On Entrepreneurship in Public Education

Some caveats first: I’m entrepreneurial, but not an entrepreneur in the sense that I’m bootstrapping my own enterprise. I don’t work in public education, though I have a rich background and history working in public education. I don’t publish proprietary content (save for what’s on the blog and in a few magazines), but I’ve been a content developer in and out of the learning and education space, so I get the business model and I’ve also worked in purchasing positions where one has to bring content into an organization. I list these as caveats first and foremost because while I have no particular dog in this fight, I certainly have enough history around this topic to have formed opinions — and we all kinda know for whom I currently work. So with being everything on this site being my own words representing my own views, I want to make sure that we all understand that what I write here is still the case.

I was fortunate enough to be invited by Klout to the TechWeek conference here in Chicago. One of the panel discussions today was on “Education 2.0″ and on it were John Connolly, the Director of Technology for Chicago Public Schools, an Angel who’s funding some interesting educational startups and two content houses: Quarasan! and Britannica (yes THE Encyclopedia Britannica). I was looking forward to Connolly’s participation and he did not disappoint. The man has a good head on his shoulders and he clearly understands how complex any issue involving educational technology gets in a public school system. Right now everything is a lightning rod, and that was evident in the room today.

Free Box of Colorful Crayons

I was floored at the responses in the room. The panel did themselves no favors by trying to simplify the argument for having some vetted digital resources available in lieu of kids searching online for something like “cougars” (which they pointed out could return a number of unwelcome results in the context of a kid searching online). The moderator couched this in terms of “appropriate information” vs. “Wikipedia” and that’s when the words started flying in the room. A student sitting behind me (I would guess University of Chicago, maybe Economics, but who’s to say, really?) started first challenging the “safe” notion of searching for cougars. “What if the student is searching for information on Vietnam? What’s ‘appropriate’ then?” he asked. The point I made as an audience participant (I was not on this panel or hosting it in any way) was twofold: 1) we need to think of appropriateness in terms of the audience content is meant for — not that we should be necessarily hiding content from kids, but that an educational resource like Oxford’s Zoological studies (I’m making that up, maybe) might not be appropriate reference material for a third grader; 2) The issues around “content” are far more complex than proprietary content vs. Wikipedia: it’s proprietary content vs. open content of all types. Things that are more immediately useful and usable will hold sway over stuff that isn’t, and teaching kids how to sift through all this content and makes some sense of it is a literacy skill that is far outside the bounds of a 45-minute panel discussion. Connolly had a great line that “technology will change how teaching is done, but the teacher will still be the most transformative part of how well kids learn.”

This is where any discussion of entrepreneurship in public education needs to start, in my opinion.

Charter schools, public schools, private schools, co-ops, unschooling — someone is still doing the teaching. They need help. It’s a hard-ass job. If you could do it better, then do it. If not, watch, listen and observe where teachers have pain and help them ease it. A few weeks back at ISTE 2011, a product was launched called MindShift, focused just. on. that. idea.

Figure out what hurts. Make it better. Tell that story. That’s pretty much my model for entrepreneurship in learning, education and training. If you can do that and come up with a story worth retelling, the people you’re helping will tell the story for you. People love having solutions to other people’s problems. This is how you market and sell in this space. To me, this is just plain common sense, but in the room today, it was clear to me that this is NOT obvious. That shocked me enough to write this post.

One gentleman had the moxie to tell Mr. Connolly and the rest of the panel that while the subject for this discussion was Education 2.0, he and other entrepreneurs were already on Education 10.0 — further challenging the panel that there’s no way they can keep up. Then five minutes later, the same gentleman complained about how there are over 16,000 middle schools in this country, each of them with a Educational Technology director he has to get through to sell his content/service/thing/whatever — implying it’s the Ed Tech person’s responsibility to move his product. I would’ve scoffed louder had he been the only one who felt this way, but it was clear to me as an observer that several other “entrepreneurs” in the room felt the same. I was aghast.

I often criticize the professional learning and training industry because with as many people as are building eLearning, there is a minuscule minority that actually consume that which we portend to create and be experts at. HOW CAN WE BE GOOD AT ELEARNING IF WE NEVER EAT OUR OWN SOUP? The sad truth is that this seems to be the case in education, too. The gentleman above is clearly not healing someone’s pain, otherwise he would know how to talk about it with others. That’s the experience you build when you help people with what ails them. Without it, you’re looking to sell a product, the same way that encyclopedia salesmen would do, going door to door with these big books that mostly went unread by the salespeople hawking them.

If you want to make money in public education, you need to do it by helping teachers transform their craft it useful, usable, accessible and authentic ways. Remove the obstacles to people doing good things. Focus on small solutions that get something done really well but also support the use of other tools — even stuff you don’t make. Get users to love you and your product because YOU love your product — because it helps YOU. Do that, and you can make zillions of dollars.

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