Social Entrepreneurs In Education: MIT’s Tips to Cash-In

Posted by on December 4, 2012 in Education, Entrepreneurship, Strategy, Tech

Social Entrepreneurs and Education: MIT's Tips to Cash-In

Improve education and your social enterprise will find a very large market.  But reaping rewards requires you understand educators, marry their process, and endure their time frames.

Fortunately for social entrepreneurs, educators and policy makers are under increasing pressure to deliver greater results for K-12 school.   And the right partnership of school districts, technology providers, and foundations can unlock returns.

That was the message from a panel hosted by the MIT Enterprise Forum Northwest on Obstacles and Opportunities for Entrepreneurs in Education. This recent event in Seattle showcased perspectives social innovators need to know.

Be Quick

Jessie Wooley-Wilson, Chair, President  & CEO of Dreambox Learning, an adaptive math curriculum company for the K-12 market, shared some interesting perspectives about the entrepreneurial challenges of education technology.  For instance, “teachers don’t have a lot of time”.  And moderator Frank Catalano, Principal of Intrinsic Strategy, noted that he has heard teachers say “if it takes more than two to five minutes to learn, they don’t have time to adopt it”.

Use Freemium, But Be Strategic

Wooley-Wilson pointed out that the freemium model works well because it helps educators accept the risk of new products.  But she cautioned that “you are lucky to get 1% to 2% of your customers to pay” and the risk, as an entrepreneur, is that you spend too much money marketing to customers who never convert to paying services.

Use Foundations As Venture Financing

At the same time, she pointed out that foundations can help school districts take risks by introducing new tools and measuring results.  If a software company wants to help a great teacher influence more students, there first has to be tools to measure what is great, she illustrated.

They can also help introduce new concepts, “like gamification”, continued Dr. Randy Reina, Senior Vice President, Digital Product Development, McGraw-Hill Education’s Center for Digital Innovation, “because [conventional wisdom is] kids shouldn’t be playing games in school”.

Know How Teachers Work

Part of the challenge is that just because a school district adopts new technology, doesn’t mean it will be rapidly embedded into the teaching pedagogy.  Lindsey Own, teacher, entrepreneur, and organizer of Startup Weekend Seattle EDU, pointed out that any “technology must be rooted in supporting learning in a specific way”, whether that be lecture, Socratic method, project based learning, or another form of accepted pedagogy.  And she continued that “often entrepreneurs involve teachers at the beta stage” which is too late.

Don’t Be Too Proud

Own pointed out that education reform can happen without technology, although technology can make it easier.  She also warned that entrepreneurs must be cautious in assuming that technology is broadly available to teachers, pointing out that even in her own “well endowed school district, not every child has access to a computer at home”. As baseline guidance, she said assume 50% of teachers have access to their own computer and internet in the classroom and assume there are four students per computer.

Know the System

Reina warned entrepreneurs that time frames in education can be slow.  So when you hear “a superintendent has gotten a bond approved to have a 1:1 ratio” of computer devices per student, be careful about your assumptions about when they will buy from you.   It could take another three to five years for the school district to stabilize how technology is used.

“Disk drives and front-end loaders were both disruptive technologies”, he illustrated.  But he pointed out that the time-frame of disk-drives was many time shorter than front-end loaders and he likened education’s adoption of technology more to the time frame of front-end loaders.

And Wooley-Wilson pointed out that while Maine achieved their targets on ratios of technology per student, they didn’t see an improvement in learning.

Common Core Isn’t Standardization

Reina and Wooley-Wilson both agreed that while Common Core would simplify the marketplace, in many ways educators are still grappling with how to implement it.  Wooley-Wilson illustrated an analogy “they’re thinking about basic needs like food and shelter and you’re trying to market ‘self-actualization’ to them”.

Nevertheless Own pointed out that in the past, text book publishers used to create textbooks that met standards for just Texas and California because those were the biggest markets.  So, in effect, Texas and California used to set the standard for the country.   With that in mind, Common Core’s concept of national standardization isn’t complete gamechanger.

Yet Reina pointed out that standardization wouldn’t be completely simple, since most states will use Common Core for 85% of the curriculum “which means you’ve got 50 variations of the other 15%”.

Manage Risk

Finally Wooley-Wilson pointed out it comes down to managing risk.  And as a social entrepreneur you have to find models that make it easy for customers to try your services for two reasons: 1) teachers really don’t have an incentive to try something new, particularly if they are already doing a good job and 2) sales cycles in education can be longer than what entrepreneurs can endure.

Education reform and Common Core will create opportunities for social entrepreneurs.  But these tips from the MIT Enterprise Forum demonstrate that cashing-in requires more than great social innovation, but also the right timing, planning, and strategy.

Kevin Owyang

Where I went to high school, “From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected” was a constant reminder from teachers and the very walls on which those words were emblazoned. Then I went to MIT. And, in time I would have responsibility for a $3.0 Billion book of business and play an instrumental role in raising $250 Million in venture funding. And through that I would learn the world has two standards of ethics – one for business and one for everything else. In many ways that was the first chapter of a journey that took me to today. Now, I just spend every moment spreading the word that Giving Back is the coolest, best way to spend your time. To read my whole story visit: Thanks!

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