Thursday, 18 April 2013

Start Up Education

Are there any similarities between EdTech Start Ups and Educators? Do any differences make collaboration more of a challenge? Are there lessons that both groups can learn from each other?

I joined two discussions on EdTech this week, one was “The Education Innovation Summit” hosted by Arizona State University, where an extremely intelligent group of people who are passionate about education met to discuss how they are going to “Massively Creatively Disrupt Education” using Technology

Later in the day I joined another extremely intelligent group who are even more passionate about education as @blairteach @cybraryman1 @tomwhitby @web20classroom moderated their weekly #EdChat session, although this discussion looked like it might be quite different to the one taking place at Arizona. The topic here was “Why the push for technology in education? What does tech enable in education that could not be done without it?”

You might expect the views of these 2 groups to be quite different but, from what I could see, there was a great deal of consensus between the two forums. In the main, attendees at both events agreed that nothing will replace great educators... although there were some strong recommendations for, as well as some criticisms of, EdTech suppliers at both events.

Any Tech startup who has any hopes of becoming the next Google surely understands the value of getting to know their customers – working with them to find “product market fit,” knowing that you are ready to roll out when your “Net Promoter Score” is high within the "early adopter" market etc.

So it is concerning to see that some in EdTech can be either out of touch with Educators and/or can demonstrate more than a little insensitivity to their prospective customers. The rhetoric which can be used by some is along the lines of our EdTech will; 

Revolutionize this "inefficient, failing market"
Eventually replace the need for educators 

These may be the kind of statements that are required to attract VC funding but any “upstart” startups who are effectively implying "Educators are rubbish at their jobs and we have plans are to replace them" then it's easy to see why educators may not welcome EdTech with open arms! 

However if are able to look beyond the rhetoric, bravado & chutzpah could there be some valuable lessons for both groups? Could more collaboration help the most important stakeholder… our young people?

1) Educators – The speakers at the Education Summit continuously advised the young upstart, start ups to treat education with respect and highlighted that nothing can replace great teachers. I particularly liked the advice that Mike Feinberg, Steve Case & Jim Shelton had for any young ambitious company who might be looking to “massively disrupt” the status quo.

2) EdTech companies – In the event that you need any further validation of the advice given at the conference you should check out Tuesdays #EdChat archives to see how sick and tired educators are of bad products and aggressive sales tactics.

There is always that damned unfulfilled promise of FLYING CARS! #Edchat

Companies have a responsibility to sell their crap, we have a responsibility to call it crap if it is ;) #Edchat

Whatever the reasons, the lack of cooperation & collaboration (mistrust even) between Education & EdTech Startups perpetuates a vicious cycle.... Without educators insight and perspective, EdTech startups can never fully understand their customers needs... this will lead to more inferior products... leading to greater suspicion and mistrust. 

A key frustration that educators express is that the comments and actions of some stakeholders implies that they are not doing a good job, which leads to mistrust and suspicion with educators & policy makers... Irony or what?!

The State of Education 
More irony may be that any mention of "massive creative disruption" from Scilicon Valley may be unwelcome and seen as an attack on educators ability. While educators may not call it "creative disruption" they most certainly discuss how urgent the need for education reform is amongst themselves, and applaud two of the most trusted voices in education when they suggest that;

“Education is supposed to take us into a future that we can’t grasp… but nobody has a clue. Despite all the expertise we don’t know what the world will look like in 5 years time, yet we’re meant to be educating students for it” Sir Ken Robinson, Ted Talk

Likewise Sugata Mitra knows the value of great educators but argues that “Education isn’t broken, it’s obsolete” Sugata Mitra, Ted Prize winner 2013. In addition to this Mitra's Self Organised Learning Environment has similar attributes to MOOCs, although the two learning concepts can be perceived very differently by educators.   

One of the biggest challenges that educators cite seems to be the lack of innovation due to bureaucracy – whether the red tape takes the form of Government constrictions (standardised tests etc), Budget Cuts, or fear of failure from Education Leaders.

“If [kids] don’t know [the answer] they’ll have a go they’re not frightened of being wrong…if you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything original…” Sir Ken Robinson. 

