The EdTech Disconnect


Apr 1, 2015

This is the second post in the #WhoYouKnow blog series on the overlap of social capital, EdTech, and innovation.

Next time you pick up or read about a new EdTech product, ask yourself a simple question: “Will this product expand or strengthen students’ networks?” Most likely, the answer will be “no”—or a tepid “maybe.”

WhoYouKnowAdults in the working world, particularly those participating in the knowledge economy, use technology each and every day to remain connected and to grow their networks. Children likewise rely increasingly on mobile technology and social media to stay in touch with one another. There’s substantial research on the power of social capital to drive educational outcomes and labor market returns. Somewhat ironically, however, the multi-billion dollar EdTech market is primarily focused on digitizing the delivery of content and offering more efficient solutions to tracking and organizing student information. This investment in content tools is certainly important and not a bad thing, but it’s also not the only thing EdTech could and should do. We are seeing limited attention paid to tools and approaches that use technology to connect students to peers, mentors, and experts currently beyond their reach.

The lack of EdTech tools to forge connections makes perfect sense if you consider the responsibilities and metrics to which schools are held accountable: students’ academic outcomes in core subjects. As a result, content—and its effective delivery and organization—tends to be where schools are willing to put precious dollars. Even more fundamentally, historically speaking, most schools have been shut off from the outside world; offering connections beyond the four walls of a school community or neighborhood has rarely been the currency in which schools deal. (Or as Ivan Illich put it more bluntly in Deschooling Society, “Classroom attendance removes children from the everyday world of Western culture and plunges them into an environment far more primitive, magical, and deadly serious.”)

But looking ahead this stands to change. As content becomes increasingly commoditized—as schools and students can access more and more content for free—the value proposition of schools will shift to other areas: validation and assessment, deeper learning, and, I would argue, arming students with stronger networks. Tools that can play in these new planes of competition stand to win out over content providers and traditional publishers that dominate the EdTech market today.

I’m currently in the process of building a market map of the EdTech industry asking three simple questions: What tools expand students’ access to new networks, strengthen their existing networks, or instill skillsets associated with nurturing or capitalizing on networks?

Based on my initial research, the relatively short list of tools that meet these criteria tend to pop up in four main segments of the education market: project-based learning curricula, tutoring services, college access and guidance tools, and career exploration services. Of course these market segments themselves contain various tools with little or nothing to do with strengthening students’ networks. But within these four pockets, you’re more likely to find a host creative entrepreneurs finding ways to make network-expanding activities part of the solution they offer to schools and families.

Such tools tend to take advantage of technologies like email, on-demand instant messaging, or video platforms to forge both synchronous and asynchronus connections between students and peers, mentors, coaches, or experts to whom they would otherwise lack access. For example, Educurious, a project-based curriculum product, ports experts into classrooms over video as part of each project the organization has designed. Experts can teach lessons based on their expertise, field questions, or evaluate student work. Or Beyond12, a college coaching and data organization that supports low-income students to and through college, offers near-peer coaching—both face-to-face and online—as well as access to on-demand experts who can help students through the college application process. These are just two examples from a longer list that I’ll be publishing this spring.

We should take note of these market dynamics for three key reasons.

First, these network-expanding tools are important and under-researched experiments in expanding K–12 students’ access to social capital using technology. Organizations that leverage technology to expand or strengthen students’ networks are blazing new ground in figuring out the right structures to open schools to the outside world, while preserving student privacy, sourcing effective mentors and coaches, and structuring online and offline environments that yield positive interactions. As such, they are redefining how we organize school to expand rather than limit students’ networks and redefining traditional concepts of mentorship, teaching, and learning.

Second, these approaches offer experiments in the business models that could come to support a school system wherein schools function as a hub for students’ expanded networks. Currently, there are few business models to sustainably manage the costs of connecting students to outside supports, especially with schools’ tight budgets. Figuring out who is willing to pay for network-expanding activities—whether it’s schools, institutions of higher ed, foundations, or corporations willing to volunteer their employees’ time—is an area where we desperately need new models to percolate.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the four main pockets of the market where these networking-expanding EdTech solutions are popping up are themselves ripe footholds for disruptive innovation relative to traditional content delivery-focused school models. As content is gradually becoming commoditized, areas like deeper learning through projects, college-and-career advice, and one-on-one tutoring are likely to have greater share of the value that students and their families are asking of school. If investors can better identify these disruptive footholds and identify the best network-enhancing tools, they will likely find themselves riding a wave of disruption in education that overtakes schools’ narrow job of content delivery.

Are you working at a school or a company that leverages technology to offer sustainable, network-enhancing opportunities? If so, please be in touch!

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.