Hacking Education – A Publisher’s Perpsective

384574407_2b4b7295ea_oHow can technology and innovation reshape education? Union Square Ventures put on Hacking Education – a conference that brought educators and entrepreneurs together to hash this out. Unfortunately they didn’t have any practitioners from the education technology and publishing industries there. After reviewing the well written summary of the discussion I put together the following extended comment to add the perspective of someone who was there, did that, and got the t-shirts.

As someone who has spent the last 18 years in the Education Technology and Instructional Materials businesses I feel the commentary misses the mark from a business perspective. This isn’t a critique of what was was covered – many of the participants are people I admire and cite frequently – Danah Boyd, Fred Wilson, Katie Salen, Steven Johnson , NT Etuk etc. It is meant to talk specifically about the business challenges of translating these great ideas into practice.

It might be tempting to dismiss folks who have been in the trenches as old school – people who “don’t get it” – but some of us are not clinging to old paradigms but working hard to create new ones. Experience may blind us to new possibilities – but it may also guide you around some of the land mines many of us have already stepped on.

Most of us who have followed this path have been guilty of advocating massive changes through technology. Sometimes this takes the form the kind of carpet bombing Danah talks about – just throw enough CPUs/Bandwidth etc at the problem and it will magically happen. Other times it is the old saw about having a hammer and the world looking like a nail – see game based learning.

Both approaches share four problems:

1. They never address the scale issue. You can always find success with a few small experiments. If you have been around the market you see the same examples trotted out again and again. As a sales rep for Apple 18 years ago I told stories exactly like Gepettos. They are heart warming inspirational tales of learning and adventure – they are not a scalable business model.

We educate 54 million children in this country – develop a solution that will work for more than 500 at a time and you have something. Remember that in most communities the school system is the first or second largest employer. We spend $550 billion a year on education in the US – second only to the military. You can’t run from the scale issue if you want to create businesses that serve the market as opposed to a very narrow niche.

2. Educational practice evolves incrementally and nothing ever goes away. Video games will have a huge impact on learning (they already are) but they are just one more tool in the bag. When a teacher uses and interactive white board it is the functional equivalent of scratching charcoal on a cave wall.

I believe we are at an inflection point and that education is ready for real technology substitution (see this in depth series here about it) but it will probably take a different form in education than it has in our personal media diet.

The most interesting design challenge in our market today is designing systems of instructional products (print, tech, professional development, social media) that amplify and compliment each other. To date most of the energy has gone into siloed products created by technologists or print publishers without any meaningful cross over. Most print publishers create technology that attempts to recreate the book experience on-line – snore. Most technologists are on a mission to kill traditional practices. Both miss what educators are asking for – blended products that use the best of all media.

NFImageImport3. The user developed content model assumes a motivated learner. On-line classes work best for the same students traditional correspondence courses worked for – i.e. not your potential drop outs but those with an extra dose of motivation. See item 1 – I’ve seen dozens of businesses that were able to get a few hundred users doing creative and interesting learning on-line that were never able to scale up.

Apex Learning which does on-line classes finally settled on AP level courses because those students work well for the environment. The rest of our learners need an actively involved coach and guide to work with them – a teacher. Products that are designed for a blended environment are the scalable answer for broad numbers of students – some on-line some real world.

The group talked about how kids are required to attend school by law. You also need to factor in that schools are required by law to educate all kids, including the ones who don’t want to be there. It is a two way street. Innovative materials can go a long way towards addressing this – Tabula Digita’s Algebra games are a great example of using technology to improve engagement with the content. UGC won’t magically help these kids.

4. Poorly designed economics. Every time an idea runs into problems addressing scale or market needs people start talking about the home school market followed by the private school market. My BS meter goes off whenever I see this in a business plan (or comment thread). These are sizable markets – but each is only about 10% of the whole in students and considerably less than that in dollars. From a distribution standpoint they are also the most diffuse – making it extremely expensive to reach them for very small sales.

The web is definitely helping here, but at the end of the day if you are only going after these segments you are not hacking education – you are chipping away at the fringes. The biggest change will come from working with public schools to address the needs of a broad range of learners.

Christiansen’s work would tell you that these are the markets where the innovation will occur first, but I’m not convinced. I think there are segments of the public system where disruptive changes can flourish – ELL and Special Education are two examples. Traditional materials don’t work for these kids (disclosure – I’m CEO of a Special Ed Publisher).

Atomized Instructional Content as a Business Model

Another idea that runs into problems with the economics is atomized content. There has been a huge amount of buzz around this for the past few years – the idea being that if we can just turn instructional materials into the equivalent of iTunes teachers will be free to pick and choose the best bits and assemble them in meaningful ways.

This is a very seductive concept but misses an important distinction about educational content. A lesson structure is a bit like an operating system on a computer. If cut/copy/paste are done differently in every application it is very difficult to scale a platform. The user can’t use a common base of experience to manage other tools. The same holds true for instructional materials. I’m not advocating traditional textbooks but something in between. Strands of content that can drop in for a week or two rather than an entire years worth.

NFImageImportTry this thought experiment from a business perspective. Assume you have a front line supervisor who has 25 direct reports. Best practice would argue for between 5-8 reports. How much time will that Supervisor have to think strategically about the business? Now imagine that they are required to submit daily and weekly progress reports on all 25 employees – no slacking off on a few of them for a week or two. This is your average teacher. They don’t have time to assemble mix tapes of content for all their students.

This conference asked all the right questions. But Education is not a mirror of other markets. I stopped reading the newspaper and my life became richer through social media and blogs. But I can’t imagine my kids getting a great education (as they have) if it was left up to our family to sort it out on our own. We need an educational system and if you want to build a business (at least in the near term of the next 5-10 years) you will need to find your entry point into the one that exists.

This is an enormously interesting time to be in the education market. We share the belief that the ultimate killer app is learning – the mind is wired for it. The businesses that can re-engineer publishing to support 21st Century learners and educators will have a bright future.

Related Blog Posts
Education Marketing 101 – A four part primer on entering the K12 Education Market.

Technology Substitution and Textbooks 4 part series
10 Ideas for Building Education Products for 21st Century Learners part of the Information Overload series