We’re facing a meltdown. The education bubble is about to burst. We’ve heard it all before. Yet, as we spend sleepless nights panicking over the rising cost of tuition and the resulting, dauntingly inevitable student loan debt, entrepreneurs are equating the crisis to opportunity and taking the time to innovate.
Now, a new problem is garnering attention: are too many entrepreneurs jumping on the education technology train? Could we be seeing another bubble—but in ed-tech?
I’m the kind of guy who worries when something gets too popular.
I looked askance at novels (especially science fiction) that made it to mainstream bestseller lists when written by otherwise mediocre authors. I avoided buying any footwear or polo shirt that was named for, or sported images of, long-jawed fast-crawling reptiles. When anything rapidly accelerated in popularity with no clear tie to quality, I wondered how long it would take before that bandwagon crashed.
Call it the hipster’s case against ed-tech startups. Once an area gets too popular, it loses its appeal. Yet, I’m quick to agree several entrepreneurs are just wasting their time. Because how often are they sitting down with academics to hear what’s actually ailing education? Founders hop on fads, or see where investors are throwing their dollars, but who’s to say where the money is being spent should really be where the money is allocated?
Catalano points to increased investments and newfound attention as culprits of building this bubble. Tie those in with events like Startup Weekend EDU or South by Southwest’s education conference, along with politicians saying digital learning has become a core part of their “reform agenda,” and you start to see inflation. As Catalano says, “Adding politics to the mix can mask, or make divisive, technology’s application and effectiveness in classrooms.”
Now, despite my initial pearls of wisdom, I’m excited to see more entrepreneurs hopping into the ed-tech space, as is Catalano, who hilariously described digital education as the former “ugly stepchild” next to “sexier consumer and business tech.” The activity, however, needs to be monitored and the hype, albeit promising, needs to be toned down. As Catalano writes:
It’s more a concern that while there is a burning unmet need and opportunity to apply technology intelligently to teaching and learning, too much overhyped ed-tech developed for reasons having little to do with enhancing education can collapse into a black hole of failure. And that’s a gravity well that could suck across its event horizon not just bad products, greedy investors and clueless entrepreneurs, but also the good of each group—with teachers and students dragged into the maelstrom.
As much as I’m all for e-commerce, ed-tech companies have farther reaching effects on their consumers. They’re shaping their development, helping build skills and, in thousands of instances, creating lifelong learners. Every education startup should have a former academic on their founding team, or be working with academics directly.
They should also be looking at the bigger picture. As RecoVend CEO Kyle Judah once said:
The biggest issue I have with some of the companies I’ve seen lately is that they think cosmetics are enough to solve problems that have plagued education for the last 200 years.
Responsive websites don’t mean diddly—they’re not helping students learn. The content companies are putting out there is what is helping students learn. So, before creating another edX, Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare, Coursera, Udacity, P2PU or Treehouse, entrepreneurs need to evaluate the impact they intend to leave and be honest on whether or not they can actually deliver on that impact in a meaningful way. The stakes are higher in education. Innovate for change, not for investor’s money.
Photo Courtesy of the Mississippi Business Journal