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Investing in Education Innovation

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By Alex Hernandez and Tom Vander Ark

Last Wednesday, we led a #SXSWedu conversation about funding and fund raising in education. The first of two blogs outlines the conversation we led on investing in innovation.

What's the problem? We both tried to make the case that we know something about impact investing in education, both philanthropic and return seeking. Then addressed a few questions.

What problem are we trying to solve?

  • K-12 academic performance is inequitably distributed; significant limitations in the traditional model.
  • The technology toolset to enable new personalized models is still weak. Still difficult to make things "work."
  • But school innovation is primarily a design problem, not a technology problem. Breaking out of that requires courageous and entrepreneurial educators. The most interesting #BlendedLearning activity is happening in schools most willing to question existing assumptions.

Whats new?

  • #CommonCore and improving student access to technology are important baseline assumptions and opportunities.
  • Power shifting from schools to families.
  • We see a near term innovation in content delivery--flat & sequential to adaptive & engaging--and a longer term shift to competency-based systems--new rules and new schools. Changes from competency-based learning will be profound.
  • As learning becomes more efficient, we think there will be new opportunities to create and support powerful learning experiences inside and outside of school. Better online learning will facilitate better offline experiences.
  • While we wring our hands about institutions, learning outside of school is exploding: DIY.org, iPad apps, Khan. Families will curate great online experiences for their kids and this curation will be considered "good parenting." Families will learn a lot about what their children can and can't do and sometimes they'll know more than the school. Institutions have an opportunity to embrace this shift.

What does that mean for #EdLeaders?

  • Schools, districts and networks need an improvement agenda (make current system work better) and an innovation agenda (create the schools our kids deserve). Leading a community conversation about the balance and making periodic adjustments every few months.
  • One of the most profound things we've learned is there is high demand for educational experiences outside of school. Teachers, parents, and students are blending their own learning. Institutions will bury their heads or take advantage.
  • There is a tendency to think of innovation as something that can be centrally managed and rolled out. This is a false frame. We need to embrace the dissonance that occurs when positive, unexpected things happen in student-centered learning environments. We need to watch what students do, not just what educators do. We need to take a fresh look at learning science. Designing around students is scary. That's OK.

What's an example of an investment that worked better than expected?

  • Harold Levy, Palm Ventures, described spotting a nonprofit college that was purchased and repositioned--an example of knowing the market and being able to imagine success in a new format.
  • Charter School Growth Fund has supported charter school networks that exceed original expectations by focusing on educators with strong track records of increasing student achievement; past performance is a good predictor of future performance.
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's first investment in Khan Academy led to significant growth; good example of investment made outside K-12 that reverberated across institutions.

What's an example of an investment that didn't work as well as planned?

  • Early school replication grants (circa 2000) were small and not well supported--and most failed to deliver. However, the team learned quickly from failure and after a couple cycles had a very successful approach.
  • Grants to school districts are notoriously susceptible to revolving door leadership--and reflects a fundamental governance problem more than an investing problem.
  • Investments that do not use philanthropy/capital efficiently take money away from other, more worthwhile organizations and diminishes impact.


Unsolicited advice. Cities should:

  • Put together comprehensive plans to make themselves attractive to great educators (e.g., align philanthropy, policy, human capital, facilities, etc.)
  • Attract/fund talent (e.g., Mind Trust in Indianapolis, EdPioneers)
  • Incubate new education entrepreneurs and opportunities (e.g., 4pt0 in NOLA, Socratic Labs in NY, LearnLaunch in Boston, ImagineK12 in the Bay Area, Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore).
  • Leverage assets with public and private partners.

Foundations should:

  • Be more responsive and entrepreneurial.
  • Take more risk, mitigate with staged-investment approach.
  • Fund education entrepreneurs, not programs.
  • Use return-seeking vehicles/companies when appropriate.
  • Think about efficient use of philanthropy.

States should:

  • Contribute to access (device & broadband).
  • Create flexible policies that encourage different approaches (competency-based learning).
  • Level the playing field so the most successful organizations can serve more students.

For-profits should:

  • Get serious about and measure impact on student learning.
  • Determine whether B2B or B2C is the right approach; if selling to districts, think about how to get across the " valley of death."
  • If you are a point solution, think of ways to partner "stitch" yourself to other products/services to become more compelling to customers.
  • Look for grants/program related investments (PRI).

Districts should:

  • Stop buying truckload of iPads. Think student experience (e.g., school model, student roles and work, software) first.
  • Plan around tomorrow's use cases, not yesterday's.
  • Start thinking about engaging experiences.

Collectives (regions, districts, leagues, states) should:

  • Push vendors to use common data standards (e.g., Ed-Fi).
  • Start a conversation about aggregated demand.
  • Start using smart procurement to drive market.

Grant seekers should:

  • Do their homework: know funders/investors focus and risk profile.
  • Share their entrepreneurial story; the entrepreneur matters as much or more than the idea itself.
  • Get feedback on the best way to frame and discuss the idea.
  • Share their full ambition but be concise.

Edupreneurs should:

  • Find a way to work on a big opportunity (not just a tiny fix).
  • Leverage tech to create powerful experiences.
  • Be a smart consumer of programs that promise to support new edupreneurs. Lots of incubators, accelerators, and competitions popping up every day: quality varies a lot and they each offer a different set of supports and services.

Tomorrow we'll summarize some quick advice to 15 questions posed at the end of our discussion.

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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