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Ask HN: Why is there so little innovation in education?
54 points by ggordan on Dec 16, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 80 comments
At the moment, the biggest VLE(Virtual Learning Environment), which is used by a large number of universities, is BlackBoard. And yet the product is poor by todays standards.

There are a lot of new startups that are concentrating on creating 'fashionable' companies, usually social networks of some kind, and yet the education sector is constantly being overlooked.

So perhaps a better question would be, are there any new startups addressing this problem?

Note: I also posted this question on Quora, but it got 1 reply which didn't really answer the question.

Education sales combines all the wonderful fun of multi-year Big Freaking Enterprise consultative sales cycles with the vast untapped budget of your local pizza shop. Your product, if it is going to be effective, is virtually certain to threaten the continued employment of a stakeholder who has veto authority over deploying it. Educational institutions and educators are not rewarded for doing education well -- indeed, if they have greater than minimal competency, improving just gets their budgets cut.

That's why I think education is especially the most important area where startups should focus obsessively on making something great, rather than making money off it. Go directly to the user; if you don't bypass the system, you won't succeed.

Like most other big changes, the most effective one for education might be to make the old system irrelevant rather than fight it head-on.

Add to that Blackboard has a large patent portfolio and uses it to defend it's self vigorously.

You have any examples of them starting legal action based on their patents?

They have a "patent pledge" not to prosecute if you implement Open Source software, even if it's integrated w/ propretary software to some extent. http://www.blackboard.com/Company/Patents/Patent-Pledge.aspx

I'd love to know how broad this pledge is based on their actual past actions.

It doesn't really matter, the patent they used to sue Desire2Learn got invalidated last year as part of the legal battle and a couple of weeks ago Blackboard announced they were abandoning their appeal:


It's interesting you should bring this up, because I've thought a few times about trying to start an Education-based company after I graduate - it's something I'm both interested in and passionate about (several family members are teachers and headteachers, I've worked as an EFL teacher twice).

One thing that puts me off is what patio11 mentions - selling to schools and universities would be difficult and it's unclear whether they actually want it. OTOH, it does seem like a lot of individuals in education are interested in the potential of e-learning (to give their institution a USP if nothing else), though I've been uninspired by a lot of the examples of it I've seen in practice.

One area which does see a lot of fashionable, Techcrunch-y startups is language learning - off the top of my head I can name Busuu, italki, and Voxswap which are language-learning social networks, ChinesePod and Skritter which are targeted at Mandarin learners, and Smart.fm and YC-funded Lingt which offer online flashcards. These, of course, are more aimed at individuals, suggesting that it's something much easier to target.

"Disrupting Education" is an interesting read; the author's thesis is that e-learning is a 'disruptive innovation', that will first find success in niche areas where traditional education cannot reach (for example, providing high school students courses like Arabic, which are difficult to find teachers for). There it will gain momentum until it begins to displace more traditional education (though he holds that it will empower human teachers, not replace them).

At Skritter, we spent a lot of effort trying to sell to schools. In the process, individual sales picked up on their own to the point where we realized we were wasting our time on the schools.

It's not that it can't be done. If you can directly make or save the school money, you can do it. But don't just try to help it teach better. Very few will pay for that.

+1 for ChinesePod

Steven Jobs says:

"I used to think that technology could help education. I've probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I've had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.

It's a political problem. The problems are sociopolitical. The problems are unions. You plot the growth of the NEA [National Education Association] and the dropping of SAT scores, and they're inversely proportional. The problems are unions in the schools. The problem is bureaucracy. I'm one of these people who believes the best thing we could ever do is go to the full voucher system.

I have a 17-year-old daughter who went to a private school for a few years before high school. This private school is the best school I've seen in my life. It was judged one of the 100 best schools in America. It was phenomenal. The tuition was $5,500 a year, which is a lot of money for most parents. But the teachers were paid less than public school teachers - so it's not about money at the teacher level. I asked the state treasurer that year what California pays on average to send kids to school, and I believe it was $4,400. While there are not many parents who could come up with $5,500 a year, there are many who could come up with $1,000 a year.

If we gave vouchers to parents for $4,400 a year, schools would be starting right and left. People would get out of college and say, "Let's start a school." You could have a track at Stanford within the MBA program on how to be the businessperson of a school. And that MBA would get together with somebody else, and they'd start schools. And you'd have these young, idealistic people starting schools, working for pennies.

They'd do it because they'd be able to set the curriculum. When you have kids you think, What exactly do I want them to learn? Most of the stuff they study in school is completely useless. But some incredibly valuable things you don't learn until you're older - yet you could learn them when you're younger. And you start to think, What would I do if I set a curriculum for a school?

God, how exciting that could be! But you can't do it today. You'd be crazy to work in a school today. You don't get to do what you want. You don't get to pick your books, your curriculum. You get to teach one narrow specialization. Who would ever want to do that?

