The potential and peril of edu-startups

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Education Week recently ran a story looking at the explosion of education-related startup companies hoping to break into the “education market”. Venture capital has started pouring into such endeavors, and the opportunities and questions presented by the rise of new classroom technology have given that money somewhere to go. There are some good things to come of this, but—as always—there are some caveats, too.

First, the potential for good. For as much as I disagree with forcing schools themselves into a fake “marketplace,” there’s a very big, though rarely discussed, difference between schools as producers (of education) and consumers (of textbooks, technology, support services, etc.) that comes into play here. People who want to force schools into a competitive simulated market don’t understand the economic arguments explaining why that won’t work. When it comes to schools as consumers, however, more competition is generally good.

Consider textbooks. Almost every school in the country relies on textbooks written to meet the needs of either Texas or California, the two biggest buyers of textbooks. As school technology moves past printed textbooks, more companies can produce and/or aggregate content. They’ll be able to offer more options and better customization to school districts. This is true in many other fields as well.

Of course, much of this relies on schools and students having enough access to technology to make these new products or services educationally meaningful, and some of these new developments—like the course management system Moodle—require teachers to change the way they teach if they’re going to be effective.

No matter how you feel about these new startups and the wares they’re hawking to schools, they are rapidly becoming a significant part of the education landscape. We need to be able to engage critically with this development and make sure our kids aren’t being taken advantage of.

Here I’d like to once again offer up my three Star Trek Ed factors: the Shiny Factor (beware the pitch of what Product X can do), the Substance Factor (get input from teachers and others on what Product X will do in real classrooms), and the Speed Factor (consider how long it will take for staff to become proficient at effectively using Product X).

In any case, we need to support our schools in making good decisions, and it wouldn’t hurt if our legislators would support our schools with proper funding, either.