‘EdTech’ is one of those words that make me squirm, even though I’ve spent 35 years running, advising, raising investments, blogging and speaking in this space. Sure it gives the veneer of high-tech, silicon-valley thinking, that attracts investment… but it’s the wrong word. It skews the market towards convoluted mosquito projects that quickly die. Let me explain why.
Ignores huge part of market
Technology or computer based learning long pre-dated the term EdTech. In fact the computer-based learning industry cut its teeth, not in ‘education’, but in corporate based training. This is where the big LMSs developed, where e-learning, scenario-based learning and simulation grew. The ‘Ed’ in ‘Ed-tech’ suggests that ‘education’ is where all the action and innovation sits – which is far from true.
The word EdTech also skews investment. Angels, VCs, incubators, accelerators and funds talk about EdTech in the sense of schools and Universities – yet these are two of the most difficult, and unpredictable, markets in learning. Schools are nationally defined through regulation, curricula and accreditation. They are difficult to sell to as they have relatively low budgets. Universities are as difficult, with a strong anti-corporate ethos and difficult selling environment. EdTech wrongly shifts the centre of gravity away from learning towards ‘schooling’.
I’m tired of seeing childish and, to be honest badly designed, ‘game apps’ in learning. It’s the first port of call for the people who are all ‘tech’ and no ‘ed’. It wouldn’t be so bad if they really were games' players or games' designers but most are outsiders who end up making poor games that no one plays. Or yet another ‘social’ platform falling for the old social constructivist argument that people only learn in social environments. EdTech in this sense is far from innovative; it’s innocuous, even inane. Innovation is only innovation if it is sustainable. EdTech has far too many unsustainable models – fads dressed up as learning tools and services.
Mosquitos not turtles
Let’s start with a distinction. First, there’s what I call MOSQUITO projects, that sound buzzy but lack leadership, real substance, scalability and sustainability. They’re short-lived, and often die as soon as the funding runs out or paper/report is published. These are your EU projects, many grant projects…. Then there’s TURTLES, sometimes duller but with substance, scalability and sustainability, and they’re long-lived. These are the businesses or services/tools that thrive.
Crossing that famous chasm from mosquito to turtle requires some characteristics that are often missing in seed investment and public sector funding in the education market. Too many projects fail to cross the chasm as they lack the four Ss.:
Senior management team
Sales and marketing
There are two dangers here. First, understimulating the market so that the mosquito projects fall into the gap as they fail to find customers and revenues. This is rarely to do with a lack of technical or coding skills but far more often a paucity of management, sales and marketing skills. There’s another danger and that’s bogging projects down in overlong academic research, where one must go at the glacial speed of the academic year and ponderous evaluation, and not the market. These projects lose momentum, focus and, in any case, no one pays much attention to the results. As the old saying goes, “When you want to move a graveyard, don’t expect much help from the occupants.”
Either way a serious problem is the lack of strategic thinking and a coherent set of sales and marketing actions. When people think of ‘scale’ they think of technical scale, but that goes without saying on the web, it’s a given. What projects need is market scale. What is your addressable market? This is why the ‘schools’ market is so awful. Where are the budgets? Who are the buyers? Who will you actually sell to? How big is the market? Do you realise that Scotland has a different curriculum? What market share do you expect? Who are your competitors? Answer these questions and you may very well decide to find a proper job.
Education is not necessarily where it’s all at in the learning market. Neither is that, now rather dated, culture of wokplaces with pool tables, dart boards in offices full of primary colours, that look more like playschool than tech startup. We spend only a fraction of our lives in school, less in college and most of it in work. The corporate training and apprenticeship markets have more headroom, offer more room for innovation and have sustainable budgets and revenues.