In many of the conversations around changing the current educational system, the rhetoric and approaches borrow heavily from the corporate world. In many cases, processes and strategies that have been used with inconclusive outcomes in corporate America are touted as solutions that will fix the problems that plague education: a short list includes merit pay (which worked really well among hedge fund managers), performance management, corporate-style layoffs as a means to eliminate "underperformers," and streamlining the means to outsource school management to for-profit companies.
Instability creates opportunity, and the current state of public education is nothing if not unstable. As a result, businesses are getting increasingly interested. Where business goes, marketing is not far behind, which invariably nets us a new buzzword: the edupreneur. The narrative around the edupreneur combines the mythology of the entrepeneur as a financial cowboy, an individual with the grit to take chances, bend the rules, and buck authority; with the equally potent mythology of the socially conscious company - a business venture with the ethics to, occasionally, put principles above profits.
I came across an example of this type of edupreneurial venture recently in the form of an interview with the founders of Notehall, a company that serves as a marketplace for students that want to sell their class notes. It's remarkable only because it is such a common example of what passes for an idea in the space where people actually believe the world of education is bereft of any creative or generative thought.
The blog post that contains the interview starts with a video of the company founders on a show called Sharktank (as an aside, I had no idea this show existed, and I'm a little upset to have had my bubble burst). The video is included here for your viewing pleasure:
The actual interview that follows is the standard breathless prattle that most of these things are; basically, PR talking points masquerading as actual conversation. But one line really stands out:
Question: What do you think education entrepreneurs need at this moment in the industry to be successful? Marketing? A good idea? A network?
Response: Mentorship/Network. A good team with an average idea will eventually discover a successful business if the right hands are helping guide them and see opportunities.
In a world where solutions are valued primarily for their ability to enrich a select few, and secondarily for their ability to benefit an undefined many, this philosophy defines what people consider innovative. In other words, a "good" innovation allows a company to find an unexploited niche and profit from it - the quality of the innovation is defined by the size of the profit.
To be absolutely clear, there is nothing wrong from profiting from your work. And, if you have an idea, a dream, a vision, or a talent that you want to expand into a company, by all means, follow the dream. But bring your A game. Don't delude yourself that the educational world needs another mediocre idea with glossy marketing copy. If people want that, they can trawl the vendor floor at ISTE. But classrooms deserve better.
However, when a company gets too invested in a single solution - or worse yet, a single technological intervention - to a complex problem, much money can be wasted.
This problem can be compounded in companies heavily funded by venture capital money. An interview in FastCompany between Anya Kamenetz and Phoenix Wang alludes to the financial pressures at play; this quotation is from the second page:
There are $600 billion in public dollar investments in education around schools. But there's a disconnect between the school districts who make the purchases and the students who are supposed to use it. So oftentimes what gets pushed down to students is not really aligned with their interests.
At the same time, private and institutional investors are really interested in emerging products, but they're constrained by institutional purchasing. VCs need big exits, so they end up taking less risk.
You generally will not find much argument about the need for learning being a lifelong need. None of us ever reach a point where we can afford to stop learning, growing, or expanding.
However, the needs of people interested in profiting off the process of our learning are completely dissimilar: they want the biggest return possible, over the shortest time period. This cultural disconnect helps explain why the ideas of the business world clash with the ethos of the education world.
And, as the international financial markets still attempt to recover from the greed and excesses of the banking industry, maybe we have it backwards: perhaps education should step in and help protect these poor business folks from their own lack of understanding about the world in which we live.