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Remaking education in the image of our desires

The current generation of students will witness the remaking of our education system. Change is happening on many fronts: economic, technological, paradigmatic, social, and the natural cycles of change that occur in complex social/technical systems.


People have attempted to define change principles: Christensen’s disruptive innovation, Schumpeter’s creative destruction, Kuhn’s revolution structures, Paul A. David’s model of long systemic change, and (my personal favorite) Carlota Perez’ techno-economic revolutions. Each of these are a different lens for viewing big, dramatic, change.

Education faces enormous pressure. Almost unanimously, teachers, parents, students, politicians, and random people who like having opinions, are declaring education broken. This “it’s broken” declaration is directed at primary, secondary, higher education, and even corporate training. In higher education, the language of change is usually framed in economic and knowledge terms (i.e. world class universities and the strong role of universities in economic development). K-12 reform is structured as a call for change in a changed world: learners need less memorization and more creativity. TNW details how numerous companies are revolutionizing education. Mark Oehlert looks at how the education ecosystem is being commodified

The internet has already transformed music, news, entertainment, and business. Education is trailing those sectors, but not for long. Online learning has grown consistently over the last decade (see Sloan-C image below). Judging from current hype and interest, blended/online learning is about to explode.

We’re not talking routine change here

This isn’t small micro-change. It’s not about adding a new technology into a classroom. It’s much, much bigger. It is part of the big shift: new rules, global market, capital shifts, emerging markets, new economies, and dying economies.

In education, there are many points of innovation in response to global trends: open education resources, internationalization, joint partnerships with universities in developing economies, adoption of new technology, and new pedagogical models.

One of the most significant points of innovation in education is in the increase in startups, venture capital, and general corporate interest in filling gaps or correcting inefficiencies.

Enter ASU Skysong and Education Innovation Summit

Over the past few days, I spent time in a hub of corporate-driven educational change: The ASU Skysong Education Innovation Summit. The summit was sold out at 800 participants, but conference leaders say that they could have doubled attendance. It is a three year old summit, and experienced almost 50% increase in sponsors and attendees from last year.

Let me explain why I was there.

Most universities have under-used research and IP. When 2008 decimated the university equity model, many systems turned to international students and increased tuition to address shortfalls. These systems have, for decades, tried to make money off of commercialization. Very few systems, however, are successful and monetizing their research. A few universities do very well. Most go through the motions but generate limited economic value.

Athabasca University is one of four research universities in Alberta (the others being U of Calgary, U of Alberta, and U of Lethbridge). About 1 1/2 years ago, we started looking at options to increase the impact of our research. As an online university, AU has developed significant expertise in distributed learning and interaction. Many of AU researchers have developed tools and techniques that have strong market potential. Instead of licensing that technology, AU has started to experiment with startups models: partnering with companies in bringing innovations to market. This keeps the researcher in the loop (closer to the development of her innovations – i.e. the opposite of the licensing model) and generates opportunities for local startups. Other universities have adopted similar startup and accelerator models. It’s too early to speak of long term impact, but the “knowledge to market” model is being heavily promoted in most countries.

Everybody loves startups. Just this week the government of Canada announced that it would fast track immigration for entrepreneurs. Startups represent innovation and passion.

ASU Skysong is one of the best models I’ve encountered for innovation in education through startups. And that’s why I ended up at the Education Innovation Summit.

In higher education, particularly with academics, there is limited talk of capital or efficient use of capital. Money is a conversation reserved for grant applications or for senior admin.

Not at this summit.

Capital was the arbiter of most conversations and the metric for determining the worth of an idea. From my very informal scan of badges, I’d say 30+% of attendees represented venture capital. People were here to identify opportunities for investment and to generate value for their shareholders or to draw the attention of those who had capital. It reminded me of a Milken Institute conference I attended several years ago (on a panel with Will Richardson and a few others). The best way for me to kill a conversation was to say “I work in a university”. That would pretty much end things. The correct answer, apparently, was something like “I work for [foundation, bank, VC] and I want to allocate funds to this market”.

