Big education corporations are trying to buy their way to digital innovation. Will it work?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on April 23, 2014

From The News Desk

If you’re a big corporation, it’s not easy to dance lightly on your feet -- although some are certainly trying. Big institutional baggage, formalized procedures for keeping the machine running, crystallized company culture, and bureaucratic red tape can prevent the invention of innovative new products.

That’s where the door is left open a crack for lithe, smaller startups to potentially transform an industry with a product launched by four people in a garage — or Airbnb apartment, or SOMA loft.

Old, behemoth education corporations are operating in one of the sectors slow to be transformed by digital technologies. But the age of digital is upon school systems around the world, and companies like Pearson and McGraw-Hill are scrambling to get ahead of the changes.

Big education publishers in America are pulling a Yahoo and attempting to buy their way to digital innovation, either by acquiring or partnering with smaller edtech startups or running their own incubators.

But it’s not just happening in America. Massive education publishers in other parts of the world — even in countries that are ranked highly for their strong school systems, like South Korea and Finland — are also taking this route.

The latest is Helsinki's Sanoma, a huge publisher in Europe and one of the biggest education publishers in Scandinavia. It recently announced a partnership with Knewton, an adaptive learning startup from the States, to develop technology for Dutch schools.

Knewton is one of the bigger and arguably more successful American edtech startups. It produces an API allowing publishers to create homework that can adapt to a student’s learning level. For example, if a student doing algebra homework with a Knewton-enabled computer program might gets an answer wrong, the program will pull up lessons explaining a few of the concepts the student needs to understand to complete the question. It will then test the student on those concepts to figure out where they’re getting confused.

Adaptive learning is a controversial, highly-hyped trend in education technology. From the rosiest perspective, it’s a way for students to receive individualized attention that caters to their learning needs. As you might imagine, that’s particularly helpful in the American school system where budget cuts have led to much larger class sizes and limited time for teachers to help students individually.

But from a more critical perspective, adaptive learning is a bit of a farce. It promises to use big data to teach students, but potentially misses crucial educational steps in the process. For example, an adaptive homework assignment might teach the student how to get the right answer, but it can’t necessarily confirm that the student is learning how to think critically or understand bigger-picture theories about why and how mathematics works the way it does.

However, for all the good and the bad, it’s undeniable that adaptive learning is a sexy new technology, one that bigger, older, textbook companies are eager to adopt to show they’re still relevant in an increasingly digital age.

Knewton has successfully tapped into that desire, raking in business and distributing its technology far and wide — in 120 countries and 13 companies — by partnering with bigger corporations like Microsoft and Pearson instead of building its own adaptive content. That means big money for Knewton, but also big impact. “We want to empower others to improve digital education to the world and we felt it was the most effective way to get students’ products faster rather than creating a marketplace on our own,” Knewton’s COO David Liu says. “These companies are going through this incredible digital transformation in their own right, as you know.”

It’s a different business model from the edtech startups that take the freemium consumer approach. Companies like ClassDojo and Remind101 — schooled in the art of Imagine K12, the nation’s first edtech accelerator — focus on spreading their product the same way an app like Instagram or Snapchat would. They offer it for free, market it to teachers, and rely on teachers to spread the word to fellow colleagues. That way, these companies can bypass district purchasing procedures which can be immensely slow and complicated. Down the line, they hope to monetize through upgraded features or by offering districts’ analytics tools once enough teachers in a district are using the product.

Both approaches — riding on the backs of bigger education corporations or spreading consumer style through teachers — are valid business models. But the most impact on the classroom is likely had through the latter method. After all, if you’re relying on big education publishers who have been around for hundreds of years and have done things largely in the same way for decades, to implement brand new modes of technology, there’s bound to be innovation lost in the process.

On an unrelated note, it’s a bit disconcerting to see so many American startups partner with foreign corporations to bring their technology overseas. After all, the States don't exactly have the world’s strongest education system. We didn't even crack the top 20 countries for a 15-year-old's proficiency in math, science, and reading, according to the 2012 report from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Sanoma creates educational content for schools across Scandinavia — the likes of the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Poland, and Sweden. Almost all of these nations -- except for Sweden -- cracked the top twenty countries whose students performed the best in math, science, and reading according to the 2012 PISA study. You’d think they would have less need for American technology like adaptive learning designed to help personalize education for students in America’s overcrowded classrooms. Liu explained why he thinks the technology could still be useful in Europe:

What were seeing is no matter how small the class size unless you are literally one to one, you’re not going to get a truly individualized learning path. The technology will never replace teaching. Teaching is an experiential thing. You need teachers to be able to enlighten, drive, challenge, drive critical thinking, talk about strategy. Teaching is incredibly important. But arming teachers with the data on what students need to work on is incredibly powerful. For students it’s equally empowering because they’re able to not get stuck and not feel like they’re ramming their head against a wall, so they can be engaged and move forward.

Sanoma isn’t the only big foreign education publisher partnering with Knewton. The company has also established partnerships with big education corporations in the UKTurkey, and South Korea — the number two ranked educational system in the world according to a 2012 Pearson study — and is in the process of moving into Brazil, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia.

For all the problems American schools face, maybe our technology really does hold the key to a better educational system.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]