These are the solutions to our problems in education. Unfortunately, technology isn't it. You're not going to solve the problems by putting all knowledge onto CD-ROMs. We can put a Web site in every school - none of this is bad. It's bad only if it lulls us into thinking we're doing something to solve the problem with education.

Lincoln did not have a Web site at the log cabin where his parents home-schooled him, and he turned out pretty interesting. Historical precedent shows that we can turn out amazing human beings without technology. Precedent also shows that we can turn out very uninteresting human beings with technology.

It's not as simple as you think when you're in your 20s - that technology's going to change the world. In some ways it will, in some ways it won't." [1]


[1]: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.02/jobs_pr.html

Incidentally, the incoming governor of Florida is talking about putting in a full voucher program in the form of broader "education savings accounts" which also work for college savings and such.

The response from the education establishment and intertwined media is predictable (http://news.google.com/news/story?pz=1&cf=all&ned=us...): FUD about its effect on public education. Unfortunately the establishment is too concerned about keeping their own jobs to consider the importance of choice to developing the future of online education systems - which will improve outcomes and potentially dramatically reduce costs as well.

Florida could well be the voucher battleground for 2011, so if you're interested you perhaps should consider getting involved.

The comparison of private school tuition to public school costs has been debunked long ago. It's apples to oranges. Private schools can get rid of their problem cases, public schools can't (and problem cases can take up a huge amount of teacher time). Private schools can cherry pick the best students, public schools can't. Private school parents, simply by the fact that they sought out an alternative (selection bias) are often more involved in their kids' education. They also often donate substantial amounts of time and resources over and above tuition, which never shows up in the books but represents a real resource.

Jobs blames the unions, but what he misses is that the union didn't get that way all on its own. The union's job is to defend the interests of its teachers, and teachers have been given a pretty bad deal over the last 50 years. Falling pay, additional responsibilities, decreased autonomy/creativity and administrators who are all too willing to throw them under the bus at the slightest parent complaint. The union preceives rightly that its constituency is under siege, and becomes obstructionist accordingly.

The studies I've seen of voucher schools -- at least the ones that weren't financed by voucher advocates or businesses -- have shown that once voucher schools have to operate under the conditions that publich schools face, the results are statistically indistinguishable.

As was said; See the movies The Lottery [1], The Cartel [2], and Waiting For "Superman" [3].


[1]: http://thelotteryfilm.com/

[2]: http://www.thecartelmovie.com/

[3]: http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/

>I have a 17-year-old daughter who went to a private school...It was judged one of the 100 best schools in America. It was phenomenal. The tuition was $5,500 a year, which is a lot of money for most parents. But the teachers were paid less than public school teachers - so it's not about money at the teacher level.

In response to Steve Jobs:

I agree, quality of education isn't necessarily about pay at the teacher level, but this isn't the best argument about why. The students attending this school necessarily have parents who put a high priority on education; at the very least, they are willing to pay $5,500 to a top 100 school. I think those parents are making a huge impact. If you move that exact same school with those exact same teachers into a less affluent environment with a $150 tuition I don't think you would see the same phenomenal results.

I work at a small private school that focuses on good teachers, strong community, and an intellectually demanding curriculum. Although we use technology where it makes sense for us (Moodle, classroom projector computers, computer lab), but we are low-tech compared to our competition in the area. In my opinion, we provide a better education than they do, and we are definitely less expensive that the other top-tier private schools in the area.

My conclusion is that although technology can be very helpful, it is not the key to a good education. The key is having well-trained, dedicated teachers who care about the students, working in an environment where they have the freedom to actually do their job. That's what we have here, and I wouldn't trade it for a job at most other schools for twice the pay.

Actually, one of the more interesting policy pledges of the new UK government was something like you described, apparently inspired by the Swedish system of "free schools".

The idea was to let parents (or whoever) establish their own schools, and be eligible for public funding based on how many students they enrolled. It was the flagship policy of the Conservative Party's 'Big Society' initiative, something that was criticised a lot both by the right (because they didn't like it) and the left (because they didn't believe the Tories were serious about it). It wasn't mentioned much during the election campaigns since the debate was about austerity and the mood was too grim, and I don't know if anything has happened about it, but I thought it sounded like a good idea.

One problem we're seeing is Sweden at least is that it turns out that offering world class education is simply not a cost effective way to attract lots of students. Offering free laptops, no homework, lots of high tech gadget for students to play with and free trips to Spain turns out to be a far more effective way to attract customers.

At the end of the day most of their potential customers aren't that interested in education, and as such it doesn't make financial sense to spend too much on that aspect of the business.

I bet you're right that a lot of parents aren't all that interested in the quality of education their children get, as such. But ...