A list of companies represented at EI Summit, and investment that they have attracted, exceeds the GDP of many countries: GSV Advisors Company List. Some had hundreds of millions in funding and thousands of employees. One person described this as the “exuberance conference”. Pretty accurate. The energy and enthusiasm was fairly intense. These people remake education. And they will do it on the principles of competition and markets.

Your ideas are starting to scare me

I missed the pre-conference dinner and Michael Milken’s talk. I’ve heard Milken speaker before, and he generally delivers a data-supported and market-oriented view of, well, anything. From the references to Milken’s presentation during the conference, it was clear that he applied that market-oriented lens to education.

The conference officially opened with a talk from ASU president Michael Crow about massive change in education (slides). Michael Moe followed Crow’s presentation with an overview of the EI Summit and an analysis of change in society and education. The slides for his presentation are available here.

The presentations and panels that followed the opening keynote ranged from interesting to quite disconcerting. On the interesting front, I find that I have more in common, in spirit at least, with startups than I do with many folks in higher education. I’m impatient. I’d like to see universities change. I’d like to see innovation. I did, however, find that in several conversations at Skysong, the VCs were pit pulls and education was a t-bone steak.

Jeb Bush started his suggestions by stating we face war-like conditions in education. I’m not sure what he meant by that or if it was more an opening joke. Getting Smart captures the focus of his presentation. It’s hard to disagree with goals of raising expectations and make better use of technology. The points about accountability and rewarding good teachers appear innocuous enough. The real problem arises when the focus turns to “accountability to what” and “who defines a good teacher”. If a good teacher is one that prepares learners to succeed on standardized tests, then we’re in trouble. I encountered this odd conflict numerous times in the conference: on the one hand, the need for innovative and creative learners is promoted…but on the other hand, the metrics of reward in the system promote normalization. This isn’t a small contradiction – it’s a foundational flaw in the vision being promoted by advocates for policy change.

As with any complex problem, the issue isn’t confined to one side. Stories like this – teachers union close to banning online courses – indicate the difficulty of systemic change. Change is threatening.

I also attended a “billion dollar” panel – companies that had generated revenues of over $1 billion dollars in education. As the moderator noted, it’s an exclusive club. It is one that I expect will explode in the next decade.

The final keynote of the conference, Reed Hastings, was excellent. He recognized that the role of innovation in education needs to centre on students and teachers. This was a departure from many of the panels where innovation and change were the general target.

Language games were evident at the summit. Instead of “for-profit”, “private education” was used. Instead of “charter schools”, “choice schools” was used. The language drew heavily on terms with positive connotations: democracy, markets, freedom, choice, and innovation.

Entrepreneurship is a good thing in education

I was about 20 years old when I bought (into) my first business. It was a restaurant. With limited capital, I arranged to work with a local business to take over about 17% ownership of the company. He contributed funds, I contributed insane hours trying to make the business successful. After several years of mediocre results, I decided to grow into profit. I opened numerous restaurants (some with my brother) over a three year period. I learned more about myself and human nature than I have any time since. People buy into ideals and beliefs, often only to synchronize with people around them. Most of my employees had no interest in owning a business or being self-employed. I tried on a few occasions to bring a few talented people into management or ownership. With several hundred staff, over almost ten years, I found only one person who shared my interest in running his own company. He eventually joined as a partner and has since gone on to do very well for himself, still in the hospitality industry.

I have colleagues and friends in education who have a disdainful view of business. I don’t.

I’m quite hopeful that startups will change education.

Entrepreneurs are risk-takers. I spent a solid decade running eight different restaurants. I didn’t get rich. I had more worries and I lost more sleep than my employees. They were satisfied to go home at the end of a shift and get on with what was important to them. I dind’t have that luxury – and that was my choice.

I’ve been in higher education since the late 1990′s. I love what I do. I love the freedom of academia – the time to think deeply, to explore ideas and concepts that most people don’t have the time to explore. I still see myself as an entreprenuer and it is a path that I frequently consider exploring.

I mention this because I don’t what these comments to be seen as a rant against entrepreneurship in education. Many parts of the education system are in horrible shape. The system itself is not adaptive or flexible. It is not responsive to change. Many parts of the world have more favorable views of private/for-profit education than what is found in US, Canada, and Europe. India, for example, has a very favorable view of for-profits. The official state response is “the gov’t doesn’t allow for-profit” but the message is clear: Education in India is open for business. Similar positive views of corporate activity in education exist in Brazil, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Random advice

For startups:

Create your startup around a compelling social or educational challenge. Companies such as Presence Learning address a real problem that goes beyond making money.

Include educators in your thinking. Many (most?) of the startups I saw at the Summit were not grounded in education – they were trying to innovate in a space where they didn’t have expertise.

Education is a complex landscape, fusing social, research, and knowledge domains. Change produces unintended ripples. When you mess up in business, you might destroy some shareholder wealth. When you mess up in education, you are striking at the foundation of society. Errors can ripple decades into the future. Entrepreneurs in education require a broad, society-conscious, vision of their activities. More than any other sector, corporate activity in education must focus on more than a financial bottom line.

For educators:

The future is arriving rapidly. I was shocked at how unaware I was about the scope of startup and corporate activity in education. The EI Summit was an eye opener. I’ve long been aware of startups and even launched a (failed) site to track entrepreneurial activity in education. I was not prepared for the developed and well-connected the idea-capital-policy networks that I saw at the summit.

I really only have one point of advice for educators: become informed about the startup and the corporate activity in education. The language of innovation at the summit was firmly rooted in capital. I’ve already stated that I find much appealing about entrepreneurship (i.e. startup, not large corporations). But even then, the money-focus of innovation was jarring. Students were rarely mentioned (some of the startups on the showdown did a good job of this, however). Teachers and educators were most often referred to negatively. This myopic focus on capital and innovation is disconcerting.

Much of the reform rhetoric, especially in the US, is focused on the K-12 sector (for a glimpse of the angst in K-12 education, have a look at this Harvard Business Review article on Rethinking Schools)

Coursera’s $16 million VC fundraising is interesting. So is the Minerva project. Regardless of how educators feel about commercialization of education, it is critical that they are aware of the trends.

Where does this leave us?

There are a few integrated players in the market, notably Pearson. Blackboard is attempting a similar play, but serving the existing education market requires a slower pace of innovation than what is noticeable in companies that operate outside of the education system.

One panelist emphasized that the 2008 economic meltdown has been good for educational reform. Public funding of higher education has been reduced in many countries (this CSHE report presents the global trends). UK has seen the most dramatic changes, but many states (especially California) have reduced funding for education. In Canada, public support for universities generally shows a long, slow decline.

Blackboard and Kaplan are early innovators in this space. One keynote panel stated that the majority of people in attendance were ex-employees of these companies. I would love to see a network analysis of board member, financing, and startup connections. The legacy of Bb and Kaplan may be the development of a new class of “edupreneurs” who are well connected to capital and advisors.

What is happening in education?

The education marketplace is being remade in a lego-block style model. Startups are targeting different aspects of education and a few large corporations (such as Pearson) are buying these lego pieces to build at new model of education. The major sectors are listed below. The list isn’t exhaustive, but it does provide an overview of corporate activity in education. Some companies (Pearson) play in most of the sectors. Others, like Blackboard, are attempting to transition from platform to services. Organizations that focus on learner and learner support are missing. This sector is still under-developed.

Sector What
do they do
Content Traditional publishers, OERs, to
entire online programs. These companies serve are becoming
“outsourcing” providers. Universities who are new to online/blended
learning are forming partnerships with content vendors.
Pearson, McGraw-Hill, MOOCs (Coursera), 2Tor
Platforms Platforms are systems that
universities can use to develop their own teaching and learning models.
Blackboard, Desire2Learn,
Teaching/learning In addition to recorded lectures from university faculty, startups offer open tutorials for mastering “nugget-sized” learning needs. Khan Academy, Coursera
Consulting & Services Traditional consulting firms are
active in higher education. Newer models include “solutions” for higher
education by focused consulting/startup firms.
Investment The investment sector interest
in education is growing. Traditional VC’s occupy the space, but smaller
firms have started to target the education sector.
, Signal Hill, Weld North
Accreditation Alternative modes of accreditation have been around for a while, but the growth of badges and other means of indicating learner competence has placed accreditation in the spot light. Smarterer
Testing/assessment At the most basic, these
companies help learners prepare for tests/admissions. Some are also
starting to offer assessment services within existing universities
Kaplan, Grockit
Data & analytics Data and analytics – rather straight forward, but basically this sector is bringing business intelligence into all aspects of education: teaching, learning, research, and administration.  Knewton, Dreambox, Ellucian
Integrated solutions Integrated solutions are getting
close to actually being universities. Pearson has content, platform,
and virtual lab arrangements with ASU.  It doesn’t seem like much
of a reach to become their own university. Other

I’ve tagged a few related EI Summit related resources on Diigo.

Wrapping up

The EI Summit is one that I will attend again.

The ideas being discussed at the summit, and the people involved, will influence education. There were enough connections between energy, ideas, money at the summit to make a big dent in K-12 and higher education. Whether this dent is a positive for society and learners is unclear at this stage (it certainly seems positive for VC’s and investors).


I’m unsettled.

The concepts that I use to orient myself and validate my actions were non-existent on summit panels: research, learner-focus, teacher skills, social pedagogy, learner-autonomy, creativity, integration of social and technical system, and complexity and network theory. Summit attendees are building something that will impact education. I’m worried that this something may be damaging to learners and society while rewarding for investors and entrepreneurs.

Pedagogy, policy, profits

Educators are attempting to remake education according to their pedagogical vision. Politicians are driving their vision through policy. Corporations are driving their vision through profits.

The conference was mono-voiced. During the cocktail reception, someone asked me what I thought of the summit so far. I replied “very interesting, some great ideas, but there was a lot of crap that I need to call out and bitch about”. He seemed offended that I could think anything other than puppies, unicorns, meadows, rainbows, and sunshine about such a wonderful event.

On reflection, that exchange sums up much of my unease with the summit.

In a knowledge economy, we play with ideas constantly. We don’t really know which ones are bad or just suck. We play, experiment and debate. I didn’t see enough of that at EI Summit. I saw strong agreement in the vision forward. People on panels would say really odd things (i.e. “get rid of more teachers and spend it on technology”). The problem with idiotic ideas is that they become foundational in a conversation if they are not interrogated when they arise.

I get worried when everyone agrees on, well, anything.


  1. As a K-12 teacher I find much of what you report unsettling. Educators need to be involved with the business of innovation in education. I can’t imagine why a teacher’s opinion or voice would not be considered in this area. Unless businesses feels that we really know nothing about learning.

    Thursday, April 19, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Richard Hall wrote:

    Thanks for this insight/description George. It connects to, among others, Stephen Ball’s work on Global Education Inc., and the neoliberal networks/discourses that are *actually* reframing education globally.

    What is to be done?

    In solidarity.

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 1:02 am | Permalink
  3. Martin wrote:

    Nice post George, I like that you wrestle with the issues. I don’t want to sound like a reactionary, but I’m developing a bit of a tic over the ‘education is broken’ argument. When someone tells you X is broken, it’s because the next sentence is how they have the solution to fix it. This is not to say there aren’t problems in education, as you point out. But education is a complex, messy domain, so there are no simple solutions. In that sense education has _always_ been broken because it can’t always get it right. But it doesn’t do a bad job, so maybe we should focus on improving it rather than the continual proclamations of imminent revolution (not accusing you of this, but sounds like it was a dominant theme at the conference). It’s not as sexy as saying ‘it’s broken, we are the new gods’, but it may be more effective.

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 1:28 am | Permalink
  4. Wally Boston wrote:

    Nice post, George, and one that I intend to tweet. I agree that there were fewer educators there than there needed to be. Am guessing that you missed the panel that Phil Regier of ASU moderated when we had a healthy discussion about the transfer credit issue, which causes wasted time, energy, and money for students. There were also a few presenting companies that discussed their initiatives for assisting with student retention (Starfish, MyEdu – last year Inside Track presented). Key question – if educators were invited next year, who should be on the list of invitees?

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 4:29 am | Permalink
  5. Andrew wrote:

    I share many of your wrestlings. I took a lot of philosophy in undergrad and I keep going back to Heidegger’s critique of the way technology and “scientific” worldviews (liberal economic theory being the mode-du-jour) are self-concealing and doubly dangerous in the power they confer to disguise the underlying existential truth of a matter.

    In reading Christenson’s Disrupting Class, I couldn’t help but be struck by the reductionist impulses of those trained in the social sciences. I’m a former physics teacher of ten years, so I’m a big fan of the exercise of rigorous modeling, but I’m also acutely aware of the need to perpetually re-examine the assumptions underpinning a model.

    I have come to believe that the business school grads and technologists who are crusading into education are fundamentally over-reaching their existential grasp of the phenomenon they are trying to reform.

    Learning is not something that be “delivered” or “downloaded.”

    Curriculum is not code.

    Freedom of choice on a market is not sufficient to condition learning.

    Personalization is not the fundamental value proposition of education.

    Relationships and communities of meaning-making are precursors to all economic value, and even more so to the human desire to learn.

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink
  6. Ray wrote:

    Why do you choose to mention Coursera in the same short paragraph where you mention commercialization and Minerva??? An insult to Coursera in my opinion who are using the money help many universities delivery great courses!

    “Blackboard and Kaplan are early innovators in this space.” I’m sorry but Blackboard has never been an innovator.

    …. and you forgot to mention Udacity (Sebastian Thrun) and Moodle in the examples!

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink
  7. I’ve been keeping an eye on this for a while, but it’s probably easier to do in Seattle, where many of the startups are incubating. We’ve got local Meetup groups, and the UW MCDM program is currently running a Hacking Education event. I attended a session at ITSC in Portland a few months ago where Julia Fallon and John Pederson helped us divide into groups by our “expertise” level with particular technologies. They asked where we see ourselves next on the continuum. I told the group I’d been keeping an eye on the startup space. Awkward silence.

    Watching it is exhausting. I’ve got over 400 companies/people on my startup list on Twitter, and there are daily announcements about funding. I’m grateful to people like Audrey Waters, who are digging deeper and reporting.

    I’m with you. It’s interesting. When I find myself resisting, I instantly compare myself to the resistant faculty I work with today. I can’t responsibly take that position. It’s my professional responsibility to know this stuff and to prepare.

    I’m currently in the middle of an LMS search, so I know more about the LMS companies than some (NDA stuff) and am also deeply into planning an implementation. There are a few critical things that have come to my awareness lately. The new startups are not designed for enterprise IT implementation. They are either developing products that will start with adoption by teachers and students, or massive service operations designed to quickly create new business entities for organizations that just can’t do it internally.

    These are great steps! Selling enterprise to IT takes a huge investment up front. The procurement process can take years, and the barriers to adoption are enormous. Slipping products teachers and students can quickly get for free at an app store, bypasses a big headache. Most teachers haven’t been thoroughly advised of all the legal issues involved with adopting technology that way. And IT is unprepared to enforce policy.

    My university is one that has been slow to adopt online technologies. We have no fully online courses. But, we have entire departments who want to have programs online as soon as possible. With only a few instructional designers, and a looming LMS implementation, it’s very attractive to administrators to consider partnering with a company who will invest in quickly developing online programs, including all the technical, program, student support, and recruiting, in a revenue-share model. And the way these companies work, they are able to pick the best of the best schools. It’s actually hard to get accepted.

    The other big thing I’m looking at is the startup model. For anyone who’s interested, do a search for startup exit plans. Or do some reading about Lean startups. These companies are designed for an exit. Those who get the most funding, have the best exit plans, so investors get a quick turnaround. For my role, this means I am also developing exit plans. I’m going to be working with faculty on more ‘Portable Instructional Design.’ This means getting them to reconsider a lot of their assessment, especially quizzes and tests. I want them to take ownership of their content and become platform agnostic. I want to reduce transition anxiety before it happens. Fortunately, Blackboard has paved the way for this strategy in a lot of schools. I don’t need to fully educate faculty on the emerging technology to get them to see this point. They’re already concerned about switching technology every few years due to mergers and acquisitions.

    Apologies for the long comment, George! I’m grateful for your openness about your experiences and look forward to hearing more of your thoughts as you explore this new territory.


    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink
  8. gsiemens wrote:

    @Patrick – I found parts unsettling and parts encouraging. The problem with change is that it doesn’t only happen to others – it happens to us too :) .

    @Richard – in terms of what is to be done…I haven’t a clue yet. I’m still trying to orient myself to the many change pressures and get a sense of what is hype and what is an actual trend.

    @Martin – great point. We do need an “anti-it’s broken movement”. There is much in the education system that needs to be preserved. Many – including entrepreneurs and educators – are change-drunk. Nuanced dialogue quickly gives way to radical assertions presented in seductive hype. We should be able to do better!

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink
  9. gsiemens wrote:

    @Wally – I don’t know of any educator in particular that should be at the next EI Summit. At this stage, I’d be pleased just to see broader representation from the education community (i.e. by educators attending the conference and by startups looking to interact with educators).

    (yes, I missed the Regier panel…i’m hoping they will post recordings online so I can see the parallel sessions that I missed).

    btw – great to meet you (again) at the summit!

    @Ray – I missed many, many examples. I simply wanted to give a taste of the companies that fit certain spaces. I could add dozens (hundreds) of companies to that table!

    In terms of blackboard not innovating, my point was to Bb as innovating the corporate model in education (not nec. innovating in the LMS market)

    In terms of Coursera: it’s a great initiative, but it is not humanitarian. it is about brand creation/protection.

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink
  10. gsiemens wrote:

    @Andrew – great point about the reductionist tendencies of “disruption models”. Love this point: “I’m a big fan of the exercise of rigorous modeling, but I’m also acutely aware of the need to perpetually re-examine the assumptions underpinning a model.”

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 8:22 am | Permalink
  11. gsiemens wrote:

    @Jen – many thanks for your comments!

    You’re right – it’s very challenging to stay on top of the corporate activity in education. I set up a site last year – futurelearn – that died quickly. The goal at the time was to get a handle on entrepreneurial activity in education. The task proved to be far to large to do as a side project.

    I’ve encountered the awkward silence that you mention as well! I’ve received a fair bit of criticism for my favorable view of the role of entrepreneurs in education. We currently see them as dichotomous…

    re: the startup exit model – that only works when there are big companies willing to pick up startups! We have Pearson, but that’s about it. Startups need an educational version Google/Facebook/Microsoft, etc, who are willing to overpay to protect their turf. Entrepreneurs may not want that model, but VC’s and investors do. I’d love to see a network analysis of VC’s/boards/startup investors in education. Big ideas don’t make as much money as well-connected boards :)

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink
  12. One of the most ingenious things Jeb’s brother did was set up a K-12 system where any school that did not have 100% of its students reach proficiency in math and reading by 2014 was labelled “failing”. Now we have this shocking news lately — more than 70% of our schools are failing! Even though even by the horrible standard tests they take they are doing better than they were ten years ago. Genius!

    It’s the Shock Doctrine approach to corporate takeover. If you can convince people it’s a crisis you can force change without accountability. Something had to be done!

    I think we need to make sure we stay focussed on a rhetoric of opportunity instead of a rhetoric of crisis. The system is as good as it ever was for the most part, but we have new opportunities to expand access and increase impact made possible by technology and recent insights into cognition.

    The rhetoric of opportunity is better than the rhetoric of crisis for a number of reasons. In a rhetoric of opportunity, things which are improvements move forward, things which are not do not. A rhetoric of opportunity doesn’t denigrate the people who are doing wonderful things now, and it doesn’t pretend that what we have now is any worse than what we grew up with.

    Most of all, a rhetoric of opportunity forces comparison with real world alternatives, because it admits that it while it is quite possible to do better, it is at least as possible to do worse. There is no “Well anything is better than this” cop-out, and that forces sincere analysis.

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  13. dkernohan wrote:

    I’ve sent this post to so many people but I’ve not said thank you for it yet. So: thank you! This post is all the more powerful for it’s calm, measured delivery. It’d be easy to get angry, but you’re leading the way to a response based on reason and compassion. Kudos.

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  14. Lisa M Lane wrote:

    The pattern has been repeated many times where a system is suddenly viewed as not serving society’s needs (the 16th century Roman Church comes to mind; so does British imperialism and the contemporary US health care system). But what may actually be occurring is that the system isn’t serving the needs of the people paying for it, rather than the whole society it was designed to serve. If voters and tax-payers can be convinced that the money they pay for education is being poorly spent, then corporate money can be successfully offered in its place to save the situation.

    Whenever a society goes through an anti-intellectual phase, it attacks schools of some kind (seminaries, colleges, elementary schools). Usually they are attacked for not producing enough of certain types of people (ie US universities after Sputnik wanting more science majors) or too many of other types (medieval clerics), or for being either too elitist (only rich people get in) or too inclusive (too many PhDs), or (as now) for producing “poorly performing” students. All of these viewpoints consider the education system like a factory, producing a product that society wants. So it shouldn’t be surprising that teachers and students are not the focus here – they are the obstacles to creating the quality product. Besides, after over a century of public education, surely they had their chance.

    If corporations can promise a better product (which is, of course, what they do best), people will buy it in hopes of realizing their view of what society should be. So yes, we should be extremely concerned if corporate goals determine the vocabulary, intensity and focus of the conversation about education. It suggests that citizens wish to abbrogate responsibility for discussing and reviewing education’s role in the culture as a whole, a conversation that should be taking place among educators, politicians, and ordinary people (almost all of whom have been to school at one time or another). But when the conversation focuses on test scores, “student success” (currently the buzz phrase at my institution), and the valued role of corporations in developing packages and “solutions” (entreprenuerial or traditional), we know we are moving further from the discussion that needs to be happening. This is why it is so dangerous, why subjects like creativity and complexity are sidelined or buried, despite all the evidence that they should be the heart of the discussion.

    Education doesn’t need entrepreneurs and corporations, products or services — it needs a citizenry willing to engage in creating a more suitable vision of its role. Leave it to the corporations and we will get, quite rightly, what we have paid for.

    Friday, April 20, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Permalink
  15. George, I’d just like to agree with David that I really appreciate the tone of the post as well. I like some of the personal story in it, the interest and curiosity you show throughout and particularly that you don’t ramp up your mild shock into false outrage.

    It’s really clear to me that business has a place at the table here, and that startups are going to drive much of the innovation that is to happen in the next ten years. If we want to shape that change, we must continue to engage with that culture. I love that throughout your reaction there is never a moment where you consider disengaging from this side of things. We’re all the better for that, I know it’s hard, so thank you.

    Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink
  16. @mike – I’m not aware of the political structure for school reform in the US. Charter (or, in the language of the EI Summit) “choice” schools are not as prominent in Canada.

    Great points re: rhetoric of opportunity. The language of crisis seems to be at the root of most reforms – whether it’s about policy, profits, or pedagogy.

    @dekornohan & @mike – thanks for the kind words!

    Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  17. @Lisa – terrific statement “Whenever a society goes through an anti-intellectual phase, it attacks schools of some kind (seminaries, colleges, elementary schools).” This history alone should cause educators to consider ways that they can best be active in the full breadth of the reform movement.

    “Education doesn’t need entrepreneurs and corporations, products or services — it needs a citizenry willing to engage in creating a more suitable vision of its role.”
    I agree that education needs an engaged citizenry. But people have been making money in education (sophists) for thousands of years. Personally, I’m not opposed to entrepreneurship to help advance education. I get worried when it starts to define education.

    Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  18. Tom wrote:

    If we can’t preserve public education during this transformational period in techno-sociological change, then we will have failed the next generation- public education that is free, equal and accessible.

    Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink
  19. Cameron wrote:

    I’m torn. I think the technology has great potential to improve learning and teaching, but increasingly what I’m seeing is academics and administrators looking to outsource elements of their teaching to commercial enterprises.

    And let’s face it why not? There’s “no promotion in pedagogy”. Higher education is on based world’s best practice research and mediocre (incidental?) teaching. In the short to medium term we may see an increase in time for research and an incremental improvement in some teaching areas.

    But until students start prioritising teaching quality over university brand names I can’t see anything much changing.

    It may be that the unthinking and naive jump to outsourced teaching will trigger the disruption.

    Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  20. David wrote:

    Each of us is taking one small approach to education and giving it a 10-year-effort; much like academics focus on a field of study for a few decades. One academic does not make a university any more than one startup can change the future of education. My father has been a professor at a state-related university for almost three decades; he has devoted his life to higher education — but that does not mean that his single contributions constitute an entire academic institution — nor would he ever claim that he single-handedly has “changed education” or even changed his university. But individually, we as entrepreneurs, just as the teachers and academics who so faithfully instructed us over the years; we will give it our best effort with the hope that collectively we can make a dent in the universe.

    Monday, April 23, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Permalink
  21. Bill Seitz wrote:

    I suspect the big players in the space are counting on “enterprise sales” (e.g. sell to schools/governments) as their business model, and have the funding to support a long and expensive sales growth process. So they’re not going to challenge that level of the game. They’ll “disrupt” some other piece of the market, but “sustain” the sugar daddy.

    Personally, I think schools are “fighting the last war”, and we need much more variation in what schools try to accomplish and how they do so. So I *do* think we need a “product” mentality, but the buyers need to be the parents and students. We need a chaotic market approach to let people find the best school *for them*. We let grown-ups buy houses and cars and guns, I think letting them pick schools for their kids isn’t an unreasonable model.

    Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at 5:12 am | Permalink
  22. Another thoughtful post, thanks George.

    Something I need to keep reminding myself when discussing the overlap of business and education is that we’re talking about moving targets. At the same time education is transforming to be more student-centered, business is also transforming (slowly) to be more human-centered.

    Yes, many businesses still exploit markets with offerings that provide more profit than value but we shouldn’t be surprised. Business people, like most people, still really care only for themselves and their families. But people are constantly growing in their ability to care about the world.

    People and the businesses they operate are now beginning to take more collaborative, world-centric and, by extension, long term views of what’s good for the world and business. Very hopeful initiatives like Creating Shared Value and Systemic Innovation are creeping into business discussions.

    So let’s seek out, celebrate and do business with people nurturing such enlightened business models, and try not get stuck on the static view of how some companies do business today.

    Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  23. Very very interesting post George. You’ve been much more eloquent in making explicit the unease that I also felt when encoutering VCs in the education space for the first time (at SxSW this year:

    Thank you!

    Friday, April 27, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink
  24. Laurence Lachapelle wrote:

    Thank you George for expressing some of the worries I had about the gap between business people and educators. As an instructional designer working in the public higher education sector, I see that the disconnect you describe between educators and entrepreneurs is real, and that it goes both ways. While not many start-ups have learning specialists in their team, few educational institutions hire professionals to help in projects involving educational technology. I would love to do that kind of consulting one day, but I fear that the gap is still too deep right now to try it out.
    I am happy to see suggestions of interesting initiatives in your post and in the related comments ; it gives me hope!

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink
  25. It is interesting how you put the story into a thought provoking perspective. Especially, when placing the U.S. on the scoreboard comparing to the rest of the world in the Harvard Business Review. What is it that raised China to the top? I wonder if their attitude toward education is entreprenueral.

    Thursday, May 17, 2012 at 5:25 am | Permalink
  26. Robin Heyden wrote:

    Thank you, George, for this extremely thoughtful post. Very helpful insights into the thinking of VCs and the business of education. Lots to be worried about here. I appreciate Chris Whitside’s comment that businesses are made up of people, taking care of their families, who mostly (as individuals)are attempting to do good work that has a positive impact but there is danger in corporate scaling for change in “education markets”. A lack of understanding of the complexity? Tamping down disagreement or minority opinons? Lack of concern for the learner? Thanks for bringing the ASU Skysong summit to us.

    Saturday, May 19, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink
  27. Bassa DesCollines wrote:

    I found a wealth of information in your post. Thank you first for your analytic view on that summit. I am particularly concerned about two issues that you raised. First, how do you define good teachers in the midst of this change fever? How important are standardized tests in assessing how good a teacher is? Can we really talk about change in education without giving the tools to the teachers to affect that change? To me, if we agree that education starts at the bottom with students and teachers as the two main agents, then any change needs to focus on them.
    The next concern that I have relates to increasing educational costs (college tuition & fees). The combined effects of the economic downturn and the decline of state and federal funds to colleges and universities have contributed to huge increases in college tuition, and they don’t seem to stop. How then do we, as a nation make higher learning affordable in such condition? In essence, are we saying that will be educated those who can pay (or repay)?

    Saturday, May 19, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink