The State of EdTech

A few weeks ago I spent a chunk of my Sunday at an odd little conference held in the threadbare ballrooms at one of DC’s utility hotels. The meeting was a combination of a micro version of the ISTE expo, an edtech pitchfest, and an attempt at a teacher pep rally.

As I said: odd.

The event was the Tech for Schools Summit, presented in various locations around the US by a company called edSurge. For those who don’t follow the edtech “sector” and haven’t heard of them, here’s the nutshell description in their own words:

EdSurge was started in 2011… to connect the emerging community of edtech entrepreneurs and educators. We wanted to share detailed information about what new technologies could–and could not–do to support learning.

However, the short time I spent at the summit didn’t leave me feeling very good about that “emerging community”.

About thirty small companies participated in this event, each of them showing off their creations at tables in a cramped, noisy room as well as giving a short pitch on the stage in another space. None of them did a good job explaining either what their product did or why any educator would want to use it. If I was a wealthy investor, I would pass on all of them.

Anyway, my biggest problem was with the concept behind their products. Except for two tables1, these edtech “entrepreneurs” presented very little that involved students in creating their own learning.

They were showing technology grafted to the same old curriculum and classroom process, aligned to the Common Core, of course. Very little innovation in either the “ed” or the “tech” part of the equation.

And that pretty much sums up the current state of that whole edtech “sector”.


  1. Ironically both small subdivisions of Autodesk, a very large, well-established company.

Investing in Pearson-style Learning

Yesterday Pearson, our favorite merchant for all things standardized testing, sold The Financial Times for £844m (roughly $1.3 billion US money) in cash.

So, what do they plan to do with all that money?

We plan to reinvest the proceeds from today’s sale to accelerate our push into digital learning, educational services and emerging markets. We will focus our investment on products and businesses with a bigger, bolder impact on learning outcomes, underpinned by a stronger brand and high-performing culture.

This will help us progress toward a future where learning is more effective, affordable, personal and accessible for people who need it most. By doing so, we can help more people discover a love of learning and make progress in their lives.

This is the promise of learning– and the future of Pearson.

I’m not sure what most of that means, what a “bigger, bolder impact” might look like, or how they can help people “discover a love of learning”.

But based on Pearson’s history, be afraid. Be very afraid.

It’s Not Pearson’s Fault

Despite carrying the title Everyone Hates Pearson, the profile of that company and it’s new CEO in Fortune almost makes you feel sorry for them.

The problem is, legions of parents, teachers, and others see the new Pearson in a very different light. Many of them, particularly in North America, where the company does some 60% of its sales, think of it as the Godzilla of education. In their view, Pearson is bent on controlling every element of the process, from teacher qualifications to curriculums to the tests used to evaluate students to the grading of the tests to, increasingly, owning and operating its own learning institutions.

Actually, the article is a good overview of Education Inc., and specifically the testing business. And the writer even includes a little bit of push-back on the assessment culture that has taken over most public schools, based on personal experience with her own child.

I cringe, feeling that I have failed as a parent if this is what she believes1. And yet she has a point. In New York City, that test helps determine which middle school you get into. In her classroom, the pressure was so great that the teacher referred to the tests by aliases: the “waka-waka” and the “whablah.” They were the elementary-school equivalent, it seemed, of Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, more commonly referred to as “he who must not be named.”

In a remarkably short time, the worthy notion of holding students and teachers accountable seems to have morphed into a system centered on “teaching to the test.”

But that doesn’t last long: “This is not Pearson’s fault, of course.”

And she’s correct. We in the US did this to ourselves.

We elected leaders at all levels who want to privatize public education – and view learning as a process that can be automated and enumerated. If Pearson didn’t exist, there would be plenty of other companies sucking up millions to provide the tools to make that happen. Which, of course, there are anyway, in addition to the “Godzilla of education”, taking their smaller share of the public pie.

Anyway, this is a long article but well worth the time, keeping in mind it comes from a business publication.


  1. “If I don’t do well on the fourth-grade test, I won’t get into a good middle school. If I don’t get into a good middle school, then I won’t get into a good high school, and if I don’t do that, I won’t get into a good college, and then I won’t get a good job.”

The Fast-Growing, Cash-Generative Business of Education

I don’t pay much attention to the day-to-day business headlines, especially since reporting in that area is just as bad or possibly worse than what passes for public affairs reporting these days.

But when Pearson, the UK-based educational publishing conglomerate that pretty much runs the Virginia DOE, is the subject, things get a little more interesting.

Evidentially, the company didn’t have a good first half of the year and plans to cut about 4000 jobs. However, it’s this statement from the CEO that really caught my eye.

Pearson is positioning itself as “a global learning services company,” Fallon said in a statement today. “This will drive a leaner, more cash-generative, faster-growing business from 2015.”

And where does all that cash being generated come from? At least half is from public schools, of course.

Pearson is the largest company in the fast-growing business of standardized testing, both writing and scoring the exams. Plus study materials to help teachers prepare kids for the tests. And textbooks “aligned” to Common Core or state standards (alignment being a euphemism for test prep).

Even worse, Pearson sees a great deal of potential in “emerging markets”, other countries to which they are exporting American-style standardized testing.

In the end, their bottom line will likely improve in the next fiscal year, even if the quality of learning provided by their customers (aka schools) doesn’t.

Disrupting Ourselves

Did you know your school and students are a potential cash cow? There are lots of edtech entrepreneurs, and the venture capitalists who finance them, who think they can make big profits in the “education sector”. A good deal of this activity is focused on the college level but a not insubstantial amount of money is also flowing into startups trying to create “disruptive innovations” for us in K12.

I stumbled across a recent post about Why VCs Usually Get Ed Tech Wrong, addressing, of course, the business side of things, which linked to another entry on the blog of one of those venture capital firms, Rethink Education, who offer this focus statement on their website:

Our education system is one of the last places to be remade by technology.  That’s about to change.  We are investing in the people, ideas and companies that are rethinking the way we learn and teach.  Today.

Rethink Education seeks to invest in progressive growth-stage companies that are at the forefront of the education technology industry and have the capacity to make positive impacts on our communities.

Very nice. Except what if the system doesn’t want to be remade? What about the large number of educational institutions, probably the majority, that are very comfortable with their traditional processes and are most interested in technology for cost, management, and administrative savings?

Even one of the VCs they quote, someone who has “named education as one of his key targets”, understands those questions.

I wouldn’t want to back a business that’s selling to public schools or characterized by public financing, unions, or government-run institutions. Those institutions are incredibly hostile to change. [my emphasis]

So, if the people with big bucks to invest in the education business sees hostility to change in public schools, why are they putting large amounts of money in this “sector”? The answer is that they aren’t really investing in public schools.

Those edtech entrepreneurs are developing products – electronic textbooks, automated teaching systems, data collection/management systems, and more – for charters, private schools, for-profit colleges, and a variety of other education structures that will be subsidized in large part from public funds. And they’re counting on that area to grow quickly over the next decade or so.

Their customers are not the people working directly with kids. They are selling to administrators, politicians, and chain school owners who think the process of educating children is very complex (which it is) and who are looking for ways to reduce that complexity, homogenize the results and spend less doing it. Those tech companies and their investors who are looking to “disrupt education” are gearing up to sell them the “solutions” to make it happen.

And it is going to happen. Unless those of us who believe in public schools get to the disrupting first. We need to change ourselves, our institutions, before it’s done to us. We need to take a long look at every part of our traditional approach to educating kids and remake it to fit the fast changing, chaotic world in which they (really all of us) will live.

We need to start the hard work of disrupting ourselves.