Silicon Valley and the Edtech Revolution

Opinion |

Silicon Valley and the Edtech Revolution

Let the (civil) debate begin

By Geoff Ralston     Jun 24, 2014

Silicon Valley and the Edtech Revolution

Silicon Valley holds a certain mystique among entrepreneurs and investors. Here, more cool technology was born, more wealth created, and more technology revolutions begun, than anywhere else on the planet. The Valley’s formula for success has been the subject of debate and business school cases for decades. It certainly helps to have excellent local universities churning out scores of engineers and entrepreneurs. It also helps that founding a company, whether it be a success or failure, is viewed as acceptable and even desirable by the community. When the folks you bump into at the local watering hole, the supermarket, and cocktail parties are all starting companies and changing the world, it feels like anyone can.

But one tech revolution that escaped the influence of Silicon Valley the first time around was education technology. Although the past is littered with efforts to make technology matter in K-12 education, few of those companies came from the Valley, and even fewer were successful. The Valley’s bold investors have generally stayed far from the space.

In the past several years, however, there has been a major realignment in the edtech world. Silicon Valley is once again leading the charge in a technology revolution, and this one might just have the greatest impact of all. Ironically, the revolution was kicked off by a hedge fund analyst in Boston, who got funding from Silicon Valley and then Bill Gates to create--not the next edtech Google--but rather, a non-profit: the Khan Academy. Nearly single-handedly, Sal Khan made competent teaching available to any child in the world at any time. He based his new organization in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley and in the five years since there has been an explosion of edtech ideas, companies, and investment emanating from the Valley.

The idea that great education was never for the few and should always be available to all led to the creation of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), led by Silicon Valley companies like Coursera and Udacity. New school models like Rocketship Education and Summit Public Schools bet on “blended learning” curricula that merge traditional teaching with individualized, adaptive learning technologies. More recently a tech founder from Google and Aardvark, Max Ventilla, founded a new kind of school called AltSchool to rethink how children are taught. Companies like Edmodo, ClassDojo, and Remind (formerly Remind101) are rethinking how communities of parents, teachers, and students can connect and collaborate on learning and related skills. And new classes, notably in programming and computer science, began spreading from Silicon Valley and out to the world via companies like CodeHS.

In 2011, we founded Imagine K12 because we believed the conditions for an edtech revolution were in place. The ideas above were beginning to germinate and we believed then and still believe today that connecting the people of the world to each other, and to the internet, the repository of all knowledge and information, would inevitably have as big an impact on how our children learn as it has had on almost every other thing we do. So far we have funded over 50 companies (90% of them remaining in Silicon Valley) who intend to make this happen.

You know a revolution is happening in Silicon Valley when the money shows up. Venture Capitalists and angel / seed investors have gotten in on the game. CB Insights records a record $509mm in edtech financing in Q1 of 2014.

In many ways California is the perfect place for the revolution. We have Silicon Valley and amazing public universities, and yet the California K-12 school system is in disrepair. We have wealthy schools next to low income schools. We have an active charter industry. We have big urban districts as well as rural districts. We have a healthy immigrant population (ESL). We’re working on solutions to our very own problems and bringing a wonderful Silicon Valley sense of optimism and possibility about technology, and the positive role it can have in making education better for every child in California and elsewhere.

EdSurge, edtech's main information source and the author of the eponymous, must-read industry newsletter, points out that 43% of all the edtech jobs being offered are now in the San Francisco Bay Area. The next highest contender, the Greater New York Area, has 22% of the total. It is worth pointing out that EdSurge is, itself, a Silicon Valley startup.

The edtech companies and jobs are here. The preeminent edtech accelerator is here. The top VC firms in the valley are writing checks. There is definitely a new game in town. Edtech has officially arrived in Silicon Valley.

Disclosure: Imagine K12 is an investor in EdSurge.

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