Education Innovation: Fad or Burgeoning Industry?

I had the pleasure of attending last week’s Education Innovation Summit 2013 in Phoenix.  Co-sponsored by Arizona State University (ASU) and GSV Advisors, this year’s event was the fourth and the largest by far.  Because of my role in online education at American Public University System (APUS), I have been a member of the ASU/GSV advisory board and have attended all four conferences.  Each year attendance has grown at an impressive rate with estimated figures of 200, 400, 800, and 1400 for each consecutive annual conference.  Because of the stature of the organizers (Michael Crow, President of ASU, and Michael Moe and Deborah Quazzo, co-founders of GSV Advisors), the quality of the presenters has never waivered year after year.  The format for the Summit includes keynotes twice a day and panel discussions among investors, among educators, among education operators/vendors, among journalists, etc.  Additionally, new education startups have a chance for an eight minute briefing to stir interest in their product and their company.

At this year’s conference, more than 170 companies presented.  Some, like Coursera, 2U, and Udacity, are fairly well-known.  (For a list of companies that presented, see http://edinnovation.gsvadvisors.com/2013-presenting-companies/).  Some of these companies have been around for more than a few years and others may or may not have filed their articles of incorporation.  From my random attendance at presenting companies’ presentations, it appeared that more than a few companies were touting adaptive learning platforms or products.  That observation and a subsequent comment to two seasoned investors in the sector led to a discussion about how many of these companies will fail.  One of the two investors (the optimist) said 70 percent and the other (the pessimist or in his eyes, the realist) said 90 percent.  I’m probably in the middle, but only because I believe that some of the products will survive, even if the original company does not.  Nonetheless, it is interesting that so many tech entrepreneurs perceive education as a field ripe for implementation of technology.  As far as discussing adaptive learning, I’ll save that for a future blog post.

Clearly, education is changing.  The answer to the question “how quickly” is unknown.  Regulation and entrenched incumbency will slow down most of the more difficult-to-implement innovations.  Additionally, Clayton Christiansen’s observations about innovation and change indicate that successful incumbents will eventually embrace change and push back most of the disrupters by utilizing the technology at a lower cost.  Some of that could be happening with MOOCs and elite institutions versus the early adopters of online education although we haven’t seen a stable business model from the MOOCs yet.  Of the company presentations I observed, the ones I think have the most promise are those where tech experts have partnered with learning and education experts (as opposed to the companies where the tech expert pursued an initiative based on his/her experience as a student but not as an educator).  Nonetheless, I can’t predict whether there will be any statistically different outcome between the two.

Later in the week, I flew from Phoenix to Philadelphia and attended a meeting at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education where I had a chance to listen to several academic research presentations.  One of the presentations was a doctoral dissertation by William K. Dunworth, that analyzed the differences between Western and Chinese institutional, educational, and cultural constructs and how those differences impact joint ventures and MBA partnerships.  For anyone who has not visited China, the research clearly illustrates the major differences between China and Western countries in those three constructs and is worthwhile reading for any western university intending to partner with a Chinese university.  It may also be worthwhile for a western corporation intending to do business in China.   The second presentation was titled “The Strategic & Entrepreneurial Management of Knowledge” by Dr. Martin Ihrig. Dr. Ihrig is a senior fellow at Penn’s Graduate School of Education and is an adjunct assistant professor at the Wharton School.  His research looks at knowledge from a strategic and entrepreneurial management perspective.  I found his assessments of the development of knowledge particularly insightful as it applies to a company’s development of proprietary products as well as assessing human capital and succession planning.

After my meeting at Penn, I paused to reflect about the innovation conference in Phoenix and the presentations at Penn.  The first conference focused on innovation and how innovation can be further developed into a for-profit company that is successful (i.e., provides a return to its investors).  A number of the entrepreneurs at ASU/GSV stated that they were social entrepreneurs who were interested in providing a positive impact to society as well as to investors.  I happen to believe that any entrepreneur interested in the long-term viability of his/her company has to provide a positive impact to society and I also know that non-profits have to generate enough revenues to cover expenses, a convenient fact that some critics of for-profits choose to ignore.  The four researchers who presented at Penn (two of whom I’ve mentioned here) have an education research area of interest and may or may not be interested in creating a useful product based on that research (I state this without any verification with the researchers).  Some of the education innovation entrepreneurs might benefit from consulting or partnering with university researchers with a deep expertise in the area that the innovator’s company is attempting to transform and capture market share.  Perhaps entrepreneurial companies that desire to be in the 10-30 percent range of survivors (as measured by the estimates mentioned above) should look to bridge academic research partnerships that could boost their odds of success by reducing the number of trial and error products or product launches in a sector that is heavily researched.  Regardless, it appears to be a great time for those who embrace change and a bad time for those who would prefer the status quo.

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