Massive declines in state and local education funding will lead to a tsunami of blended learning programs, where students learn online in brick-and-mortar schools.  Charter management organizations and districts see the promise of blended learning to create more productive schools models that (1) leverage technology to offer greater individualization for students, and (2) lower per pupil costs through radically different staffing structures. Tom Vander Ark thinks over 25MM students will do some type of blended learning by 2020 with charter schools serving 3MM of those students.

To unlock blended learning’s potential in K-12, we’ll have to get serious about supporting edtech. Investors have shied away from K-12 investments because school districts are treacherous territory for start-ups. Aside from a few bright spots in K-12 edtech, the technology is underwhelming compared to other industries, vendors are focused on locking customers into closed, proprietary platforms, and school operators are spending hundreds of millions on large, custom projects that rarely scale.

Here are a few predictions of how edtech can build the “plumbing” we need to support the proliferation of blended learning.

  1. Build open, modular applications so student data can flow easily across the school. Blended schools should be able to “stitch” together software applications that facilitate the movement of student achievement data across the school. According to our friends at Bessemer Ventures, K-12 feels a lot more like the small- and medium-sized business (SMB) market than the Fortune 500–and we agree. Edtech startups should follow the lead of the SMB enterprise software market, which is characterized by lean start-ups, simple modular software, strong customer word-of-mouth, low price points, and open APIs. Open APIs are critical so software can be seamlessly integrated on minimal tech budgets. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of closed, proprietary platforms that pose numerous challenges to K-12 customers. Start-ups like LearnBoost and Formative Teaching are bucking these trends with promising new approaches to serving K-12 customers.
  2. Capture the flag network effects in education. So far, no one is even close to using the native functionality of the web to capture the network effects in education. Web 2.0 is about organizing data and pushing power to communities, whereas public education has been about fighting data and centralizing control. Startups like Knewton are creating analytic software to gain powerful insights on how students learn using achievement data. Whoever organizes student achievement data could run the table, and history tells us there will be one winner (at a time).
  3. “Gamify” education. The emerging “gamification of life” movement is finding innovative ways to bring game thinking and game mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems. Grockit’s virtual study rooms allow multiple students to solve the same algebra problems in a “multi-player” setting. Students can see everyone’s answers as well as statistics on how many problems their peers have solved. The public nature of these virtual study groups creates a fascinating mix of competitiveness and collaboration that is a far different experience than staring at a 5lb textbook by yourself at a kitchen table. How do you motivate students to go farther and deeper in their education? Michael Horn and Clay Christensen think student motivation is critical, and there will be a slew of edtech entrepreneurs who agree.
  4. (Please) make teachers lives easier. As a teacher, providing frequent feedback to students and parents is frighteningly difficult, and it doesn’t scale. Do you spend 60 minutes after work sifting through and analyzing 180 exit tickets or move on to lesson planning so you can get to sleep before midnight? The sheer number of manual, low-value tasks can overwhelm teachers and interfere with important work like analyzing student data to target instruction, evaluating critical thinking, and creating engaging projects. What would teaching and learning look like if the results of frequent, informal assessments were automatically pushed to teachers, students, and parents? Edtech can free teachers to spend more of their time… teaching.
  5. Create a marketplace for dynamic digital content. The publisher oligopoly has a stranglehold on paper-based materials, but there is an opportunity for dynamic digital content to flourish in the cloud if innovators can monetize their investments. Content is expensive to create, and customers want product breadth (e.g., multiple semesters/years of lessons, multiple core subjects, etc.). But there is little incentive to invest tens of millions of dollars in new content products when (1) there is not enough student data to know if the product is effective, and (2) the deck is stacked against you when it comes to distributing your product to schools. If blended learning platforms can change the curriculum sales/distribution model, innovators can test dynamic new approaches to teaching and learning with relatively modest amounts of capital. Investors will have better data to pick winners and students / schools can directly acquire high-quality content and bypass the highly politicized and often anti-competitive process of state textbook adoption.
  6. Use post-secondary edtech platforms to build bridges to secondary. The increased focus on improving college readiness and completion rates (e.g., Gates Foundation) combined with a large, federally-subsidized post-secondary market is creating an interesting opportunity for entrepreneurs who want to bridge the gap between high school and college through high-quality, blended programs.  Start-ups like 2Tor and AltiusEd are positioned to use success in the post-secondary market to fund services for 11th and 12th graders seeking early college courses. In this way, K-12 can leverage larger edtech investments in post-secondary to subsidize software platforms that serve secondary students

The above trends will help put the “plumbing” in place for blended-learning platforms that engage students with digital content, provide real-time feedback on achievement, and enable teachers to spend their time on the tasks that matter most.  Moving student achievement data across the organization is the minimum.  Once the plumbing is built, we think there is tremendous upside in content innovation through adaptive learning and new interfaces (e.g., iPad, Xbox Kinect, etc.).

I’ve had the privilege of meeting numerous edtech entrepreneurs in the last few months and am extremely excited about the future of K-12. But now’s the time to double-down our bets in edtech and find ways to increase the amount of capital going towards re-inventing education. Otherwise we’ll be having this same conversation in 2020, and there are some 52 million kids who will have lost a lot of ground by then.

Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a venture philanthropy that provides growth capital for high-performing charter school networks.  He leads CSGF’s “next-generation” learning investments in blended learning programs and is eager to talk to social entrepreneurs who want to re-invent schools.  twitter: thinkschools

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