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Can We Keep the EdTech Bubble From Bursting?

by Staff Writers

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. We can look back at the late ’90s and scoff that of course a boom based on people throwing money at any startup with a ".com" in its name was bound to end badly. But are we fairing any better at averting the bursting of an edtech bubble (or a Tech Bubble 2.0, for that matter)? With venture capital flooding into the education sector, dozens of companies popping up every day, thousands of schools buying into new technology, and millions of students and lifelong learners around the world getting on board, we need to ask if we’ve built the edtech house on a foundation of solid rock, or sand.

Why It Might Burst

Many pundits deny that there even is an edtech bubble; apparently the only way to know for sure is to wait until it pops, then look back and say, "Guess that was a bubble after all." We would argue that the factors below are pins pressing deep into the balloon of educational technology.

  • Overstating the benefits of technology:

    Bubbles get inflated by too many businesses jumping in on a trend, but they also get pumped up by people fanning the flames for all they’re worth. The media had a hand in the tech bubble’s explosion, and they’re running the risk of repeating history with edtech. "Khan Academy is the future of education!" "No, wait, it’s Audacity!" "Digital badges!" Believe it or not, this does a lot to sell the public on the idea because as a country we’re all looking for a way to pull ourselves out of the educational slump we’re currently mired in compared to the rest of the world. Edtech is a tool like any other that will always need qualified people to wield it effectively. So can we keep the bubble from bursting? Yes, if we’re all realistic about the potential returns of edtech.

  • Technology just for the sake of technology:

    It’s interesting how many schools trumpet technology initiatives like "one-to-one" tablet campaigns as achievements, without listing any accompanying positive results, as if just handing out the devices was a victory for education. In such cases, it’s clear the (usually affluent) school only did so because edtech is hot right now and jumping in is expected of them in order to keep pace with their competitors. It’s great if they actually have some good news they can claim in the way of improved test scores or enhanced creativity, because the largest one-to-one initiative in the U.S. roundly failed to impress. There’s no question that there’s a growing feeling in academia that more technology cannot be other than good, and that is cause for concern.

  • Tying educational technology to educational reform:

    Edtech entrepreneurs should beware letting their products get lumped in in too closely with educational reform, because the latter has a dismal record in the United States. Of course, they may already be too late. The Obama administration is bully on technology’s role in reform, which it calls "core and essential," while Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education claims digital learning is a critical part of its reform plans. As we’ve said, the boom doesn’t have to end, but we do need to resist the urge to bank too much on edtech to solve all our education problems.

What Needs to Happen

Even if the edtech bubble were to burst, much like the Internet after the dot-com rise and fall, it would still exist and would be the stronger for having been through it. Still, no one wants to see investment money go up in smoke, teacher and student time and effort wasted, or, worst of all, legitimately good ideas that could revolutionize education fail to materialize once a busted bubble dries up the lion’s share of venture capital. Here are some ways to prevent a collapse.

  • Bridge the gap between online learning and its public perception:

    In all the commotion of open online learning’s stratospheric rise, the cart seems to have been put before the horse. Yes, digital badges and resumes with completed Khan Academy courses are exciting developments, but in an era when an education is valuable only to the extent it results in gainful employment, they’re useless without acceptance from employers. To avoid a burst of the provider bubble, a paradigm shift in the public perception of self-guided learning will be necessary. Fortunately, edtech companies like Mozilla have recognized this and have begun chipping away at the old mentality that it’s traditional degrees or nothing.

  • Get more educators involved in edtech development:

    In a fall 2012 guest post for Venture Beat, professor Reynol Junco delicately pointed out that "most edtech startups suck." He placed partial blame for said sucking on the fact that startups "rarely, if ever" get input from a real live educator before making the product. The result is innovations that sound great on paper to investors but that teachers, parents, or students take one look at and shrug their shoulders instead of reaching for their wallets. The best thing edtech ventures could do for themselves would be to get an academic on the management team or to help with design. Not only would this in turn cut down on the junk that’s crowding the edtech market and reinforcing holdouts’ belief that all edtech is a waste of valuable resources, it would keep some bad investment destinations off the market.

  • Educate investors:

    One of the ingredients that created the huge dot-com soup we found ourselves in a decade ago was investors abandoning the fundamentals of investing. No need to look at business plans, we said; it’s the Internet! What could go wrong? Investors today need to know what to look for in a healthy edtech startup. (For example, does the venture have an academic involved?) This includes educators — as the end users of edtech innovations, they will be the ones "investing" not just money but teachers’ time learning new pedagogical methods and students’ futures. And with the financial constraints handcuffing many schools today, they can’t afford a big tech initiative that flops.