Goldrush Fever: Are We Into EdTech for the Wrong Reasons?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Last week, Sean Cavanaugh over at EdWeek asked whether edu-preneurs should fear the bursting of the current ed-tech bubble. With nearly $300 million in K12 edtech funding in 2012, it’s an unavoidable question, though not an unassailable one. In fact, there’s been ample debate all year and with venture capital investment in education increasing nearly 500% in the past decade, the worry over “bubbles bursting” is legit.

Typically we think of an economic bubble as a matter of investment versus value. With investment and value in sync, there’s a virtuous cycle of innovation and growth, but when investment outpaces real or perceived value: *POP*. GeekWire’s Frank Catalano frets that “digital learning may be getting too popular among entrepreneurs and investors for the wrong reasons and [has] little to do with actually improving education.”


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Photo by Amanda Bicknell via WikiCommons

Frank’s on to something here. Edtech must be about much more than dollars and return on investment because our students, particularly those facing the unique barriers and challenges that come with growing up in poverty, can least afford its failure. Edtech instead needs to be about “intellectual curiosity, reciprocity or the joy of learning” as Audrey Watters writes.

Edtech is a crucial page in the playbook for the future of education in two ways. First, how teachers teach is changing dramatically with startups such as Clever, Edthena and Kickboard (all founded at least in part by TFA alums) gaining effectiveness and reach by the day. And secondly, essentially all K12 students are digital natives and teachers must speak their students’ language in order to engage them and prepare them for our increasingly digital world.

When we speak of edtech “bubbles” in terms of lost profit and investment dollars we lose sight of the grander purpose at play: through technology we will better educate our students and stoke inside them that passion to continually learn and be amazed, not to mention lead a life driven by choices, not predetermined economic destiny. Or, as Frank Catalano puts it: “the stakes are much higher than another me-too e-commerce play going under. It’s how kids and everyone else will be educated for decades to come.”

As Betsy Corcoran of EdSurge (also co-founded by a TFA alum) writes, “the fact that we’re already having this kind of debate may indeed save education from getting trampled by those infected with goldrush fever--and leave enough room for real innovation.” Amen sister. Edtech will be what we want it to be, so we must actively shape the market and represent the interests of our students who are simultaneously the most vulnerable and voiceless.

In this era of edtech we as educators, parents and stakeholders need to push innovators and investors to create the tools teachers and students most need, not just the ones that funders think will be most profitable (though ideally, we design solutions that achieve both aims).  We must be vocal proponents for the creation of smart and useful technologies, basing valuations not on which startups raise the most money but rather on which most positively impact student outcomes. The money is already here, so let’s ensure it is used to fund the ideas that have the greatest potential for impact on kids’ learning.