Why education needs start-ups

Ken Robinson says in his now pretty famous TED talk that if you mention to someone that you work in education you can watch peoples’ faces drop, but ask them about their own experience of education and you can’t shut them up. So it was just over two years ago when a bunch of us sat in a room to talk about how we might set up a new school. One by one we talked about our experiences – good and bad – of education whether primary, secondary, at university or at work. What was obvious to all of us by the end of the day was that education was still designed for the industrial, factory based era and had barely been updated at all. It is still basically a one-size-fits-all system where information is passed down from people who know to people who don’t.

Two years later and I share an office with several of the people in that room. Rather than starting a school, we went away and founded a company, raised investment and built School of Everything. We spotted an opportunity to use the internet to connect people who have something to teach with those who want to learn directly, without the help of educational institutions. It’s growing fast, not just in the UK but in other countries too. We’ve found that there’s a desire to organise learning in a simpler more efficient way.

We’re not the only people trying to do it. In the UK Beanbag Learning, and in the US start-ups like Teachstreet, Edufire and Grockit are all trying to find ways to revolutionise education and it’s a growing scene. Today we got a bunch of UK start-ups together in London to swap war-stories and tips about how to change education from the bottom up at Bettr. Then at the SICamp meetup we got people together to pitch new education start-up ideas and try to find the people who can help them to make them happen.

But why start-ups? Why can’t established large companies or agencies innovate? I believe that small, cheap, nimble organisations using technology to develop new products and services will be better at coming up with completely new ways of thinking about the structure of the education system. When you decide to put your energy into a start-up, you don’t start from the perspective of ‘designing a faster horse’, you think differently. You have an interest in the overall success and scalability of the project, not in a contract. You focus on the end user rather than what somebody would like who already has a vested interest in the way things are organized now.

And despite the downturn, education is one area where the investors are still interested. The penny has dropped that education is a massive opportunity, almost no matter what the economic climate. As the renowned venture capitalist Fred Wilson has said “It’s the entire education system that’s stuck in the past. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately, and I’ve come to believe that we need to completely reinvent the way we educate ourselves.” Silicon Valley commentator Umair Haque has also said that reorganising education is one of the biggest opportunities of the 21st century.

At School of Everything we’re trying to change the way people organize their learning. We’re not out to put professional teachers out of a job or commoditize education (plenty of people offer to teach on School of Everything for free). We think the old ways of finding information and collaborating with others will still exist, but education needs a real shake-up and to imagine a way of organising itself that is very different from the industrial age. It’s been start-ups that have done that for the way we buy and sell, the way we find information and the way we communicate with friends and family. Education is already changing but the sense of opportunity is growing. In 10 years time, the way we organize learning will be almost unrecognisable from today.

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