Three Good Reasons Why Educators Should Embrace Ed Tech Entrepreneurs

Udacity nabs $15M to make online education less boring“, Venture Beat
Start-ups try to Crack Education Market“, Wall Street Journal
A Boom Time for Education Start-Ups“, The Chronicle

These headlines are enough to make some educators cringe, given that many in higher education and K-12 environments feel strongly that for-profit companies have no place in academia. Entrepreneurship and commercial activity in education was  the topic last week in the course I’m participating in, the Current/Future State of Higher Education (CFHE12). We examined a number of resources on the topic including several from GSV Advisors, a company which advises and helps secure funding for educational start-up companies. In this post I give three reasons why educators in higher education should support, if not embrace educational technology start-ups. I was a fence-sitter prior to this past week’s topic in CFHE12, but have since made up my mind. My aim here is to convince readers as I was convinced this week, how ed-tech companies can be part of the solution to the current education crisis.

Three Reasons to Support Educational Start-ups:

  1. Educational start-ups have the potential to transform higher education by providing solutions to problems that can’t be solved with existing methods.
  2. Ed tech innovators provide products and platforms that give access to educational opportunities to students and instructors around the globe.
  3. Start-ups provide tools that have the potential to improve learning outcomes, increase learner engagement and create life-long learners.

How Start-ups ‘Get Started
Before I explore each of these three reasons further, we’ll examine innovation and the role it plays in educational start-ups. Innovations usually begin with a personal experience that sparks a desire to solve a problem. An example is Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, whose story puts the debate about for-profits involvement in education into perspective. Solving a problem was what motivated Dorsey, to make something better, to meet a need that wasn’t being met. He did not set-out to make a million dollars with his idea of Twitter, or his most recent idea of Square, [a platform to accept payments with a mobile device]. Both Twitter and Square emerged from Dorsey’s drive to fix something, create a system to simplify an existing method that wasn’t working effectively. The idea for Square emerged in an effort to help an artist friend who lost a sale of $2,000 for a work of art because the buyer didn’t have cash, and the artist wasn’t able to accept credit cards. The story of Dorsey is intriguing, a “tech master mind with the soul of an artist” (Stevenson, 2012) proving that innovation begins with a passion.

Entrepreneurs, like Dorsey, start with problem that leads to an idea, that leads to the development of a solution to make something more effective. After participating in last week’s webinar with Deborah Quazzo of GSV, I could see that education entrepreneurs are no exception. Her company meticulously profiled hundreds of ed-tech start-ups, providing extensive information about each. It’s apparent after reading the backgrounds of several start-ups that each began with a passion to improve an area in education, to make it better and solve a dilemma.

1. Educational start-ups have the potential to transform higher education by providing tools and resources to solve the problems that exist in higher education today, access, cost and quality. These companies are not planning to undermine the values of education with a profit-only motive, as companies without a passion or interest in education will not be successful. Clayton Christenson, Harvard Business professor and author of the Innovator’s Dilemma, states that it is companies that put the customer [learner] first, not profits that will be successful in this economy, “In this new world, the bottom of line of business isn’t profits but rather customer delight, i.e. the provision of a continuous stream of additional value to customers and delivering it sooner.” Clayton Christenson as reported by Steve Dunning for Forbes (2011).

Below is a sampling of ed-tech start-ups that appear to be focused on the learner, that want to improve the educational experience. Each of these companies has already had a significant impact on education and are disrupting traditional methods. The company founders are not only entrepreneurs, but educators with a vision.

  • Udacity: Founded by Sebastian Thrun, Stanford professor and provider of a MOOC which drew over 100,000 students worldwide. “Sebastian and the team want their legacy to be about reinventing education and they understand the wide-reaching impact that this will have on our future.” (Peter Levine,
  • Canvas by Instructure: An open source LMS platform founded by two graduate students. “Canvas isn’t just a product. The people who use it aren’t just our customers. We’re partners. And we’re transforming education.”
  • Open Study: The co-founders are educators that have a passion for learning and education. Open Study is a social learning network for students. “Our mission is to make the world one large study group, regardless of school, location, or background“.

2. The tools and resources that ed tech innovators create, bring education to learners around the world, breaking down barriers of place and time. MOOCs have delivered education to thousands of learners, social learning platforms motivated thousands of struggling students – these types of innovations are considered ‘disruptive’ to the current system, yet are improving lives of learners. Education now has the potential for transformation; educators should be celebrating.

3. It will be the tools provided by the ed tech companies that will have the potential to improve learning outcomes, increase learner engagement and create life-long learners. It is up to the educators to decide how to use these tools to transform learning, the tools alone don’t transform, but are dependent upon an educator to drive the learning at some point within the learning process.

Educators might want to look at investment and entrepreneurship in the education sector from a different perspective – entrepreneurs have a desire to make education better, provide solutions to problems. The profit motive of these companies does not undermine the values of education, it is how educators to use the tools to enhance and transform education that define what education is, and how it meets the needs of learning. It is up to educators to decide how education methods need to adapt to the cultural digital transformation happening now, and use the innovations accordingly. Embrace start-ups, for without innovation, progress and improvement does not exist.

EdSurge, Educational Technology Online Resource
Sampling of Ed Innovation Start-ups:

2 thoughts on “Three Good Reasons Why Educators Should Embrace Ed Tech Entrepreneurs

    1. Hi Keith,
      Thanks for your comment and the link to your post – excellent overview of the challenges with integrating ed tech companies with education – this line from your post most telling of the realities, “Also not surprising is that the reception within higher education to private investment ranges from indifference to outright hostility.” In one of the reports put forth by GSV Advisors, one of the barriers identified to implementing innovative platforms and methods in higher ed is the resistant culture. Thanks for re-blogging the post! Debbie


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