February 13

Scott Anderson

EdTech Startups are Flashy, But Teacher Relationships Remain Critical

Education technology, or “edtech,” in emerging markets is flashy. But is it substantive? In the Q&A, below asked a couple of experts from Acumen, the poverty focused investment nonprofit. Amy Ahearn is an online learning manager for +Acumen based in San Francisco and a graduate of the Stanford Learning, Design and Technology program. Santiago Melo is a portfolio manager based in Acumen’s Bogota office where he leads investments in education technology in Latin America. 


Scott Anderson: Edtech is a huge sector, moving in many directions at once. It might be helpful to discuss what you believe truly qualifies as edtech and what does not.

Amy Ahearn

Amy Ahearn

Amy Ahearn: I define education technology broadly as any tool that helps people learn or helps teachers teach. This ranges from products that promote efficiency to products that actually deepen learning. On the efficiency side of the spectrum, there are products that can automate time-consuming functions for teachers like homework collection, recordkeeping or classroom management so that they can focus more on instruction. On the learning side of the spectrum are products that actually help kids or adults understand the world in new ways, inside or outside of schools.

Ideally, edtech products are not just replicating something you can do in analog format, but are using the technology to augment an aspect of the learning process. Mitch Resnick of the MIT Media Lab says that edtech should provide either design leverage – allowing you to create things that would have been difficult in the past – or conceptual leverage – allowing you to learn things differently than you would in the past. This idea of “leverage” is really important when you think about education technology. Rather than deploying technology in classrooms just for the sake of using technology, good edtech products grant teachers and students leverage to do things in new ways.


Anderson: When I think about edtech to reach low-income markets, it usually branches off into hardware devices (inexpensive laptops or tablets) and curricula (software and applications). How has the sector evolved or the past 10 years or so?

Ahearn: Early conversations about education technology in emerging markets focused on access. People were excited to use technology to grant more people access to education, even in settings that lacked schools, qualified teachers or quality curriculum. This is why phenomena like MOOCs and the One Laptop Per Child program originally took off – they held great promise to scale education to huge numbers of people. At +Acumen, we’ve joined this movement by creating our own suite of free open online courses that democratize access to social entrepreneurship education.

But quickly, the sector has realized that access is not sufficient; we need to focus on quality, too. Edtech products should augment local curriculums so that they help teachers meet standards specific to their region. A great example is Chalees Min School, a digital learning company out of Delhi that is creating videos to augment India’s national science curriculum.  

When I look toward the future, I think we’ll see more adaptive learning platforms take off in emerging markets, but you’ll need local instructional designers to help make content tailored and relevant to those markets. Beyond adaptive technology, I’m excited by edtech that enables students to be creators, not just consumers. More edtech companies should be focused on making things like 3D printers, robotics, or Raspberry Pis accessible to schools in emerging markets. People don’t always think of these constructionist tools as qualifying as either “edtech” or “affordable,” but Paulo Blikstein’s FabLearn Labs project has proven that these tools can be brought to schools around the world, at relatively low cost. We need to keep opening our eyes to what edtech can be.


Anderson: What are some of the key mistakes you’ve seen entrepreneurs make when they bring an edtech company and its products to market?

Ahearn: Education is a tricky market because purchasing is often decoupled from the end users. Ministries of Education might lead procurement of education technology products, but the end users are often the teachers who actually have to deploy the product in classrooms. In most markets across the world, teachers are overworked and underpaid. They’re also accustomed to seeing many trends in pedagogy come and go and they face a great deal of pressure to help students achieve good results on national exams. As a result, some can be very reluctant to add a new education technology product to their classroom. If they don’t feel confident using it or haven’t received the necessary training to understand how it can augment their pedagogy, they’ll let it sit on a shelf and collect dust. Most entrepreneurs working in education technology – no matter where they are in the world – have found that in order to be successful, they have to cultivate relationships not only with the government or school officials who have the purchasing power, but also build relationships with the teachers who will be using the products by offering professional development sessions or empowering them as ambassadors who can reach out to their colleagues. If entrepreneurs don’t value the relationship with teachers, they likely won’t be successful.

