What Educational Startups are Missing

What educational Startups are Missing 

With old-school educational industries potentially more out of touch than ever and struggling to adapt to entirely digital workflows – the future of educational startups is bright. However, it’s also easy to swing wildly from employing little to no technology to employing it too heavy-handedly or in a way that lacks nuance. 

As someone who has experienced some mixture of:

  • classical education
  • preparatory education
  • 4-year university
  • community college (online and IRL)
  • MOOCs
  • coding websites and tutorials
  • coding bootcamps (specifically, Lambda School)
  • sneaking into any local lectures I could find on any subject that interested me
  • tutoring latin
  • creating curriculum for a STEM home-schooling co-op
  • working at a startup that created experimental short term educational initiatives for organizations like DARPA, ARPA-E, NASA, and the NIH
  • ultimately creating hodge-podged syllabi of my own to work through what I wanted to learn 

— I have a unique perspective on the space. So – I wanted to share what I feel is often overlooked, as a VC with an eye towards what holds investment potential as well as someone who’s had firsthand experiences with many of these new organizations.

Balanced Digital Education

Although project-based learning holds some place in a large percentage of edtech startups today — potentially because the lack of administrative burden makes it more economically efficient — I think the lasting value of this type of education is largely overhyped. 

There is plenty of value in project-based learning. These types of programs harness the power of teaching students to learn how to learn, partnered with an apprentice type model of guiding students through navigating the natural highs and lows of this process. They prompt students to explore a problem space with genuine curiosity, which is one of the best foundations of learning possible. 

However, they often attempt to pack too many disparate kinds of learning into the project-based model. In doing so, they can inadvertently make it harder to master fundamental concepts by strengthening strengths and not pushing students to improve their weaknesses. It’s understandable that people get excited about project-based platforms, but founders should be careful not to force every kind of learning into this bucket.

Furthermore, I think it’s important to think through when and why things should be automated, not just whether or not they can be. Generally, I believe this looks like scaling administrative tasks with technology to enable the core pieces of education to better leverage humans.

One example of this would be a company building out a platform to extend ease of scale – ie, registering with the state for home-schooling, finding a cohort for local learning, surfacing resources to parents at scale, or scheduling content review assessments with teachers easily. I believe it’s possible to provide this supportive infrastructure while still leaving the core of education to happen offline. This could enable a parent to pursue flexible at-home learning with a lower administrative barrier to entry, supporting themselves with both a local co-op of parents who share the burden of teaching as well as more formal teachers who spend a few hours per week prompting the child to demonstrate subject matter verbally, showing that they’ve grasped the core concepts of what they’ve been taught. 

Educational Theory as Front and Center

Why do you want to learn? 

There are a billion possible answers to this question, even once constrained by specific subject matter.

You might aim to learn to understand others’ experiences more deeply, to gain social status, to pick up a skill for immediate use, to have greater class mobility, for technical certification, to enable themselves to do something they found they couldn’t, or for a workplace promotion – the reasons are potentially endless. And, since the reasons are endless and the amount of information that’s online is growing exponentially, I believe the biggest differentiation is always the delivery of that content.

While most educational ventures aim to grow network and signaling value in the long term (which I’ll dive into in a second), it’s important that founders target an initial market wedge or pain point and expand from there into broader value. To choose this initial wedge and focus well, it’s best done by having a clear educational theory of why students are learning and the foundational principles you want to enable in them to do so. Montessori schools as well as classical schools (which still has ties to many large and old liberal arts programs) are well known examples – representing foundations of well known institutions that directed their expansion across many schools.

It can be easy to approach curriculum design informally or in reaction to trends (project-based learning or coursework that’s overly referential to current events), but ultimately I’m of the opinion that curriculum that stands the test of time should be the goal. Teaching someone to learn how to learn something new ensures that their education continues to multiply in value, and places emphasis on developing critical and autonomous thinking simultaneously – rather than leaving someone high and dry when information they’ve memorized no longer applies to their specific position. 

An additional benefit of having a clear theory of education is that you build a cadre of present and future students who share a philosophy, explicitly or implicitly, about how the subject area can be better understood. Institutions gain power as they unite participants over shared ideals – a good core doctrine of education should do this effectively for a startup. 

Network Effects of Cohorts – Creating Institutional Flywheels 

The hope of most educational experiences are that the students involved multiply and compound over time – both as the participants serve as guides and support for one another in the program, and afterwards – as they’ve gone into the world and are successful and continue to invest their time in bettering the institution. This is actually visible quite often within non-education focused startups. Hiring community managers to prompt and supplement the network that evolves a product can be one of the most effective ways to foster and shape its continued growth in the long term. 

On the other hand – it’s easy for certain programs that are too interested in maintaining status to essentially eat away at the organizational reputation over time. If an organization is advertised primarily as its value in accruing status, you get more status seeking people as time goes on, This is likely to happen when the highest value of the program is the network value in and of itself – in that case the students are incentivized to maintain the reputation long after leaving the program for the sake of the signaling value of their own time there.  This means the organization receives less critical feedback and has less incentive to adjust broken teaching practices (especially if the educational benefits were secondary to status gain in the first place). 

In my experience, this plays out often with shorter term educational programs that promise to “up-skill” students. The first few cohorts are often filled with great students but as time passes, the program ends up attracting individuals who are primarily concerned with achieving a similar reputation for themselves, it can erode the value of the network and the potential for continuing to attract great students.

In practice this means that it’s especially essential to scale this type of organization carefully as it can be easy for companies to ride the wave of delayed external validation, long after the external value being provided to students has declined. Making clear what skills are acquired specifically through the program and putting those front and center also helps ensure a good feedback loop between the students and admin, as it’s generally more clear what they’re benchmarking against.

In the Future

The general level of excitement over revisiting the foundations of education today is super interesting, but it could also be very easy for us to reinvent the wheel in a worse way. Thinking about the history of these institutions is important when guiding us forward into mending educational approaches that already exist or even filling entirely new gaps in the market.

Going forward I hope we see a wave of companies that act as the digital infrastructure for more flexible and accessible education – through infrastructure that enables human interactions with an eye towards thoughtful network growth and more purposeful content that’s meant to stand the test of time.

As always — feel free to tweet or message me questions, thoughts, disagreements, or pitches on twitter or at nicolewilliams@compound.vc