GSV+ASU EdInnovations Conference: A proxy for ed tech’s big challenge

Last week Michael and I attended the GSV+ASU EdInnovations conference commonly known as “Davos in the Desert”. This conference is growing in importance, especially in the effect on ed tech investment, as can be seen by the rising attendance. Just five years ago there were less than 300 attendees, and this year’s event had well over 2,000. Some of the notable articles covering the event:

  • Inside Higher Ed: “Let’s Make a Deal” – this article compares the rise of ed tech in general to the rise in the conference, but asks about lack of educators and lack of nationwide results (more on this later).
  • Huffington Post: “Is the American Dream a Dream Deferred?” – this article takes a positive spin on the conference, especially the focus on improving access and student success, but also questions the lack of diversity (more on gender lines than educator / non-educator lines).
  • EdSurge: “What Happened at ASU-GSV…” – this article presents an insider, booster view of the conference occasionally to accentuate the positive and defuse the negative, but it does describe the conference events quite well.
  • Getting Smart: “ASU+GSV: Education Dreaming” – ditto.
  • EdWeek: “Teachers at Summit Tell Ed. Companies What They Want–and What They Don’t” – this article covers one panel in particular, but this one is highly relevant to the following discussion on educator involvement.
  • Dusty World: “ASU/GSV Summit” – this article has a slightly humorous description of “the strangest education conference of my career”, noting that most discussions actually focused on politics and not pedagogical approaches.

As for myself, I live-tweeted some of my observations, particularly focusing on pro-immigration reform, foundation influence, and the difficulty of interviewing Don Graham (former owner of the Washington Post and current family owner of Kaplan).

Lack of Big Results

Rather than re-hashing some of these discussions, I’d like to build on and clarify some comments from the Inside Higher Ed article where I was quoted.

As the billion-dollar education technology industry holds what has become its primary gathering here this week, the onus is on vendors to show they can produce not only profits, but also improved outcomes.

The best section of the article came in the interview from Gallup’s representative.

“At a national level, there is no evidence that educational technology has reduced the cost of education yet or improved the efficacy of education,” said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education. “And that’s just as true as it gets. Maybe there will be some day, but that’s the question: How much longer do we think it will take before we can detect movement on the national needle?” [snip]

“Every one of these companies has — at least most of them — some story of a school or a classroom or a student or whatever that they’ve made some kind of impact on, either a qualitative story or some real data on learning improvement,” Busteed said. “You would think that with hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions now, that’s been plowed into ed-tech investments … and all the years and all the efforts of all these companies to really move the needle, we ought to see some national-level movement in those indicators.”

This hits it just right. Ed tech in general, and the conference as a proxy, focus very well on good intentions and successful pilot programs, but we are not seeing the results scale. The problem is not a lack of innovative ideas, the problem is a breakdown in the Diffusions of Innovations.

Good Intentions, Not Just Pursuit of the Dollar

On the positive side, I found that the conversations, at least in the plenary sessions, were refreshing in their focus not on making money, but on aiming to help societal challenges. Money really was secondary in importance for the most part in the official conference focus – the ‘doing well by doing good’ concept.

From IHE:

Hill, on the other hand, said the summit could also show the investment community in a good light, with a focus on money, to be sure, but also plenty of good intentions and a quest for results.

“I think there’s a lot of people in higher education who are concerned that this is all about people making a buck,” he said. “If there were more of them here, I think they would hear that there’s a lot of very legitimate concern for improving education.”

This sentiment was also captured by the Huffington Post article:

There was a lot of talk at the summit about the American dream and creating opportunity for all. In fact it was the theme of the conference. I heard a lot about fears that the American dream is dying. [snip]

The sessions were engaging and valuable. During one, Michael Crow, ASU’s president, championed the need for “culture change” in families, in societies and in education in order for us to see any real improvements in learning outcomes. Sentiments I am in agreement with.

