By Jesse Feinberg '16
In December, I skipped ski trip to sign up for a minivan-facilitated tour of 12 education technology companies in the Bay Area. The Ed Tech trek, the most tongue-twistery of treks, brought together seven BoothED members from diverse professional backgrounds—military intelligence, consulting, politics, and entrepreneurship—to learn about the industry that pulled in almost $2 billion in venture capital funding last year. Over four days, the seven of us rented an AirBnB in the Mission and each day drove from San Francisco to the Silicon Valley and back.
Ed tech is undeniably hot. Speakers at this year’s ASU+GSV Summit, a meeting of ed tech luminaries, include Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sir Richard Branson. Last year, Magic Johnson was a keynote speaker. In an interview with CNN Money, ed tech enthusiast Bill Gates said, “Yoda was a great teacher because the Jedi master understood when Skywalker is losing interest”—and so can personalized learning technology, he suggests.
This ed tech = Yoda hype is actually backed up by the statistics. Ten years ago, education hardly registered in terms of VC transaction value. Since then, however, it has grown at a 45 percent compound annual growth rate, according to GSV Asset Management, and nearly doubled in transaction value from 2013 to 2014. It was these exciting trends, plus a passion for education, that brought the seven of us BoothED members out to the Bay Area this winter.
That we were visiting only ed tech companies came as a surprise to many. After all, what makes Edmodo, Remind, or Coursera, apps for education relentlessly focused on user acquisition, fundamentally different from Facebook or Snapchat? Superficially, one could view ed tech as another aspect of tech, along for the ride in a Silicon Valley boomtown.
One factor driving ed tech growth is the incredible cost of higher education. According to the Department of Labor, college tuition increased 79.5 percent from 2003 to 2013. Worse, wages for college graduates have actually fallen by 6.9 percent since 2007. Not coincidentally, industry experts like Spencer McLeod at GSV Asset Management see an increasing education industry trend towards maximizing outcomes relative to costs.
That future is now at Udemy, an online marketplace for user-created courses, where Ruben Kogel (’14) is the Manager of Learning Science and spends his days trying to figure out what makes for a great learning experience. The secret to Udemy’s success: “We help people teach from their domain of expertise and then let students decide which is the best course.” This focus on quality is an exciting way forward for an industry that has tolerated rising costs and middling outcomes for too long. The best part, according to Ruben: “There are endless riddles to solve. It never gets old.”
Author Jesse Feinberg is a first-year leader with BoothED and was a participant on the ed tech trek. Before Booth, he worked at Spire, a higher education start-up in Nairobi, Kenya.