The Question of Why Now

May 15, 2013

Edtech has been experiencing a boom unlike anything the sector has ever witnessed. If you look at the number of edtech startups that are discussed each year in startup digests like Tech Crunch, you’ll find the mentions have exploded. In tracking we do here, the numbers have ballooned from approximately 20 articles in 2008 to over 300 articles in 2012. Here’s our rough and ready TC-EDU index (and we’d welcome it if folks wanted to send us their own indices):

This exponential growth in educational technology startup formation begs an important question. Why is edtech suddenly game on? Many of the important underlying trends — online learning, LMS platforms, mobility, cheap computing, the list goes on and on — have been with us for some time. What makes 2012 such a different year from 2002, or even 2007, just five years back?

It’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to pinpoint the precise reason (markets tend to form and amplify under logics that are so overdetermined that it’s difficult to tease out root causes) but I’d hazard a guess that the most important reason won’t be found in the supply shock laundry list of ubiquitous broadband, wireless data, or long battery lives. Fundamentally, it’s about the emergence of the social paradigm–and the central role it now plays in user experience design patterns–that’s made all the difference.

The reason that social is so important for the edtech market is less about viral growth and network effects on a first order basis and much more about the simple fact that as humans, we’re wired to learn socially. We evolved that spectacularly complex piece of neuroanatomy called the neocortex to cooperate with each other and increase our propensity for survival, and it’s exquisitely sensitive to social phenomena. At the most basic level, social cues and social emphasis patterns drive the deployment of encoding energy in our brains.

What all of this means is that, when possessed with an intent to engage in activity that’s specifically educational, we naturally flock to social settings. Matt Lieberman, who heads up a groundbreaking neuroscience lab at UCLA that studies important learning questions, recently told me that there’s archeological evidence for the first classrooms as far back as ancient Sumeria over 2,000 years ago. Everywhere we look, from the master-apprentice system of medieval guilds to modern medical residencies, there are dedicated social arrangements whenever knowledge of high stakes has needed to be transmitted successfully.

This also explains why the popular critique of today’s education system — that it “hasn’t changed” in (choose your interval) years is both correct and also misleading. It’s not because our educators have a fondness for cramped furniture and the ringing of periodic bells that we still gather in small groups to do learning work. It’s because, over the broad course of history, that has been the only thing that has reliably worked. Even in the heyday of the dot com revolution, when the University of Berkeley Extension School began to offer its first suite of classes online, even here in the middle of Silicon Valley the vast majority of enrollants preferred to take courses live, in the classroom, because they wanted to ensure they’d actually learn what they were paying for.

The rise of the social network paradigm is the inflector. Whether we credit Friendster, Facebook, LinkedIn or even GeoCities as the legitimate pioneer of social computing at scale, there’s no question that the qualia of social is real. By applying it to problems of human learning–and I refer to knowledge bases or skill bases that people wish to intentionally possess–it turns out that the paradigm has the ability to generate outcomes that, for the first time in a legitimate way, appear to close in on the heretofore uncontested primacy of the live venue model.

So the piquant irony of our space is that social isn’t ultimately about distribution efficiency or lowest possible CPA (as it is for many other places where social is the innovative ingredient right now); it’s about the fact that social software designs drive learning productivity, pure and simple. The fact that social design also tends to help with user growth is a pleasant artifact, but this benefit more or less comes along for the ride. In fact, to build a great learning service that’s smartly architected around social you need to put the productivity benefit first and the user growth mechanics second (way second) or you’ll build a high churn contraption that neither produces learning nor creates any enduring value.

Another great thing about today’s edtech moment is that social software doesn’t have to imply everything is virtual. Some of the most powerful applications of today’s social learning architectures are in real (or “realtime”) classrooms. Here too, the larger picture is precisely about blurring the distinction between in person and on network. The confluence of both has proven to be a highly combustible mixture, and it does a great deal to explain the Cambrian explosion of this moment in edtech.