Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’ve been reading EdSurge for years now. You’ve closely followed the rise of Khan Academy, the MOOCs, and every other hot education technology trend. And now you’re considering getting into edtech yourself.
There’s just one problem: Where do you start?
Because, let’s be honest, this world—as sexy as it is—can be downright overwhelming. Breaking into edtech isn’t like applying for an accounting or consulting job, where there’re only a handful of companies that everyone knows. Instead, edtech is as diverse and crazy as education itself, with many different roads leading to many different outcomes. My own professional path is a perfect example: I started out as a kindergarten teacher, then went to work for LinkedIn’s education team and a couple of edtech startups, and ultimately launched my own coaching business to support others considering a move into tech.
In order to help you take the plunge with some degree of sanity, let me break your choices down into six major categories of edtech jobs, sorted in order from those with the most direct impact on individual students to those with impact on the greatest number of students. You can then choose the path that best corresponds to what you want to achieve.
If you love working with kids and are a great instructor and listener, you’re likely to find the most satisfaction using edtech tools while working directly in a school; no amount of fancy company perks can substitute for the experience of expanding a student’s world.
And there are more roads to a school placement than ever before. For instance, you can directly approach most charter or private schools—neither of which typically require a formal teaching certificate. Or, if you’re passionate about serving in a traditional public school, look into programs like Teach For America and Teaching Fellows. Even if you’re not cut out for the classroom, check out initiatives like New Leaders for New Schools to see if you might be a better fit for school leadership.
What if you want to make a big splash in students’ lives but know yourself well enough to understand that schools aren’t your fit? After all, teaching is as challenging as it is rewarding if your skills don’t align (e.g., you’re better with spreadsheets than public speaking). Instead, try moving one level up to work for a school’s overarching district or charter management organization (CMO). This gives you clear visibility into the impact of your work but with the additional scale and technological resources of a larger organization.
You can apply directly to a district (Gwinnett County and Orange County won the most recent Broad Prize for Urban Education) or CMO (KIPP and Harmony serve the most students). Or you can check out fellowships like those offered by Education Pioneers and Broad, which place top candidates in positions across the country.
Understandably, the idea of working in a large bureaucracy like a school district isn't for everyone. So how about stepping outside the formal education system and joining a lean, mean education nonprofit? This way, you’ll still likely have significant exposure to schools and students but you’ll play by less restricted rules, allowing you to innovate more freely.
For instance, you could start with the youngest of students by working for Jumpstart, making sure that every child has access to high-quality preschool. Or you could address the other end of the age spectrum with The Posse Foundation, ensuring that first-generation college students have the support they need to succeed. Or even connect people young and old via my former employer iMentor, which leverages technology to support mentoring relationships around the world. Whatever your passion, there’s likely a great edtech-focused nonprofit out there for you.
Maybe you love the idea of working in a small, nimble organization—but are worried that relying on philanthropic dollars will restrict the impact you can create. In that case, startups give you exposure to significant edtech innovation, amped up by the billions of dollars poured into this sector in the past few years. While schools and educators may look at you more cynically than your nonprofit peers, the fast pace of growth in many of these companies can provide ample accelerant for your career.
EdSurge covers hundreds of these companies and their products in-depth, from relatively established players like Remind and Clever to newer entrants like Pear Deck and Raise.me. Whatever path you choose, the most important thing is to understand what value you can immediately add; after all, startups just move too fast to spend time training staff. To help you articulate that potential contribution, consider edtech roles that don’t require any formal technical skills.
Perhaps the potential scale of a for-profit company excites you, but you just can’t stomach the risk of an unproven start-up where your job could change (or end!) on any given day. If that sounds like you, a larger, more established firm may well be your cup of tea; you get exposure to a national or international student audience but with relatively stable compensation and big-company perks.
This genre covers two extremes: Large firms for whom education is their primary business (such as Cengage and Blackboard) and even larger firms for whom education is just an offshoot (think Google and Apple). Generally, the tradeoff you make between the two is that the former are all-in on education but can be a little stodgier (e.g., textbooks are a centuries-old business.) Note that this sector has had its struggles lately. The latter, meanwhile, are more innovative but education can often be a distant priority for the head honchos (e.g., education makes up less than 3% of Apple’s quarterly revenue—even in the fall!).
To get a better sense of what it’s actually like to work at some of the top tech companies with education portfolios, talk to current and past employees. I tell job seekers that the two biggest influencers of workplace happiness are the size of the company and work/life balance. I’ve compiled my insights into a behind-the-scenes look at 18 of the biggest tech employers.
OK, you’ve checked out the first five paths to edtech and you’re still not convinced. You want bigger scale even still—not just to impact schools, but to impact the entire education landscape. If that kind of world-changing focus is what you’re after and you’re willing to give up direct exposure to students and getting your hands dirty building products or running programs, then becoming an education funder may be for you. Because, as anyone who’s ever tried to raise money for a nonprofit or startup knows, funders really do pull many of the education world’s puppet strings.
The big choice here is whether you want to join a traditional foundation or a venture capital firm. Foundations range from Echoing Green, which provides seed funding to social entrepreneurs like Wendy Kopp, to the Gates Foundation, which has given over a billion dollars to education non-profits and businesses. And VC firms stretch from Imagine K12, which has accelerated new startups like Remind, to Learn Capital, which helped contribute $70 million to General Assembly last year. Either way, be prepared to network your way in as these jobs are few and far between—and highly sought after.
Clearly, there’s more than one road into edtech. The trick is to separate the general hype from your specific passion and skills. Because the last thing you want to do is follow lemming-like into this world and end up in a seemingly sexy role that doesn’t actually suit you. So take a step back and identify what you want to accomplish in edtech before you take the first step toward it.