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Education Opinion

EdTech Start-ups and the Curse of the Familar

By Justin Reich — November 20, 2013 2 min read

Let’s say you are starting an ed-tech start-up. You are young. You like to code. You have, as one undergraduate entreprenuer recently told me, “done the whole teaching thing.” You are hopeful that technology can transform education.

You would like to eat. You would like not to live in your parents’ house.

This need for entreprenuers to eat is an enormous drag on the education technology start-up ecosystem.

If you need to eat, you need to sell. If you need to sell, you need to be marketable. If you need to be marketable, you need to be familar. People need to recognize you in an instant. Watch half a second of a Khan Academy video, and you know you are watching a lecture. Glance at a Quizlet and you know you are looking at a flashcard.

To the extent that our education system is suffering because children are not memorizing facts fast enough, Quizlet and the other flashcard apps can fix those woes.

Here’s my question to the ed-tech start-up scene: if you are building things that are familiar, how are they going to substantially change education?

If our problems are mere inefficiencies--if we need students doing basically exactly what they’ve been doing before but faster--then the gambit of building apps that mirror typical classroom practices will work out great.

If you think that the problems in classrooms are not just about kids doing things a little faster, but doing different things than is current practice, then you need to build things that will be unfamiliar. If your technology is unfamiliar, you need to patiently build a network of educators experimenting with your ideas, reshaping systems--bells, exams, furniture, devices--to accomodate your new technology into a new vision. Initially, these people won’t buy your weirdness; you will practically have to pay them to implement your new ideas. During this period, you will not eat.

You, hungry entrepreneur, and your silly investor who wants his money back, do not have time for the unfamiliar. You are hungry. So you are going to take some familiar feature of classroom experience--the textbook, the flashcard, the lecture, the worksheet, the sticker, the behavior chart--and you will digitize that feature.

You or your PR will send me an email telling me that this thing that you have built, your Uber for chalkboards, your AirBnB for detention slips, is going to transform education. But you, trapped by your short time horizon, have built something that I know. If you are wildly successful, if you are the 1% of the 1%, you will pave some old cow path and students will travel those well-trod ways a little faster. Either way, I will delete your email.

Wrapped in a language of transformation and disruption, the ed-tech start-up scene is profoundly conservative.You have no time to dream up something new. You need to eat.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher 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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