If you say your school offers world-class education, parents have no reliable way of telling whether that's true. If it isn't true and they send their child to your school, they still have no reliable way of telling; in particular, they will have a lot of trouble convincing a court that your description of the school was dishonest.

On the other hand, if you say your school has free laptops, no homework, lots of high-tech gadgets, and free trips to Spain, parents can check that pretty easily and get you into legal trouble if it isn't true but you said it was.

If parents care more about things they can actually check, that doesn't necessarily mean they aren't interested in education. They may just be realistic about what they can trust educators to do.

It isn't so much that parents aren't interested in the quality of the eduction, as much as the annoying fact that teenagers have wills of their own. You make it sound like the parents are the target customers for these schools, but based on how the schools target their advertising they realize that their target customers are very much the kids.

Now admittedly I don't have teenage kids, but from what I hear I imagine it is non-trivial to tell them that they can't go to the school they have their heart set on and instead must go to a school they don't want to go to at all. And even if the parent does win that particular battle of wills, I image that the kids motivation will have taken quite a beating. I suppose at the end of the day most parents reason that it's better to send their kids to a bad school they are enthusiastic about rather than a good school they don't want to go to.

Lots of tech and travel sounds like a good education to me!

I agree it sounds like a fun education, I'm not quite convinced about the 'good' bit. I guess it depends on what you want out of high school. Faffing about in a professionally equipped TV and recording studio and getting drunk in Spain for a week are certainly both educational in some sense, but it's hardly what I'd call well rounded.

Then again I suppose anything that makes kids excited about high school is probably a good thing, even if it means sacrificing the academic side of things. A 'bad' education that you enjoy is probably more rewarding than a 'good' education you hate.

I'd say 1 week a year of partying doesn't immediately ruin your roundedness. But yes, some faffing may make kids more excited about making TV shows than they are about latin grammar.

He made some good points, but even a visionary like Jobs missed how his prediction of networked computers would help improve education. Once again, I point to the Khan Academy.

If all Salman Khan had was a log cabin, he would have probably still taught because it's his passion. But he would only touch the lives of a few hundred at most, not millions.

The same applies for the top universities making their content available for free online. Do people really not see what it means to students outside America and Europe?

With age, even Jobs got jaded and forgot his own golden words: STAY HUNGRY, STAY FOOLISH.

I see Khan Academy as disruptive technology and not apart of the education system. In fact I use Khan in homeschooling. But the real issue that is stifling eduction is the current eduction system.

Khan Academy is not disruptive technology (at least not yet). It is great teaching material delivered on Youtube, which is the disruptive technology.

I'm really excited about the prospects of Khan Academy (and similar tools). Technology has the potential to give students access to the best teachers in the world. I for one would rather have my kids watch on television lectures by phenomenal professors who are engaging, passionate, and great communicators and have their in-class teachers serve more as TA's to help fill in the learning gaps.

My girlfriend, who is a teacher, doesnt believe this is a very productive technique however.

I'm not a fan of publicly-funded medicine, but I just had a thought as I read this. What if instead of one-size-fits-all socialized medicine, the US tried a hybrid approach that involved "medical vouchers." You pick the doc, the treatment, etc. You have $x to spend. You shop.

Seems like if this was done right it would increase competition and lead to better outcomes.

What a great find and thank you for posting. I appreciate its a little old now but the message is still relevant

Old, yes; but you are correct it's not old in the sense that it's irrelevant.

See the movies The Lottery [1], The Cartel [2], and Waiting For "Superman" [3].

When reading that interview I saw Jobs as almost prescient.


[1]: http://thelotteryfilm.com/

[2]: http://www.thecartelmovie.com/

[3]: http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/

I don't see how you could call him prescient when he was talking about conditions as they existed at the time of his comments. The fact that they apply just as well today simply means that conditions haven't changed much.

Yeah; but it was mostly because here he was having made the assessment that three current documentaries are finally coming around to making more than 20 years after.

'Sides I did say 'almost'...

Anyone know what school he is talking about? When did this article come out? $5500/year sounds like a good deal. I've seen private schools for the rich and famous, like Dalton, that charge $35,000 a year for K-12.

Steve Jobs had done pretty well with the "young, idealist people working for [relatively] pennies" model. But is there no value to experience in the teaching profession?

There is absolutely value. But that value is currently minimized with the current system. Jobs may be talking about young idealistic people starting schools, but he says nothing to imply that you wouldn't want experienced, motivated teachers at those schools doing the actual teaching. It's like a business person starting a tech startup and getting the best developers he/she can find. I think the same strategy would apply here. Experienced teachers would certainly increase the likelihood of success, as long as those teachers also had an open mind and were willing to do things differently than they were used to.

perhaps the problem IS the SAT system. I have a high IQ, and I can't for the life of me understand why the US uses SAT's which are so similar to IQ tests. In Australia, the HSC required me to work, and people less smart than me who worked harder beat me.

