educationtechnologyinsights

A Reality Check for EdTech Startups

By Brent Goldfarb, Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship And David Kirsch, Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship, University of Maryland, Robert H. Smith School of Business

Brent Goldfarb, Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship

Bricks and mortar classrooms are doomed, thanks to technology that will soon disrupt higher education.

We are talking about radio, of course.

When department stores began producing shows in the 1920s as a loss leader to attract customers, university leaders asked why go to a lecture hall if you can just listen to the same experts in your living room?

Anxious to not be disrupted, university reactionaries began gobbling up the broadcast spectrum.

Their rush to stay relevant explains why the United States has so many college radio stations today, as we write in our book, Bubbles and Crashes: The Boom and Bust of Technological Innovation (Stanford University Press 2019).

In the decades since radio’s advent, other inventions have followed. The edtech industry has been fueled by the idea of imminent disruption and the belief that — any day now — technology will fundamentally change how society learns.

"Popular media prefer fads and flair, and real change is sometimes boring. Winners in the edtech space will be those who persevere—sometimes quietly without fanfare"

At various times the buzz has focused on educational television, live satellite feeds, the internet, gamified apps and MOOCs — all with the potential to eliminate the need for traditional classrooms where students and professors gather face-to-face.

The narratives have been compelling. But the the hype also overlooks the very human and emotional side of education and the complex organizational and technological systems that universities have created to facilitate this learning.

Learning isn’t a passive activity, it takes effort. Only the most disciplined of learners can do so without an institutional and social environment that rewards this effort. Gamification helps, but humans are social animals. Learning is better in groups. Looking at screens is still isolating.

Radio, and MOOCS failed to disrupt for a reason. Their gripping stories may have convinced investors, but effective solutions require thinking about how technology can augment human learning, not just replace stodgy profs like us.

True disruption requires not just a value chain that delivers better results — at least along some dimension — but also make the core assets of the traditional educational model obsolete.

That is very hard to do.

David Kirsch, Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship, University of Maryland, Robert H. Smith School of Business

For starters, K-12 schools and universities are actually pretty good at what they do and respond to competitive threats. “Disrupters” say that these institutions change slowly. We would say that’s a strength. How humans learn does not change. Even though those infatuated with technology see every possible application as a nail, the Socratic method is still effective. Sitting around a table discussing and thinking facilitates learning.

Educational institutions are also responding. For example, we now use more experiential and project based learning. Even at the undergraduate level, teams do consulting projects with real-world clients. Others manage real investments in Wall Street funds. Aspiring entrepreneurs in other courses launch startups that produce real revenue. These sorts of experiences are social, fun, full of ups and downs, and they motivate effort and learning. It’s proven difficult to replicate these experiences with tech.

Successful edtech leaders must see through the superficial narratives of disruption and look for those that take into account how and why students learn. We expect the most successful will complement, as opposed to replace schools and universities.

Some startups have done this well. Canvas, for example, has made inroads as a learning management platform. All the more

Impressive given that selling to large universities is hard, sales cycles are long, and it can be difficult to find decision makers. We are stodgy, after all.

Figuring out how to match technological solutions with existing educational systems is not likely to be a story that goes viral on social media or catches the attention of headline writers at newspapers and magazines. But even though solving complex problems doesnt usually make for good stories, this fact doesn’t make the problems less complex.

Popular media prefer fads and flair, and real change is sometimes boring. Winners in the edtech space will be those who persevere—sometimes quietly without fanfare.

That’s the reality.

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