Launching Disruptive Technology in Public Education

by Serge Vartanov

I recently attended a presentation by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen on the topic of innovation in health care. Professor Christenson discussed a number of theories as to how health care can become more affordable, but underlying his arguments was a belief that complex capabilities start off in an expensive and centralized form, and inevitably become commoditized and flow to the general population. In the realm of technology, complex processing power first manifested itself in mainframes, then over time diffused out as mini-computers, then desktops, then laptops, and now smartphones – each manifestation less expensive and more accessible. While this inevitability has tremendous implications for health care reform, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of opportunities this dissemination of technology could have for entrepreneurs who dream of disrupting the realm of public education.

Anyone who has taught in a classroom knows that no two children are created equal – each student comes equipped with a unique learning style and a unique set of capabilities. Schools and teachers spend countless resources testing, analyzing and diagnosing their students so that they can differentiate instruction – for example, giving the 5th grader who is reading at the 5nd grade level less rigorous reading assignments than a 5th grader reading at the 7th grade level. Even when a student’s skills and weaknesses are identified, teachers have to put in a lot of hours to create differentiated curriculum so that every child gets appropriate instruction. Here is an inefficiency in a very large industry that can be corrected through the proper application of technology.

What if there was a website that could diagnose students’ reading levels, and deliver common content at different levels of rigor – that is to say, if a teacher is teaching about Greek Mythology, the more advanced students would get a story with more vocabulary and complex grammar. What if there was an app that could identify a student’s math competencies, and deliver games that would help that student develop critical skills to make school easier? What if there was software that could diagnose a student’s learning style (visual, auditory, tactile) and present social studies curriculum most appropriate to that style (video, article, audio). A lot of these programs exist – but they take the form of enterprise software centralized in only a few schools, creating an opportunity for a lean start-up to market similar capabilities through more affordable and accessible channels directly into the classroom and the home.

The market is huge, but the pitfalls are great. The science behind a lot of this technology is really cool, so it’s easy for a passionate young entrepreneur to fall into the trap of developing the capabilities, coding out a responsive and adaptive program, before making sure that there is demand in the parent and teacher market and product market fit. To disrupt this market, a wise entrepreneur should start with a minimum viable product and shadow her target market (be it parents or teachers). But when working with kids, to whom User Interface is critical for engagement, how would an entrepreneur avoid a false-negative on interest?

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