Note: Kin has this very smart work-hack where he takes email inquiries – particularly those that he receives again and again and again – and turns them into blog posts. Then, instead of responding to each at length, he can respond with a link to said blog post. I received an email from the Educator Writers Assocation’s Mikhail Zinshteyn, asking about the shape of ed-tech investment, and I decided to answer it here (with his permission), because I think it’s a question that others have as well.
I’m hoping I could have you school me on the cottage industry of education market investors and forecasters. GSV Advisors comes to mind, mostly because of its annual summit in partnership with Arizona State University.
Do you know anything about GSV Advisors, as in whether they’re a good reader of Silicon Valley education trends and if they put out material that shines a light on the for-profit K–12, higher-ed education market? And if not them, who else could guide reporters through this black box of education investment?
And finally, who’s monitoring what these firms are peddling and whether anything they’re offering is useful for teachers and students?
In 2012, I wrote an article “Who’s Investing in Ed-Tech?” It remains one of the most popular posts on Hack Education, even though it’s several years old now. It explains a bit how venture capital works, and it lists some of the best known investors in education technology, along with a few of the companies they’ve funded. No doubt its popularity reflects how often folks query “who’s investing in ed-tech?”
Who’s Investing Now?
In 2014, the most active investors in education technology were: NewSchools Venture Fund, 500 Startups, Learn Capital, LearnLaunchX, Kapor Capital, GSV Capital, TechStars, Andreessen Horowitz, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Deborah Quazzo.
(From April of last year, here’s the list of the most active ed-tech investors since 2009.)
I’m not sure that the activity of investors necessarily reflects their influence in dictating the conversation about the direction of education or ed-tech. Who shapes the story about the direction of ed-tech? Is it investors? Is it “the market”? Is it the publications that write about ed-tech?
It’s worth noting that many of those listed above are also investors in Edsurge, a publication that is probably the most active in narrating the current ed-tech investment and implementation story. Among the investors in Edsurge include the Women’s Venture Capital Fund, Dale Dougherty (of MAKE Magazine), Catamount Ventures, Steve Blank, Lynda Weinman (founder of Lynda.com), GSV Capital, NewSchools Venture Fund, John Katzman (founder of 2U, the Princeton Review, and Noodle), Learn Capital, The Washington Post Company (owner of the for-profit Kaplan), Allen & Company, and Nancy Peretsman.
Edsurge maintains a vast database on ed-tech products (as does Common Sense Media – like Edsurge, this is Gates Foundation-funded).
Edsurge also publishes a regular report on ed-tech investment and market analysis ($). Other sources for investment data: Crunchbase (free), CB Insights ($), Mattermark ($), and the US Securities & Exchange Commission (free).
I’ve also started tracking on ed-tech investments here. The data there is (freely) available in a spreadsheet as well as in JSON (the former updated weekly, the latter monthly).
Some venture capital firms make their investment theses really clear, publishing blog posts and reports detailing the trends they’re watching and funding. Examples: NewSchools Venture Fund’s blog and University Ventures'letter.”
Some individual investors also blog or (god help us) “tweet storm.” Examples: Albert Wenger from Union Square Ventures and Frank Bonsal III from New Markets Venture Partners.
But it’s hard to tell sometimes if investors write about what they’re seeing or what they hope to see (in order for their investments and their politics to be successful).
The Politics of Ed-Tech Investing
Education technology investment is closely aligned with education reform efforts. As such, ed-tech investment shouldn’t simply be read in terms of the “business of ed-tech” but is also connected to the “politics of ed-tech.”
A few notable examples of this:
GSV’s founder Deborah Quazzo is on the board of the Chicago Public Schools. Since she joined the board, her investment portfolio companies have seen an additional $2.9 million in business from the district.
Ted Mitchell, once the CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, is now the Under Secretary at the US Department of Education. (His replacement at NSVF: Stacey Childress, formerly with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.) One of NSVF’s donors is David Welch, who bankrolled the Students Matter group that led the legal charge against California’s teacher tenure laws. One of the student plaintiffs in the case was the daughter of a Rocketship employee. Rocketship, a chain of charter schools, is part of NSVF’s investment portfolio. A non-profit organization investing in both charter schools and ed-tech startups, NSVF recently announced it was spinning off its investment wing for the latter into a separate for-profit endeavor.
Kapor Capital’s investment strategy presents a different angle on the future of technology. The firm's mission demands “positive social impact.” And that really shapes what sorts of ed-tech the firm seeks to support (that is, it doesn't want to exacerbate the achievement gap, for starters). The company’s co-founder Freada Kapor Klein is also the founder of the Level Playing Field Institute, which “is committed to eliminating the barriers faced by underrepresented people of color in STEM and fostering their untapped talent for the advancement of our nation.” The mission of the LPFI bleeds into a lot of Kapor Capital’s investments. (It is the only VC firm that I would recommend to those looking for ed-tech investment. Confession: Freada and Mitch are two of my favorite people in technology.)
The Stories and The Money that Tell Them
Stories about the future of education and education technology are often crafted by those investing in those very futures. They’re repeated and amplified by those who are invested – in different ways – in the story.
We see this in Bill Gates’ promotion of Khan Academy, for example – a story that was swept up into powerful TED talks and from there into the larger public (media) discourse. We see this in hype about MOOCs (ditto for the TED talk, media talk distribution). We see this in the work of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, which takes a specific stand – shocking, I know – on disruptive innovation and education technology.
We should recognize, of course, that all of this ed-tech investment and all of this ed-tech storytelling doesn’t necessarily come from “industry outsiders” or upstarts. The investment firm Learn Capital, for example, once boasted Pearson as its largest limited partner (a link to the boast now 404’s). Big, established education industry players eat little ed-tech startups. That's how venture capital works.
So we do need to pay attention to who and how these stories of ed-tech funding and ed-tech disruption get told, knowing that these stories feed investment bankers and multinational corporations more than they ever feed progressive change.
I’d say one of the most powerful storytellers for Silicon Valley’s vision of the future is Marc Andreessen. I can’t tell you what he’s said lately on Twitter because he’s blocked me. But he’s been known to be a proponent of a more automated future, for example. Robots replacing workers. And he’s had a lot to say about the problems he sees with public education: "I wouldn’t want to back a business that’s selling to public schools or characterized by public financing, unions, or government-run institutions. Those institutions are incredibly hostile to change," he told EdSurge in 2011. His firm is an investor in AltSchool, (Rap) Genius, Kno, and Udacity, for what it’s worth.
Of course, I think it’s also worth pointing out that Andreessen was an undergraduate at a public university, the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, when he took the idea of a web browser – something that the university had developed as Mosaic – and left to spin that idea into a for-profit company (Netscape). And his partner, Ben Horowitz, is the son of David Horowitz, who campaigned throughout the last few decades against the “liberal indoctrination” at the hands of higher education’s liberal professoriate.
All this history matters, when we talk about the present and the future of (public) education. All this history matters when we hear stories that technology is going to "disrupt" those public institutions.
So when we ask “who’s investing in ed-tech?” that means too that we can’t simply look at the dollar flow for our answer. We must consider ideology flow as well. We can’t uncritically trust those who say they’re telling the story of twenty-first-century ed-tech investment. We can’t do so without looking at who’s subsidizing their particular narrative and without questioning why the story of funding and “usefulness” looks a certain way – why it’s focused on venture capital, for example and why it’s focused on startups and not schools. We need to pause and consider why this narrative casts innovation as something that happens outside of education institutions.
Whose story of the future of ed-tech is represented by funding dollars? Whose voice is lost by the flood of dollars into education technology?
Why do we believe that venture capital funding flows to good ideas? Who tells us those stories? Who defines "good ideas" and "good investments" in education?