This is part eleven of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories”
In May, venture capitalist and former securities analyst Mary Meeker released her annual “Internet Trends” report. The report is always a big deal in technology circles – “a tech industry event in its own right,” as Wired’s Steven Levy put it in 2012 – and many publications and pundits dutifully cover Meeker’s observations, often adding very little analysis of their own.
Among the major trends Meeker identified for 2017: mobile advertising, gaming, and healthcare. She also noted the growth of markets in China and in India.
Another notable area of growth: the size of the report itself, which has expanded from 66 slides in 2011 to 355 this year, with the number of slides almost doubling in the last year alone. Longer doesn’t necessarily mean better or smarter (as readers of this series will surely attest), and some observers wondered if the length of Meeker’s report reflected a lack of focus on her part or a lack of innovation on the part of the industry itself. There are, after all, only so many times you can put “mobile” on your list of “what’s on the horizon” before folks begin to suspect your insights might not be that… insightful.
Much of what Meeker says in this year’s report about education is placed under her category “gaming.” She posits gaming as the new site for “modern learning,” with an emphasis on skills training and data-driven self-improvement.
I admit, I find this both an odd and a striking observation. Although I’ve written extensively in this series about the ways in which education is being framed in terms of “skills” and “data” and about how “behaviorism” – an older term for “gamification,” I’d wager – is growing more and more influential over how education products and policies are designed, I haven’t seen much indication this year that the future of education (or even the future of ed-tech) is “gaming” per se. (Although no doubt, Microsoft, now the owner of Minecraft, would like us all to repeat that particular storyline.) That this is how a venture capitalist would characterize the future of education is, nonetheless, quite notable.
And it raises a number of questions, I think: how good is Mary Meeker at actually identifying and analyzing Internet trends? (Hacker News commenters complained that she made no mention in her report of the blockchain or cryptocurrencies or Initial Coin Offerings. But guys, that might mean those aren’t actually “a thing.”) How accurate are her observations? How accurate is her data? (I’d contend that the slide on the rapid acceleration of technology adoption, for starters, is dead wrong.)
Why do so many people in the industry insist that this is “essential reading”? Why do people love to be told about “trends”?
Tom Webster, the VP of strategy at the market research firm Edison Research, argued that the report should be viewed as “an extremely effective piece of content marketing,” pointing to the number of slides that cite data about or by a portfolio company of Meeker’s employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Smith Caulfield. “Why are there 72 slides about gaming, from a company invested in EA, Zynga, Mobcrush, and Magic Leap?” he asks. “Why is there a slide about Peloton? Is this really a trend? Would it be valuable to KPCB if it were?”
(For what it’s worth, Kleiner Perkins made just one major investment in education in 2017, participating in Coursera’s $64 million round this summer. KPCB partner John Doerr also invested in the “college alternative” MissionU.)
“Think critically about what has, and has not, been covered in this deck,” Webster urges. “Think about how much the report’s heft and quality lowers your defenses. And consider how much of the deck is about Internet Trends, and how much is a statement about KPCB’s portfolio. There is much to learn from the Meeker report. It’s just not what you think.”
The same could be said about so many of the reports and so much the writing that came out of the ed-tech industry this year. (It holds true for my work too, of course.) Why are certain types of technologies (and certain types of users) featured? Who and what is missing? Who is telling the stories, and who is funding the stories, and how much of ed-tech journalism ends up reflecting their “portfolio,” if you will – the political and financial investments certain people have made in a certain type of future.
There may be no better example of this in 2017 than “personalized learning.” There were hundreds upon hundreds of headlines this year, many touting the promise of new technologies to tailor teaching to each individual learner.
“Personalized learning” has powerful advocates, least of which US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who talks about it as part of her broader initiative to “rethink school.” DeVos likes to contrast stories about “personalized learning” with a narrative about school not changing in hundreds of years, about school not recognizing individual student’s needs, about schools forcing students to all learn the same material at the same pace. “It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons and denies futures,” she told a crowd at a school in my hometown of Casper, Wyoming this fall. “Personalized learning,” we must imagine if we believe DeVos’s lyricism here, will be shinier.
