What It Takes to Build the Next Edtech Hotspot

What It Takes to Build the Next Edtech Hotspot

By Michelle Dervan     Feb 27, 2015

What It Takes to Build the Next Edtech Hotspot

New York’s Economic Development Corporation (NYEDC) recently asked the local edtech community to share ideas for ways to build a vibrant edtech ecosystem in the city. The agency is beginning to see edtech’s potential as an engine for economic growth—and rightly so; an investment in edtech can not only create jobs and economic prosperity, but unlike adtech and fintech, can contribute to a better-educated population and workforce—-the cornerstone of an innovation economy.

NYEDC’s call for ideas attracted an energetic group of educators, edupreneurs, investors and officials who suggested many ways to build New York’s capacity as a hot spot. The enthusiasm displayed for this local initiative made me curious about what other cities are doing to build their edtech ecosystems, whether local activities like this can impact the industry at large and if so, what are some of the ingredients for success in creating an "Edtech Valley"? Can edtech gain insights from other sectors?

Interesting insights can be found by looking outside of edtech. Research by Michael Porter at Harvard has shown that industries participating in a strong local cluster exhibit higher employment growth, higher wage growth, more businesses created, and more patents. A cluster is defined as a mass of linked industries and institutions located in one place that enjoys unusual competitive success in a particular field.

According to Porter, certain micro-economic conditions are needed for a cluster to take root; local demand for the product/service (in the case of edtech, a large student population), presence of related industries, availability of resources such as skilled labor and capital, favorable business conditions and rivalry between firms.

However, even when all of these conditions are in place, cities have struggled to replicate the success of clusters, such as Boston’s biotech hub. In his article “Why Silicon Valley Can’t Be Copied,” Vivek Wadhwa points to a cultural explanation. He argues cluster-building strategies have often failed because they are managed in a top-down fashion by government. In contrast, the success of the tech cluster in Silicon Valley hinged on the willingness and ability of industry stakeholders to share information and collaborate while also competing with one another.

When it comes to education, collaboration and co-opetition become even more important as ingredients for a successful cluster. Edtech’s mission is more complex than your average industry; its purpose is not just to sell products, but to improve learning outcomes. The type of innovation required to improve education can’t happen in a vacuum. It requires input from a multitude of stakeholders across schools, districts, institutions, government and industry.

To reflect this, the US Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology has built on Porter’s original research and proposed a more nuanced concept of the “Education Innovation Cluster.” According to that definition, this is a forward-thinking region where commercial, academic and education partners come together to form an innovation cluster focusing on a specific challenge that their region is uniquely suited to address and solve.

Several of these forward-thinking regions are starting to emerge and experiment with different approaches to collaboration. Tom VanderArk’s book, Smart Cities That Work for Everyone, provides a great analysis of the dynamics of education ecosystems across 30 U.S. cities.

Here are some of the collaboration initiatives that I think are worthy of note:

  • In Chicago, LEAP Innovations’ Collaboratory provides space for educators, researchers and companies to scale the use of personalized technologies and tools.
  • In Baltimore, Edtech Maryland’s Research Consortium brings together schools, universities and companies to design and implement rapid short cycle research on promising early-stage education technology and other innovative practices.
  • In Boston, LearnLaunch offers a physical space for Boston’s edtech community and receives support from both industry and philanthropic supporters. Eileen Rudden, a partner at LearnLaunch, is an outspoken champion of edtech as a growth sector for New England. Rudden highlights institutional engagement as the next frontier for the growing edtech cluster in Boston. “To be really successful, we need more engagement of the K-12 and higher education sectors with the emerging edtech community,” she says.

My hometown of Dublin, Ireland launched the Learnovate Center in 2013 to enhance the competitive advantage of the learning technology industry by partnering businesses with leading researchers from world-class higher-ed institutions. It is a public-private partnership that currently works with over 50 edtech industry partners (publishers and startups, as well as technology giants like Google) and connects them with learning technology research capabilities in Irish universities.

Meanwhile here in New York, grand plans are being laid for the city’s cluster initiative. John Katzman, CEO of Noodle, has started four education companies here and he believes that a physical hub is a necessary next step to facilitate collaboration. His observation: “Bringing together for-profits and non-profits, large and small--a hub would not only provide a central space for meetups and collaboration, it would also be a place where educators and administrators could come to teach and learn from the companies.”

It’s still early days for each of the emerging Edtech Valleys. These regional clusters have the potential to add great value to the economy through job creation and by improving educational outcomes and achievement. The success of each city or region will depend on the degree to which they can foster a culture of collaboration and co-opetition. As members of the edtech community, we each have an exciting opportunity (and perhaps even responsibility) to look outside of our individual domains and actively support cross-sector initiatives that help strengthen education innovation clusters locally.

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