A Twisting Path in Education Entrepreneurship

Opinion | Entrepreneurship

A Twisting Path in Education Entrepreneurship

By Tony Ngo     Jun 18, 2015

A Twisting Path in Education Entrepreneurship

The path of entrepreneurship is rarely a straightforward one, but it’s always an exciting one with twists and turns.

After graduating from business school in 2008, I joined a hedge fund, but I also soon co-founded an education company with a good friend from college to contribute to Vietnam, the country in which our parents were born and from which they fled in 1975. Despite growing up in the US, I have always felt a strong connection to Vietnam and have long wanted to help bridge this emerging country with the international community.

Our company, Everest Education, was founded as an after-school tutoring business whose aim is to transform education and establish a foundation for lifelong learning. Our pedagogy engages students with projects and applied learning, in contrast to the rote memorization approach that dominates the Vietnamese education system.

We were developing programs catered to children studying at international schools when a series of events unfolded that opened our eyes to a much bigger opportunity—to serve the mass market with a personalized learning program. Looking back, those events weren’t preordained—and they show how important it is for an entrepreneur to keep his or her head up looking for the unexpected twist that may unlock a much bigger opportunity.

The first twist occurred in November of 2013 when Michael Horn sent me this LinkedIn message:

“Hey Tony --
Not sure if you remember me. We met at [a Harvard friend's] wedding -- my wife was in the bridal party. I recently was awarded an Eisenhower Fellowship that is going to send me to Vietnam and Korea in 2014 to better understand their education systems, the context for education, and the opportunities for innovation to create a more student-centered education system. I'd love to connect if you're up for it and learn from you.

I had to read the message twice. The idea of Horn coming to Vietnam for research blew my mind. Why would anyone head to Vietnam to study innovation in education? The system here is never cited as a model example. Yet Horn, who had immersed himself with industry thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and policy makers, believed that there was an opportunity to uncover innovation in Vietnam. Who was I to argue?

My follow-up phone call shed some light. “Tony,” he began, “our theories about disruptive education models describe how an emerging market like Vietnam actually can be a hotbed for innovation, combining high social value on education with large, under-consuming market demand.”

I didn't believe his assertion but was happy to help. "Michael, I think we can set up meetings for your research, but there's only one thing I ask in return. Can you spend one afternoon to share your findings with our staff?"

Little did I know what that one request would lead to.

In February 2014, Horn came to Vietnam and held up his promise. He spoke to our staff about global innovation in education and technology. To me, his premise regarding blended learning sounded tantalizing yet distant, as we had so many existing priorities, from curriculum development, to training, to scaling operations. We could probably turn our attention toward blended learning once we were more established.

But our staff felt otherwise, and they pushed Everest to move away from teaching at one pace for all students. Instead, they wanted to see whether we could deliver the right materials, at the right level, at right time for each student in a class setting.

After three months of internal debate, we changed course, from our traditional methods to a data-driven, blended-learning pilot in our SAT class in June 2014. Using our home-built system and a station rotation model, we saw an astounding 300+ point average increase in SAT scores.

Based on this success, we are now adapting our math and English courses to blended learning formats as well, though encountering a few speed bumps along our journey. We had believed that we could apply a station rotation model to all other situations, but we are discovering that differing student needs require modifications.

We’ve seen positive traction with a station rotation literacy product, but we ran into challenges in middle school math. Our Singapore mathematics curriculum employs collaborative, open-ended learning, and we are continuing to grapple with how to cultivate divergent and team-based thinking in an online form.

Although we’re based in Vietnam, we seek global inspiration from all those conducting innovative experiments. These include:

  • KIPP Los Angeles Empower, whose team, in the face of California's budget cuts, took average student classes from 20 to 28 through station rotations to divide classes into sub-groups. This boosted learning time, and, combined with a strong classroom culture, achieved amazing results, including the highest API scores in LAUSD at a lower cost.
  • Minerva Project, which is re-imagining the Ivy League University experience. Their demo impressed us with Minerva's ability to quantify soft skills, specifically creating learning experiences around ways of thinking and learning habits that are measured just like academic progress in Minerva's home-grown LMS. (And we are thrilled that one of our Everest Education alumni, Vy Ung, has accepted an offer to be in their next class!)
  • CMS Education in Seoul, Korea and Irvine, CA, which has built an integrated STEAM education system with approximately 20,000 students a year. CMS has shown how even elementary students can develop deep multi-disciplinary creativity. After success in Korea producing stellar STEAM graduates, CMS has turned its attention to bringing STEAM education to the masses. We discussed how blended learning might adapt to the Socratic method and lower cost so that CMS’s methodology can be delivered scalably.
  • Summit Public Schools, where we saw the power of personalized playlists through Activate that could provide each student with the right material, at the right time for them. Why shouldn't all students have their own learning journey instead of following a one-paced track?
  • AltSchool, whose microschool initiative is ramping up, and we look forward to seeing the efforts blossom to scale.

What is becoming clearer is that no one has yet figured out "the best solution" for blended learning at scale. We’re each testing different models, with different age groups and needs, and with unique insights about and optimizations on student interfaces, teaching roles, and system integration.

Many of us will achieve real scale and impact in the decade to come. After just one year, our pivot from traditional to blended learning has already shown great promise to radically improve quality through personalization, while simultaneously lowering costs. And dramatic cost reduction is critical to reaching the masses in Vietnam, where GDP per capita stood at just $1,028 in 2013.

It's an exciting time to be an education entrepreneur.

Tony is an education entrepreneur and investor in Los Angeles, CA and Vietnam.

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