December 2, 2012

The Education Startup Revolution

Young entrepreneurs take note: as the next post describes, jumping into the education space may be one of the smartest decisions in today’s market. Guest blogger Emma Collins builds on prior posts about IT business opportunities by walking through some of the most important features of the so-called “edupreneurial” landscape and highlighting a couple of new ventures worth paying attention to. Ms. Collins is on staff with MBAOnline, a web magazine for students considering Internet-based education. More information about the MBAOnline's 2012 ranking report, which was just recently published, is available from Emma’s main site.

The Rise of Edupreneurs and the MBA’s 
Infiltration of the Education Market

There was a time not so long ago when education was pretty straightforward. States regulated schools, and students learned according to set curricula; in college, the lecture-lab-exam format was all but universal. The advent of the Internet really has done a lot to shake that up. So-called “disruptive” education technology, whether promoted by large corporations or small businesses and innovators known as “edupreneurs,” has radically changed the landscape for better or worse. Classes are offered online. Apps make it easier than ever before to take notes, manage student debt, and communicate with teachers and professors. Elementary and high school classrooms are increasingly relying on digital technology. That infiltration is on the horizon is not disputed; the lingering question, though, is to what end.

Bringing Education to the Digital Space

Many of the earliest education technology entrepreneurs were corporations. Their main goal was to find ways of using the Internet to turn the hunger for knowledge into palpable profits. Early pioneers in this space—University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, and Capella University among them—received a lot of praise for making higher ed more approachable, not to mention cheaper, than it had ever been before.

As so often happens with such things, though, the market was soon flooded with imitators. The rise of “diploma mills” and illegitimate institutions tarnished the reputation of online schools in a hurry. “There is nothing wrong with schools providing a service and making money from it. And there are a number of for-profit colleges that provide a valuable education and much-needed opportunity to their students. But there are too many for-profit colleges that pressure students to enroll and make promises they cannot keep,” the Chicago Tribune said after evaluating some of the problems of modern online learning.

New Ventures and Market Need for Fresh Ideas

Online universities are still thriving, but are usually only appropriate for a limited sector of society. As technology has improved, however, so has innovators’ creativity and interest in finding new “ins” to the education space. Though it may seem somewhat contradictory, the education market is actually a big one for growth right now. On the surface, there remains a lot of suffering when it comes to budget constraints and international assessment ratings. In many respects, though, these flaws work as a sort of “bait” for crafty innovators.

Unlike for-profit corporations, many rising ventures have been created with the primary goal of actually improving things. “Many of these business owners pair a desire to prosper financially with a genuine sense of mission,” TIME magazine reported in a 2012 survey of new edtech ventures. “They aim to ‘disrupt’ education in productive ways, to introduce tools that will transform the way we learn just as other technologies have transformed the way we work, the way we communicate and the way we entertain ourselves.”

Looking Forward: Promising Ideas for the Future

Some of the newest start-ups aim to remedy defined gaps or existing problems in education. Tioki is one of these. This company uses an online platform to give schoolteachers a uniform and highly visible platform through which they can market themselves and look for competitive work. The site is free for credentialed educators to join, and offers not only an interactive jobs board but also a real-time network of other educators that can be mined for advice, coaching tips, and job leads. Tioki was founded by tech entrepreneurs Brian Martinez and Mandela Schumacher-Hodge, both of whom hold advanced degrees in business and management.

There is also a lot of promise in ventures that look to do something entirely new, like Codeacademy. The academy is free to any interested Internet user, and essentially promises to teach the basics of computer coding and network management through a series of self-paced video lectures and tutorials. It was founded in New York by Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski, self-described hackers looking for a way of turning their passion into a useful skill for others.

The entrepreneurial side of education seems to be growing every day. While there remains some skepticism when it comes to the longevity or overall value of many of the newest services out there, there is little doubt that changes are coming. According to most reports, we are now only at the beginning of the wave—which sets things up for an interesting future indeed.

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