Entrepreneurs Called to Disrupt Education

Skill shortages are a roadblock for high-growth enterprises in many startup ecosystems. Below, I look at how entrepreneurs around the world are tackling this challenge, and how the research community has begun to measure their success ahead of the upcoming GEC2, a global gathering focused on smarter policies for entrepreneurial learning which I will co-host with President Ivo Josipović of Croatia September 22 – 26, 2014.

A recent Kauffman Foundation study that examined why certain U.S. cities have more startups than others observed that the public sector actually has little impact on startup creation rates, except for education. It concluded that the most effective way that governments can increase startup activity is to increase education levels.

The United States Department of Education is seeking evidence on what works in improving education outcomes. This month, it released a notice inviting applications for a $1.5 million grant to study online education, in a quest to enrich the body of evidence about what works in online education.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in turn recently reported in its first-ever study on education innovation that U.S. schools and classrooms rank near the bottom among the countries studied. Denmark, Indonesia, Korea, and the Netherlands were found to have the most innovative educational systems. 

The OECD report, "Measuring Innovation in Education," finds that, in general, more innovation has come from classroom practices than school practices in the countries studied over this time. In a separate country report, the top pedagogic innovations found in the U.S. were:

  1. More observation and description in secondary school science lessons;
  2. More individualized reading instruction in primary school classrooms;
  3. More use of answer explanation in primary mathematics;
  4. More relating of primary school lessons to everyday life; and,
  5. More text interpretation in primary lessons.

While not a measure of educational superiority or of entrepreneurial muscle in the education arena, the new index produced by the OECD shows policymakers that there is an entrepreneurial approach to education, something that experimenting teachers and edtech entrepreneurs alike have been adopting in increasing numbers in response to high rates of youth unemployment.

Anant Agarwal, who I recently met in Spain, introduced me to edX, an initiative that offers interactive online classes and MOOCs from the world’s best universities, including MITx, HarvardX, BerkeleyX, UTx and many other universities. Classes cover a range of fields, from biology to engineering to music. I also met with rock star education entrepreneur Michael Chasen, founder and former CEO of Blackboard, who inspired new players like Chris Etesse, CEO of Flat World Knowledge, which provides high-quality, affordable college textbooks, as well as an online platform that allows instructors and institutions to personalize content in new ways to help students succeed.

The impact of these entrepreneurs is tangible in many homes and schools. Today, adults and children alike around the world benefit from Khan Academy videos. Founder Sal Khan thought videos could help convey the subtle lessons that can't be conveyed in textbooks. Others have been inspired by this model, such as the Kauffman Foundation, which has launched its Founders School on-line.

Startup entrepreneurs are recognizing opportunities beyond vehicles for lessons. Their ideas extend to other related areas, such as fundraising. The EdBacker and TurMS startups, for example, offer a fundraising platform similar to Kickstarter and Indiegogo to help address budgetary shortfalls in education for teachers and schools. More inspiring ideas that were turned into innovations can be found in the Telefonica Foundation’s report on the top 100 innovative educational initiatives, which focus mostly on the field of science education.

Entrepreneurs emerging from classrooms and startup garages are seeking to increase educational effectiveness through innovation, and they are eager to collaborate across borders. The GEC2 gathering on the Entrepreneurial Mindset in Croatia next September will kick off with a hackathon for entrepreneurs innovating in the education realm. GEW’s new 10x10 event will see 10 groups of young people from at least 10 countries come together to develop education startups in real-time. We will see innovative pedagogic solutions across various intersecting areas, such as code literacy, personalized teaching, distance learning, collaborative learning, teaching tools and more.

I hope such fresh perspectives in making connections between the way people learn best and the skill sets our economies need, will offer the ultimate demonstration to policymakers of what entrepreneurial thinking can achieve in education. It will set the tone for discussions around new models of entrepreneurial learning that will immediately follow in Zagreb with President Ivo Josipović and the likes of Dane Stangler, Vice President of Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation; Bill Aulet, Managing Director at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and author of the acclaimed book Disciplined Entrepreneurship; Gordan Maras, Croatia’s Minister of Entrepreneurship and Crafts; Susan Amat, Founder of Venture Hive; and Michele Markey, Vice President at Kauffman FastTrac Inc.

Policymakers from the Balkan region will also be at the GEC2. They are interested in combing the world for solutions to the skill mismatch and lack of entrepreneurial spirit among young graduates in their countries.

In the United States, the Obama Administration plans to provide more Americans with the opportunity to acquire the skills they need for in-demand jobs. As part of this plan, the Department of Education announced a new round of “experimental sites” (ex-sites) on July 22, 2014 that will test certain innovative practices aimed at providing better, faster and more flexible paths to academic and career success. “This initiative will enable institutions to try some of their best ideas and most promising practices to provide more students with the opportunity to pursue a higher education and become equipped for success in today’s workforce,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. The Education Department also announced that it will collaborate with the U.S. Department of Labor to develop a $25 million grant competition for an online skills academy to support the development of a platform to enable high-quality, free or low-cost pathways to degrees, certificates, or other employer-recognized credentials.

In the meantime, data analysts will be paying close attention to how innovative education offers translate into student satisfaction, quality of education, levels of attained education, and overall educational outcomes. As the authors of the recent OECD report acknowledge, measuring innovation in education is in its infancy.
If this interests you, share your thoughts or please join us in Croatia.

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