Defining the education market

A few readers have confronted me on one of the blog’s themes recently. “The education market isn’t devoid of investors and money,” they remark. “Fortunes have been made in the education space. Look at test prep and private tutoring.”

They’re right. Plenty of companies have done very well selling services that will raise your SAT score by 300 points – or your money back. Connecting students with private tutors has also proved a lucrative enterprise, so much so that many web companies have emerged in recent years to lay a stake in the new digital version of this market by facilitating webcam exchanges.

But we’re not interested in these models for the same reason they’ve been successful in the past: they cater to only the wealthiest sliver of students in the world. Don’t get me wrong – we want the wealthiest private schools and students using Lingt. . . right along with every public and disadvantaged classroom that wants to use technology to improve the quality of education.

So when we write about the education market, we are using shorthand for a subset: schools. Charter, public, private, immersion, urban, overseas – we want to benefit as many students as possible, not just the ones who have the luxury of a wealthy background. It’s this challenge that scares investors and entrepreneurs from engaging schools. The bureaucracy and slow purchase cycles associated with selling to schools are intimidating, for sure, but the rewards to our education system that will come if more young ventures feel comfortable working for and with schools are too great to ignore.

Entrepreneurship in Education

Often when I’m describing Lingt to someone outside of the education or startup community, I receive a revealing reaction:

“So what does your company do, exactly?”

“We make foreign language learning software?”

“Oh, so you’re like Rosetta Stone?”

“Not really. We build online technology for classrooms – our core users are teachers.”

“Ahhhh. . . <pause>. . . so you’re like a nonprofit?”

I’m not vexed by the question at all – I just find the pervasive correlation of education products with charity to be an unfortunate one. People are reminded of volunteer programs and company-sponsored science fairs when they think education, not a competitive market on the bleeding edge of innovation. The thought of suite-and-tie corporations plotting how to make money off one of our society’s most cherished institutions is unsavory, for sure. But, that education is so noble and vital is, in fact, more reason to value a market that is driven by the same thing that has led to rapid innovations in other markets: money. Now, if you feel like our education blog has been dirtied after reading that word, let me wash it off for you:

First, and most obvious, the promise of real capital gain attracts top talent to the field. There’s a reason why so many MIT students go in wanting to build reactors or robots and come out working for Goldman Sachs. How the education market could become more saturated with financial promise is another discussion, but once it gets there, expect the pace of innovation in the field to multiply many times over.

Second, and especially in this economy, profit is associated with greed and pretentious bonuses. But any good company will make sure profits are effectively feeding future growth that will benefit the customer. I say this from a startup founder’s point-of-view; my mouth waters at the pace and scope with which we could build cool new technology if we had money in the bank.

Third, any successful company should give back to the community that has allowed them to succeed. While charity should not drive their business models, it should be an eventual component to existence in the education space. More money circulating means more money not just donated back to education pursuits, but put to work for social benefit by the same creative and talented minds that were able to grow a successful company. Lingt study-abroad scholarships, anyone?

Finally, the desire to make money in a particular market has an ironic effect: it tends to drive down prices. This is economics 101: competition driven by the promise of capital gain will lower the end price for schools. And in a twisted way, here is the charity of education capitalism: driving down costs so a school district’s dollar can go further in providing for students and teachers. And a tight school budget needs to go as far as possible.

Lingt gets a phone

We’ve added a phone number to our contact page and encourage everyone to use it. Just because we’re a web company doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy some old-fashioned live conversation, especially if you’re having trouble with our site or want to offer some feedback.

New features!

We’ve been getting great feedback from educators demoing the very first iteration of the Lingt editor and are working quickly to incorporate those improvements that you want most. Along with a handful of bug fixes and optimizations that should make the site load a bit faster, we’ve added the following:

  • An FAQ to the Help section. Check it out for answers to questions we are hearing repeatedly.
  • Send feedback to your students. When students submit their responses, we now ask them for an email address in addition to their name. When reviewing responses, you’ll notice a new “Send feedback” button that will allow you to type a message delivered direct to the student’s email address.
  • View responses inline with the assignment. We discovered that teaching styles differ greatly. To accommodate as many of these as possible, we now display all student responses organized by order, as well as by student. So, you can now view all the responses to a particular prompt without examining each student’s individual list of responses.
  • Technical warnings are now on your main login page. If you don’t meet any of our site’s technical requirements (nearly everyone has met them without having to do anything), we now list this information on the first page you see when you log in.
  • Late tags. We now add a small “LATE” marker next to any student responses submitted after your due date.

Keep the great feedback coming!

Banish Internet Explorer 6 from your school

I managed to connect with the tech coordinator of an area school district recently to chat about the procedures by which education technology is approved, purchased, and incorporated on the district level. I had plenty to learn, but amongst the many questions I had scrawled on my notepad, there was one I was dying to ask more than any other.

“Why,” I asked, “have you chosen Internet Explorer version 6 as your district-wide browser?” In fact, I had discovered this only a week ago, just days before I was to demo Lingt to a group of language teachers for the first time. Morbidly curious, I downloaded IE6 and opened the Lingt Editor only to find our carefully-crafted user interface carved and rearranged on the screen like a Picasso.

Allow me to describe a web developer’s frustration with Internet Explorer 6 in a way that I think is intuitive to everyone. Imagine you are a painter and you spend countless hours painstakingly perfecting your masterpiece:

Nice work. Looks good.
Nice work. Looks good.

Now, imagine you want to admire your work through the lenses of various pairs of glasses. You put on the first pair and see:

Through the Firefox glasses. . .