The SAT's on the otherhand, encourage a feeling of "giftedness" and unwillingness to take risks. If I had to just deal with the SAT's I would be lazier than I already am!

I've been homeschooled, and have taken online classes. With the internet, from Wikipedia to small websites on a certain topic, the internet has made research and homeschooling much easier. Yes, I still did use textbooks and read, but the internet itself has been a great learning environment to pursue at your own pace. Some of the learning management software I've used improved over time. Often, most of the learning management software was Moodle with a wimba classroom. The wimba classroom was not quite so good, but Moodle (despite being spotty at times) worked well for its purpose. With the Pearson network, they're running a custom system that technologically is different (webobjects and asp), however it isn't too distracting to show flash presentations, submit assignments for grading, run discussions, etc. If someone comes along and makes a great OSS or SAS solution for a learning management system there is certainly room to improve. The difference between my experience is the cost is a concern to those using these programs so they try to find the best and lowest cost solution.

Very interesting to hear from someone who was homeschooled. I currently have my two children (4 and 8) in a private school here in the UK but my wife and I said it would be great to give them a different type of education rather than what is traditional (we're non-conformists anyway!). How did you find the social aspect, or did your parents deliberately engage you with others?

As high school continued I did more social stuff such as Sports (Non-school affiliated teams or homeschool teams), Co-Op classes for a year, Taking classes at a community college later in high school, Homeschool extracurriculars: Mock Trial, Government Camp. When I was younger, I did field trips and events with a local homeschool group. Other stuff too like youth group, summer camps, etc.

Moodle is another interesting option. I know a few schools that are using it, and it certainly has some fan support:


(I recognize it's not a massively innovative product compared to Blackboard, but I do prefer it. It's a step in the right direction.)

The most unpleasant fact about the education business is what to do with the not so bright kids and how to keep them from holding back the bright kids. (Yes I know, all children are above average and are fully capable of absolutely anything if they just try)

It's probably more about motivation. Not-so-bright but enthusiastic kids probably won't hold you back as much as apathetic children.

Genuine question: If you were running a country (rather than being a bright kid, or the parent of bright kids as I'd imagine most of us here are or were) would you prioritise the bright kids at the expense of those lower down the bell curve? If so why?

I worked for a year as a software developer at a company that made educational products. In many ways it was a good company, but I was frustrated by what I considered substandard quality in their software products. It wasn't that they didn't care at all about quality, but the nature of the education market tended to encourage us to cut corners on quality.

Most educational software is used by students and teachers, but purchased by administrators. The administrators making the buying decisions compare competing products according to price and feature lists. Therefore, we were encouraged to match and exceed the feature count of the competition in order to get sales. If the new features introduced a few bugs or made the user interface awkward, that was less of a problem than not getting the features out in time for the academic year buying cycle. The buyers might never use the product enough to experience the problems. Other commercial software developers have similar struggles with the balance of more features, meeting market windows, and maintaining good design and quality. However, I believe this problem is exacerbated in the educational market by the gulf that separates those who buy from those who use the software.

The reason there is not as much innovation in education is fairly simple:

The people doing the innovating rarely feel the pain points, and the people doing the decision-making rarely feel the pain points.

To make this more concrete, those who are in decision-making positions are administrators (who are concerned with teaching on a macro level and on an "are all the boxes in this curriculum guide getting checked off?"), school board members (who are rarely in classrooms), and legislators (who only go into classrooms when it's politically expedient).

Any type of "innovation" comes down from on high based on perceived problems rather than actual problems.

In the meantime, you've got lots of teachers in the trenches, some of whom are luddites, but most of whom are willing to try something new, particularly if it makes their job easier or more effective.

I got in trouble (when I was teaching) for using an online gradebook rather than a paper gradebook because my principal had less control over it. When using technology, the mantra was "Why don't you just have them make a powerpoint?"

If you want real innovation in educational technology, it'll have to either come from the teachers, or it'll have to come from people who work closely with teachers. From there, you'll have to sell it to administrators (in order to even begin to make money), while teachers (at least in my experience) generally do a pretty good job of evangelizing improvements to those who are still willing to improve (which, I think, is more than it sometimes seems, but fewer than perhaps there should be).

TL;DR: there's no innovation because current products either create more pain-points than they solve, or they don't solve any relevant pain points that the people using them actually have.

I have been working on two projects targeting university niche and after months these are my observations. Universities are managed like kingdoms, not republics. The deans and professors have absolute power, students do not get a say. Even if students could rise their voices they prefer not to rise their voice as their degree (and parents' money) are on the line. Professors and deans like to keep things run the old way, everything with pen on paper. The less technology involved the more they enjoy their life. (I think this is because these guys are mainly 50+ and those types do not like to scratch things they've known for 30 years and learn new technological stuff) Technology makes things more transparent and more data available to people that university thinks should not be. I think technological innovation will start to boost in universities in like 20 years when students of my age who enjoys technology in every bit of their life become professors and deans, etc.

