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Imagine K12 (ycombinator.com)
230 points by pg 2320 days ago | hide | past | web | 81 comments | favorite

This reminds me of jedc and his MBA research about startup accelerators and how, and more importantly, when to clone.

His #1 point was:

> You need to be unique, where unique is not just a seed accelerator in a different city

Imagine K12 is unique in their knowledge and connections. What a fascinating proposition.


Thanks, Peter. This is exactly the kind of program that I was talking about. I hope their connections to schools are able to turn startups in this market into businesses with real impact quickly.

SHORT COMMENT: Hey hackernews, I'm a teacher/hustler looking for a technical co-founder. Let's build something together. Apply for this program. And worst case scenario, we don't get in but we have a kick@ss product we can sell to school systems.

EXPANDED COMMENT:I'm a long time reader of hackernews and I have never left a comment. But this was the push over the edge.

I am a math teacher in an urban school. Before that I ran a (very non-tech) business, and before that I was a business analyst (read documentation nerd) for the mobile technology division in a very large bank.

I have been telling everyone that will listen that we can save public education and make a bunch of money through innovation. All of our technology, frankly, sucks when compared to similar wares that are sold directly to consumers.

I am bursting with ideas and some I have already tested. But I can no longer work in a vacuum.

So like dating ads of yesterday here is my pitch-

Me: Undaunted math teacher in an urban school with 2 years of experience. Using data driven instruction my students achieved the highest passing rate in my school system. While I can't hack (YET!) I can sell water to a whale and snow to an Eskimo. More importantly I can take complex systems and teach them to almost anyone. I have rewritten documentation for our 3 most popular programs in my systems and I hold monthly workshops for other teachers where I teach them how to use the technology in their classroom. Plus I understand teachers and I have experience in market research. And did I mention, I am a fearless hustler?

You: A) Want to change the face of education. B) Build stuff.

So let's do like voltron. Team up. Build something amazing. And if ImagineK12 doesn't want us, lets keep moving forward and kick down our own doors.

Mr. Turner

P.S. You can reach me at BRODERICK dot TURNER at GMAIL dot COM

P.P.S. Last year my school system's revenue was 662 Million Dollars. The money is there.

P.P.P.S. A list of companies whose lunch we could eat with a good enough product and A WHOLE LOT OF HUSTLE=





Of course, it's "Mr Turner" -- what self-respecting teacher goes by their first name or a silly nickname? ;)

Seriously, I love these kinds of pitches, though I personally am so over-extended I can't do much beyond offer hit & run advice.

I don't know what other technical contacts you're making, but my biggest suggestion is not to wait. There's a huge amount of work you can do without being "the technical one" yourself, and the great thing about this work is that it gradually leads you into a better understanding of the technical side yourself -- which you'll need to do at some point, if you want to be centrally involved in a tech business. You don't have to write code, necessarily, but you have to learn a lot about the tech side.

All that really means is "details" -- take the best of your ideas, and start breaking it down all the way into separate pages, separate bits of data ("so we're letting teachers enter assignments here... that needs a name, description, due date -- er, wait, some teachers will have sets of assignments to do in sequence with no specific due date -- and what about extra credit assignments?" etc.); how to enter data, organize it, show it to the users who need to see it (and how to organize them). And so on. What do you do when the user "does it wrong"? Will you handle different time zones, languages, etc.? This is where the important work is; you have to add in solutions to problems, then remove most of your ideas and strip it down to what's most essential & useful & easy to build.

This process is much more difficult than the original brainstorming, but also more rewarding -- your project becomes so much closer to "real".

I'd really like to see a "request for startups" type post from this group.

I think better it come from the schools than from the group, no? The schools are the ones feeling the pain you're trying to solve, and it's a targeted segment where you don't have to searching for a customer. Your customer's right there, so the knowledge is right there.

Of course, there's the caveat that the customer isn't always sure of what they really need. But in this case, I'm sure they could think of some good ideas. :)

I would hope that the requests/ideas would be informed by the people they are building relationships with at the school level. So perhaps more along the lines of "here are some things we are hearing again and again" rather than "these are ideas we think are good" but I wouldn't want to exclude either kind.

