Edtech East Meets West in Harvard Yard

By
Harvard's Memorial Hall / Hannes Klöpper

Those who receive an invitation to the Goldman Sachs-Harvard University “Global Education Conference 2015” are drawn by the international flavor of the event. Some 500 people from 30 countries planned to attend this year’s confab, which took place last week in Harvard University’s luminous Memorial Hall.

Far fewer showed up though precise numbers were not available. And it took a while—and several panels—before the event delivered on that promise. Here, in fast forward, are some of the points that stood out:

Badges: So far, judged panelists, badges have been something of a fail. Turns out, if you take the badge out of the boy scouts, all you have is a fancy patch. Badges gain their relevance and meaning from a community. As a result, the “future” of credentialing “will look more like the past than we expect,” observed writer Anya Kamenetz.

Vergara vs California: The case that shook California was powerfully presented by Marcelius McRae (for the plantiffs) and Alice O’Brien (representing the National Education Asso.) Expect to hear more: On May 1, the California Teachers Asso, and the Calif. Federation of Teachers appealed the ruling, which threw out tenure, seniority and other traditional job protections.

McRae’s arguments were precise and laden with data. His confidence shone through, however, in his pair of boldly striped socks.  

China Rising: Investments in Chinese education technology companies are swiftly rising. In 2014, such investments reached $380 million for the year; this year, investments in the first half of the year are already about $548 million, according to a tally by Goldman Sachs. (See chart) Among those on the fast track: Jerry Yu, the youthful cofounder of Hujiang, which offers online language training at a price of 1 Yuan a day.

Notable Venture Funding Raised by Chinese Companies, 2016

Company Investment (2015) US$  
Beijinh Huivo 19.3  
Liuyi Xingkon 20
Xueba100.com 50
entstudy.com 20
Xuele.net 17.7
Zhan.com 29
Genshuixue 50
Yuantiku.com 60
APE Exam 60
Tsingda eEDU Corp. 49
17zuoye 100
NetDragon 52.5
XueXiBao 20

Source: Goldman-Sachs

Yu told EdSurge that his site has more than 80 million members and has raised $100 million in venture funding, including an $80 million investment last year from Baidu. Hujiang employs 1,000 people on a full time basis and another 2,000 part-time. "Ninety-five percent of our content is free," declares Yu. Even so, on December 12, 2014, as students scrambled to prep for tests and exams, Hujiang racked up $1 million in sales for the day. While Hujiang uses game mechanics to deliver engaging content, Yu insists that he never wants to deliver “games.” Eight year ago, Yu says, he made a decision "from his heart"--to put aside games and join the world of work. He intends to keep Huijiang free of classic "games." Even better, “everyone who joins us has to quit smoking,” he declares. Hujiang is also developing an online education incubator. TutorGroup, which raised $100 million from Alibaba and other investors last year, is also growing briskly. said founder, Eric Yang.

And there were another dozen or so representatives from Chinese edtech companies in the audience. (Among them: NetDragon, which this year raised $52.5 million from investors including IDG Capital, delivers multi-online player games and online education—all from  the confines of a massive building that looks just like the USS Enterprise.) "Over the past few years, online learning and edtech investment in China have grown remarkably," noted the conference leader, Victor Hu. "The software technology being developed there has even surpassed what we are seeing in the U.S. market," he adds. Internet giants, notably Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are eyeing the US edtech world, he noted. "Considering the overall size and fragmentation of the Chinese education market, we think there is likely to be significant growth ahead for a number of companies who execute successfully in this space," Hu told edSurge. 

Latin America: Innova Schools, which is working closely with IDEO to design a new school experience, also wow’ed conference goers with its commitment to design-based learning. And Brazil’s Geekie, an adaptive platform which helps predict what grade a student might get on a standardized test and what he or she should study to fill their knowledge gaps, has reached 415,000 students this year. (Overusage of Geekie even crashed the state’s education network, chuckled CEO Claudio Sassaki.)

Africa: Bridge International Academies meanwhile, now calls itself the world's "largest operator" of schools based on enrollment. "It’s about giving options to families at all parts of the economic spectrum," says CEO Jay Kimmelsman. 

The ROW: Andreas Schleicher, head of PISA within the OECD, delivered slide after slide of context that went far deeper than the usual hand-wringing over math scores. (Even so, it was interesting to hear that over the past few years, Poland has seen the biggest improvement in student scores while Sweden has tumbled.) 

At the core of his analysis: Countries that perform well on the PISA tests have a deep commitment to believing that all children—regardless of background—can achieve. Similarly, countries where students believe they will get ahead through hard work (more so than “talent”) also perform better.

“No country is able to recruit its teachers from the top third of its [college] graduates,” Schleicher noted. Success instead is more closely correlated with how teachers are trained and supported. And among those countries that share a common value system, schools with more autonomy and transparency, where teachers are very “involved,“ tend to have better results. 

PISA Summary Slide

Entrepreneurs meet Educators: Many of the other talks centered on entrepreneurs' experience and predictions around the future of work, juxtaposed against perspectives laced with research from Harvard profs. (Your narrator here made a short presentation as well, focused on the power of the teacher voice in selected relevant edtech tools for the classroom.) 

And conference goers got a chance to listen (as well as contribute): Check out the Twitter feed (#globaledu2015)  here.

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