I prefer my students do their assignments on paper because its a lot easier to grade. I have yet to see an online method that works as easily as paper -- I have often though about developing my own but have not had the time. One example, you give an online test or exam, you have to click about 50 times to get through all the essay questions, and then you still have to get the grades into some other system since many of them can't import/export a standard format. And if those essays are homework and a student turns it in late, you get to the end of the semester and the student asks why you didnt give them credit; they have to notify you they did the assignment after the due date, otherwise you wont know its completed. The alternative is checking all your assignments online periodically to see if any new submissions are posted from previouse assignments. I know this sounds like its not a big deal, but multiply these frustrations by 120 students, and you start to get an idea that its not as simple as you make it out to be.

I think one innovation that might make this easier is standardizing of test formats in XML, so they can easily be migrated between platforms. Standardizing grade sheets might help too, so when you start using one system you are not locked in. I have tests in one online system that I do not care for, but to migrate to Moodle I have to rewrite everything from scratch.

The bottom line is that whether your students use pen and paper, fancy online systems like Moodle etc, learning does not change much. Students still need to learn, and professors still need to asses them in basically the same way. If technology does not offer some advantage that can't be replicated with "stone knives and bear skins" you gain nothing and its difficult to justify moving to technology.

> And if those essays are homework and a student turns it in late, you get to the end of the semester and the student asks why you didnt give them credit; they have to notify you they did the assignment after the due date, otherwise you wont know its completed. The alternative is checking all your assignments online periodically to see if any new submissions are posted from previouse assignments. I know this sounds like its not a big deal, but multiply these frustrations by 120 students, and you start to get an idea that its not as simple as you make it out to be.

Isn't the right thing, just to mechanically enforce due dates without excuses or exceptions? Students tend to procrastinate enough already.

They did try to standardise the test formats, but the big companies (who didn't actually want interoperability) just turned it into a big XML snowjob, subverting the standardising groups in a similar way to Microsoft's OOXML debacle.

There is some interoperability, mostly because the open systems like Moodle reverse-engineer stuff. I believe some of the systems now encrypt their output to prevent this, which is absolutely shocking to me, but typical of big corporate software which is what these big players are.

We are addressing the problem with www.nixty.com. We launched in July. There is definitely a lot of opportunity here. There are also a lot of challenges in addressing this market. If interested shoot me an email glen at nixty dot com. I'd be happy to talk more with you about this space and share what we've learned in the process. Also, if you are interested, here is an overview video of what we are doing: http://www.youtube.com/user/NIXTYLearning. Here is another video - an interview with Scoble -- it is more of a high-level sketch of where we see things going (more emphasis on research-backed open courseware etc.): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfuDRlUp3AU

There is a huge underlying theme in the comments here that innovative technology will not be a silver bullet for the education system - and I agree. What is being vastly overlooked, however, is that technology can be an external factor that drives internal innovation. If a technology was developed that rips apart the current system and causes it to fail (more so than it already is), I think somebody will eventually catch on and say something like, "Hey, our system isn't working. Solutions are readily available and can be downloaded in less than a minute. Every single student has every solution to every homework problem and every exam that we administer. I think we might have to try something new."

And that's where the innovation happens.

http://www.khanacademy.org/ (no affiliation)

I'm working on a project now that will aggregate self-motivated learning online. Watch a lecture on YouTube? (Many universities post them). Get credit for it. Start a discussion with others who also watched it. Ask and answer questions. Find like-minded people and learn with each other, set your own challenges and goals.

That's only half of it, but the core idea is this: We learn online already. Pave the cowpaths. Give people credit for what they already do.

I'm also looking for a co-founder. Anyone interested in this project (suggestions, more info, etc.), I'd love to chat: http://scr.im/michaelhart

Better content and teachers have greater leverage than technology in education. The perfect example is Khan Academy, who are only now building applications for exercises based on their stellar content. If a startup did want to help, it could help great teachers leverage and amplify the power of existing tools to create and spread good content.

A few startups are trying to use games as a new way of teaching. There are lots of language learning sites, which are using peer-to-peer tools, but they seem more interested in plastering their sites with ads than actually educating people.

Can you point to some examples of startups trying to use games as a new way of teaching?

A friend of mine started http://hootcourse.com/ which attempts to integrate the communication tools students are using with their courses.

The instructors and students using it thus far seem to enjoy it. Though it's not a replacement for products like Blackboard since it's not really a repository for content, it does replace their poor communication tools well.

