Silicon Valley’s Billionaires Are Excited About EdTech. Here’s Why

Silicon Valley’s Billionaires Are Excited About EdTech. Here’s Why

Entrepreneurs and tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Google are increasingly turning their attention to education, lured by the possibility of an Airbnb-style disruption to the current system.

Leaders at these companies have poured millions into technologies they believe will revolutionize the way students learn. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Dr. Priscilla Chan, are championing personalized learning software that customizes education for each child. Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings is applying the company’s algorithms, already so successful at predicting the most binge-worthy television shows, to math learning games.

There are many more examples. Some organizations predict that by 2020, as much as $252 billion will be invested in education technology, shorthanded as “EdTech.”

That rapid growth and intense interest from private companies raises several questions. Key among them: What can Silicon Valley-style innovation do for public education and at what cost? To learn more, UVA Today spoke with a graduate of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and two experts from UVA’s Curry School of Education.

  • Larry Lenhart is a 1990 Darden graduate and CEO of HotChalk, a software and services company partnering with nonprofit colleges and universities to deliver online education programs for lifelong learning. HotChalk uses data analytics to ensure high student graduation rates and outcomes through online graduate degrees. For example, the company recently partnered with New York University on a one-year master’s program allowing aspiring teachers to apprentice in urban schools nationwide while taking online classes with NYU faculty.
  • Bart Epstein, a 1999 graduate of UVA’s School of Law, is the founding CEO of the Jefferson Education Accelerator, managing director of its companion Jefferson Education Fund and a research associate professor at the Curry School. The accelerator, launched by the Curry School, partners with entrepreneurs to pilot new technologies in schools and helps school leaders find technologies that meet classroom needs. Before launching the accelerator, Bart spent a decade building Tutor.com into the world largest online tutoring and homework help service. 
  • Robert Pianta is the dean of the Curry School and founding initiator and chair of the board of the Jefferson Education Accelerator. He is also the founder and chair of the board of Teachstone Training, a company using EdTech to improve the ways teachers interact with students. Pianta and his team developed and tested the first completely online teacher coaching program, MyTeachingPartner, as well as an online course, that have both fostered proven gains in teachers’ effectiveness.

Below, these experts offer a primer on the growing industry.

The ubiquity of the internet and the proliferation of smartphones make it easier than ever to get new information, apps and education platforms in front of children and adults. Education itself also cuts across industry lines, building influence across wide swaths of the workforce.

“Education is a market that affects many other markets,” Lenhart said. “For example, it could dramatically change how we educate health care providers and deliver health care. There is great opportunity to positively impact not just the community, but the nation and the world.”

According to Epstein, the vast majority of education technology startups do not make it, often because of the layers of bureaucracy required to adopt new technologies in the classroom.

“They fail at a higher rate because selling in the education space is fantastically complicated,” he said. “School leaders are overwhelmed and have over 6,000 different products to choose from, often with little guidance or support.”

The Jefferson Education Accelerator focuses mostly on growth-stage companies – those that have made it past the startup phase – and also trains educators and administrators to discern the most effective technology for their classrooms, something Epstein cites as an urgent need.

“There is a huge amount of work that we need to do collectively to help educators figure out which products are most likely to be a good fit for their classroom,” he said. “Right now, that process is highly inefficient.”

Zuckerberg recently set a goal of bringing “personalized learning” to at least a billion students. Specifically, Zuckerberg is interested in software that allows students to self-direct and customize lessons, with teachers serving as mentors and aides when students struggle.

Pianta said that personalized learning could help close achievement gaps, but did not believe it should, or could, entirely take over classroom teaching.

“If you render a curriculum in a very individualized way, that is diagnostic of children’s individual learning needs, that has great potential for dealing with the individual paces of different learners, especially those with skills gaps,” he said. “I think it could be a very useful tool for teachers.”

Pianta cautioned that corporate involvement in education must come with strings attached.

“It would not be wise for the public concerns to easily yield to private interests on this,” Pianta said. “We have to figure out how the interests of these companies and the public concerns can be made extraordinarily explicit and transparent.”

He would like to see appropriate governance structures and safeguards put in place before widespread implementation of plans like Zuckerberg’s.

Epstein also said privacy is a concern.

“As in other industries, there are risks present in handing over large amounts of data,” he said. “We need well-trained, thoughtful administrators to be smart consumers and enforce strong protections for student data privacy.”

Despite privacy concerns, big data has a big role to play. Lenhart cited data analytics as among the most crucial services his company offers, using it to tailor offerings to student and employer needs. 

“We can use data science to help find the right student, improve retention and graduation rates, to better fit students to employers and to help employers better develop their employees,” he said.

Of course, EdTech is only as successful as it is effective.

“If these tools don’t deliver what they promise, they are likely not doing any good, and in some cases may even be doing harm,” Pianta said.

Universities can provide research data measuring technologies’ impact in the classroom. In preparation for the Jefferson Education Accelerator’s symposium on the efficacy of EdTech last spring, researchers from the Curry School led yearlong working groups reviewing research literature, conducting their own research and ultimately making recommendations in recently released reports.

“Institutions of higher education have a unique role in both bringing together a variety of constituents and leading the way in evaluating the efficacy of these tools,” Pianta said.

Because many education decisions are made locally in the United States, with various entrenched systems at work, change could come slowly.

“Evidence exists that EdTech can improve teaching and learning in a wide range of classrooms,” Pianta said. “We need to do a better job of getting those effective tools into the hands of teachers, while weeding out those that are ultimately a distraction.”

Lenhart stressed that entrepreneurs and investors need to be in it for the long haul, recognizing that immediate and widespread change is unlikely. 

“This is not a business you get into just to make money,” Lenhart said. “You have to have a passion for education and learning, and take a long-term view of the change you want to see.”

But, as Epstein put it, there is tremendous potential.

“Education is one of the few industries that has yet to be really transformed by technology, as aviation, medicine, accounting and many others have,” he said. “That is one of the reasons people are so excited about it.”

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

University News Associate Office of University Communications