My edtech career began in a summer school Algebra class at Envision Academy for Arts and Technology in Oakland, where we piloted Khan Academy on Google CR-47s, the technology that would become the now-ubiquitous Chromebook.
I went on to EdSurge, helping to build the first online community connecting educators, entrepreneurs and funders, and learning a thing or two about edtech marketplaces along the way. Then came the opportunity to create and facilitate high school model designs for underserved students in New York City public schools and manage or advise $1 million worth of federal edtech innovation grants.
I’ve learned a lot over these past eight years. But perhaps the biggest observation is the dissonance between how far education technology has come, and its ability to serve K-12 students equitably at-scale. (Edtech critics: I see your eye roll, and raise you a shoulder shrug.)
Anyone working in the field knows that changes to K-12 policy, procurement and implementation roll out slowly, sometimes missing a generation of students in the process. This incentivizes edtech innovation around institutional needs that merit large levels of time and investment (e.g. infrastructure, data compliance, learning management). But these efforts miss the immediacy of student and community needs and the ways they use technology in the real world. Our classrooms are expected to thrive in a dystopian tech duality where notions of privacy start with single sign-on requirements and end at the footsteps of Instagram and Snapchat, where students’ attention is continuously manipulated to produce a data footprint that edtech has never seen.
There are proof points—edtech be damned!—where bold school leaders and dedicated teachers are engaging the community and equitably meeting their students’ needs. Some of these efforts are even sustainable. But as rapper-poet Mick Jenkins, says on the aptly titled song, “Strange Love:” “I mean how I’ma give you what I clearly still need for myself?” Expecting underpaid, under-supported, and overly-criticized teachers to go beyond their required job functions and be universal “heroes of empathy” is indeed some strange love.
So it’s goodbye for now, edtech.
Instead I’m looking to build technology for markets that already have high engagement among K-16 students, and pose fewer institutional barriers to addressing everyday social inequities. I’m talking about $15 billion markets like youth sports.
The sprawling and wildly-profitable industry is a paradox. Forty-five million kids of all ages play sports each year. Minority and low-income students tend to start playing at a later age than their peers, potentially missing out on developmental benefits associated with team sports like increased executive functioning.
Revenue-generating sports like basketball and football have well-formed pipelines that exploit minority students’ athletic ability and can also keep them from dropping out. But after high school, these pipelines take a turn for the worse: compared to non-athlete peers, NCAA minority students are likely to be overrepresented and under-graduated.
It doesn’t seem impossible to hijack these pipelines using technology—and a bit of celebrity, too. The goal would be to meet student-athletes with technology that encourages their athletic pursuits—maybe an interactive app explaining how to shoot like Steph Curry. The resulting engagement channel would allow thousands of community-focused organizations to digitize and distribute their efforts to help young people with financial literacy, career literacy, civic action, entrepreneurship and mentorship.
In this world, where impact is measured by student empowerment, tens of thousands of student-athletes could become agents of change in college athletics. Perhaps a few would ascend to Lebron-Jamesian levels of sports mastery. The other 99.9 percent could walk away with practical, transferable skills that are useful as they make their careers, complementary to what’s happening in their classrooms.
Maybe it’s crazy to build learning apps for a market rife with academic scandals and financial mismanagement. Maybe it’s crazy to build products for an industry rooted in historical oppression (sports, that is). But I’m not Paulo Freire’s “proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed.” I’m just peeling away the layers of the game and trying to play it back. And I see millions of black and brown students for whom sports is infinitely more enticing—and more motivating—than school. And that can be an opportunity.
So it’s goodbye edtech and hello youth sports. Hello to a bedrock of American society, a simultaneous exploiter of the underrepresented and conduit for their achievement, an industrial enabler of Lavar Ball’s marketing genius, a bastion of pay-it- forward Little League coaches, a den of financial hucksters, a safe haven of encouragement amid chaos in kid’s lives, a space for the athletically-inclined, an institution that is at once a retardant and an accelerant of excellence.
Hmm. Maybe K-12 procurement isn’t so bad.