Open source, Java based "Sakai" http://sakaiproject.org/ has replaced Blackboard at Wake Forest University, which is encouraging to see...although I have heard some complaints that it is difficult to learn to use for professors, even among those who consider themselves above the average technologically.

I think that the biggest problem preventing the innovation of this sector is definitely the bureaucracy as other comments have pointed out. The amount of time and effort that startups put into their products just isn't worth the number of headaches that come along with the target market.

Also, the education environment does not fit well with the "launch early, often" model that many startups employ. When evaluating options, they really want something that is 100% polished and deploy-able, which requires a level of airtight that most startups are not shooting for.

Building something for the university environment is sort of like enterprise but worse, because there aren't immediate effects to the "bottom line" when bad choices are made.

There are lots of symptoms and consequences, but the core reason is the simple fact that people don't want their child to be put at a disadvantage; consequently they are reluctant to a) experiment on their own child with an innovative program, for fear it will disadvantage them or b) allow others to experiment with innovations that their own child does not have access to, for fear it will give the others an advantage.

For a public school to innovate requires them to first overcome a) by showing clear evidence that the innovation really works (not easy when you're talking about educational programs that take years to bear fruit), then overcome b) by implementing the innovation broadly enough for everyone to participate (generally much too expensive for the community to support). All the other usual scapegoats (unions, standard tests, Texas textbook companies) are marginal influences compared to this pervasive feature of human nature. As usual, we have met the enemy and he is us.

I noticed this recently, developed a concept that I thought might be a good substitute for some prolific higher ed software and pitched it. The result: "Great idea! But we've got no funding? We'd love to use it though... maybe you could sell it to our current vendor and they could bundle it in? We definitely couldn't afford to pay for it ourselves though."

Having two young children I would love to see something happen in this space. Currently I have my children in a private school on the basis that its "the best I can do for them now" - ie small class sizes, larger resources than a normal school. Whilst this is working out 'ok' I do feel that the idea of teaching children in a traditional manner - ie knowledge transfer from a person at the front - is wasteful. Outside of school I try to get them to solve problems by discovering their own solutions. I've looked at home schooling, but they would lose the social aspect. Its an area I'm just starting to explore, to find "a better way" so would welcome any comments, ideas, sites etc that people know of for an alternative way to traditional schooling. I do understand this is slightly different to the topic that has been started, but it still fits within the same area - that of innovation

Have you considered a Montessori?

Yes, this is something we looked into but unfortunately where we live there is no Montessori locally (within an hour from what I remember from our search). Thanks for the suggestion though

I've used at least 2 VLEs but I have to say that I still rather use Yahoo Groups or the best one would be Google Wave... But, yeah, I totally agree that the environments available nowadays doesn't show any evolution. I think that's a reflection of the institutions (universities, in general) they are linked with. Both the education and the working processes have to undergo huge transformation/evolution (theoretically it should have started by education, but I can't see it happening). We still pretty much have been going to school more or less the same for the past 700 years. If we want to be in the 21st century, we must move on from the 13th.

I think you underestimate the innovation in education considering Kahn Academy, the UN, MIT courseware online, etc. The innovation is in content and a more student-centric approach to learning.

The old model of a school building and a teacher "push the content" has changed little since 1800 despite the advances in technology. Just relax the assumption that there has to be a physical school and the innovation opportunities become apparent. More thoughts at http://sophisticatedfinance.typepad.com/sophisticated_financ...

My wife is a teacher so I speak with some 2nd hand experience here.

[tl;dr: 1) Innovation does happen, it just doesn't always involve technology or computers. 2) The system punishes those who innovate.]

Rant 1:

She is constantly innovating in her classroom. She is always looking for new and better ways to capture students attention and inspire them.

She is head of the department and is also innovating within her department. She works together with her team (currently 3 including herself) and often runs things like joint lessons so experience and best practises can be shared amongst the team.

However, she is not a techie so her innovations are in teaching styles, delivery, activities, content and management and not technology. I think sometimes as techies we can be quite arrogant in assuming that innovation must always involve technology.

Rant 2:

But the biggest problem in teaching is the system. The focus of the system is so heavily centred around grades that sometimes they forget we are dealing with children. The system encourages uninnovative parrot style education and memorisation of past papers so the pupils can reel off a bunch of model answers to keep the numbers looking good. So those who innovate are often rewarded with poorer grades because the exams focus on blind memorisation with no thought.

So much is expected of individual teachers that those who want to innovate don't have the time. She currently starts work at 7.45 when I drop her at school. She leaves at 5.30 when I collect her. She does an additional 2-3 hours most evenings and 3-6 hours on a Sunday. She works around 70% of the time in every halfterm/holiday break with the exception of the summer when we try to get a solid 2 weeks away somewhere. Add on the frequent parents evenings, open days and after school events.

