Why It's Important to Understand EdTech Startups As a Social Movement

Why It’s Important to Understand EdTech Startups As a Social Movement

Why It's Important to Understand EdTech Startups As a Social Movement

In June 2016, the United Nations declared access to the internet to be a fundamental human right.

In every minute of that year, 300 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube, and every day, five billion videos are watched on that site. About half of the YouTube videos watched that year came to users through cellular devices. 55% of students log into YouTube once a day. 46% of them spent time every day on Snapchat. 62% of the teachers of those students read the news in 2016 through social networks, while 64% of them made use of Wikipedia on a weekly basis. If these teachers are in the Western world, then 100% of them would probably have smartphones, and 87% of them would communicate daily through text messages. Teachers and students alike operate in an adaptive personal environment, one that can display advertising that exactly matches what they are searching for at that moment, their political opinions, and their taste in music.

A Parallel Universe

Every morning, these same teachers and students stream into their schools, but from the moment that they cross the gates of these institutions, they find themselves in a parallel universe to that in which they had been moments before. In this parallel universe, the use of devices by students is still used as an example of exciting innovative development, as for example decision-makers publishing about students use of tablets in class. In this parallel universe, they talk in apocalyptic terms about adaptive learning systems that would have been put to shame in the world of advertising ten years ago, or of gaming with the apologetic tones reserved for the discussions of gambling or sex. In this parallel universe, a reasonably reliable internet connection is not necessarily a given. Just as there are urban legends about Japanese fighters from World War 2 who are still holed up in the jungle, there are weary fighters who think that they can stop the revolution of the information age. Why are teachers and students doomed to live in two parallel universes? Why has the technology that has managed to redefine almost every other area, not been able to do so in education? It’s not enough to offer platitudes about the conservatism of the system, its difficulty in adapting to change. Systems that were no less conservative, and perhaps even more so, such as health and banking, have undergone radical changes as a result of technology. It seems that there is something deeply rooted in the culture of the education system, in its deepest assumptions, that conflicts with new technologies and with the culture that they bring with them. This is a world that is redefining concepts such as knowledge, community and self-expression, concepts that are part and parcel of, and lie at the core of, the educational enterprise.

Who is Responsible?

The major failure in addressing this conflict lies in the fact that we underestimate its intensity. It is easy to think that the obstacle lies in a specific area – conservatism, teachers, the Ministry of Education, resources, and so on. Each of these factors may be assumed to play a role in this situation, but they are all part of a much deeper social fabric that underlies these processes. In conflicts of this type, no one entity is responsible. To address this conflict properly, we need to recognize this fact, and seriously address all of these aspects. The challenge that we face is no less than that of creating a new pedagogic model, one that can identify the challenges and opportunities of our era, and offer the optimal learning framework.

Educational startups have a major role to play in this enormous social project, to create a new pedagogic model. A startup is not merely an organizational management framework. The ways in which they are run, and the unique economic model that motivates them, can have a dramatic influence on the types of outputs that they offer. The outputs that come from this movement are fundamentally different from those of traditional educational technology: startups are much more focused on the learner as the principal client. Rather than empowering existing processes, they instead offer alternatives and directions that we could not have conceived of in the world that existed before the internet.

Re-branding Educational Startups

Unfortunately, the way in which they are presented, and the discourse within which they function, make it difficult to discern their potential. The present discourse on startups in education is one whose subtext attempts to convince all stakeholders that this is a profitable field, one that should be attractive to investors and new entrepreneurs. As a result, participation in presentations by entrepreneurs in this field often turns into an experience akin to a particularly bad episode of “Silicon Valley.” Entrepreneurs make a superficial pitch, wave their hands around, and purport to solve weighty problems with some talk and a few lines of code. When we talk about startups in education, we too often present colorful graphs showing the increasing scope of investment in the field. We tend to talk about acquisitions and exits, and create the mistaken impression that this is a phenomenon that is part of the business world. Although it may look different to an outside observer, startups in the field of EdTech are, in fact, a social movement. The people involved in these startups are individuals out to fix the world, who in most instances could have been entrepreneurs in more profitable fields, but who chose instead the bumpy road faced by startups in education. The process that they undertake is based on constant dialogue with users, and on listening attentively to their needs. This approach is characteristic of startups in general, and finds its theoretical expression in approaches such as that of the Lean Startup. But in the case of education, this methodology of involving users in development is also a way of contending with the conflict between schools and technology, and addressing it with sensitivity, authenticity, and candid dialogue.