Who You Know Matters. So Why Isn’t Edtech Helping Students Build Social Capital?

Who You Know Matters. So Why Isn’t Edtech Helping Students Build Social Capital?


Most education technology entrepreneurs will readily admit how much relationships can make or break a startup. Indeed, research shows that who you know turns out to matter across all sorts of industries, whether you’re an entrepreneur in search of capital, an investor choosing among stocks, a patient seeking out healthcare, or a graduate in search of a job.

Yet, despite the fact that so much of our success in life hinges on our connections, few are deploying technology to strengthen or expand students’ networks. Instead, the edtech market remains focused squarely on content delivery and assessment.

This market gap deserves our attention. Troubling data from The National Mentoring Partnership ( PDF) suggests that low-income students have measurably smaller networks than their more affluent peers, are less likely to know professionals who have gone to college or worked in the knowledge economy, and are more likely to attend a school with fewer guidance counselors. Why, then, aren’t we using technology to tackle these challenges with the same enthusiasm that we’ve tried to digitize and blend rich learning experiences?

Such a stark disconnect makes perfect sense considering the demands guiding the edtech market. Accountability policies push schools to focus on what students know, rather than whom they know. And schools themselves, although striving to provide students with a strong sense of community, were never designed to fit outsiders within their four walls.

But we’re starting to witness exceptions to this trend. Tools that connect students to new relationships are showing up in three main segments of the edtech market: project-based learning curricula that connect classes to outside remote experts, tutoring services to provide on-demand help from non-teacher adults, and college access and success tools that supply online mentors and coaches. For example, Educurious ports experts into classrooms over video to introduce students to real-life professionals. Student Success Agency provides online mentors to help students navigate the byzantine college application process.

Tools like these may be paving the way to a new wave of disruption in our K-12 education system—one that stands to solve chronic network gaps, and radically expand who students know.

Many doubt that technology can replace face-to-face relationships. Can a video chat really replace a nurturing hug? Can online meetings really generate the sustained supports and shared experiences that successful face-to-face mentorship often involves?

These are valid concerns. But they are precisely the sorts of questions people ask when disruptive innovations are afoot. Crucially, disruptive innovations don’t compete head on with existing solutions. Rather they offer access to groups of customers typically shut out of the mainstream market, and from there, improve over time. For example, Apple’s earliest PC computers were downright rudimentary compared to the expensive and sophisticated mainframe and minicomputers that dominated the 1960s and 70s. But Apple’s early PC customers didn’t care. Instead, hobbyists and children were delighted that they could afford a contraption that they could tinker with, and that they could use for basic word processing and computing. Over time, Apple shepherded the PC up market—improving its technology to eventually serve the needs of more demanding customers with higher processing speeds and storage volume.

Children are not widgets: their development and success hinges on more than engineering the right circuitry or software. But Apple’s case illustrates the unintuitive nature of disruptive innovation: the most crucial innovations of tomorrow may not look impressive compared to state-of-the-art products of today, but may be able to offer access and affordability previously unimaginable.

The same goes for technology-enabled mentoring and support systems designed to expand student networks. In the present moment, online or blended interactions may pale in comparison to face-to-face relationships. But these technology-enabled interactions need not compete head on with state-of-the-art face-to-face supports. Instead, they promise to offer new connections in circumstances where the current alternative is nothing at all. They can allow students who otherwise might never meet an engineer or lawyer to connect with professionals. They can fill mentoring gaps for those students with limited access to college guidance.

If the online learning market is any guide, these tools could lead to breakthrough blended mentorship models tailored to individual student needs and interests, in ways far more effective than analog networks have in the past.

More importantly, these tools stand to enable schools to move beyond merely focusing on what students know to invest in who they know.

Julia Freeland Fisher (@juliaffreeland) is the Director of Education Research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

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