Last summer, a colleague asked if I would help organize an education technology panel for a technology conference in North Carolina. I agreed, but two weeks later he said the organizing committee had decided there really wasn’t enough going on in this space to justify it. Astonished, I told him that this would be a missed opportunity for the audience, citing hundreds of millions of dollars in market cap and innovation within 20 miles of the event venue—plus the large contingent of leaders across the country with North Carolina ties.
December 30, 2014
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Flash forward to just a month ago: he told me I was right.
His eyes had been opened to what the rest of the nation has known about North Carolina. Besides public companies with heavy public-sector contracts (Cisco, Lenovo, IBM), we have well-known education technology companies (“edtechs”) like Amplify (News Corp-owned, with Durham office) and SAS’s Curriculum Pathways, and quiet sector giants like Measurement, Inc. setting the standard for assessments and RTP’s Metametrics, which created the Lexile® framework used globally and in all 50 states.
Lea(R)n was one of 11 companies from around the world in the 2014 Kaplan EdTech Accelerator powered by Techstars, and early-stage companies like Upswing, Trinket.io, Mission 100% and others are making waves in Silicon Valley and elsewhere across the country. Our higher education system has produced WebAssign, the Friday Institute for Innovation in Education at NC State University and the Instructional Innovation Incubator (I3) (via the system-wide Office of Learning Technology and Innovation) that enjoy national regard. That’s just the tip of the iceberg…
So, why no home-grown respect? Here are three foundational reasons. And NC investors and others should watch closely because the foundation is shifting:
Education values getting it done, not talking about it. Every morning, educators walk into their classrooms and focus on the immediate need of teaching and learning with those students. And with American teachers spending about twice as much time in front of students as in high-performing countries like Finland and Japan, it’s no wonder educators aren’t accomplished horn-tooters.
North Carolina education innovation organizations are busy improving teaching and learning. Facts, figures, outcomes and impact are the coin of the education realm, while shares, tweets and App Store rankings are easier for some investors to get excited about. Meetups and photo-sharing aren’t in the inherent DNA of the education business model. And, in a crowded venture market where lying to the press in the interest of “growth hacking” is a valid marketing tool, educators don’t appreciate exaggeration from the 20-40 sales calls per day they receive (yes, your schools get 20+ sales calls a day!).
The companies above, and many others in North Carolina, are doing both amazing things for learning and, with humility, improving their media efforts. In 2015, you will hear more of them tell their stories, with facts, figures and shares.
Education’s “conflicted” relationship with the private sector is loosening. Teachers don’t get into education for the money, so individuals and companies measured on profit have received sideways glances for years. As both an educator and social entrepreneur, I’ve seen this dichotomy for the last 15 years—taking a salary or building a pension at a non-profit or public sector job is okay; but building shareholder value through impactful innovation has been hard to differentiate from bad actors who have too often valued profit over impact. Now, increasing transparency in the education market is leading to innovation and opportunities.
This impacts business models. For example, LearnTrials helps schools know which edtech products are best for their classrooms. Think of it as a research-backed “Angie’s List” for learning technology. The service is free for teachers and offers enterprise subscriptions for custom dashboards and 80%+ more efficient technology pilots to schools, districts, states and other education groups. The model provides schools insights they can trust, since they know edtech companies and developers cannot buy ads, pay-to-play or game the LearnGrades that are based on educators’ insights and validated data. Based on the early traction of LearnTrials—dozens of schools, districts and thousands of LearnGrades in the first 10 weeks—both schools and companies that have confidence in their products love it. We believe we’re proving it helps spend budget dollars on products that work and provides clarity on what’s working.
As transparency increases, private sector companies are building trust by focusing on the same goals as their education clients, like student impact.
Education and investors’ best interests have not been aligned, until now. Investors have been afraid of the now exploding education market—$8 billion in U.S. preK-12 digital spending this year, growing 20 percent per year with transition from textbooks and $90 billion globally. I have seen non-education business people roll their eyes at the school market because they expected sales to work the same as other markets—e.g. my product is more efficient/cheaper/faster, so they’ll buy it—and it hasn’t worked out.
School purchasing was designed to avoid the bad thing, not help the good thing happen. Request for proposals (RFPs), long sales cycles, and legal hoops exist to avoid wasting taxpayer dollars and keep leaders out of the paper for scandal. The processes are costly, adding to the prices of products, but there are no rewards for trying the innovative approach, even if it is more efficient/cheaper/faster.
However, buying technology is not the same as buying textbooks. We are seeing democratization of purchasing with teachers and principals increasing local decision-making, edtech purchasing happening more quickly, and organizations modernizing their approaches. Digital Promise, the Congressionally-mandated nonprofit advancing education innovation, just released its report Improving EdTech Purchasing, highlighting the previous differences and the opportunities for growth.
What to Watch For In 2015? North Carolina’s EdTech Scene
With so much expertise working on teaching and learning innovations in North Carolina—our state with the first public university system, the region with the highest number of PhDs per capita, and plenty of talent at lower costs than major metropolitan hotbeds— 2015 will be a year that our education innovation organizations will benefit from and drive the dynamic shifts in education across the nation and the world.