That's the point of the group, though, really -- they have close relationships with a good set of schools, and can be involved enough to see actual pain points that are amenable to technological solutions, talk through ideas with teachers, find the teachers who give reliable/insightful feedback, find administrators who can give insights into what expenses would be easy to get sign-off for & what wouldn't, etc..

Soliciting ideas from the target market directly isn't as useful -- you get a lot of ideas of what people think would be neat, but often the ideas are seriously flawed (ideas for flashier solutions that in practice are less efficient/practical/flexible than the old method... ideas for things that would be better but would not fit easily into any budget... etc.).

I've gotten lots of ideas from teachers directly for my (education-targeting) site, but most of them aren't actually very valuable - things that are either obvious (and already on my to-do list) or far too specific to their particular needs, or ideas that seem good at 3000 feet up, but explode when you look into actual implementation details.

Something built around the model that Khan Academy presents would be really interesting. Videos and learn at your own time. Home work help, helping parents and students find tutors, helping with test preparation. The long summer months are also a problem for a household where both parents are working. There is a lot of opportunity to help students here. Will be exciting to see what comes of it.

Good luck!

My company is tackling the tutoring component. We think with free content like the KhanAcademy, the only thing missing is personalized help when you get stuck. We're launching a summer program where K-12 students can work with tutors from Stanford via Skype. The tutor will be like a coach, though, most of the instruction will be from Khan Academy videos. What do you think? We're at IgnitionTutoring.com

Have you had to work around Khan Academy's CC noncommercial license?

Khan Academy would presumably we willing to permit this for a relatively small amount of money.

A huge problem that the Khan Academy fails to address is the digital divide. Often the children who attend schools who are the most at risk do not have access to computers/internet at home and community centers are often hard to reach both due to their distance and the danger in their traveling there.

I, a CS masters student, and my wife, a PhD EE, who attend University of Texas at Austin run an after school program for middle school kids to teach robotics and programming using lego mindstorms.

The school is one of the poorest in the city, but also has an integrated math/science magnet program within it. Our students are a mix of both the local children and the magnet kids who are bussed in.

At the beginning of class we place logic problems on the board and we were surprised to find that often the kids not in the magnet program solved them correctly often on par with those who were supposed to be the best and brightest in the city.

However when it came to programming and using the computers, the non-magnet students lagged behind the others at a pace of almost half the speed. Though they both were able to mechanically develop and debug their robot equally well.

I meet with the parents throughout the program and the correlation I noticed most prominently with those that suffered with programming was if the kid had easy access to a computer outside of school.

This is a really exciting announcement! Education is probably the most important factor in maintaining long-term competitiveness and the American system is in desperate need of improvement. That said, the hurdles in this area are overwhelming. To name a few:

-Layer upon layer of bureaucracy (states, counties, districts, individual school administrators)

-Teachers that are reluctant to adopt new technology

-Students that are difficult to motivate

I have a ton of respect for anyone even trying to take on this challenge.

I'll add another one: academia who teach education seem to have an almost visceral reaction to any suggestion of for-profit educational product development. There's this almost dogmatic principal that anything related to education should be done not-for-profit. I speak from experience... I have an idea for an educational game (software) and I haven't had any luck getting the time of day.

OTOH, there are a lot of for-profit educational ventures, and they all seem really skeevy to me -- places like Kaplan or Phoenix University, for instance, or frankly a lot of educational software.

Perhaps a pro-market explanation is that the bureaucracy itself undermines the market, creating a market that is not truly driven by stated goals (education) but other factors. I'm not sure I believe that, but it's possible. The difficulty of procurement might in part mean that heavy up-front marketing costs dominate, and once you've made a sale it's both fairly large and neither increases nor decreases based on the quality of the product -- poor products tend to be maintained based on the commitment of the administration even when in practice they don't end up being useful.

It would be interesting if teachers were allocated money to purchase products themselves. While it seems somewhat chaotic, and challenging with student turnover (which is generally very high in the US in particular), it seems like the only way to actually have a market driven by real experience and taste rather than politics or theory.

