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Sources of Hope for Education Technology in 2018

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By Matt Greenfield |Jan 27, 2018

I find myself without strong enthusiasm for the task of writing a conventional set of predictions about education technology in 2018. The most urgent needs of the most vulnerable children in this nation involve other technologies. Children in Puerto Rico deserve a working electrical grid, children in Flint deserve plumbing that delivers drinkable water, and children in Baltimore deserve schools that are heated in the winter. The 9 million children once protected by CHIP deserve health care. The Dreamers and the Haitian and El Salvadoran refugees and other immigrants deserve not to be uprooted from their homes. Homeless and hungry children deserve food and shelter.

This nation is failing its most fundamental duty to children. Tens of millions of children are suffering. Some of their pain is the result of accident and indifference, the blind, remorseless churning of the machinery of capitalism and bureaucracy. Some of their pain is the result of the protection of privilege in its gated communities (and here I must accuse myself and my love of my family and my efforts to secure the best possible education and healthcare for them). But much of the suffering of those children is the result of active and deliberate malice on the part of politicians.

Against this backdrop, it is difficult to be enthusiastic about, for example, the possibility that this will be the break-out year for virtual reality in K-12 schools. (I will take the under on that bet, since we still seem unable to provide many poor children with computers and adequate WiFi or even working plumbing and heat, much less expensive VR headsets.) For me and for my partners, the question that confronts us with sharper urgency this year is what we can do to narrow the gap between the vulnerable and the privileged. Many education technology companies do the opposite: they deepen the moat around the castles of affluence.

This focus on narrowing the gap is one reason why many of my firm’s previous K-12 investments have focused on tools that help schools to make fairer, more equitable allocations of resources. We have backed companies focused on budgeting, scheduling, procurement, dropout prevention, and professional development for the teachers of special education students and English language learners.

These back-office tools can make a big impact. One school district discovered that its per-student spending varied from $6,000 per year at one school to $13,000 per year at another. And the students getting the smallest budget allocation were among those who needed the most support to succeed. Without the tools to analyze their spending on all of their complex initiatives, district officials had no idea that their allocation of resources was so skewed. They are now engaged in the hard work of moving toward a more just budgeting process.

I cannot make any predictions about how many great new justice-oriented K-12 companies will be formed this year. But I am bullish about the future of them. They help bend the long arc of the moral universe toward justice and, at the same time, also help districts save money and discover new, untapped resources.

I am also looking, as I was last year, for companies with great content that engages and delights students. Such content is rare and, contrary to the opinion of many investors, economically valuable. Among the companies where my firm is not an investor, I would single out BrainPOP, Genius Plaza, Mystery Science, Dragonbox, and Newsela for their commitment to student enchantment.

In post-secondary education, I can safely predict that this year will see the founding and the rapid growth of many more career pathways programs. The best career pathways programs share some common traits. They reliably help their students obtain a significantly higher salary, not uncommonly double what they had been earning. They are relatively short-term in duration. And they have their interests closely aligned with those of their students. If the students do not succeed, the school does not get paid. Outside of my firm’s portfolio, the career pathways companies I admire most include Guild Education and Andela. I am excited that companies like Guild are focusing on skills beyond coding, which has been the focus of a higher percentage of post-secondary education innovators.

These innovative career pathways programs get paid in a variety of ways. Some get paid through income-sharing agreements with their students; a typical arrangement of this kind might involve the school collecting 15-20% of the student’s income for three years after graduation. Other pathways programs get paid by employers. And some charge a modest amount of tuition and offer students a swift and rapid return on investment. Around the world, I am seeing the formation of new career pathways programs with these features. Some are for-profits and some are non-profits. Some are affiliated with colleges and some are free-standing. But all of these new career pathways programs need to have a robust, continual feedback loop with employers.

I have a friendly disagreement with some other investors in education companies. They insist that the sole proper function of most post-secondary education programs is to get students a good job. It is certainly important that students secure good jobs when they graduate, but many colleges fail to perform this function well. Many colleges also charge far too much money.

Nonetheless, I think that educational institutions at every level should also keep in mind that they will influence not only how students work, but also how they approach their personal and their political lives. I am a little troubled by the way that some coding programs assume that to be a programmer requires a time commitment that leaves no room for family life or civic engagement. Many tech companies, of course, also have a culture of over-working. But the best coding programs are committed to changing the culture of the technology industry. In general, the best career pathways programs have a commitment to making the workplace more humane, more diverse, and more inclusive.

Another trait shared by high-performing career pathways programs is a focus on empathy. Empathy is a crucial skill for success in the workforce, and also a crucial skill for participatory democracy. If democracy is going to survive, we urgently need to find new tools and programs for the cultivation of empathy, at every level of the educational system (and, I might add, within our leisure activities, including video games and social networks). I will not go so far as to predict that I will encounter any great new empathy-teaching tools and services this year, but I am definitely looking. Some politicians are focused on budget deficits and trade deficits, but the empathy deficit is a much greater threat to all of us.



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