This post has been updated with news and observations from the second day of the conference.
“Inequality is the parent of revolution.” The quote, attributed to Aristotle, occupied one of the flurry of slides accompanying Michael Moe’s welcome keynote on the first evening of the ASU+GSV Summit. The BHAG—slang for Big Hairy Audacious Goal—for his investment firm, GSV Capital: “ensure that every person has an equal opportunity to participate in the future.”
Then came a rapid succession of troubling statistics on how society has been failing to prepare current and future generations for, well, the future. Among them: Students from low-income families now make up over half of all public school students. The SATs have become a better predictor of one’s socioeconomic level than college readiness. One-hundred thirty-eight million adults do not have any higher education.
“We approach tackling these problems from a Silicon Valley mindset, and through an exponential lens,” declared Moe. There were the expected Silicon Valley examples of “disruption”: Facebook overtaking AT&T as the communication platform of choice. AirBnB overtaking hotel chains like Marriott in the accommodations industry. (The conference, it should be noted, was hosted at a Hyatt.) There were homages to the “exponential ideas” such as a “personalized robot tutor” and an “educational fitness app,” powered by virtual reality, Big Data, or some combination of all of them.
Taking a page from the sports media business, Moe entertained the idea of a “Hollywood Meets Harvard” model for improving education. If the NFL can take a physical event and transform it through media into a more accessible, enjoyable and high-quality experience for fans, he asked, why can’t we do so for learning?
Moe’s keynote capped off a day of panel sessions, solo talks and serendipitous encounters between familiar faces and new acquaintances. It was impossible to catch everything, but here are snippets of conversations around the hallways.
DON’T LET CHEGG BE MISUNDERSTOOD: “Chegg is a very misunderstood company in the investor world,” said Alex Paris, President and Senior Managing Director, Barrington Research Associates, Inc., on a panel about how edtech companies have fared on the public market. “They’re currently cycling out of the print business, and I’m very excited about [what] the business tomorrow [will look like]. The [current price] at $4-$5 does not represent the potential upside of a very ‘clean’ edtech company in 2017.”
HOT FOR HOUGHTON: On the same panel, Trace Urdan, Managing Director at Credit Suisse, shared this reflection from chatting up startups: “I have to be very careful because they talk to me like I’m a luddite defending the newspaper industry, especially when I tell them the difficulties of growing in the market.”
He adds: “They talk about the force of viral products, breaking down funding model, and how teachers will act like consumers. I’m open to that, but the way schools are currently funded is fundamentally different from how music and other consumer businesses work.” It wouldn’t be a surprise if an established company—say, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—were to snap up some of these startups. “They will be the owner of some of the companies you see at this event today.”
WINTER IS NOT COMING: Market headlines suggest that startups across all industries—including education—should expect a chilly year when it comes to raising money. But “winter is not here,” Tory Patterson, Managing Partner at Owl Ventures, tells EdSurge. “Unrealistic valuations will go away, but investors are still focused on quality education companies.” (We dug deeper into our historical Ka’Ching data to analyze broader trends. Our main takeaway: Nobody panic. Yet.)
INNOVATOR OF COLOR award was given to Jessie Woolley-Wilson, Chair, CEO, and President, DreamBox Learning for her work to spur innovation, her mentorship to others and her grace and dignity in leading.
AND ANOTHER THING: Berkeley-based comedian, W Kamau Bell (@wkamaubell) delivered a devastatingly funny hour-long monologue entitled, “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending racism in about an hour.” His advice: Start by talking about the little stuff to get to the big stuff. Who knew, for instance, that Snooki isn’t Italian—but Chilean. “Race” is a construct. “Racism” is the evil that comes from buying into those artificial divides. And whatever you do, never ask Bell (or anyone for that matter) how he washes his hair.
LEAP IN: Personalized learning is the phrase du jour in the K-12 space—but there’s still plenty of debate about what the term includes (or not) and how to measure the degree of “personalization” in the classroom. In leaps Chicago nonprofit, LEAP Innovations with a framework, descriptions, and handy gut checks for figuring out just how personal personalized learning can get. Get the full story here from EdSurge's Mary Jo Madda and LEAP CEO Phyllis Lockett.
TO PITCH A CROWD: Pitching as one of 300 companies concurrent with other sessions and panels may not seem like it would generate much yield—or much of a crowd. But across the first two days, most entrepreneurs found an audience of more than 70; in some cases, the room was filled to the brim.