You remove those and try on a second pair. You gaze upon your painting again:

Second glasses

Perfect. We put on a dusty third pair expecting to delight in our masterpiece a final time. But, to our horror, we gaze through the lenses to find this:

Terrible

What happened!? Oh well – we’ll bury these glasses in the backyard and never speak of them again. They were five years old anyway. Except 20% of art lovers out there are still walking around with these stuck to their face.

If you haven’t guessed, the third pair of glasses represent Internet Explorer 6, with little hyperbole. (The first two pairs represent virtually any modern browser available today.) It takes considerable effort by the developer community to accommodate IE6’s lack of compliance to web standards. Basically, the code that generates the look and function of a website is read, interpreted, and ultimately displayed differently by various browsers (IE, Safari, Firefox). Fortunately, there’s a published and widely accepted spec for how this should be done so that there is consistency between them all. Internet Explorer apparently did not get that memo.  The faster people abandon this antiquated browser, the faster developers can create great web applications that work well for everyone. Besides, it takes just minutes to upgrade to Internet Explorer 7. Even better, just use Firefox.

So, how did the district’s tech coordinator reply? Why in the world hadn’t the district upgraded from a five-year-old browser that has haunted us ever since we wrote our first webpage? I expected something to do with compatibility with existing network software, but it wasn’t even that. Quite simply:

“Nobody has ever recommended or required an upgrade.”

Well, consider this my recommendation. We continue to attempt support for Internet Explorer 6 since we are likely to encounter other districts still using the old beast, but it does add a substantial burden to development time we could otherwise spend building awesome new features.

This post was meant as a light-hearted and playful glimpse into a small part of the tension created when MIT geeks develop technology for institutions that have much higher priorities than upgrading their browsers. Nonetheless, we think the benefit of keeping browser technology up to date is mutual and real. Support educational web developers – just say no to Internet Explorer 6.

Our first pilot

We’ve finally finished our first iteration of the Lingt Editor and couldn’t be more excited to put it in the hands of students and teachers.

The great teachers and administrators at North Kansas City High School (my very own alma mater) have been working closely with us to prepare to pilot at the beginning of next semester with their French classes. It’s been a pleasure to work with such a dedicated and innovative group.

CALL is dead. WALL and MALL live.

CALL, standing for Computer-Assisted Language Learning, has been a favorite buzz word of researchers in the field for over a decade. However, it’s time to bid it farewell for a new set of bombastic acronyms that better reflect the most promising opportunities for educational technology today.

WALL and MALL, representing web and mobile-assisted language learning respectively, should be the new paradigm of education developers and innovators today. Bulky desktop packages and shoddy textbook software supplements will be overtaken by the tremendous advantages that a web and mobile approach can offer. Imagine a global network that spans every country and language and enjoys high usage by students all over the world. Even better, imagine this network is home to billions of culture-rich images, videos, audio, and text. Luckily, this network already exists. It’s called the Internet and we should take full advantage of it.

In addition to the added functionality, connectivity, and mobility they will offer, WALL/MALL-centric products will likely make short work of notoriously expensive desktop language software. Deployment and sales-associated costs will be dramatically lower, and the ease and ubiquity with which web applications can be accessed will allow WALL/MALL companies to more easily attract the truly global language-learning market and drive down costs with scale.

The quickest way to scare off an investor. . .

. . . is to tell them you’re an education company. In parallel with developing our first piece of technology, we’ve been trying to get to know Boston’s startup scene, especially the other great minds working in the education space. Naturally, we’ve run into plenty of investor-types eager to hear what three entrepreneurially-minded MIT grads are up to. An email I recently received from an intestor over at Adams Capital Management exemplifies the usual response:

. . . My condolences on your selection of the Education market. Although the non-financial rewards can be tremendous and the social impact profound, it is an exceedingly hard space in which to make money. . . I sure wouldn’t seek to make my fortune there.

Unfortunately, this pervasive attitude towards the education space can hardly be criticized considering its history. However, I think the general pessimism towards the education market is misplaced for a couple of reasons.

First, this pessimism usually places blame on schools for being extremely difficult to sell to. Blame often targets perceived defects such as overgrown bureaucracy, lack of innovation, and notoriously tight budgets. The buyer-user divide also proves daunting: although teachers are the primary beneficiaries and users of new technology, administrators usually sign off on the line item.

These complaints may very well contain elements of truth, but they are completely naive to the possibility that providers of educational technology are also to blame. Surveying some of the products offered in recent history, there is little question that the rigorous expectations for quality technology in other markets are not enjoyed by the education space. While many companies continue to offer impressive educational software for the home computer, many textbook supplements and other offerings intended for the classroom haven’t been built with the same vigorous dedication and rapid innovation as have mp3 players, cell phones, or graphics software. The bar is low and there is plenty of room for fresh talent.

Second, the average teacher is becoming increasingly likely to have grown up with computers. The often-cited obstacle of technophobia is quickly becoming irrelevant with the new wave of young, tech-savvy educators.

Finally, the increasing ubiquity of high-speed Internet access and home computers is opening doors to how technology can be used to improve the classroom. Whereas integrating computer technology into the classroom has traditionally meant scheduled computer lab hours and some compromises in curriculum, web applications offer the opportunity for boundless media resources, content sharing, collaboration, and a paradigm in which students are expected to participate at home instead of in a canned computer lab session.

The attitude that the education market is impenetrable and stingy is a self-perpetuating stigma. Pessimism dissuades talent from entering the space, which in turn stunts competition and innovation. When we look at education, however, we see opportunity.