Additionally, there is a lot of free educational content available to anyone in the world on the internet, some of which is quite high quality like Khan Academy or BrainPop. If entrepreneurs do not adequately differentiate their product from these free products by offering things like analytics, customizations or curriculum alignment, they’ll have a hard time establishing their value proposition.



Image courtesy of Acumen.


Anderson: Energy and internet infrastructure would seem to be the main barriers to bringing technology into the classroom. How are edtech entrepreneurs bridging those obstacles?

AhearnThe proliferation of mobile phones and the spread of off-grid energy solutions will be key to the continued scale of edtech products. Companies like Eneza have been experimenting with using mobile phones to deliver content to students in Kenya for many years. And companies like d.light (an Acumen investee) are developing solar lanterns and charging stations that students can literally use to power their studies.

In general, I think the barriers to successfully deploying education technology in classrooms will be far more adaptive than technical. That is, edtech companies will need to focus on the human factors rather than just the infrastructure challenges. I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is for edtech entrepreneurs to be working with teachers in local markets if they want their products to take off.


Anderson: How are K12 edtech companies approaching their customers (perhaps governments or local school districts) today compared with a few years ago?


Santiago Melo

Santiago Melo: A few years ago edtech ventures were launched hoping that if they achieve rapid product adoption and high usage levels, they would be able to build sustainable business models. Unfortunately, in education “internet consumer” monetization strategies often do not work. Take, for example, Edmodo, a U.S.-based company that provides teachers and students with communication and collaboration tools. It has achieved viral growth but has struggled to find a solid source of revenue. User unwillingness/inability to pay (students and teachers) and restrictions around selling data and advertising, have led many B2C companies to turn to institutions for income.

Most companies have become aware that in order to scale, they must approach districts and governments as customers. Governments, which spend billions in education (4.5 percent of GDP in LatAm) and reach the great majority of students through public school systems, are eager to find alternatives to improve educational outcomes. Edtech companies are now embracing the challenges inherent to selling to public institutions such as corruption, bureaucracy and long working capital and sales cycles. They have also started to show quantifiable improvement in student achievement and provide hands-on support to teachers and students to increase usage and ensure appropriate use of the product/service.


Anderson: Acumen also invests in companies that address workforce education, i.e. post-secondary education to advance worker skills. What are some exciting or cautionary trends you’re seeing?

Melo: Acumen has invested in workforce development programs to serve low-income students in both India and the United States. Additionally some Acumen Fellows are building companies that focus on teaching soft skills to students to set them up for employability. One example is Amal Academy, started by Benje Williams to help students in Pakistan prepare for careers. We’ve also looked at several workforce development deals in Latin America.

Based on these experiences, we tend to see that in many emerging markets, post-secondary education is the domain of the middle class or rich. For example, in Latin America tertiary education coverage is as low as 44.6 percent and access is limited to large cities. Roughly one third of the 110 million youths in LatAm are neither employed nor enrolled in education or training. To address these challenges, we’re looking to support companies that can use technology-enabled tools and learning methodologies to expand education access beyond urban areas, in a faster and cheaper manner.

We’ve learned that companies providing workforce training must focus on employability and return on investment for students.Training must be comptency-based and work-integrated for students to build expertise and develop recognizable skills, leading to better learning and employability outcomes.

Finally, we’ve noticed that education startups are moving away from low value-added craftsmanship programs and are starting to engage in 21st century skills training. We have noticed an increasing number of companies providing coding and software-testing training to low-income individuals, which makes sense considering the acute workforce shortage and the attractive salaries fetched by IT degrees around the world.

We think that edtech will continue to be a disruptive force in education at all levels around the world. We are hopeful that more sustainable business models will emerge that help students both develop marketable skills and critical thinking – at fair and affordable price points.


Scott Anderson is a contributing editor at NextBillion.


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