It's interesting to compare Sir Ken’s comments with David Feinleib's, Venture Capitalist & author of "Why Start Ups Fail," observations 

“The history of successful companies is often rewritten to make it look like they tried one thing and that their idea worked for them from the start. Most companies tried multiple ideas and products before they hit the right one. They failed repeatedly until they succeeded. Companies do not get it right the first time… the first Macintosh and the first release of Windows simply were not right—both needed major overhauls before they could become the runaway successes they represent today. 

Startups make mistakes when they are starting out, but Sir Ken observes that “We stigmatize mistakes, we’re now running our education system where mistakes are the worst things you can make” 

How did Apple & Microsoft manage to succeed while they “pivoted” and searched for “Product Market Fit”? This was only possible by keeping in close touch with their customers and the other participants in the emerging PC marketplace. And all stakeholders understood that these were new and cutting edge ideas and that teething issues would be inevitable.

So if the rhetoric of EdTech companies is preventing collaboration, and educations culture of stigmatising mistakes means that products must be perfect from the outset, it's no wonder there is disappointment... It's hardly a match made in heaven!

Trust – Poor Products & “Alpha” Personalities
I wonder if 2 of the main reasons that mistrust between EdTech companies and educators build up as a result of;

1) There being very few products that live up to the claims made by the company and/or their sales teams

Any products that don't live up to expectations are almost entirely a result of the lack of collaboration. The most successful EdTech companies will almost certainly be the ones who have fostered close working relationships with the sector.

2) There is something of a culture clash due to some potentially differing personalities; 

Educators                                                    EdTech Startups
Nurture young minds                    Vs             Business people 
Caring personalities                      Vs             “Alpha Male” personalities 
Conservative and/or Risk Averse Vs              Disruptive risk takers

It's hardly surprising if educators do not take too kindly to a young gun ho maverick who talk about “massively creatively disrupting education,” or when some alpha male types get a bit over zealous and say stupid things like “XYZ product will replace teachers” – Who is going to want to collaborate with someone that says “One day my gizmo will replace you and do your job”

Digital photography disrupted Kodak & Jessops but we take more photos than ever before; online retailers are affecting high street shops, but we still buy stuff... Apple revolutionised music to the detriment of the established market leaders in the industry, but we still have performing artists. I cannot imagine a day when we will not have a need for great educators who bring learning to life and inspire a life long love of learning in our young people.

Of all the professions who know what it’s like to be mistrusted because of the very small minority of mediocre practitioners... surely its educators? 

For Profit Sharks or Would be Educators?
So what would happen if we were able to put the rhetoric, differences in personality types (and the 1-2 idiot CEO’s/Founders) to one side for a moment and take a closer look?

Educators, would you recommend teaching as a profession? Your answer to a question like this might be along the lines of “I love working with the kids and making a difference to young people's lives but... I hate the culture/mistrust/testing/lack of career progression/lack of freedom to innovate due to sticking to the curriculum*”
*Delete as appropriate

If we take the way that educators are treated and then consider how “Generation Y/Millennial’s” lack patience and/or want instant results, does this mean that a generation of would-be educators are electing to “disrupt the status quo” rather than join it? A great example of would-be-educators might be to take a look at the Tioki founders background, some of whom have spent time teaching in the classroom, but elected to try to make a difference by founding a company instead.

Big Pay Day... Or Paying Something Back?
Today more than ever young people want to make a difference, as much as make a profit. If you watch Steve Case or Jim Shelton’s presentations you will hear how tough EdTech is. If the majority of EdTech Founders were just out to make a quick buck, you can’t help thinking that they would (or should) choose another sector. Steve Case suggests that EdTech companies can expect to wait10+ years before their services might transform education... he suggested that staying in business may well be more on the startups' mind, more than any thoughts of making huge profits. There are over 400 $1billion+ companies in health care; there are only 1-2 $1billion+ companies in education

Furthermore if you talk to founders of companies that become really successful, you will hear them talk about how profit is a byproduct of their passions and doing good work… some techies even change the world... but don’t make any profit at all; 

Speaking from experience, there are easier ways to make money than trying to introduce EdTech products to educators!