I suggest you watch "Waiting for Superman" where they address the problems teachers face with being given merit based pay, which they could reinvest in product purchase. A quick solution for this is to create a localized version of craigslist specific to teachers where they can request donations of items/funds for specific projects. I tried to implement this many years back with a focus on computer donations, but the school administration shot it down because they feared the increase cost of their incompetent IT staff supporting multiple hardware formats, despite them often being nearly new technology. I did have teachers in Highschool who were able to build amazing labs based on applying for grants. Unfortunately these grants were not widely known about among teachers and they had no knowledge on how to write a good grant request. My HS physics lab actually exceeded the quality of the lab I used at university (UT at Austin). I was able to skip every literally single class, with exceptions of tests, and ended with a final score in the top 5% of the class.

The pro-market explanation in the case of University of Phoenix et al is that a lot of people want a degree to have the degree, rather than learn. Maybe they get a bump at work for having a master's.

So the market's working. Hence the term, "paper mills". It's much cheaper to sell people a degree than to teach them stuff.

You forgot one: there is no money to go around. Many schools would be happy just to have enough money to provide paper for xeroxing tests.

> -Layer upon layer of bureaucracy (states, counties, districts, individual school administrators)

damage. route around it

> -Teachers that are reluctant to adopt new technology

damage. route around it

> -Students that are difficult to motivate

damage. route around it

i am serious

harsh. i thought i was giving wise advice.

Bit harsh, but 'route around it' isn't too helpful. How?

It seems Imagine K12 will/has solved the classic chicken-and-egg problem with education startups. I've been asking on how to get traction at schools online in different communities for years when I was working on a side project in this area. It's virtually impossible to sell to school districts, and unless pioneering teachers who are savvy enough to use something like Google Apps for their classrooms and see your product in the Marketplace or look for solutions on their own time while somehow fitting it in their already tight classroom curriculum and time budget, you have no way to gain traction from authority figures in the school system.

Enterprising students are basically they only way I've found that educational startups/sites can get active users to join on.

"It's virtually impossible to sell to school districts"

This is exactly the problem I've been wrestling with. The best idea so far has been to appeal to private&charter schools first, and then attempt the big system. Public education is very much like a large company (risk-adverse, and process-oriented).

School districts have the sales cycles of Fortune 500 megacorps, the technical savvy of convents, and the budgets of hair salons.

As a general rule this is true. However in my experience there is a segment of this market in the US that is extremely lucrative; essentially the top X% of public high schools. These schools are private for all intents and purposes, as most of their budget comes from property taxes. These schools have massive budgets that approach $100 million, extraordinarily qualified and perceptive teachers, and a community that is heavily vested (and almost neurotic) in the success of the students. Also, the staff at these schools are surprisingly tech savvy, often with a large dedicated budget for technology.

All the above factors combine to create a perfect storm for a business with an innovative product. If you've got a product that will make students at these schools more competitive in the college admissions process, it will be purchased at a massive price tag. All the key players, the parents, the teachers, and the administrators, have the will and the budget to make these types of acquisitions.

Note, marketing to these schools is difficult. A connection in the administration or the education space is the easiest way, but I'm convinced you could bootstrap yourself through the teachers. They are smart and savvy and the senior teachers can have surprising influence. Further, the market is on your side. One you convert a few of the top schools in the area, it is likely most of the other top schools will follow, as not to be left behind. Top schools will follow the leader, as these things go.

Overlook this market segment at your own peril. :) There's only a (relatively) small set of schools that fit the above criteria, but they have a combined budget of billions nation wide.

You may note that I did not mention the top %X of private schools. That is because in my experience, parents (one of the key players) aren't necessarily as invested in the school on a day to day basis. There seems to be a higher rate of apathy with parents in top private schools, whether as a result of geographic separation or some other factor. The bottom line is that at top public schools, the parents made the effort to move to the community, buy a house at a ridiculous value, pay outrageous property taxes. In practice that seems to create a much more invested base of parents that will be much more involved in the school. I still think you can sell to top %X private schools, but it seems harder in my mind.

If someone is thinking about starting a product in this space, happy to chat via email.

Thank you, that is detailed, helpful, and much closer to the desired level of comments on HN than mine was.

