Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A (Now) Open Letter to Marc Andreessen About Venture-Funded Ed Tech Start-Ups

I wrote this letter last week to Marc Andreessen after seeing him quoted (originally in the WSJ) as actively backing aggressive start-up firms, with plans to disrupt health care and education "by great new software-centric entrepreneurs." I'm going to call a little hubris here, but I want to be clear that in my view Marc's not alone--it's just that I happen to have corresponded with him before so I had somewhere to vent. I haven't heard back from Marc, and really don't expect to, but seems that every day that I'm reading about some millions being funded to an ed tech software start-up, or some gathering on education technology solutions that doesn't seem to actually involve educators at all.


So to all of you excitedly starting ed tech ventures with visions of making things better: do you folks honestly think you're so smart that you don't need to spend some time actually doing some serious learning about the problems you're thinking you're going to solve? Have you even gone to one of the long-standing educational technology events and talked (or more importantly, listened) to devoted educators who have been thinking about these things for years, if not decades?  Do you know what Seymour Papert thought? What about John Dewey? Or John Taylor Gatto, or Ted Sizer?  For heaven's sake, Gary Stager? Do you know what progressivism, constructivism, or connectivism are (I'm not even sure I do, and I've been working on this for a few years now). You're right next door to Stanford, so have you read or listened or talked to Larry Cuban, or Linda Darling-Hammond, Carol Dweck, or Denise Pope? Maybe I'm not giving you (the universal VC ed tech group you) enough credit, but I'm guessing that the answer is no.

If it is no, then, c'mon. Seriously. If education is so broken that you're going to make it better by being completely different, then can you define your philosophy of education? If it's not so seriously broken, and you're just going to solve some small problems, then are you sure that your solutions are actually making things better? A case in point: if you are creating a better system for tracking student data and outputs that increases the efficiency of viewing students as raw material that a system fabricates into something it wants, is that the right thing to do? Many of you come from an Open Source background--does this actually harmonize with your personal feelings about what education should be?

My letter:
I don't know if I'll get to you with this email address, but worth a try. 
I just read some of your comments about edtech in the Betsy Corchoran's EdSurge newsletter. I'd suggest some caution. 
My FutureofEducation.com interview series started with my passionate interest in the role of technology in changing education. What I've come to see over the last three years is that education is a highly personal activity, and the evolution of the interview series might be valuable to you--as the discussions have moved significantly toward pedagogy and away from technology. 
I've been intrigued by the VC interest in education because: 
1. There's seems to be little discussion of the historically deep pedagogical and philosophical threads around learning. "Silver bullet" solutions to education should throw up some huge red flags. There's a human/cognitive tendency to believe we have solutions when we only have a surface-level understanding of problems, and that seems to be going on in spades right now. 
2. As with humanitarian work, those with the money often bring the wrong set of measurements to the task, and their animated conversations about doing good are often completely divorced from the actual individuals and issues involved. 
3. There's an extensive and rich movement related to education and technology that's been taking place through social media (including on many Ning networks) with passionate, devoted, and experienced educators working together in really amazing ways to reshape education. This is the peer-to-peer kind of dramatic movement that has kinship with the democracy movements in the Middle East. Were someone really interested in helping to reshape education, I'd suggest starting to look at what's going on there and trying to figure out how to support and encourage it. I haven't seen any movement by the VC crowd to actually involve these folks in what they are doing, and that should be worrisome. 
For what it's worth. 


  1. A lot of money is going to be lost by a lot of investors in education. There actually is not shortage of good products that work for populations of students. (There is no shortage of bad products either.)

    What the system lacks is a good distribution mechanism of economically (possibly profitably) getting the right tools in the hands of the right people at the right time

  2. Excellent post/letter Steve. I think you have made an important point very well. Maybe we need a new type of investor - not VC (Venture Capitalist) but SC (Social Capitalist) who is willing to fund exploration of social created ideas that may change paradigms and/or come up with products/services to support them. It could be a credibility thing for a VC to be an SC first in a specific area for example - online learning - as seed money/support which puts them first in the queue when a project to develop/package the idea into a product/service comes along down the line. /Paul


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