In the nonprofit preschools to be operated by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ new Day 1 Academies Fund, he says, “the child will be the customer.”
Does that stance reflect a market-driven approach to improving early-childhood education? A business play to turn preschoolers into loyal Amazon Prime members? A signal that parents of young children should get ready for the personalized, algorithm-driven recommendation engines upon which Amazon’s retail empire was built?
Absent any further detail from Bezos and Amazon, the answer for now is that it depends who you ask.
Rhian Allvin, the CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, was among those with a relatively benign view of Bezos’ intentions.
“I interpret it as being a ‘child centered philosophy,’ which is really important,” Allvin said. “Each child develops and learns differently.”
A Tech Titan’s K-12 Footprint
That’s not inconsistent with the current trend in Silicon Valley, where tech entrepreneurs ranging from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to small startup founders are trying to blend a focus on the “whole child” with data-driven personalization.
“Bezos didn’t say ‘personalized learning,’ but I think that’s what he means,” said independent ed-tech researcher Audrey Watters, who maintains the popular ‘Hack Education’ blog. “Look at Amazon’s interface, which is constantly monitoring you and collecting data to make better product recommendations.”
If that’s the case, Watters said, Bezos should proceed with caution. Parents won’t easily accept the kind of “pervasive surveillance” that Amazon uses with consumers being applied to their preschoolers, she said.
Are there insights to be gleaned from Amazon’s existing forays into education?
At the K-12 level, not so much, said Trace Urdan, the K-12 analyst from Tyton Partners. The company’s most successful plays there have been on the back end of schools’ operations, providing cloud storage through Amazon Web Services and seeking to help streamline bulk purchasing of supplies. EdWeek Market Brief, a business intelligence service produced by the publisher of Education Week, explored Amazon’s growing footprint in the K-12 space, and the clout that it and other tech giants Apple, Google, and Microsoft wield in the school market, in a special report last year.
Amazon’s approach to higher education could be more relevant. By trying to make textbook buying as easy and inexpensive as possible, Urdan said, Amazon is hoping to gain the loyalty of a key demographic at a critical point in their consumer lives.
But even that example, he said, is probably illustrative mostly as a window into how Bezos’ mind works.
“I think it’s unfair to suggest he wants to secretly groom future Amazon customers at age 4, even though that’s exactly how Amazon is thinking about college students,” Urdan said."When I think about the Amazon approach, I think about serving up a giant range of options, and delivering them in the most frictionless way possible.”
Does that mean the Day 1 Academies Fund’s focus will be on giving parents more easily accessible preschool choices?
“It seems Bezos is probably thinking about innovation, and he’s going to draw on his experience at Amazon,” Urdan said. “Beyond that, it’s all supposition.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as What’s Motivating Amazon CEO’s Early-Childhood Ed. Approach?