These good intentions from the plenary sessions and panel discussions don’t necessarily extend to the hallway conversations. It was a pitch-fest, and there was too much exuberance.

Missing Conversations and Depth of Understanding

What I found most problematic from this conference was the lack of meaningful involvement by educators. From IHE:

Phil Hill, an education consultant, said the lack of faculty and teacher input has limited the conversation about how to address the challenges facing K-12 and higher education. Some speakers, he said, used data to make the case that the education system is broken, as opposed to showcasing how they plan to fix it.

“You end up with everybody pitching everybody,” Hill said. “Where are the schools, the teachers, the people who could actually use the innovations coming out of here to do something with it?”

EdSurge attempted to defuse this feedback (not mine specifically, but from general discussions), noting twice that there were more than 100 educators (including K-12 and higher education). GSV themselves put the numbers in their post-conference survey:

Brief 2014 Summit Fast Facts:

  • Over 2100 Registered Participants
  • Over 200 Investors
  • Over 535 Entrepreneurs
  • Over 80 Higher Education Institutions
  • Over 180 Educators
  • 230 Presenting Companies
  • 23 Countries Represented

From a pure numerical perspective, it is worth noting that the majority of higher ed “educators” were from for-profit institutions (roughly 70) and the hosts at ASU (roughly 34). Even with these caveats there were less than 10% of attendees as educators, and very little diversity (Update: To clarify, I’m calling out the issue of including significant educator input from a variety of institution types and a variety of adoption categories such as early adopters, early majority, etc). The EdWeek article called out a panel discussion where faculty gave some welcome feedback:

The speakers at one panel during the conference were able to offer companies some insights, often in very blunt terms. The panelists included a pair of teachers, who spoke about their hopes for classroom technology, and their disappointments about what it doesn’t deliver.

Tanesha Dixon, a middle school social studies teacher, said that many of the classroom technologies she saw didn’t seem as if they’d been designed to make educators’ lives easier, and would most likely add to their workload.

The teacher at the Wheatley Education Campus, a public school in the District of Columbia, said she wasn’t convinced that developers were doing enough to seek out the opinions of educators.

“I always wonder, how do you develop a product?” Dixon asked the audience. “Are you sitting at home in your basement?…I feel like no one’s talking to us.”

This feedback really gets to my biggest complaint at the conference: too many well-intentioned conversations talking about educators without the effort of talking with educators (and yes, the panel in my mind is the exception that proves the rule). This criticism is really aimed at much of ed tech in general and not just the conference.

I doubt that the GSV and ASU organizers intend to exclude educators (see Dusty World for discussion of reduced rates available for non-profits), but that was the result. This is a comment more on reality, not on intentions.

Put Them All Together

And more importantly, I see these themes overlapping. Not having enough well-intentioned discussions with educators is one reason we are seeing a breakdown in the diffusion of innovations, partially caused by a lack of depth in understanding.

Michael called this situation out in his post on why VCs often get ed tech wrong.

The combination of the obsession with disruption and the phobia of institutions is a particularly bad one for the education markets. When I say that, I don’t mean that it is harmful to education (although that is probably also true). What I mean is that it leads to consistently unprofitable investment decisions. [snip]

I just don’t see disruptive innovation as a good guide for investment in education. And for similar reasons, I think the notion of avoiding institutional entanglements is pretty much hopeless, since the very idea of education is inextricably bound up in those institutions. Disruptive innovation and direct-to-consumer are both investment strategies that are designed to avoid complexities that lead to investment risk. But in education, complexity is unavoidable, which means strategies that attempt to avoid it usually result in risk-increasing ignorance rather than risk-avoiding safety. And as Warren Buffett said, “When you combine ignorance and leverage, you get some pretty interesting results.”

I call out this challenge not to criticize the GSV and ASU conference organizers, but rather to use the conference observations to help illustrate the big challenge we have in the education community – plenty of good ideas but frustrating inability to scale and diffuse innovations effectively.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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