We’re from the Valley and We’re Here to Help

The other week I had the pleasure of attending the annual GSV Advisors Education Innovation Summit in Scottsdale. For those who aren’t aware, the main purpose of the event is to help ed tech startups and investors find each other. After last year’s summit, I wrote a post called “What Are Ed Tech Entrepreneurs Good For?“, the main lessons of which could equally apply to this year:

  • The main stage speakers generally tilted to the right, ideologically (although there was a visible effort to achieve more balance this year). But by and large, that didn’t matter, since the important work of the conference was generally driven by what ed tech startups were available for funding.
  • Many of the ed tech entrepreneurs have good intentions but varying degrees of knowledge about the theory and pragmatics of education.
  • The degree to which ed tech entrepreneurs need that knowledge varies widely depending on the specifics of what problems they are trying to solve with their offerings.
  • The success or failure of these startups are often heavily influenced by the market conditions, which means that we should be thinking about things like improving institutional purchasing practices if we want more from our vendorsThe main difference this year was that the conference was roughly twice the size of last year’s.

I’ll have more to say about the dynamism and/or frothiness of the ed tech startup market in a future post. For now, I want to focus on that continuing disconnect between what happens on the main stage of the conference and what happens in the rest of it, because I think there is a lost opportunity.

The very first night of the conference, one of the keynote speakers trotted out that old Ronald Reagan chestnut:

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

The obvious implication of the quote, of course, is that the government is so out of touch with what people actually need that they consistently do serious damage, even when they are trying to help. The irony here is that most of the main stage conversation for the rest of the conference was money guys interviewing other money guys about what education needs. The prevailing attitude in the Valley seems to be, “Hey, we built the internet. How hard could education be?”1 To be fair, there were a few voices representing people with real experience in education on the stage. But only a few.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the conference needs to be turned into a therapy session where educators and investors all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” Rather, I’m talking about providing investors with the context they need (and generally don’t have as part of their professional backgrounds) to judge which investments are going to be impactful and successful. As one conference participant put it to me, “It’s odd that there is almost no discussion of what are the kinds of problems there are in education that money can help.”

Some of this should be about the customer perspective. For example, it was very helpful to have Antioch University Chancellor Felice Nudelman participate in the MOOC panel, in part because she could comment on how administration of at least one university views MOOCs and how they impact their range of strategic choices. The participants could have benefited from a lot more of that. A lot of these investors are most familiar with direct-to-consumer products and have a lot to learn about the complex realities of our school systems. Nor can they just wave the magic “disruption” wand and make those complexities go away. They need to understand them if they are going to invest in companies that actually have a chance of building value.

Some of the main stage discussion should also be from a theoretical perspective. For example, just about every second or third company pitch I heard mentioned something about “adaptive learning.” But I’m pretty sure that not more than 10% of the investors there had any idea what adaptive learning is or when or why it is useful. When I was corresponding with Bill Jerome about what turned out to be his first (and outstanding) e-Literate post, I suggested the following visualization as one possible way to approach the post:

Imagine you’re at the Ed Innovation conference. You’ve just heard a pitch from a startup. Basically, they wrap whatever content customers are using in formative and summative assessments and then use “the big data” to identify which content is most effective and then recommend it to students, modified by personalization algorithms based on student preferences that they’ve deduced by watching their behavior in the LMS. “We want to be the Netflix of learning content.” Now you’re sitting at a bar with a venture capitalist, a university provost, and a member of a state legislature. They all think the pitch from the startup was awesome.

Your job is to explain to these three why the pitch they heard was not as spectacular as they thought it was, and what a genuinely good big data pitch would have to look like.

This is exactly the kind of thing that the investors at the conference need to hear—only before they hear the startup pitches, not afterward, so they can ask smarter questions during the pitch sessions. If you want to give that insight to the investors, then you don’t put Chris Whittle on stage. You put Bill Jerome up there.

To be clear, I think the conference serves a valuable function, and I hope that Deborah Quazzo and Michael Moe continue to run it well into the future. (Given the size of the event this year, I think that is a safe bet.) But as somebody who is interested in ed tech entrepreneurship and investing mainly insofar as they help actually improve education—and as somebody who has faith that companies capable of actually improving education will tend to be profitable investments—I would like to see the conference be as effective as possible at lining up real problems with real money funding real solutions.

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  1. It is hardly a new phenomenon in American history for the latest captains of industry to think this way. A hundred and fifty years ago, it was “Hey, we built the railroads. How hard could education be?” []

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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4 Responses to We’re from the Valley and We’re Here to Help

  1. Nice parallel. All institutions whether they’re governmental or commercial deserve scrutiny. The admonition is especially apt in light of James Suroweicki’s “Face Time” (cf. http://www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2013/03/18/130318ta_talk_surowiecki ): The irony of Silicon Valley companies is that they preach the virtues of getting online to the rest of us even as they invest millions in their own corporate offices as a way of enticing their own workers into face to face encounters. Before we drink the MOOC Kool-Aid let’s look at what these companies actually do rather than what they advise us to do.

  2. Of interest to me is the fact that many point to the lack of voices heard from EDU – teachers, educators, faculty. But it was held at the Phoenician (expensive resort,) with a very high sticker price to entry, and soo far beyond the realm of what most educators can afford….just that most basic fact shows the disconnect between what the innovation squad understands and educators, let alone anything application based. It’s a shame, because it could really be an opportunity.

  3. I don’t begrudge the participants their luxury venue. This is a conference for investors, and I don’t believe they are under any obligation to make it affordable for everyone. It is not an event that is designed to build relationships between investors and educators. It is designed for investors to get the information and networking they need to make good investments.

    My point is simply that investors need to understand the market that they are investing in well enough to make good bets. They don’t need to ensure the audience is balanced with a large representation of educators in order to meet that goal, but they do need to have substantial structured input from educators on topics relevant to the pitches that they are hearing from the startups.

  4. I really enjoyed Launch Edu last year because it had such a good and outspoken balance of educators, students (of all ages), administrators and government officials mixed with investors and entrepreneurs.

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