RICE RULES: Former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice mesmerized conference attendees as she recounted how her grandfather, John Westly Rice, Sr., who started off as a sharecropper, “decided to get ‘book learning.’” His choice set her family on a path toward a better life. “Education is our greatest national security problem. It’s a civil right – it’s got to the be right of every child in this country.”
West urged the conference goers to think about issues of equity when they are building their products. “Technology is neutral,” Rice observed. “It’s how it is applied that matters.” Technology can be used to support a world in which a child’s zip code or color or gender or age doesn’t shape their future—just their commitment to getting an education, she said.
TEACHER FEATURE: “Businesses are not going to be successful if entrepreneurs don’t reach across the table and talk to educators,” said Darryl Adams, Superintendent of Coachella Unified School District. This year, he noted, the 73 districts that are part of Digital Promise’s League of Innovate Schools received a stipend from event organizers to attend. These educator “scholarships” were also given to other education organizations to distribute among their networks.
Adams’ take on the conference’s business atmosphere: “I hope investors give companies at least three to five years. That’s how long it takes for [K-12] schools to make that [digital] transition. If investors want to make a quick buck, they’re probably in the wrong place.”
For Aylon Samouha, co-founder of Transcend Education, the concerted effort to include education leaders has “brought a healthier mix of business people, educators and people who run schools. It’s broadened the conversation beyond just edtech and business.”
FRESH CAPITAL: Fresco Capital, a venture firm with offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and the San Francisco Bay Area, recently closed an education-focused fund to invest in seed stages. Founded in 2011, Fresco has 16 edtech companies in its portfolio, including NoRedInk, MakeSchool and, most recently, Volley. Allison Baum, Managing Partner, says the firm searches for companies that have potential to scale globally and also “looks to bridge edtech companies that want to find a way into markets such as Asia.” (Here’s a Q&A about her investment approach.)
HOLDING BACK REALITY: On a panel about “Investing in New Exponential and Experiential Technologies,” investors were asked about the biggest obstacles to broader adoption of virtual reality tools. John Harris, General Partner at JAZZ Ventures, believed that “the entertainment factor will drive adoption” but lamented that current content is low-quality and un-engaging. Tipatat Chennavasin, co-founder of The Venture Reality Fund, spoke for the kids: “No one is sure what ‘age-safe’ is yet with VR. We don’t want to mess with kids’ audiovisual nervous systems before they are fully developed.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Last year my colleagues and I came dressed in suits, and a lot of people thought we were investors,” quipped Angelina Zeller, a former superintendent and founder of Lifetech Academy, a virtual school in Michigan. “So this year we chose to dress down.” (It worked. Your correspondent asked whether she was an educator.)
YOU KNOW MY METHODS, WATSON: Jeopardy proved too easy for IBM Watson. So the company has invited developers to use Watson’s API to leverage its natural language processing platform to tackle big problems. Cognotion, a startup building training and assessment tools for healthcare workers, is one of the companies doing so. TED is also tapping into Watson’s power to allow viewers to ask a question (“What is the meaning of life?”) and get a list of videos related to the query. Elise Smith, who leads IBM Waton’s education partnerships, said these queries “aren’t simply a keyword search, but takes context into consideration.) There are currently more than 100 education partners building services with Watson.
THE DEAN’S NEXT GIG: Former California State Senator Dean Florez, who later headed the Michelson 20MM Foundation's efforts to create open-source digital textbooks, has a new gig: helping California coding bootcamps get accredited by the state’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE), a division of the Department of Consumer Affairs. (The BPPE once threatened to shut them down in 2012.) These providers’ mindset has shifted from fighting regulators to working with them, Florez noted. Collaboration gives them a marketing advantage, too. “California has some of the toughest consumer protection laws. If these bootcamps can pass them, they should be OK clearing other states’.”
TAL TALLY: TAL Education Group, a publicly traded Chinese holding company for more than a dozen services ranging from after-school tutoring services to an online parent network, brought a flock 26 Chinese education companies that are part of its “Future Stars” network. The program is one of the company’s efforts to support budding edtech entrepreneurs. TAL is keenly eyeing online tools: today, only 5 percent of its revenue come from digital services. TAL has also invested in The Minerva Project, Knewton and Enuma (formerly known as LocoMotive Labs).
BEST BUSINESS CARD of the day goes to Wizer.me, an Israeli startup that offers teachers a tool to build, distribute and automatically grade digital worksheets. At a conference where free coffee was in short supply, the offer of donut and a cup of joe did not go unappreciated.