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2020: The Year Of the Edtech Paradox

In many ways, 2020 has been THE year of edtech. Technology experienced a meaningful surge in adoption by schools, districts and parents. The industry saw large capital inflows and more edtech “unicorns” than in any other prior year. Mergers and acquisitions are booming. Edtech funds closed larger funds, and top-notch venture capital investors including a16z, Lightspeed and Union Square Ventures have developed investment theses on education.

Yet, 2020 also saw an acceleration of inequities in education. The divide in access to digital tools, systemic racial gaps and biases, increased learning and opportunity disparities and rising poverty have all affected learners from under-priviledged backgrounds.

As an edtech investor, 2020 was a great year. As an impact investor focused on building a more equitable future, 2020 was devastating. As a mother, 2020 was unsettling. Can we solve this fundamental paradox and have it all—growth and impact—so that opportunities for all learners grow alongside the edtech industry? I remain an optimist and believe that the answer is yes. However, we need to rethink three fundamental assumptions in edtech: For whom? By whom? To what end?

Edtech for Whom? Many edtech investors subscribe to the trickle-down theory and point to Apple and Tesla as examples. Start with a niche product sold to an elite segment of early adaptors. Next, develop products for aspirational consumers to adopt. Costs decrease. Mass adoption occurs over time. Applying this concept to edtech, the belief is that a “trickle-down effect” solution will initially widen gaps, but as it scales it will benefit many (if not all) in the long run.

In light of the pandemic, I would argue that we can’t afford to wait for years or decades for this trickle-down effect to happen, and risk leaving generations of learners behind. Instead, we need to re-center edtech on the curb-cut effect theory.

As an edtech investor, 2020 was a great year. As an impact investor ... 2020 was devastating. As a mother, 2020 was unsettling.In real life, curb cuts on sidewalks are intentionally designed for people with disabilities. Yet, they also benefit many others, including parents with strollers, travelers with rolling luggage, or even skateboarders. In edtech, “curb-cut effect” solutions can close gaps from the start for learners who are most left behind. They also carry positive externalities: They not only benefit the under-served targeted group, they serve many other learners.

There are many curb-cut effect opportunities in education. Take dual-language learning as an example. It has been shown that dual-language learning leads to developmental gains for English language learners (ELLs). What is less well known is that it also benefits native English speakers who score higher on tests and socio-emotional competencies when enrolled in dual-language classrooms. At this point, nearly one out of four learners in the U.S. is raised in a family where English is not the primary language spoken at home, and this number continues to grow. However, there are few edtech tools, like Duolingo, Ellevation or Genius Plaza, focused on dual language learning, and we need more. This will help ELLs, and all learners.

Another example is reskilling and upskilling. A number of organizations are developing offerings for underserved groups looking to find jobs in the current challenging economic environment. Guild Education’s Next Chapter, SkillUp and LearnIn have launched innovative solutions for laid-off employees. Career Karma offers navigation guidance into tech jobs, and assigns learners into small affinity peer mentorship groups (also referred to as “squads”), such as moms or veterans. Those solutions squarely serve those transitioning jobs and careers. More broadly, they support a re-imagination of adult learning and education-to-career pathways for all, with greater attention on outcomes and communities of support.

Edtech by Whom? To bring more curb-cut edtech solutions, it is essential that the teams building them have lived the experiences of people whom they are trying to help. The good news is that edtech is leading the venture industry on both gender, racial and ethnic representation, and many edtech startups are led by former educators. Yet, there is still meaningful room for greater diversity in line with learners and educators’ demographics.

We are encouraged by the work of incubators and accelerators like 4.0 Schools, Camelback or Founder Gym, as well as new accelerators and crowdfunding platforms focused on diverse founders, such as A16Z’s Talent x Opportunity Fund, BlckVC, LatinX Incubator and Reunion. Impact investment funds focused on diversity include Harlem Capital, ImpactAmerica, Juvo Ventures and Zeal Capital. There are also new charitable grant pools emerging from Google’s Black Founder’s Fund, Liberated Capital and The Power Fund.

Some edtech startups like MathTalk are taking it one step further. They are not only led by a diverse team, but they also involve the community in the process of designing solutions. There are many opportunities for companies to be more intentional in designing with and for underserved learners and communities.

Edtech to What End? Based on a survey of over 500 schools and district leaders responsible for making edtech adoption decisions, half admitted that research and evidence plays no role in their decision-making. While it is troubling that edtech is scaling without more rigor, education research also needs to evolve toward what works for whom, with an increasing focus on underserved groups aligned with curb-cut effects.

The field of academia, especially as it pertains to edtech research, lacks diversity. Black males, Black females, and Hispanic males each account for 2 percent of full-time professors, while Hispanic females, American Indian/Alaska Native individuals represent less than 1 percent each. But we see promise in research and policy centers focused on equity in education, such as The Children’s Equity Project, the National Black Children Development Institute, and plans for a Center for Research on African American Children and Families.

The pandemic has shined a spotlight on our interdependence and the promise of edtech in 2020. We look forward to 2021 to be the year of inclusive, effective and human-centered edtech that delivers on both growth and impact. Author acknowledgement: Thank you to Geo Kane of Emerson Collective and Ira Hillman of Einhorn Collaborative for the rich discussions on curb-cut effects in education. This op-ed is part of a series of year-end reflections EdSurge is publishing as 2020 concludes.

From: Isabelle Hau (@Volcoucou) is a senior fellow at Imaginable Futures, a venture of The Omidyar Group

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