How ed ventures succeed

Many for-profit education entrepreneurs have crashed and burned, writes Julie Landry Petersen in Education Next. She looks at three innovators who’ve had an impact and stayed in business: Larry Berger (Wireless Generation), Jonathan Harber (SchoolNet) and Ron Packard (K12).

“The economics of education investing are changing,” writes Petersen. Ed tech companies raised $1.1 billion in venture funding in 2012, more than double the amount raised the prior year.

 

The pitfalls of personalization

Mass personalization is a big concept with a subtle sting. It involves gathering data on individuals and groups in order to tailor products and services to them. It surrounds them with stuff that supposedly reflects their likes and needs; it can be quite hard to get through this customized swarm.

For instance, Google Instant predicts your search strings as you type, stores your responses to its suggestions, and uses the data to improve its predictions. Facebook gathers information on what you and your friends “like” and then displays advertisements based on your “likes.” Amazon recommends books on the basis of your purchase patterns and the patterns of those who have purchased similar books. The general idea is to figure out what you’re likely to buy and then get you to buy it–that is, to make the probable actual.

In education, mass personalization is supposed to deliver individualized instruction for all. The hope is that all students will make progress if the instruction is matched to them. In its National Education Technology Plan, the U.S. Department of Education describes the ASSISTment system, used by more than 4,000 public schools in Worcester, Massachusetts. This system collects data on students’ performance and problem-solving behavior (such as their help-seeking patterns), and offers students personalized hints and tutoring.

Along similar lines, Wireless Generation sells software that, according to GothamSchools, allows teachers to record their observations of students with a mobile device. The software then sorts and analyzes the data. The New York City Department of Education plans to renew its contract with Wireless Generation; this will allow the company to sell its mobile devices and software to New York City schools.

Several existing Wireless Generation products may be involved. The mClass® assessment and analysis tools consist of mobile device and data-analyzing software. The mobile device gives the teacher a question to ask the student (in reading or mathematics). The device then records the student’s answer and enters it into a database. Having gathered data, the software generates reports and individualized learning plans. It makes suggestions for groupings of students, homework activities, and more.

There is something unsettling about this contract, beyond the possible conflict of interest (former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein is now executive vice president at News Corporation, which purchased Wireless Generation shortly after he accepted the position). [Read more...]