Education Entrepreneurship and Reflections on LearnLaunch

By Anthony Kim
I had a great experience in Boston earlier this month at the LearnLaunch event and I left feeling energized and excited about the rising tide of education entrepreneurs working to improve our K-12 education system in innovative ways.  The range of speakers provided both hopeful notes and cautionary considerations about the future of EdTech.  I applaud LearnLaunch for creating a forum to support a new generation of education entrepreneurs in the New England area.
[Note: we previewed LearnLaunch in Smart Cities: Boston the day it was unveiled]
Cambridge was blistering cold, but the weather didn’t keep the throngs away and the event had fantastic turnout.  Over 300 people attended ranging from teachers, aspiring entrepreneurs, veterans with “battle scars” from working in education over the past 10-20 years, and investors looking for the best thing since sliced bread in education.
The two day event was kicked off by Anant Argarwal of edX, who discussed the buzz of MOOCs.  Then, Seth Reynolds of Partheneon Group not only sobered us up by explaining the barriers of selling into education, but also gave us a glimmer of hope about the potential for blended learning; his perspective — “this time it’s different.”
I was fortunate enough to provide the keynote on Saturday morning and took the opportunity to highlight these key points:

  • Blended learning can’t be defined as face-to-face and online instruction. It has to be about blended learning modalities such as independent learning and practice, small group instruction, and project-based learning, integrated into a classroom.  This approach can only be done well with technology.
  • We expect blended learning to grow pretty substantially in school districts.  Fortunately, the Race to the Top District competition spurred a lot of interest for 2013, but, in fact, the addressable market today is still very small.  Organizations supporting the education space need to focus on creating more demand for EdTech versus creating more supply.
  • Needless to say, selling to schools is very different that other markets.  The end-user is generally not the buyer. For instance, in schools the end user is the student and the teacher, and they don’t purchase the software they use, the district administration does.
  • EdTech companies that plan to offer products first to teachers for free, then roll out paid versions to the district need to be prepared to support district-level architecture requirements. Otherwise, they are in for a big surprise.
  • There isn’t less pressure on EdTech companies to show growth. For EdTech companies to survive beyond the angel round or series A rounds with investors, we need to be able to demonstrate impressive growth rates similar to those of other industries (Just look at the growth rate of companies like Workday, Inc.)

My friend John Katzman (Princeton Review, 2U, Noodle) closed the event with a keynote talking about how painful it is selling into K-12, suggesting that the Lean Startup model doesn’t bode well for K-12 EdTech companies.  Selling into a diffused market with multiple stakeholders and collective governance requires complex sales and complex products.  I would have to agree with John here, that there are minimum table stakes to be relevant in education, especially if you are trying to change systems.  John also goes on to mention that many EdTech companies don’t have a well thought out business model, and this is going to be risky to the whole segment and growth of new innovations if we aren’t collectively careful.
John argued that, with the shift from publisher to technology-based instructional program providers, there will be an opportunity for a few new dominant players in education, but these new players will need to focus on solving the distribution challenge.
I wish LearnLaunch and LearnLaunchX the best in shaping the education entreprenuers of tomorrow.  It is a key component of the success of the EdTech sector.  Let’s make sure that these new companies have solid business models and a distribution platform into schools that can make them successful and the teachers and student who use the product even more successful. After all, the products and services ultimately have to support student outcomes and improvement.
Anthony Kim is the CEO and founder of Education Elements, a company that marries services and software solutions to help schools build blended classrooms. 

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