Common Ground… The Brutal Realities! 
I saw the Dali Lama speak at a conference a few years ago and will never forget how he opened his speech with a profound lesson in identity. He said “I am a human being, I am a Tibetan, I am a Tibetan Monk, I am the Dali Lama” He continued “I can choose which aspect of my identity I want to focus on. If I focus on the fact that I am the Dali Lama, I will be quite lonely… But if I choose to think of myself as a human being I have 6 billion friends that I haven’t met yet”

What would happen if we said "Hey we're all in education... so I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt" Or at the very least I am sure that there are some areas that all stakeholders can agree on regarding education today? 

Stockdale Paradox in Education – The Brutal Realities
In my last post I highlighted the story of Admiral Stockdale whose experiences has been coined "The Stockdale Paradox" by Jim Collins, I think most stakeholders would agree that;

1) The economy stinks
2) Youth Unemployment is horrendous
3) Political policy – whether economic or education is ineffectual.
4) Young people are becoming disengaged with learning in a knowledge economy 
5) The Finnish Education Model is universally praised

The overall result is that too many young people are disillusioned with education and with their life chances. Given the state of their prospects, the estates and/or conditions that they live in or social mobility’s’ horrendous record lately... who can blame them for being disillusioned?

In today's age of the blog and social media there are so many ideas, proposed solutions and perspectives that the range of options and opinions are dizzying, which can only be a good thing right? Actually so many ideas and so much choice can lead to “decision paralysis,” we find there are too many choices, so we end up sticking with the status quo. 

However, whether we listen to Sir Ken, Sugata Mitra, the numerous Education reformers on Twitter demanding to “Save Our Schools,” or the “disruptive upstart startups” the brutal reality is that the status quo is not working.

But this does leave the problem that there are just too many views, ideas, opinions… and too much choice. Even the most effective Education policy makers would struggle to assess and implement them all. 

If we add the "brutal realities" from Sir Ken's observations, or the evidence we have from how technology has disrupted the retail, music, media, photography industries, all of whom dismissed any possible digital threat as "A passing fad" then;

1) We haven’t a clue what the future will look like
2) New ideas need to be tested as we need to teach students for jobs that don’t even exist yet.
3) If Educators don’t implement changes then EdTech Companies are most likely to continue toward the march of "massively creatively disrupting Education" …although their services and our students may well be worse off without Educators input.  

It's perhaps also worth asking - Would you like to return to a time before you had ipad/ipods, Mobiles or the convenience and choice that Amazon and other online retailers provide? I think that the previous experts and market leaders at the industries who were "massively disrupted" might, but not their consumers... 

Education! Education! Education! …Meets Culture! Culture! Culture! 
EdTech Startups liaising with Education to ensure that their products achieve “Product-Market Fit” would certainly help to improve the latest tech toys & gadgets. But could greater collaboration provide wider benefits? Could it help to address issues of "decision paralysis" with good ideas? Could EdTech startups business methodology and experience play a role in organising, planning and testing the many suggestions and ideas to help with education reform? 

If I were looking for workable, practical answers for educators I would be more inclined to look to the organizations that are renowned for their great cultures, have experience of challenging & changing the status quo and have the ability to turn good ideas to marketable products. The last place I would look for such answers are from people who have made a mess of the economy, can’t control their own budgets (i.e. Deficit plans), cannot control organisations where they are the majority shareholder (Banks) or who treat their employees badly (Morale in Education seems pretty low to me)… or who have, frankly, made a mess of education!

Now it's easy to criticize and, as a rule I don't (or at least not on social media anyway!)... But my argument here is that there is a difference between criticism and facts! There are many teachers who also question many aspects of governmental policy. Maybe its not untested top-down, large-scale bureaucratic changes that are needed but numerous green shoots of innovation? 

Small Scale Education

An interesting point for educators, EdTech startups and policy makers might be the fact that this is the way things used to be. Governments have not always been so involved with education, there was a time when small-scale private enterprises were a lot more involved;

“Until the 19th Century, the small scale enterprises which provided the bulk of formal education were, typically, private concerns. The early universities were also independent; while in some societies there was a mixture of religious and charitable concerns. With the rise of the Nation State, and the development of the industrial society, all this changed. Education came to be viewed as a core responsibility of the state, and came more and more under tight state control… [as part of the] increasing tendency for government to actively involve itself in every area of social life.”  Alison Wolf “Does Education Matter,” 

Like so many other commentators Wolf goes on to question the conventional wisdom, and argues that we don't need more of the same; that continuing with the status quo risks undermining the very quality of the education we value.   

