The changes we are envisioning for the classroom may take place at this very moment, in a garage near us, and no longer in the Ministry of Education offices.
The notion of “education entrepreneur” challenges our understanding of an education system, ruled by core curriculum standards and a cohort of dedicated civil servants that decide on behalf of the teachers, students and families what is good to be taught in the classroom and how it should be taught.
In recent years, we have seen acclaimed professors jumping from their “academic pedestal” and into to the start-up world. Udacity – one of the reference points for MOOCs –was cofounded by a research professor at Stanford University. So was Coursera. We could read these stories as fairy tales where the professor we once knew was almost magically transformed into a CEO. But fairy tales aren’t real.
These “education entrepreneurs” are part of a larger movement, opening up schools – and more broadly, education – to new influences, new ideas and new interests.
Edtech funds are steadily growing in the US and beyond. The high-tech industry created a glossary of its own with incubators and “challenges”. Education is now next on the list and innovation in learning and knowledge is seen as a promising market.
In a recent article, these entrepreneurs were described as pairing “a desire to prosper financially with a genuine sense of mission”. Education remains a dreamed territory, and these entrepreneurs want their dreams to come true. They share the biggest of all dreams: to change 21st century education.
For the first time, changes in education are considered as both desirable and viable and no longer reserved to a selected group of policy makers and experts. Curricular changes, for decades, were the only concrete innovation in the classroom. They will soon be viewed as a consequence of all the changes taking place in and out of the classroom, and no longer a cause.
These “education entrepreneurs” understand their role as facilitators for a broad set of actors / clients: teachers, school principals, students, parents, companies… By considering such diverse targets and assigning themselves an enabling role, they make us believe that education is a true market. The way the entrepreneurs describe their projects’ vision and mission tells a lot about their conviction, their confidence, their ambition.
Nothing seems out of their reach or, better said, everything seems worth trying. They want to:
- Enable teachers to manage behaviour and increase engagement in the classroom.
- Allow teachers, consumers, librarians and curriculum buyers to find resources at the right age level, reading level, theme, context, vocabulary level, and more.
- Help middle and high school teachers easily connect their classrooms to have engaging cross-cultural learning experiences.
- Create free learning environments that grow with the users.
- Help students study more effectively.
- Create in children strong internal motivation for studies.
- Break educational data free from silos in order to help educators explore patterns and communicate insights faster and easier than ever before.
Enable, help, manage, find, create, break… these verbs are progressively changing the face of education.
It is striking to see how undaunted they are by the challenges they face: their projects are “more”: “larger”, “more specific”, “faster”, “more social”… More is the keyword and more quality, more innovation, more accessibility is certainly what education needs.
There is no such thing as a “definitive innovation” but there is no point in not encouraging these entrepreneurs. Do we see it possible to “build the largest database of educational resources and products anywhere on the web”? Looking back at the changes that have occurred in the last 5 years, it is wiser to encourage them in producing innovations that will transform the way we learn, live, play and work.
Education entrepreneurs shouldn’t forget, they are also part of a long chain of innovators. When some of them described their mission as “changing education from boring to fun”, we should also think of the legacy of great innovators and thinkers like Gianni Rodari that have been defending for decades the role of play and imagination in learning. They were disruptive entrepreneurs of their times and we must find ways to connect them with these new born entrepreneurs.
Another issue is certainly the right balance between “vision” and “business” to design not only innovative but also ethical schemes. The DIY – do it yourself – movement, described well by Anya Kamenetz in her book DIY U, showed that innovators can surge out of the box and free themselves from the market’s laws to contribute to serving the community they are part of and not the investors or any other financial interests.
The near future will say whether this line of separation between community-based and market-driven innovations is sustainable. While opening Kamenetz’s book and reading the very first page, I have a slight doubt:
Will the education entrepreneurs keep up their dreams or give them away to their agents?
Part of the future of education may depend on the answer.
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