This post is part of an ongoing series in which I try to explain the tech industry to educators. Today’s lesson: Define “Bubble.” Discuss.
Frank Catalano recently suggested in his GeekWire column that we could be on the cusp of another tech bubble, this time in education. “There are early warning signs that the hype could be outpacing the reality,” he wrote, pointing to the increasing investment, attention, and startups in ed-tech.
BostInno’s Lauren Landry dismissed the artile as “the hipster’s case against ed-tech” (which made me smirk because with great fondness I think of Frank Catalano as a “veteran” of ed-tech’s case). She argued that innovation in the space is great and should be encouraged — fears of bubbles be-damned, I guess.
I don’t dispute either argument.
We are certainly seeing a flood of investment in a lot of new education companies. And much of what’s being developed and funded does feel decidedly overhyped. (Just count the number of blog posts this year that have “revolution” and “education” in their headlines.) That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting education startups, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not that hard to believe that the amount of money being invested in some of them outstrips their value, now and in the future.
That’s a pretty basic definition of a financial bubble right there: when investment outweighs value. And it’s not just education-oriented high growth high tech startups we’re speculating and fretting about. Lots of bubbles are bursting lately as we question our investments in residential property, college tuition, and stock in Zynga.
There’s been plenty of debate over the last year or so within the tech industry writ large about whether it’s in the midst of its own bubble. As such, it’s hardly surprising to see the same questions be raised about what’s clearly the latest hot area for tech investment and entrepreneurship: education.
If there’s boom, then there’s bust – or at least, that’s the fear.
And in ed-tech specifically, there’s a fear that the recent flurry of interest and investment in the space might result in disaster, that it might reaffirm VCs’ reluctance to invest in the education sector -- they'll cite once again education's reluctance to embrace new technologies, the institutional inertia preventing change.
Of course, things are different now than in the last tech boom, and many industry observers insist there won’t be another meltdown of Dot.com proportions. Startup investment is different now (smaller amounts spread more widely across more companies, for example); startup costs are different (thanks to open source software and the cloud, it’s cheaper than ever to start a tech company); and particularly in education, the business models are different. Teachers, parents, and students are targeted as the consumers of ed-tech tools, and not simply schools and districts. Of course, schools and districts have paid for technology; that’s not necessarily the case with this new “grassroots,” direct-to-teachers approach. It's free. It's freemium.
And hence, concern that the investment in education startups far outpaces their revenue, their value and once again, we've got murmurs of a bubble.
But I think asking “is there a bubble in ed-tech?” is the wrong question. Or at least, it’s not a question I’m going to worry about right now — despite all the hype and hullaballoo about education startups.
In part, I think the question “is there a bubble in ed-tech?” asks us to assess the wrong metrics of “value” in response. Is the “value” only what matters to investors and entrepreneurs in terms of financial return? What then is the value of ed-tech to schools? What value does ed-tech offer learners? Is the purpose of education connected to this “value”? These definitions matter, I’d argue, as they shape the way we think about the space.
Concerns about bubbles are connected to a financial framing. I fear that feeds the rather self-congratulatory notion that without the hype and the financial lure we’d pique neither entrepreneurs’ nor investors’ interest in education entrepreneurship. And that in turn just reaffirms the wrongheaded notion that it takes the profit motive to have innovation in education.
I worry too that handwringing over a looming ed-tech bubble frames education as an investment that individuals make (whether they’re investors, entrepreneurs, or students). Education in this frame isn’t about civics or society or public responsibility, nor is it about intellectual curiosity, reciprocity or the joy of learning something that has no (job) market value. In this frame, education delivers returns. Financial returns.
That’s not how I frame education. It’s not how I frame ed-tech.
When we do frame it this way — and I do think that this is probably Catalano’s fear too and it's not just a fear about bubbles but about markets in general — we find ourselves dragging schools and students and teachers into a maelstrom. It's one where we frame technology and success in terms of startups’ financial value but not their suckitude, or we shrug when startups suck because they'll just fail fast regardless of the repercussions to users (teachers, learners, schools). It's one where users' learning data, experiences, actions must be monetized. It's one where we wring our hands about user acquisition and business models and then neglect to wrestle with questions about learning, agency, inquiry, or curiosity; one where where we track the growth and viability of startups and not the growth of public knowledge or human capacity.
If we worry now "is there an ed-tech bubble?", I fear we’ve already lost the argument for "why ed-tech?" in the first place.