A Glimpse of Innovations in Education: The Silicon Valley Edition

by: Joanna Huang

The Journey - A Path Forward

An ongoing discussion at the Teaching and Learning Lab revolves around education innovation - what does it look like and how does it manifest? This past March I embarked on a week long trip with a group of 30 Harvard graduate students visiting 25 schools, education non-profits, think-tanks and companies. For many, it was the first time soaking in the California sun and buzzing through the hub of tech-giants. For me, I was home again with a fresh set of eyes. The trek gave me a peek into what types of education innovation were happening in the area.

HIVE SV 2016 Trekkers at Facebook Building 20 in Menlo Park, CA

The trek, organized by Harvard Innovation and Ventures in Education (HIVE), focused on experiential learning such that students could directly meet leaders and representatives who were engaging in education work on the ground. This was a chance to bring to life the ideas, readings, case studies, and theories from our classes. Participants joined the trek with various levels of experience in education - some were just dipping their toes into education technology, many had a budding passion for creating their own education startup or business, and a majority had been teachers or mentors in schools and informal settings. With a wide range of interests, trekkers had the opportunity to choose which visits would meet their needs and help them learn more about specific topics.

Two main goals of the trek were 1) to explore the current activity in the education innovation space through conversations with leaders and 2) to better understand the landscape, market, and growth drivers for improvements in the quality of education. Given the spotlight and sense of urgency on education reform, innovations can change when, where, and how students learn and experience education. Education innovation operates under many variables and emerges due to specific conditions in a larger living ecosystem such as policy shifts, market demands, nascent research, and technology developments. Through these conversations, I learned about the challenges and opportunities faced by each organization.

By combining my learning takeaways and the feedback from the other trekkers, I identified several emerging areas and market players in education technology and innovation: 1) Tool Creators, 2) School Builders, 3) Resource Providers and 4) Thought Partners.  Despite these distinct categories, many organizations assumed multiple and overlapping roles.

Tool Creators

“Almost everything is an experiment. Failure is the cornerstone of moving forward.” - Google

With advancements in technology emerging from booming and resource heavy techhub area, many organizations saw opportunities to address a problem in the education space. Problems ranged from mitigating the gender and diversity gap in computer science, bridging the communication lines between teachers, parents, and students, and increasing the low literacy rates within classrooms. Tool Creators are equipping educators, learners, and families with new solutions to longstanding problems. For example:

  • Facebook partnered with Summit Public Schools to build Basecamp, an open, personalized learning platform that allows students to learn at their own pace with a competency progression and to set goals and deadlines for themselves. Through pairing the engineering talent at Facebook with educator and school practitioners, this partnership has purposefully leveraged the strong skill sets of the two professions in order to create a powerful product.

  • Early stage startups such as Newsela have also identified approaches of personalizing reading articles and content according to reading levels. For classrooms with students of varying literacy rates, Newsela aspires to use their platform to ensure that all students can participate in reading discussions regardless of their reading level.

Overall, Tool Creators are focused on generating positive educational impact and increasing digital access for a widespread audience.

School Builders

“It's really powerful to connect students from where they are today to where they want to go." - Facebook

Another strand of innovation stems from a desire to re-envision and challenge traditional notions of schools and schooling. School Builders position themselves to lead the future of schools and consider what students might experience when they attend. The market segmentation can be broken down into PK-12 schools and higher education.

  • Some Pre-K-12 schools work in a local context and are considered successful when they can get their school model to stick. They thrive in environments of decentralized, local choice. Most are private, independent or charter schools that attempt to scale their startup schools into a larger network of schools. Schools like AltSchool are driven by a vision to personalize learning for individual students through equipping teachers and students with the tools necessary to transform their education. A critique to this movement is the limited capacity of how many and which students can afford to attend and would benefit from attending these schools. Currently, tuition can cost quite a hefty amount and low-income students are often missing from the conversation.

  • In the higher education and adult learning context, reimagining the constraints of physical walls and fee structures of schools while maintaining quality is demonstrated through multiple modalities such as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), global universities, nano-degrees, and online courses. These initiatives speak to the movements of democratizing education by making sure that more people have access to quality courses, meeting job market demands, and developing a global citizen equipped with 21st century skills.

While PK-12 schools and higher education institutions have different approaches to School Building, they are adaptive to the needs of their target learners and strive to push the boundaries of what redefining schools look like.

Resource Providers

“The future is here, it’s just not distributed fairly.” - Reach Capital

Venture capitalist firms, investors, and accelerators play an important role in helping advance education initiatives through providing various types of support and resources. Often, based on market research into education trends, they speculate what investments to make to generate large returns in educational change, positive impact, or revenue. Resource Providers that add great value to their investees by connecting them with powerful networks that enable opportunities to proliferate and ensure their success through funding and mentorship.

Y-Combinator/Imagine K-12 Labs, a startup accelerator that provides strategic support in initial funding to tech companies focused on the education market, and Reach Capital, an early-stage education technology investor, are taking risks on investing in the outliers of education innovation in hopes to foreshadow the new ways and methods to bring about change and impact.

Thought Partners  

“In education, many things are common sense, but not common practice.” - IDEO

Multi-pronged systemic problems with need well thought-out and robust strategies. Thought Partners are focused on creating value with fresh ideas in the education space, but are also concerned about sustainability and execution of these ideas. They examine the broader context and introduce intriguing, practical concepts to a broader audience or otherwise influence how the field things about particular issues. They also seek to find implementers of these ideas (see #’s 1-3!) to make real impact.

For example, the Christensen Institute incubates business principles for creating a theory of change in education. They are investing in new blended learning models, competency based education, and employer-aligned programs. According to the Christensen Institute, innovation, in order for it to be disruptive and become sustaining, needs to come from the bottom-up, where the innovation starts with non-consumers or the low-end of the market. Often, this type of innovation starts off slowly and is incremental before it reaches the masses. 

HIVE SV 2016 Trekkers at Google HQ in Mountain View, CA

Thought Partnership also means raising the right questions and treading into unknown territory. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching asks, “Whose lives will we have changed?” This question reflects their values, priorities, and work to improve education systems. Through networked improvement communities, the Carnegie Foundation hopes to tackle high leverage problems of practice through strengthening the connection and bridging the gap between practitioners, policy makers and researchers.

Lessons Learned

The Trek experience expanded my perspective on the education innovation landscape to include the connections between needs assessments, ideas, theories of change, implementation of solutions, and impact.

  • The promise of education innovation and technology seems like a daunting yet uplifting one that gives hope to continue moving forward amidst all the challenges and uncertainties. The theories of change of these successful innovations include personalization, access, time, cost, distance, and productivity. The conditions for success are complex, dependent on a variety of factors, and require sustained developments and planning in technology infrastructure, educator training, and funding.

  • While School Builders, Tool Creators, Resource Providers, and Thought Partners each play an integral role in impacting education innovation, there are persistent gaps in how each can leverage their specialized areas better in underaddressed issues. Despite good intentions and grand ideas, innovation has been slow to impact education. The education sector has so many moving parts in a larger system, which often results in fatigue in trying to address education gaps and problems. Not only is innovation slow, it is also stagnant in addressing inclusion and equity because the status quo continues to be maintained; those who already have higher education degrees - and are generally older, male, and white - tend to have more access.

  • Seeing the big picture helps make clearer mappings to what problems are salient and how to address them. Each company or organization has their own vision and mission for addressing their identified problem, but I am left wondering whether combined efforts and collaboration to achieve a shared aim would be more productive.

The action-packed week offered a plethora of learning opportunities and insights. The main takeaway I gained from this experience is a refreshened hope that there will be profound change for the future of education, though there is not a clear-cut path ahead of us. A collaborate effort among Tool Builders, School Creators, Resources Providers, and Thought Partners will help to pave the way.

See also: Event