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What makes an ed-tech startup "revolutionary"? I asked the question in early August here on Hack Education. And last weekend I offered my thoughts over at ReadWriteWeb with five of the things I look for when assessing ed-tech startup's potential for disruption.

  • The product or service should be free(mium)
  • The tool should encourage grassroots adoption
  • The tool needs to promote 21st century teaching and learning
  • The tool should contain and encourage open content
  • The technology needs to be open source

I'm thrilled that the post was well-received and widely read (having once been told that education stories get "lousy pageviews"). And I'm weighing how best to follow up (in terms of words and action).

Who Are These Disruptive Startups?

I didn't published a list of the startups I think are "disruptive," instead just linking to a Quora discussion along the same lines and the Teaching Master post that originally inspired me. (Not surprisingly, that Quora thread has had quite a few more suggestions lately, with folks pointing out additional ed-tech startups that are "interesting.")

While I do think it's important to highlight startups that are really innovative (I try), I am cautious about being both the creator of the set of requirements and the arbiter of who makes the grade. (It doesn't stop me from making a mental list; it just stops me from publishing it.)

What's Missing From My List?

Even though he pointed out that my list was insufficient, I was excited to have George Siemens respond to my article. In a post on his website, he's added another twelve things that startups need to tackle in order to really effect a disruptive change:

  • Be based on a unit of influence that is at the control of each individual (i.e. connections not networks)
  • Scale social interactions (not only content) so large network learning occurs, but in a way that permits various group/collective sizes
  • Promote and benefit from learner autonomy, helping learners to building skills and capacity for ongoing learning
  • Use distributed, decentralized technical infrastructure (p2p not centralized)
  • Extensively use learning analytics, preferably blurring physical and virtual interactions
  • Use curriculum intelligently (linked data/semantic web) in order to provide learners with personal and adaptive paths
  • Allow information splicing so that flows can be adjusted and organized to reflect different learning and social tasks
  • Enable easy variance of contexts - or as my colleague Jon Dron states - context switching
  • Offer varying levels of support and structure, under the control of the learner. If a subject is too challenging, learners can choose a structured learning path. Or, if learners prefer greater autonomy, more flexible paths can be adopted.
  • The system needs to learn from the learners (Hunch is a good example)
  • Integrate activities from various services so learners can centrally interact with data left in other services (Greplin)
  • Provide learners with the tools to connect and form learning networks with others in a course and across various disciplines (diversity exposure to ideas and connections needs to be intentional)

I thought it was particularly interesting that two of the examples he gives, Hunch and Greplin are not expressly "ed-tech," another sign, I'd contend that the disruptive players in ed-tech will not be the names we now associate with the industry.

What's Next?

I tweeted that I'm always keen to hear about new "disruptive" ed-tech startups, and Bill Fitzgerald rightly pointed out that those who describe themselves that way are often more spin than substance -- sad but true.

There's another thread on Quora now, asking why there's a lack of innovation in K-12 ed-tech. I'm not sure I agree that that's the case. But clearly, there's both perception and, well, reality that we're not doing enough to even demonstrate the semblance of disruption in education technology.

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Audrey Watters


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