The goal posts are frequently changed at both a governmental level, a local authority level and at an individual school level (sometimes conflicting). Deadlines are frequently imposed or changed with little or no warning. Unlike in my industry where if a request is made someone must choose to drop some existing work to fit it in, they are frequently expected to meet additional requirements without any reduction elsewhere.

She has been a teacher for 5 years and so far the syllabus in her subject has changed every single year. This means every year time is wasted re-writing schemes of work to fit a new syllabus, re-writing mock exams, re-writing resources and lesson plans. Some churn is obviously good to continuously improve, but when the required churn is so high there is no time to make improvements.

Lets add to this the constant pressure of demanding parents who see (or hear about) every innovation, and any that doesn't fit their own personal mantra for education they complain (and too much power is given to parents who complain). It's like having an additional 30 pairs of bosses per project each with their own totally different opinions on how their child should be educated (and they all seem to think they are experts and their children are angels).

Teaching breaks the spirit of even the most passionate rather than rewarding those who are innovating it crushes them under a mountain of work and unrealistic expectations.

It's the system that has to change first to reward the right kinds of behaviour. Every successive government seems to think they are the experts on education and their changes are forced through so quickly little time or consideration is given to implementation or if they will actually work.

[UK based btw]

"However, she is not a techie so her innovations are in teaching styles, delivery, activities, content and management and not technology. I think sometimes as techies we can be quite arrogant in assuming that innovation must always involve technology."

Definitely agree with this. I know UK schools have a budget for technology (or at least they used to), though a lot of it apparently ended up spent on fancy new gadgets that were more cool than useful.

There are some things that are good. I don't know how common this is, but in her school almost every classroom has an "interactive whiteboard" and teachers all have personal laptops.

This allows some things like use of internet, youtube etc in lessons. (But training is lacking, and the level of use is highly down to if individual teachers are prepared to put in the extra work to discover what can be done with it.)

Also, the availability of commodity technology can lead to innovations in lessons. For example, one thing she has done is get kids to make very (very) simple stop frame style animations using regular digital cameras and powerpoint. This couldn't have been done when I was back in school because the school couldn't afford a few dozen digital cameras.

There are people like Dr. Sugata Mitra, who after decade of experiments brought this innovative concept of 'SOLE' (Self Organized Learning Environment) ... this can change the world of illiteracy & poverty with little bit help of philanthropy.


Public education is destroying America as well as my country (Canada). Most of the detailed comments in this thread overlook the fact that the devil isn't in the details. Public education sucks, period. Did you really think you could combine "monopoly" and "bureaucracy" into "monopolistic bureaucracy" and it would end well?

Fred Wilson was asked this same question on his interview yesterday: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2009662

He answers this on minute 30 of the interview. And mentions he'd just made his few pure Education investment.

There is innovation: khanacademy.com

We're still in the process of figuring out how to extend education universally. This is a relatively new idea, and as such has required more than 100 years to get right. Also, as a country (US), it seems we have yet to decide if its really worth the cost.

There's a couple Chicago guys trying to make a BlackBoard competitor - no idea how far along they are. Hope they chime in. Sounded like an interesting project.

Ah, education... this is one of my big bugbears, and it's a really big one, so bear with me :) The issue is multi-faceted:

* Stifled curriculum; Here in the UK the curriculum is pretty shoddy. My mother is a primary teacher and trying to innovate her teaching is extremely difficult - the curriculum simply cannot cope. It is unwieldy and disjointed, and almost without exception tech innovators do not understand how it works and how to accomodate it (n.b. this is not simply a tech problem, my dad runs a successful mobile planetarium business and, through my mother, knows how to accomodate what is needed - their competitors pop up every few months and quickly flounder because school level education is unlike any other learning ever conceived :)).

* Teacher apathy; not all of them, but enough. They follow the worksheets and guidelines and don't "disrupt" the system enough to make a serious change. You'll get a few great ones in each school (I'm sure we all have some memorable/fav teachers) but most are simply either bad or good teachers, and not innovators.

* Teacher luddites; even the very best teachers can be luddites (meant in a polite sense). Getting them to accept and use new tech is hard enough, but when the teachers often have no IT skills (this is a problem that will be fixed in a few generations, I guess) themselves there is simply no chance :)

* Teaching unions; don't give a crap about education (partly understandable), and exercise their power to interfere a little too much.

* Bureaucracy; you honestly have never experienced bureaucracy until you have ever tried to do anything in a school. This varies greatly, and can exist as stupid rules through to silly government policy (the one at the moment is that my mum has to "evidence" and present all the work her kids do during the year... I guess to prove they aren't just playing with lego all day???)

