There’s a lot of buzz about the potential of disruptive technologies to lead much-needed change in education. But there’s also a lot of discussion about some sobering realities.
While Venture Capitalists are pouring more money than ever into promising ed-tech companies, many still remain concerned with the abundance of barriers to the introduction of innovative ideas within traditional education systems and institutions.
For instance, because there is little budget flexibility, rigid budgeting cycles, and terrible uncertainty from year-to-year as to the public’s financing of schools, colleges and universities, if a promising start-up comes to market at the wrong point in the budgeting cycle, they’re out of luck. That bad timing can kill a company before it can achieve lift-off.
Similarly, institutions often create rigorous, lengthy and frankly over-cautious processes for the consideration of new technologies. A committee can spend a year or more considering a new technology and then another year doing small-scale pilots, and yet another completing an implementation to a small percentage of a student body, which they further study. This culture is in polar opposition to the fast development and go-to-market cycles of Silicon Valley.
Such realities are troubling to traditional venture capital. While there are an increasing number of brave VCs who are putting their concerns aside and embracing the concept of “patient capital,” many others just can’t reconcile the long sales and technology adoption cycles that define the EdTech space.
Still, there are many reasons for optimism. While higher ed in general still bears all the markers of entrenched systems, K-12 is looking more and more entrepreneurial. Teachers and administrators are adopting promising new technologies quickly. And they’re behaving in very Darwinian terms: either a new technology works or it doesn’t. If something doesn’t work, they move on—fast. It’s very nimble, very innovative behavior that bodes well for the future of education.
Also, incentives are becoming better aligned with the overwhelming desire for change. Federal and state financing mechanisms, student loan programs, private foundation grant requirements, and metrics measurement schemes are emphasizing outcomes that go beyond simple test scores. All are emphasizing rewards for innovation that drives improvement. And a pending bill in the California Senate would require state colleges and universities to accept approved MOOCs (massive open online courses) for credit when a similar course at a state institution is fully subscribed and unavailable to students who need them.
The other reason for optimism is that both investors and EdTech entrepreneurs are getting smarter about selling into the educational market place. Promising new technologies come to market in sync with established budgeting cycles. Companies like mine work within established sales channels through strategic partnerships to gain instant access to the right decision-makers in the educational enterprise. And new technologies are better attuned to the fast-changing trends in education so that the missions of the start-up, the student and the institution are all in more perfect alignment.
Most people in the space agree that we’re in something of a Golden Age for innovation and education technology. But they also agree there are still barriers to be overcome and, ideally, torn down forever.
FIVE THôT columnist DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite.