The peculiarities of education startups

My colleague Carlos forwarded an article today:

Most entrepreneurs in education build the wrong type of business, because entrepreneurs think of education as a quality problem. The average person thinks of it as a cost problem.

Building in education does not follow an Internet company’s growth curve. Do it because you want to fix problems in education for the next 20 years.

There are opportunities in education in servicing the poor in the US and building a company in Asia — not in selling to the middle class in the US.

The underlying culture will change and expose interesting opportunities in the long term, but probably not for another 5 years.

via Why Education Startups Do Not Succeed « Avichal’s Blog.

Read the whole article, because it’s fascinating. I have thought about education for a long time (mostly because I received a good one, by chance and good choice), and find the situation quite troubling in many ways. However, I agree with Avichal – it’s a mess, and it‘s not easy to solve. Here’s a brain dump of my thoughts about the topic – I would love to speak to some people in the market to understand it better.

The current status

Education is either paid for by the state (=no opportunities to make much revenue, other than by disruption, and disruption and govt are not in the same bed), and/or it’s tightly controlled by large corporates that bank on the status quo (private colleges).

Thus, it’s mostly a vitamins vs painkiller debate when talking about education things like learning apps, classroom organisation, etc. Due to the nature of top-down decisions in the classroom, the large corporates and their salesforce and lobbying are better positioned for quite a while.

In 2nd and 3rd world countries, it might be a different thing, but this is also where the devices aren’t yet available. thus, it’s much cheaper and easier to facilitate change with people instead of technology there. The educational system in the poorer countries is still stuck in the 60s/70s when it comes to teaching methods. Talk to anyone who does voluntary or even vocational teaching in poor countries, and it’s all full frontal teaching with students writing and listening. They have neither money, education, nor infrastructure to allow for new methods of teaching.

Seeing the education in the EU, it is very slowly breaking up to be more interactive and integrative, catering to individuals. This comes from both a very well funded education system (in reality, lots of money and leave no child behind type teaching) and our acceptance of new technology (and our own daily use). This will both take very long to come to the poorer markets, and necessitate solutions that are yet to be developed.

What makes me hopeful

is that most teachers (and builders, and professors, and politicians, and loads of other professions) are led and populated by baby boomer aged folks. Think about it – almost all of these professions are people in similar ages, and the following generation wasn’t one of the strongest in terms of development. The baby boomers got kids early, worked hard, studied a lot – their kids smoked pot, went to woodstock, studied until their 30s, and are now in safe positions where they want everything but change (nice over-generalization, right?).

This leads to a new generation of very powerfully motivated people in our age group, wanting change. Look at us as an example – we’re leading the way in our field, simply overtaking a lot of people who are older than us, and stuck in old ways of thinking and working. In the educational sector, this is even stronger so, as teaching hasn‘t changed in a long time. There weren’t many teaching positions open in the 80s and 90s, but now a whole generation (the boomers) need to be replaced in about the next 10 years. I talked about this to one of my older teachers last week – almost all of the teaching body at my high school has actually changed in the last 8 years.

Long story short

that’s when new methods of teaching, bottom-up adoption of tools, and a much more cost effective, democratized version of education is possible. We have the tools, infrastructure, and knowledge to benefit from the possibilities. We also still have the large budgets, which is why the new education market can take off economically.

The poorer countries don’t have any of the prerequisites, which is why they need radically different solutions, NOW. Without knowing these markets, it’s terribly difficult to build the necessary tools. Avichal makes a great point in his blog post, especially about the Asian markets – but you need to know these to play a part.

Because of the long term nature of the problem and its solutions, I am similarly sceptical about the market and especially investment opportunities without a really long term horizon.

TL;DR: There are a lot of structural problems to overcome or play along – it’s difficult, but exciting.