Tony Parkin delves into an edtech Meetup to check out the world of 'edupreneurs' and lucre

When C P Snow wrote of The Two Cultures he was referring to the contrasting worlds of the arts and the sciences, a division in educational philosophies that remains to this day. But maybe if he was writing today he might instead address the wider cultural gap between those who feel education should be free of market forces, and those who view it as a vertical market sector.

The latter believe a new breed of 'teacherpreneur' should be able to bring about revolutionary change to what they refer to as an education market ripe for development. 

Whatever your viewpoint, there are undoubtedly exciting and transformative things happening in the educational startup space. Creative teachers, or recent graduates with ideas to improve on their own experience of education, are now being offered far greater opportunities to put these concepts into practice.

New structures from 'the mixing of commercial oil and education water'

Education startups are springing up everywhere, competing to join incubators and accelerators, and aspiring to transform education in a way far removed from the traditional routes typically experienced via established publishers and more traditional education suppliers. And fascinating new structures and organisations are appearing that attempt to foster the mixing of commercial oil and education water. 

The recent "EdTech Investing - Advice from the Experts" Meetup, held near Aldgate, fittingly in the City of London, offered a great opportunity to see just such an attempt to link the two cultures in action. Hosted by Charles WilespiccharleswilesCharles Wiles of Zzish, the online education apps platform, the meetup did just what it said on the tin.

The neon wall sign (pictured above) exhorted us to "Get S#!t Done", and that is exactly what happened. The evening offered a mixed audience of teachers, investors, potential investors and would-be education startups a good hard look at the real business landscape for those contemplating joining the 21st century educational equivalent of the Gold Rush. And it did not disappoint.

Setting the scene, Charles pointed out just how much gold is estimated to be in ‘them thar hills’. In 2014 the value of the elearning global market was estimated at $165 billion, which sounds a lot until placed in the context of the $5.5 trillion wider education market, meaning that only a few per cent of the market is currently going digital. But with a growth rate of more than 5 per cent, this global market is expected to reach almost $250 billion by 2022.

Like the growing health sector, this amount of hard currency is enough to get investors excited, and to fuel the ongoing tension between public service and market sector factions.  Lots of other big numbers followed from Charles – a $38 billion mobile learning market by 2020, the Scandinavian startup Kahoot! already being used in 180 countries, with 50 million registered users, including 1.5 million educators. Appetites whetted, the audience turned to the panel to hear how they could get on board.

picfrancescawarnerFrancesca WarnerThe panel of experts assembled was truly impressive, and there was a certain irony that the meetup had assembled for free the sort of advice that those who traditionally run such events would charge a fortune for. The classroom is not the only space that this education revolution is disrupting, though I suspect fewer tears will be spilled on either side for those event organisers who have traditionally charged both parties an arm and a leg to attend such occasions. 

Over the next two hours there was a veritable avalanche of great insights, advice and practical common sense. From the very start the experts stressed just how challenging investing and developing for the education sector can be. Francesca Warner (left) of Downing Ventures pointed out that the tendency to focus on the schools market was generally unhelpful, and that the lifelong learning market was probably more exciting and accessible. Everyone agreed that breaking into the schools market as a startup was extremely challenging. 

picalangreenbergAlan GreenbergAlan Greenberg (right), who some will remember from his days at Apple Education, identified some areas that he felt were drivers for investment – curation and content development, accreditation and assessment, and data-driven solutions, the latter being the most difficult and ambiguous but also offering a huge opportunity. 

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet (below left), of EdTechXGlobal, probably surprised no one by pointing out how conservative and resistant to change education institutions are, but he did raise hopes and smiles by pointing that probably only the Pope and masseuses are safe-guarded from job losses, and went on to identify the mobile elearning, lifelong learning and retraining sectors as being particularly ripe for development.

Developing world ripe for edtech development

picBenVedrenneCloquetBenjamin Vedrenne-CloquetEd Cooke, co-founder of language-learning app Memrise, identified the developing world as having the most room for edtech development, as well as a greater willingness to engage with change. He felt the real opportunities for education startups lay in the areas of cognition and learning, as the big guns were still largely concerned with the people and organisation management end of the market. The irrepressible Australian investor and edtech business commentator Dick Taylor (below right) suggested the area of tutoring as of great interest, since it has been shown to be highly effective and open to edtech development via a few high-profile pilots - such as Sugata Mitra’s famous 'granny cloud' - but still relatively underexploited as a market.

