[Disclaimer: the title is intentionally provocative. Just so there is no confusion as you read through the nuance below, I believe some of the innovations with Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy, eSpark Learning, and other select ed tech innovators are doing some incredible things to disrupt education for the better. The point is that there is a lopsided focus on disruption and innovation almost exclusively within the taxonomy of one macro trend at the expense of the other.]
In case you didn't know, I follow trends in education technology and innovation pretty closely. There's a number of sources I read (edSurge, Education Week, Stanford LDT, GSVAdvisors..>) and leaders/experts I follow on their blogs, Twitter feeds, etc. In this post I want to share some of those micro trends within ed tech and point out the two (at least two) macro trends that frame the micro trends, as well as provide a general overview of larger innovation trends that aren't necessarily technological. By and large nearly all of the micro trends in ed tech fit into one macro trend. Examples of micro trends include MOOC movement, SaaS, LMSs, apps/games, charter school organizations, etc. These micro trends fit into the Traditional School Innovations macro trend. Which is to say, these micro trending innnovations focus on innovating within the traditional education infratructure paradigm.
The other major macro trend emphasizes innovations to or within elements of the educational mega system that have been neglected by the traditional approach to schooling for the past 75-100+ years. Which is to say, Parent-Community Infrastructure Innovations focus on leveraging infrastructures that empower learning beyond the walls of the traditional education infrastructure and are helping to reshape a new learning paradigm for learning that empowers teaching-learning beyond schooling infrastructures. Examples of micro innovations within this macro framework include The Hive Learning Network, The Ounce of Prevention Fund's doula program, Pocket Literacy Coach/Parent University, Mom Trusted, Red Tricycle and only a few others.
First a look at the dominating trends:
On August 3rd, Stanford University’s School of Education hosted the 2012 Learning, Design and Technology Expo. As described on the website, “The projects on display at the expo are the hallmark of the LDT Master’s Program at Stanford’s School of Education—representing the culmination of a year of empirical and theoretical engagement with some of the toughest challenges to learning and education.” The LDT Expo has a 15 year history the projects for which focus on “powerful contemporary ideas about learning.” It was a great event with lots of passionate people milling about and considering how to most effectively impact learning within education.
The Expo struck me as a great place to plumb the trends of education technology innovation. While there were some interesting ideas, by and large the 20 projects fit into the main category for education innovation that is already most saturated: Games. Of the 20 projects, 10 of them were games or game-based.
In other words, scanning the LDT Expo from a distance, as a litmus test for trending edu-tech innovation, what you see is that innovators are committed primarily to a rut: game-based learning. While Stanford stands at the epicenter of the global Silicon Valley and has produced their fair share of thought leaders and innovators in a range of technology sub-spaces, Stanford certainly isn’t the only game in town. There are other places in the edu-tech landscape for measuring trends. Those places include edSurge, ImagineK12, New School Ventures, 500 Startups, The Gates Foundation, The MacArthur Foundation, Software and Information Industry Association, ASU School Summit and of course investor portfolios and a handful of incubators throughout the country.
I would encourage you to probe each of these sources to get a richer feel for the landscape yourself (here's recent article from edSurge and you can download some very detailed industry research from GSVAdvisors here). What I am positing, as one having reviewed these sources and others, as well as having spent nearly 3 years in the space as a tech edupreneur, is that there are five primary categories into which 90-95% of all ed tech innovations fall.
- Games and learning apps
- Cloud management platforms (for content, data, classroom management, LMSs, etc.)
- MOOCs (and MOOC management, e.g. LearningJar)
- Testing, assessment and communication
- SaaS and analytics solutions
There are outliers to these five major categories, such as cost reduction tools for education such as edShelf (“the Yelp for schools”) or teacher interviewing platforms such as DemoLesson or professional development tools for teachers such as BloomBoard, and, of course, I'm leaving out the school choice and charter school movements (which will remain a major exception to many of the examples herein, mostly because they don't apply to the ed tech theme). But even these examples still reflect the platforms and approaches embodied in the five major categories.
Taking a 50,000 foot view of the trends in these five categories, what we see is a laser like focus on the traditional education system, a system that excludes two major components of the education infrastructure: Parents and Community. In other words, these trending innovations focus exclusively on tweaking approaches that are contained within the Education Industrial complex as it has been defined for the past 75+ years. There are innovative exceptions that I address below. But these exceptions are barely blips on the education innovation and transformation radar.
Before I get to the blips, we should visit the other major influencers who are ascribing to and promoting variations on the 5 major trending categories, namely The Gates Foundation, The MacArthur Foundation, New School Ventures and, to a much smaller degree, 500 Startups.
There is a major difference between the investments being made by Gates, MacArthur and NSV. They are investing in infrastructure and initiatives, not apps, platforms and MOOCs. NSV, for example, heavily invests in charter schools and charter school foundations. MacArthur invests heavily in infrastructure and initiatives such as Hive Learning Network, Quest Schools and the Digital Media Learning Conference. Gates invests heavily in initiatives for measuring, assessing and understanding effective teaching, as well as early learning, higher ed, family homelessness and others. Primarily these three organizations are not focused on investing in for-profit ventures. This is another distinguishing factor about their investments.
Where some of the most unique ed tech investing is happening is at 500 Startups (Mom Trusted, PixOwl, Activity Hero, Red Tricycle, Story Panda and Timbuktu Labs represent a miniscule percentage of overall private ed tech investment). And it is through a handful of 500 Startup investments that we will examine the blips I referenced above. First, though, it’s important to understand why they are innovation blips.
The short of it is this: education does not happen only within schools. Or, to be more accurate, learning does not happen only within schools. The distinction that is not being fully explored is the difference between education and learning. Education is an industry, a political construct that has many, many constituent parts that have little to do with student learning (see my previous post for more on this). Learning is (or can be) wholly separate from “education.” The reason 90-95% of ed tech innovations are defined as incremental is because they are focused entirely on learning within an education system and an extant paradigm that is highly resistant to change.
Learning (and even “education”) also happens at home and in communities. I’ve written before about the larger educational mega-system, which incorporates Home, School, Community as the complete construct for school-aged learning. And those innovation blips that leverage infrastructures outside of the education industrial complex are the ones truly pushing innovation boundaries.
(Also, the credibility of this analysis would take a great hit if I neglected to mention the enormous impact of entities who for longer than these newcomers have worked outside the boundary edges of the traditionally defined education system to leverage more elements of the home-school-community infrastructure, such as PBS, the Cooney Institute, BabyCenter, CafeMom, Parenting, Babble, The Ounce of Prevention, and Head Start.)
These innovations are leveraging the power of parents to be teachers to children. They are incorporating or engaging communities (primarily parent networks at this point) to crowdsource wisdom and experience. In short, they are creating products that empower learning and education that go beyond the current traditionalist understanding of education-based learning. Yes, MOOCs and other platforms encourage learning outside of schools. But these are built on the traditional school model and schooling infrastructure to the exclusion of families and communities.
An illustration of the differentiation between an approach to learning within a closed school infrastructure and an approach to learning in a more fully integrated education mega system is one wherein business communities influence school curricula and families are empowered to influence learning.