The Missing Tech Giant in Education Technology

Opinion | Enterprises

The Missing Tech Giant in Education Technology

By Frank Catalano     Dec 17, 2018

The Missing Tech Giant in Education Technology

Is Amazon a sleeping giant of edtech? Or one of its biggest, underreported failures?

Those are questions to which my answers have varied, especially this year. But now I can definitively answer yes. To both.

As someone who lives in Seattle and has both worked in education technology as an executive and analyst, and observed the tech sector as a columnist, Amazon is inescapable. Its indirect impact on education is huge: as a source for parents and teachers to buy classroom supplies, as a distributor of ebooks and e-readers, as a fundraising tool for school-related nonprofits through the AmazonSmile program, and even as an Amazon Web Services backend for edtech startups and established education companies delivering software through the cloud. It is, at least figuratively, everywhere.

But what’s surprising to me is how inconsistent and inept Amazon has been when it comes to directly addressing teachers and students with technology for learning. It’s almost as if the company doesn’t realize that educators’ memories, just as students’ educational careers, are long.

Amazon’s latest misstep is the abrupt, and still unexplained, shuttering of TenMarks, a math and writing software startup it purchased in 2013 and announced in 2018 it would close in the following year, leading to a lot of frustrated, Twittering teachers. That was preceded by the forever-in-beta Amazon Inspire, an educational resource sharing site launched in 2016 but kicked hard in the knees immediately afterward, when a handful of copyrighted items had been found posted. A year later, the company also lost its education general manager, who had come to Amazon with the TenMarks acquisition.

Things are so bad, Amazon was a no-show on the exhibit floor at ISTE 2018 in Chicago, after sporting a huge booth and presence just two years earlier when Inspire was launched.

Amazon Inspire booth at ISTE 2016
Amazon’s booth at ISTE 2016, announcing the launch of Amazon Inspire. (Photo credit: Frank Catalano)

And yet, there is so much—as a school counselor might say—potential.

It may be that public education, notably K-12 education, is simply a poor fit for Amazon’s otherwise successful approach of self-service at scale. Districts, schools and teachers need a lot of hand-holding when it comes to technology. That’s neither inherently good nor bad; it just is. And it’s very understandable when the development of kids and their brains is at stake.

Going directly to K-12 parents seems more compatible with Amazon’s retail approach, with products such as the Amazon Rapids children’s reading app (think of it as a multi-media Kindle app for kids), the Echo Dot Kids Edition, or even Alexa learning skills from third parties such as Bamboo Learning and its music and math instruction products. But there are signs that as Amazon gets a better handle on what it does really well—outside of retailing packaged and digital goods—2019 may be the year it finally solidifies its role in K-12 education and takes a relatively stable place alongside other tech titans such as Microsoft, Google and Apple.

And what it also does really well is provide cloud services.

It already sells cloud computing services to not just companies, but educational institutions at the district and campus level as well. It already had a free AWS Educate program to help students (and teachers) learn about cloud computing and technology careers. So when Amazon announced its free Amazon Future Engineer (AFE) initiative late in 2018, I didn’t find it a surprise. It was simply a logical next step.

Now, Amazon apparently would like everyone to view AFE—with its emphasis on computer science education for underserved communities—solely as a philanthropic effort, not an education technology initiative. (I know; when I wrote about it for GeekWire, I received a phone call from a polite but persistent Amazon public relations representative urging me to re-frame my story. I didn’t.) But AFE is about STEM and computer science; it’s education about the most pervasive and critical of modern technologies.

Having AFE associated with edtech is not a bad thing. And it may indicate, going into 2019, that Amazon has found its sweet spot when it comes to its K-12 education efforts. They’re perhaps not best tied to the legacy Amazon.com online retailing business. Instead, they may be better tied to its other major business that underpins and makes that web presence possible: Amazon Web Services, and the cloud.

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