The insights and discussions kept on coming. Was freemium the way to go? How quickly did conversion rates to premium need to be? Could there be more micro-transactions? Why is legible handwriting still such a boundary leap in every education system on the planet? Are learners in the developed world over-stimulated and struggling with information overload? Why is there such a torrent of opinion and dearth of evidence about which of the various learning models are actually effective?  Why is there not more focus on cognitive gains? These experts knew their stuff, and while you might not have agreed with everything they said, there was no doubting their credibility in saying it.  And the sound common sense was there in abundance – as Dick Taylor put it at one point, there are no friction-free models or free lunches in the edtech space, so robust and costed business plans, with workable principles beyond the money-burning marketing and awareness-raising phases, are key. 

picrichardtaylor200Dick TaylorFor me a superbly informative session was capped by the debate that occurred when someone mentioned "exit strategy". For those unfamiliar with the term, this is the goal that many young startups have from the get-go, usually involving someone buying up their exciting young business for zillions and allowing them to retire on the proceeds. The experts were unanimous in their verdicts – startups or investors who started an education project with an ‘exit strategy’ in mind were in the wrong market.

All were agreed that education models required a five- to ten-year strategy: it’s definitely a long-term business and not for those seeking to build quickly and sell out. Alan Greenberg also pointed out that your initial local startup may well need to be reinvented more than once to get to scale and success over time. Education is not ‘get rich quick territory’, but there are considerable sums now being steered towards it, organisations established to help sustain and nurture new ideas, and lots of reasons to be positive about the UK’s edtech landscape. 

'Huge chasm between business world and the more rarefied corridors of academia and education'

For many working in education there has always seemed to be a huge chasm between the drivers and success measures of the business world, and those of the rather more rarefied corridors of academia and education. There’s been a perpetual 'two cultures' approach, with many educators being suspicious and mistrusting the motives and value systems of those from the commercial sector. 

This is not a new phenomenon, and there have been numerous attempts to develop approaches to help bring these two worlds together for their mutual benefit. Strategies such as work placement opportunities, sponsorship of specialist schools, the setting up of Business and Enterprise Colleges, and the introduction of business governors have all endeavoured to break down the gap.

picedtechinvestAldgate'New generation of teachers, startups and investors' (pic Tony Parkin)Educational publishers, edtech suppliers and examination boards have long worked hard at integrating the commercially viable with the educationally acceptable. The BETT Show has traditionally hosted smaller companies - those driven by great ideas and a passion for education, not just the bottom line - alongside the giants. Think 2Simple Software, Rising Stars and Crick Software for example. These edtech investment sessions are only the latest approach in a long history of attempts to engineer rapprochement.

Trust issues clearly remain, the most common battleground still probably being the thorny relationship between the purpose of education and its relation to the workplace. Educators resent being cast as producers of a factory-ready workforce, rather than holistically developed children, and businesses resent the nation’s wealth apparently producing school-leavers that they consider to be unemployable. 

The old "those that can do, those that can’t teach" thinking lurks just below the skin of many in business, like a form of 'ism' ready to break out whenever the debate gets heated. This tension can even be seen at government department level, with the former DTI and modern BIS both appearing to be almost at war with the Department for Education (or its predecessors) in many of their educational interventions and initiatives. 

But this age-old schism is far less obvious in the brave new world of edtech startups and their essential investors. While some players may be in the game for the wrong reasons, it was clear from the conversations I had over drinks with those attending the event that the vast majority in attendance had improving education, and the digital technologies that support it, at heart. If sessions like this one are anything to go by there is a new generation of teachers, startups and investors who are better equipped than ever before to help bridge this great divide.

More information  

EdTech Developers Meetup events  
See also articles on edtech entrepreneurship, "Who's Investing in EdTech (2010-2016)" by Audrey Watters, and EdSurge's "Education Technology Deals Reach $1.6 Billion in First Half of 2015"

Tony ParkinTony Parkin, former head of ICT development at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (The Schools Network) and now an independent consultant, describes himself as a 'disruptive nostalgist'. He can be contacted on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.or on Twitter via @tonyparkin