I say “must imagine” because there isn’t really much research that supports the claims that “personalized learning” advocates make about it. There was a RAND study, funded by the Gates Foundation and released this summer, that did find modest gains for students in schools (that were funded by the Gates Foundation to utilize “personalized learning”) that tailored instruction to their needs, but the researchers cautioned against reading too much into the results and urged schools not to rush into buying new products or implementing new initiatives. There’s really no agreed-upon definition of “personalized learning” after all, and as such no real way to measure how many or how well schools are actually implementing it. Whatever “it” is.
So is “personalized learning” really a “trend”?
The lack of research hasn’t stopped the positive press coverage. Nor has it stopped Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from making “personalized learning” a centerpiece of his venture philanthropy firm’s education work or from vowing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on it. Indeed, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has paid for some of that very press coverage, funding for example “an EdSurge Research series about how personalized learning is implemented in different school communities across the country.”
How Philanthropy Shapes “Ed-Tech Trends”
It’s hard to overstate how much influence philanthropic organizations have had on education policy, now and throughout US history. According to David Callahan, editor of the website Inside Philanthropy and author of the 2017 book The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy, philanthropists have more power than ever before, and “that influence is likely to grow far greater in coming decades.”
While civil society was a junior partner in the twentieth century relative to government and business, this is changing: Philanthropy is becoming a much stronger power center and, in some areas, is set to surpass government in its ability to shape society’s agenda. To put things differently, we face a future in which private donors – who are accountable to no one – may often wield more influence than elected public officials , who (in theory, anyway) are accountable to all of us.
No longer is this simply a matter of making a donation and getting one’s name on a university building – although there is still plenty of that. Philanthropy today shapes policy. It shapes discourse.
No contemporary billionaire has shaped the policy and the discourse in education quite like Bill Gates. The amount of money distributed by his philanthropy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is simply staggering: some $15 billion across some 3000+ grants since the organization was founded in 1998. The Gates Foundation has backed a variety of education reform initiatives: charter schools, the Common Core State Standards, “small schools,” inBloom, teacher evaluations, and yes, “personalized learning.” He has backed these initiatives financially; and he has backed the publications and conferences that promote these sorts of efforts. The policy and the discourse.
In October, Gates announced to the attendees at the Council of the Great City Schools that his foundation plans to spend $1.7 billion in the next five years on education initiatives. But, Gates added, “our education efforts are evolving.”
The foundation will no longer directly invest in new initiatives involving teacher evaluations and ratings, Gates said – something the foundation has spent almost a billion dollars on – but will continue to gather data on the impact of these kinds of reforms. The foundation will focus on “locally-driven solutions” that networks of schools say are working well, using “data-driven continuous learning and evidence-based interventions to improve student achievement.” It will help to develop curricula and professional development aligned to state standards. It will continue to support charter schools, helping them with challenges like developing students’ “social and emotional skills.” And it will fund “innovative” research to “accelerate progress for underserved students.”
No mention of “personalized learning” in that outline, something that the Gates Foundation first started funding back in 2000 in some of its earliest grants “to support personalized learning environments where all students achieve.” Why, it’s almost as though there is some other tech billionaire who will now pick up the mantle for that cause…
There are many other billionaires – and not just tech billionaires, of course – who are active in education philanthropy and as such, education policy and education discourse. The Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart fame and fortune), for example, which pledged last year to spend $1 billion in K–12 education in the next five years, much of it going to fund charter schools. The Eli and Edith Broad Foundation, whose founder Eli Broad announced this year he was stepping down from his philanthropy. The Sackler family – dubbed by The New Yorker this year as “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” because of its role in funding the opiate industry – has backed a variety of education philanthropies and invested in a variety of education companies (including AltSchool). The Charles Koch Foundation, which gave some $50 million last year to universities and think tanks to support “free market ideas.” (I talk a bit about the Koch Brothers in part seven of this series that examines “free speech” on campus.) The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which has given money to charter schools (including Success Academy Charter Schools), media organizations (including The 74), and conservative education organizations (including Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education). (Perhaps that name, Betsy DeVos, is familiar. I have mentioned her once or twice in this series.)
Some of this is what Jane Mayer describes in her 2016 book Dark Money – the powerful and secretive networks of right-wing billionaire activists. Some of this is what was revealed this year in the release of the Paradise Papers – a trove of documents that show how wealthy individuals (and wealthy corporations and wealthy universities) keep their money in shell companies and offshore accounts, so as to avoid taxes. (According to The Givers, the US Treasury has estimated that charitable tax breaks will total some $740 billion over the next decade, although this calculation came prior the recent GOP tax plan that altered how the middle class benefits from these sorts of deductions.)
To avoid taxes and to avoid scrutiny.
To its credit, the Gates Foundation does make the list of its grant recipients publicly available on its website. (I spent some time this summer going through that list and compiling all the education-related ones – you can find that work on funding.hackeducation.com, including details of the $235-ish million in grant funding that went to education projects this year.)
But others in education philanthropy, particularly venture philanthropy, are far less transparent. The Emerson Collective, the investment firm run by Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs, is notoriously opaque about its investments. Edsurge, for example, received funding from the company this year, but there was no public announcement to that end.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for its part, has opted for a different organizational structure – an LLC – enabling it to avoid the kinds of disclosure that the IRS requires of foundations like the Gates’. As Jesse Eisinger wrote in a scathing article in The New York Times when Mark Zuckerberg announced the initiative back in 2015,
An L.L.C. can invest in for-profit companies (perhaps these will be characterized as societally responsible companies, but lots of companies claim the mantle of societal responsibility). An L.L.C. can make political donations. It can lobby for changes in the law. He remains completely free to do as he wishes with his money. That’s what America is all about. But as a society, we don’t generally call these types of activities “charity.”
Despite the promises that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has made about investing hundreds of millions of dollars in personalized learning and other education projects, we don’t know how much has been invested or how much has been granted or where all that money has gone.
We did learn a little this year about what happened to that famous $100 million donation Zuckerberg made to Newark’s public schools – thanks to research underwritten by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: “by 2016, Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011. But the results are not uniformly positive. It finds no impact in math. And in both subjects, the reforms seem to have come with a cost: student achievement declined substantially in the first three years of the changes,” Chalkbeat reported this fall.
And we learned a little too about other CZI efforts based on the odd press release and media coverage: money to the College Board; money to Chiefs for Change; investments in Brightwheel, Sawyer, Andela, and Panorama Education. CZI hired Bror Saxberg, whose previous work was with the for-profit online charter school K12 Inc and the for-profit college Kaplan, as its learning scientist. It hired David Plouffe, Obama’s ex-campaign manager who had most recently worked at Uber. It hired former PayPal exec Peggy Abkemeier Alford as its CFO. It hired Joel Benenson, former Obama and Clinton political strategist. (Don’t worry. Mark Zuckerberg is totally not running for President.)
If the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a new model for ed-tech philanthropy, then it’s important to recognize how its lack of transparency reflects a growing influence of “dark money” in education and education technology. The policy and the discourse.
Venture Capital in 2017
You can find more data about “the business of ed-tech” – from 2017 and from previous years – on funding.hackeducation.com. Here are some of the numbers from this one:
- Amount of venture capital invested in 2017: $3.48 billion
- Number of investments: 198
- Average investment size: $19 million / Median investment size: $5 million
- Number of acquisitions: 86
- Number of mergers: 4
- Number of IPOs: 4
- Number added to the “ed-tech dead pool”: 4
The amount of investment is up from last year by over $1 billion. But it’s down from the record-setting year in 2015 – down by about $1 billion. The number of deals this year is also down from the two previous years, as is the number of acquisitions. That is, there were more large investments in fewer companies, but also fewer companies buying the little ones in turn.
The companies that have raised the most money in 2017 (not including the venture capital firms that have raised new funds):
- SoFi (private student loans) –- $500 million
- VIPKID (tutoring) – $200 million
- EverFi (“critical skills” training) –- $190 million
- Zuoyebang (tutoring) – $150 million
- Hero K12 (behavior management) –- $150 million
- Yuanfandao (tutoring) –- $120 million
- Grammarly (grammar and spelling assistance in exchange for your personal data) –- $110 million
- Xueba100.com (tutoring) -– $100 million
- Liulishuo (language learning) – $100 million
- Gaosi Education (tutoring) – $83.5 million
- BYJU’s (test prep) – $70 million
- Coursera (online education) –- $64 million
- Absorb (learning management system) – $59 million
- Changingedu (tutoring) – $55 million
- Yixue Education (online education) – $41 million
- Wonder Workshop (robotics) – $41 million
- AltSchool (private school; learning management system) – $40 million
- Prodigy Finance (student loans) – $40 million
These are (as far as I can tell) currently the most well-funded startups in education:
- SoFi (student loans) – $2.156 billion
- VIPKID (tutoring) – $325 million
- EverFi (“critical skills” training) – $251 million
- BYJUs (test prep) – $244 million
- Coursera (online education) – $210.1 million
- Yuanfandao (tutoring) –- $210 million
- Zuoyebang (tutoring) – $210 million
- Pluralsight (skills training) – $192.5 million
- Age of Learning (educational apps) – $181.5 million
- Udemy (skills training) – $173 million
- AltSchool (private school; learning management system) – $172.9 million
- Kaltura (video) – $166.1 million
- D2L (learning management system) – $165 million
- Udacity (skills training) – $160 million
- Knewton (mind-reading robo tutor in the sky) – $157.25 million
The most active venture capitalist firms this year:
- University Ventures (with investments in Smart Sparrow, AdmitHub, CollegeVine, Examity, Motimatic, OOHLALA, Paragon One, PeopleGrove, Packback, EquitySim, Evertrue, Vemo Education, MissionU, and Galvanize. I would argue that University Ventures is not only the most active investor but also the one most actively shaping discourse, with regular op-eds by partner Ryan Craig in Techcrunch and in Edsurge)
- Reach Capital (with investments in Abl, AdmitHub, BookNook, Epic, Holberton School, Mrs. Wordsmith, Mystery Science, Nearpod, PeopleGrove, Lightneer, Tinkergarten, Piper, BetterLesson, and OOHLALA)
- Rethink Education (with investments in Abl, Clark, Knowledge to Practice, Trilogy Education, Vidcode, Voxy, MissionU, Upswing, and Lessonly)
- GSV (with investments in CreativeLive, MasterClass, PeopleGrove, Raise.me, Voxy, Lightneer, Nearpod, Coursera, and Motimatic from GSV Acceleration, GSV Asset Management, and GSV Capital)
- Owl Ventures (with investments in Abl, Lingo Live, Raise.me, Tinkergarten, Piper, BetterLesson, Panorama Education, and Noodle Partners)
- Learn Capital (with investments in Coursera, Mystery Science, Outschool, Paragon One, MissionU, Springboard, and Peergrade)
Among the most popular areas of investment for venture capitalists:
- Tutoring, with ~ $667.42 million in funding
- Student loans, with ~ $583.8 million in funding (Financial aid management companies raised another $37.5 million this year)
- Online education, with ~ $358.85 million in funding
- Venture capital firms, with ~ $306.5 million in funding
- Language learning, with ~ $185.6 million in funding
- Behavior management, with ~ $150 million in funding
- Grammar and spelling assistance, with ~ $110 million in funding
- Coding bootcamps, with ~ $107.6 million in funding (Other learn-to-code companies raised about $22.89 million this year)
- Robotics, with ~ $99 million in funding
- Test prep, with ~ $80 million in funding
- Learning management systems, with ~ $65 million in funding
It’s worth considering, I think, whether or not the level of investment matches the hype: do the areas above coincide with the stories that we were most often told this year about what, supposedly, are “ed-tech trends.” Gaming – what Mary Meeker, if you’ll recall, positions as the future of learning – doesn’t make the list here, for example. Nor does “social emotional learning,” virtual reality, predictive analytics, wearables, or the other things likely to end up on various publications’ lists of trends. Are tutoring and test prep – pax Benjamin Bloom – actually what we can expect with investors’ and philanthropists’ push for “personalized learning”?
Looking at investment dollars doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, of what might be “trending” – of what’s popular, of what’s profitable, of (god knows) what’s pedagogically useful or ethically desirable.