Thomas Friedman (Author of “The World is Flat) and Dr Tony Wagner (Harvard Education Specialist) make this same point by highlighting that “More than a century ago, we ‘reinvented’ the one-room schoolhouse and created factory schools for the industrial economy. Reimagining schools for the 21st-century must be our highest priority” 

Obviously educators need to work within the parameters of government policy but, at the same time they are "a bit rubbish" and are letting our kids down.

Starting Up Education Reform - Mistakes & Innovation
When looking to break any decision paralysis by assessing and exploring new ideas, collaborating with startups may well provide a useful model. 

I have highlighted previously how Further Education can replicate some of the practices of successful tech companies from a Business Development perspective and culture in education. Can educators learn from the way that successful start ups iterate their way to “product-market fit;” constantly experimenting and “pivoting” until they have a marketable product that can be rolled out? Would the advice & processes of successful entrepreneurs help educators to assess new ideas? What might this include? Would it be

1) Finding the right people – With any new idea you need early adopters who explore and experiment with finding new methods. If an idea has potential this group helps test the hypothesis, collaborate to "fix the bugs" and then spread the word to other groups when it becomes a really cool product.

2) Passion – Both start ups and educators will be all too aware of how difficult it is trying to engage someone who lacks enthusiasm on your team. Whether we’re talking about great products or great teachers – passion is a key ingredient... the same applies for new ideas, they require enthusiasm & commitment in order to overcome the obstacles to make them work. 

3) Product Market Fit – It takes a lot of experimentation, including a fair bit of trial & error before you find a workable concept that's suitable for prospective users. 

4) Target Market – Knowing which target market an idea will work in is key something may be a “great idea” for highly motivated & talented students, but not for less able students (i.e. MOOCs). 

5) Focus – The EdTech Startups that excel are the ones that have focus; they do one thing very well in 1-2 niche target markets… They don’t over stretch themselves by working on too many new ideas, projects or commitments. They also have manageable roll out/growth plans.

So if we accept that the status quo isn’t working and there are too many different views on the best way forward, would the best model be that educators who share an interest in an idea or learning concept in coming together to explore the possibilities? Guess what… It already happens.

Each week hundreds of educators who are passionate about different “niche markets” in education come together, to discuss best practice on various issues... all of which is unpaid and takes place outside of work time. With technology this includes - 1:1 programs, Assistive Technologies, Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT), Creating Innovators - Innovation & Creativity in Education, Flipped classroom, Game Based Learning, ipad, Early Childhood EdTech & EdTech in general (in its first week this discussion had 360 people coming together to share their ideas & best practice)

Making a Difference
Educators go into education to inspire young people, instill a love of learning and to make a difference in their students' lives... These goals are more difficult to achieve when your hands are tied by the bonds of ineptitude and indifference by people who don't believe in their own product, send their kids off to private schools and say that 
their kids are not political footballs WELL NEITHER ARE ANYONE ELSE'S!! Mike Feinberg makes this point very well in this video.

From what I can see educators could do a lot worse than to find out more about EdTech startups culture... there even appears to be at least one very high profile and successful precedent in education for this…

Just in case you are not convinced…
From what I have read about successful Tech & Startups and the much praised and admired Finnish Education System, it sounds a lot like the Finnish Education culture behaves a bit like a “Start Up Education” system.  

"Finland has no standardized tests… the public school system's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves" 

Joe Mazza, from Knapp Elementary, spent a week in Finland and here are his findings from the trip, which I think encapsulates a level of trust and culture more like a start up than your typical education system. You can read more about Mazza's visit here - Penn-Finn13 Learnings

These principles are also starting to be employed in some other schools & education systems – The Lean Startup Model Goes to School

I hope that this (rather lengthy) post demonstrates that EdTech startups and educators may have more in common than it might first appear.

…And Finally
If you liked this post I am about to publish a report on “Technology in Education – Developing Relationships & Delivering Value” which discusses some practical ways that educators could collaborate with EdTech startups, and ways to make sure prospective providers have a commitment to quality products in education. Subscribe to this blog if you’d like receive a copy of this report when it’s ready

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