* Funding; there is none. Most good teachers (esp. primary teachers) will fund a lot of the non-curriculum ideas they have (such as, science clubs) as there is no money. And when there is it is spent shoddily. For example; mums school have digital whiteboards and laptops for all the teachers to hook up. In the last three years they have had three suppliers (all council approved contracts..) - all of who have fucked up in various ways and been replaced. Most of the whiteboards fail at some point (v. poor quality), the laptops are slow, clunky and a mess. They can never get anything done (Mum has a pile of CDs/DVDs with educational programs that she can't "ta da" install on the laptop to test....)

tl;dr: education is a mess because previous good education has tried and failed (dismally) to adopt modern ideas and adapt to modern society. There is no money, innovation or interest in educating our children.

(n.b. not all teachers are at fault. In fact; a large number will raise these exact issues if you ask them, but are completely stumped as to how to fix and disrupt it. Innovation is desperately needed - but be prepared for a long long slog :))

> I guess to prove they aren't just playing with lego all day???

Actually, that would be a good idea.

That would be a fantastic idea, actually.

I'm working on education: http://curiousreef.com

I have been a teacher for over 20 years. My tenure has been 1/2 in an upper middle class community and the recent 1/2 in an inner city school with a 50% graduation rate and 80% free and reduced lunch rate.

What bothers me about this question is the word "innovation." It is too big. From a learning standpoint, there is no need for innovation. Research is pretty clear about the methods by which learning takes place. We have decades of materials and studies and experience. Of course there is always new research that might put a fine point on some of these methods, but the basics are well-known.

From a teaching standpoint, there has some been innovation in the last 15-20 years. This comes primarily from technology in the form of brain scans and neuroscience. Even still, good teachers have been using methods that take advantage of this knowledge. But we used it before we knew how it actually worked. Good teaching hasn't changed as a result, but we are able to show (and convince) new teachers why you should use a given methodology.

From a technology standpoint (since this is HN I assume that is the direction you want to go), don't waste your time. Computers in classrooms are just another tool, like a TV or pencil or book. Technology is just another body of knowledge students are expected to know before they graduate. We have had enough studies now that show putting computers in classrooms make no difference in outcomes. It is only helpful if a teacher is trained to use that tool, in the same way that a teacher is trained to use books and notes. Effectiveness is dependent on its use and not merely its presence.

The current classroom innovations in education, and the ones making the most impact in our schools, and many others, are human relationships. (I will address innovation outside the classroom in the next paragraph). Students who connect to teachers learn more in that class. Period. They show up to school, they listen, they are more likely to do the work, they are more interested in the material. This has been the saddest revelation to me in my teaching career. These kids in inner city schools have no dad, many times no mother and are usually one of several children by different fathers. All of them know of someone personally or an immediate family member in prison, or dead from violence or addictions. They are transient with no permanent home. In short, they are desperate for an adult to care about them. They live day to day and never learn skills like organizing, planning, or time management. They have no role model, and it is very difficult to be one as a teacher when you have 35 kids in your classroom for 40 minutes a day. Until a student knows you care, they don't care what you know or what you have to show them. It helps if they have a parent who values education, but those are rare. Many students tell me their parents dropped out of high school and they still have a house and food and car and cell phone. They do, but it is provided by the government.

The biggest innovation to be made is in the structure. Everything is broken. Everything. Steve Jobs summed it up nicely. I'll add that as long as education remains a political issue, politicians with assume control with regulations and laws that benefit the most powerful voters - the voters most likely to re-elect them. For a long time that was unions. It is currently shifting to parents. In some places, business wields the most influence. Let parents decide where to send their students. Give their money back and let it follow the kids. Free teachers to achieve a set of standards using the methods and tools most appropriate for their communities. The standards don't need to change, but the freedom to teach in the way that is best for your current group of kids has been taken away.

That's enough - nothing is going to change.

Exactly. The biggest innovations in education will come not from new technologies, but from new processes -- ways to improve and/or work around the existing legacy infrastructure.

I think in the next 5 years we'll see the "groupon" model applied to more and more social/political/cultural problems. This will carry some risks (we should all re-read the lessons of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, for example), but it could be a nice corrective to the current "two parties, one system" model.

Have you looked at Sugata Mitras hole in the wall experiment http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_t... videos

standardization is one reason: http://xkcd.com/768/

We can't have a revolution in education with the current bureaucracy in place. You need a more competitive and innovative supply than what we have, which is what vouchers can help with.

I have a middle ground: Require all charter schools to be "open-source": Open accounting books for everyone to see. Don't cap profits, don't restrict teacher pay, simply make all charter schools show what people are spending for the education they're getting.

The results of the charter schools' performances will show in the quality of the children coming out, as well as (potentially) by some ostensibly neutral, non-binding ratings agency. The only thing that can let a charter school be forced to shut down would be blatant fraud as defined by money laundering or other abuses (aka not tied to performance).

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