One could look at other financial indicators, I suppose, to get a sense of the health and viability of certain trends (or at least, of certain businesses). Companies that were acquired in 2017, for example. The number of acquisitions was down from previous years, as some of the companies who, in previous years, gobbled up a lot of small startups, seem to be struggling financially. (Pearson, for one.) Or one could gauge “ed-tech trends” based on the companies that went out of business. This year, Yik Yak shut down, despite having raised some $73 million in venture funding. Two high-profile coding bootcamps, The Iron Yard and Dev Bootcamp, closed their doors. Or one could look at ed-tech companies that laid off staff: the coding bootcamp Galvanize, the analytics company Civitas Learning, the learning management system Schoology, MOOC provider Coursera, the education giant Pearson, for example. One could look at companies that made major shuffles in the executive boardrooms: a new CEO at Coursera, the departure of Coursera’s chief product officer, a new CEO at Knewton, the departure of Altschool’s COO, for instance.
Of course, it might not be possible (or wise) to glean “trends” from business patterns, despite the popularity of all those Mary Meeker slides. But it’s probably one way to surmise what investors are betting “the future of education” to look like. If that’s the case, that future might look like China, with over a quarter of venture capital in ed-tech this year going to Chinese companies – almost entirely to tutoring and test prep. Six out of the top ten largest rounds of funding went to Chinese companies. Three out of four of the education IPOs this year were Chinese companies. Three out of the best funded education startups are Chinese companies. There was lots of talk this year about Chinese’s growing influence and innovation in tech, so to borrow from a Fortune headline, will China emerge as an education technology superpower to rival the US? How will the growing demand for education in China shape the future of education technologically and the future of education globally?
(Yes, this series is focused primarily on the stories we were told about education and education technology in the US. For a quick overview of some of the other stories from other countries, you can read more on the 2017trends.hackeducation.com blog.)
For the past few years, I’ve noted that many in education technology have pointed to the procurement process as “the problem” – that that’s really what’s to blame when ed-tech (and the business of ed-tech) is terrible. Their “solution”: something I dubbed “procurement-as-a-service” – that is, a service offered to schools to help them make better and easier purchasing decisions. “Consulting” is probably the better word for it, in hindsight.
There were a string of events at the beginning of 2017 that made me think that this was going to become “a thing”:
- Edsurge announced in January that it would concentrate on its “Concierge” service, acting as a liaison between schools and industry and aiding the former in deciding which of the latter’s products to buy. “We’re taking a big step and committing ourselves to one goal,” Edsurge wrote. “Helping schools figure out what technologies can best help all of their students grow into people who can smartly navigate our complex, networked world.”
- Noodle Companies announced in January it had raised $5 million in venture capital. The company, founded by Princeton Review and 2U founder (and Edsurge investor) John Katzman, runs Noodle Markets, which helps schools with procurement.
- In February, Education Week reported that districts and schools will be able to make purchases online via Amazon through the US Communities cooperative.
- Education Week also reported in February that the State Educational Technology Directors Association had released a new website that offered guidelines on purchasing digital materials.
- In February, The Hechinger Report profiled LEAP Innovations, a Chicago-based non-profit, alongside the LearnLaunch startup accelerator program: “How some schools decide what education technology to buy.”
- In February, Education Dive profiled the Technology for Education Consortium, an organization whose members share data about what they’ve paid for ed-tech products, and its partnership with LearnPlatform. In April, Education Week’s Market Brief reported on a study by the consortium claiming school districts could save billions if they shared with one another the details about what they were paying for hardware and software.
But then in May, Edsurge suddenly pivoted again, announcing “the next stage” for its Concierge service: “Starting on June 1, EdSurge Concierge will no longer offer free, phone-based diagnostics to school and district administrators, nor will we make direct connections between administrators and company representatives.” Instead, it said it would offer some diagnostic tools online.
Around the same time, The New York Times began publishing Natasha Singer’s year-long investigative series into how education technology is being sold to classrooms, chronicling the ways in which Silicon Valley is changing what hardware, software, and curricula schools purchase. “Some tech moguls are taking a hands-on role in nearly every step of the education supply chain,” Singer wrote, “by financing campaigns to alter policy, building learning apps to advance their aims and subsidizing teacher training.” Edsurge, I’d suggest, may be a key piece of that supply chain, funded by the very same investors who’ve backed the products it covers and “trends” it promotes.
Singer’s series examined how tech companies are wooing school “gatekeepers” and decision-makers – how the Baltimore County Public Schools in particular made some of its tech procurement decisions, noting a tangle of relationships among education foundations, ed-tech advocacy groups, technology companies, and public officials (including the district’s superintendent Dallas Dance, who resigned suddenly in April and is now under investigation, in part for his connections to SUPES Academy, according to The Baltimore Sun, a company run by the former head of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who pleaded guilty in April to a bribery and kickback scheme).
Perhaps the most controversial (in some circles, at least) story in Singer’s series was her look at “brand ambassadors,” those educators who provide free marketing for ed-tech companies – receiving new products for use in their classroom (for free and as such outside the typical procurement process), promoting these products to other educators, and providing the companies with feedback. The story profiles two teachers – Nicholas Provenzano from Gross Pointe South High School in Michigan and Kayla Delzer from Mapleton Elementary School in North Dakota – who have leveraged their social media followings to become high profile “influencers” in education technology, shaping what other teachers learn about “ed-tech trends.”
Here’s part of what I wrote in response to that article:
“I am in this profession for kids,” these celebrity educators insist, not for money or fame. But altruism is not the same as justice.
“My kids have access to awesome things that, as a district, we could never afford,” teacher Nick Provenzano tells The NYT in justifying his relationship with a 3D printer company. The article takes that assertion at face value; many readers probably did too. Again, we all know that school budgets are tight. But “tight” is relative; budgets are relative. And Provenzano’s school is quite affluent. Just 7% of the students at his school qualify for the free and reduced lunch program – the state-wide average in Michigan is 38%, and 74% of students in the neighboring Detroit Public Schools qualify. Provenzano worries his English lit students won’t have a 3D printer; teachers (and parents) just 8 miles away in Detroit still have to worry about the lead in the city’s drinking water.
Inequality is rampant throughout public education in the United States (and yes, throughout the United States itself), and inequality affects not just how much money is allocated per student – funding is typically tied to property taxes – or how much teachers and families can afford and expect to spend in order to supplement that. These inequalities affect what sorts of education technology appears in the classroom and how these products are used. Some students get 3D printers; some students get digital drill-and-kill. Some students get colorful beanbags to sit in; some students have to walk through metal detectors.
Educational inequalities are historical and they are structural and they are dependent on class and race and geography. 86% of the students at Provenzano’s school are white; 80% of those at Kayla Delzer’s, the other teacher in The NYT story, are white (which is, in fairness, a reflection of the overwhelmingly whiteness of North Dakota). This stands in stark contrast to the percentage of students enrolled in public schools across the entire US who are white: less than 50%. The student-teacher ratio at Delzer’s schools is 8 to 1; it’s significantly higher – no surprise – in those classrooms in Detroit, which makes it difficult to imagine how a teacher there could adopt the “flexible seating” options that Delzer promotes with her social media profile.
The New York Times series raises a lot of questions about the ethics of ed-tech procurement – about “influence” and decision-making and one of today’s most powerful industries. But it raises questions too about the business of “ed-tech trends” and the power of ed-tech storytelling. We’d do well to consider how our imaginations about the future of education and education technology are shaped by the narratives we see promoted by education investors and education philanthropists and education trade shows and education companies and by the educators that regularly speak for them. What ends up on schools’ and students’ shopping lists because of these stories? What legislation ends up on politicians’ desks?
Imagine that, instead of fawning over future-oriented “trends” or the future promise of products – be they virtual reality or “personalized learning” or “flexible seating” or what have you, that education technology actually centered itself on ethical practices – on an ethics of care. And imagine if education’s investors, philanthropists, and practitioners alike committed to addressing, say, economic inequality and racial segregation instead of simply committing to buying more tech.
It’d be a whole different story…
Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on funding.hackeducation.com. You can read more at 2017trends.hackeducation.com.