold rush syndrome of people realizing the massive market that is untapped in the states. (Education is one of the top 3 industries in the world - the only industry in the top 20 list without a full technology solution yet, ie: education is still predominantly paper-based rather than digital. Remember when we changed that in med-tech what a big paradigm shift it was?)

Third - what is the definition of edtech?
This is one of the biggest problems right now with the majority of the startups you are talking about. The problem is simple: they dont have any experience in education, they fail to spend enough effort researching and working in academics, and ultimately have no idea what the actual edtech industry is to begin with in building their "solutions". So yes it is another bubble, happening predominately in the states (where bubbles tend to happen), and we all know what happens with those bubbles.

So lets look at edtech now since I brought this up.
Edtech needs to be understood. Just like medtech, biotech, & cleantech - edtech is a different industry. It is a problem space requiring a massive understanding and experience to properly approach. Just like a medtech startup would be viewed as insane if they didnt have doctors and researchers on their team specific to the problem they are solving - so to are edtech companies who set out without founding members who are educators and academics.
What we are seeing right now is instead, hi-tech (a different industry, all together) entrepreneurs coming at edtech and trying to build edtech solutions in the hi-tech manner.

This is not what edtech is.

That is why all of these online learning platforms - while great and interesting - really have nothing at all to do with edtech. They are not technology catered to, or useful for, actual teachers & students in classrooms, undertaking actual education. In fact they completely ignore the classrooms and are attempting to make virtual classrooms OUTSIDE the classroom. Which in turn creates an industry of its own, and puts pressure on the education industry because previously, well, there was no competition.

So in retrospect I am very very glad for these approaches. They bring in new paradigms to education and help open it up for the world. Something we at eKita are all about.

However, we are solving the actual industry of education technology. So we are happy to be in this space because there are literally, very very few others out here.

We are not building another MOOC or online learning platform - these are not edtech, and should not be called so.

The real edtech projects that are most progressive are being built (and have been built for over 15-20 years) in European universities. We think its time a company dedicated to this vision be built so that a real edtech solution can go global. Thats what we are building at eKita.

My CTO previously built one of these edtech platforms in a joint Austrian Swedish university collaboration. A CLMS called sTeam. (It was built in Pike, a programming language he also contributed to and wrote the book on.) It has been in use as the CLMS in many of these universities as well as many in China for over a decade now and is more advanced actual ed-technology than anything you will see in mainstream US (definitely makes moodle, blackboard, etc look lke the garbage it is). What is currently being undergone with us at eKita is to build an ed-tech future that has much more than just CLMS functionality.

As stated however we are building a solution for the actual education industry. Taking into consideration the new paradigm of online learning as a valid educational resource - but these startups preaching that online education will replace the classroom are simply insane, and damaging for society.

Online education cannot and never will be able to provide many of the necessary functions of a physical face-to-face academic institution. It shouldnt try to. Yet this is the mission-statement for many of these startups. Which should be putting up massive red warning flags for all of us interested in an actual education proponent in our societies. If you look at the top education markets in the world (the US is #22 and drops every year so its not even close), these online learning platforms are not given nearly as much press or attention. In fact they really dont get any. Why? Because they dont do very much - if anything - that the current education & edtech solutions in use dont do. In Scandinavia and most of western europe there already are better solutions than what these online courses offer (typically in both classroom and digital format).

Even in large swaths of Asia (where the real future market is) - and Asian societies are actually incredibly serious about education (as much as 70% of household income is spent on education in many Asian families - compared to an average 5% in the US where parents typically complain about the cost of school supplies at $400 a year - less than what many of them will spend on beer or cigarettes).

So again - I am trying to answer a question by actually adding some insight and correction to the question itself, which is hard. If you look at education industry however you shouldnt be looking at the US for answers. The US is behind. Far behind. Trying to make solutions for the US ed market will irrevocably be repetition of what's already been solved in many other ed markets. Thats not to say it wont hit off (in the US) - but it wont change the world. The US is not the world, afterall - and in education its a very small player in this world.
I know its not in everybody's interest to spend 15 years as an academic in 10 countries like I have but if you really want to understand what education technology is, there's definitely better places to be coming from than hi-tech (in the US). Start looking at classrooms, institutions, Ministries of Education, progressive new schools like projectpolymath - and understand their problems, and of course function in society.
A real edtech solution cannot be built without strong connections and understanding of these components - and why should it?
Something very important about the educational industry is accountability. Educational content needs to be accountable - teachers are responsible, their schools are, their MoE's and governments are. In the global academic community (which is one of the most globally connected industries in the world - and always has been - academics invented the WWW btw) accountability is the most crucial element.
These online learning platforms dont solve that. In fact the majority of them create a bigger problem - unaccountability in "education".

I do not believe "changing the world" is meant to ignore the current workers of one of the 3 largest industries in the world and claim to be replacing it with something else.
Thats just madness.

Any real solution, is an actual solution for the people having the problem. Not an attempt at removing the people with the problem and instead putting in a machine.
But that is what the majority of these self-called "edtech" startups are doing. Mission statement and all.
A good question to ask in building a new venture is of course: how big of a real problem do we solve?
But another one that few tend to ask is: in solving our problem, what others do we make?

Changing the world is about improving what we have. If we can do so drastically, all the better. Destroying what we have to make change, is not, however, progress. It is stagnation.

I argue that the majority of these startups dont realize or even stop to think of the big problems they are causing to society by pushing their agenda of - literally - the destruction of the educational proponent of society.

This is why in the top ed markets in the world, these startups get little to no press or attention - because people already have better solutions, and have no interest in destroying their ed markets which are much more functional and replacing them with unaccountable online platforms.

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