I've been running a project targeted primarily at schools for about 8 years now (emusictheory.com), and I know this market exists (I attended a rich public school, actually), but I also have no idea how to target them without cutting out many of the public school teachers that have been my supporters over the years.

Can anyone point me to good writeups of how to build pricing to target the big players while still letting in the little guys? My pricing is currently too low (I know, I know), and I have some teachers who tell me to charge whatever, it's no problem, and others who it takes them 4 months to manage to push through a purchase order for $150 (and the school takes months to pay the invoice....).

I've been thinking about making an "enterprise"-level subscription that includes setting up the school's own mini-site on a subdomain, but I'm not sure what else I can offer to make the pricing jump seem non-ridiculous.

The pricing jump is probably only "ridiculous" to you. Schools (and government in general) make it so hard to sell to themselves that prices in the tens of thousands are normal to them, even for tiny districts.

I don't think the pricing is the hard part - it's getting them to buy. And I'm not convinced those two are completely related.

This incubator states that they are going to target charter schools as test beds. I assume that means they are already creating contacts for interested schools. One of my fears is that since some charter schools have agendas that vary greatly from publicly funded schools, E.G. religious charter schools

Another quick comment to solving the "selling to public schools" is community involvement. PTA groups often can play a powerful role in determining the agenda of the schools. Too often they stop at bake sales for carnivals, but in some cases they can be very effective in lobbying for change.

Makes me wonder if the same could happen with the health care / medical field.

This is fantastic.

But we also need a breakthrough in K-12 tech adoption.

n=1: my girlfriend is a math teacher at a better district in California. The only technology they provide her is a desktop with Windows 98.

So she uses her own mac to admin a tumblog filled with photos of assignments and answers to problems she uploads from her iphone. She uploads PDF's to google docs and 'shares with everyone'. She links to Khan academy videos since the school bans youtube and none of the district computers support flash.

Then her students use their home computers (if they have them) to consume this content. They're excited about it (most never heard of Khan before this) and it seems to be effective.

Back in the late 90's IBM installed a token-ring network at my high school. It was obsolete before they finished the project and the computers we had could barely get IE3 to load a web page.

So I hope this incubator does a lot not just to foster edu focused startups but to also get the right people in education to push for decent technology at schools.

Many friendly Linux User Group members volunteer to install and administer Ubuntu at public schools in the Bay Area. Ubuntu's a decent experience even with 256MB of ram, so schools can even reuse those 8-12 year old computers.

Free software's great for all kinds of technical, practical and cultural reasons. It's existed my whole life, but I didn't really feel its presence until using Debian in a research lab 4 years ago.

We don't all need to be RMS, but it's a worthy thing to think about for anyone who makes a living off free software.

The economy of scale here will be huge - if the founders of Imagine K12 build vertical expertise in promoting education startups (i.e. connections with schools, VCs who invest in education) it will be a lot easier for startups to do customer development and build/implement cool ideas. Our education system will benefit big-time.

I'm excited about this program. Hopefully it will bring a lot more smart entrepreneurs and developers into the edu-tech space. It's definitely an industry that's in need of good talent, innovation, and creative problem solving.

Quizlet.com (Alan Louie, one of this program's founders, is an advisor) is looking for a few great people to join the small team in SF. If you have an interest in edu-tech (or just working on a web product that's helping millions of students study already), please get in touch. Email phil@[thedomain] or http://quizlet.com/jobs/

Computing should be enabling us to start teaching physics and calculus and linear algebra (among other advanced subjects) in elmentary school. When I suggest such things to educators they look at me like I'm insane. But the future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed.

In 1967 Seymore Papert was introducing elementary aged kids to LOGO. The turtle graphics in logo are differential geometry -- very advanced mathematics made completely accessible to young children. Papert's work in LOGO inspired Alan Kay and his colleagues to invent most of what we recognize in a modern computer: mice, GUIs, object-oriented programming. Kay's recent work to make computing accessable to children includes fifth-graders recreating Galileo's experiments and then building computer models of gravity to compare with their experimental data, then going on to apply their gravitational models to a simple computer game. That's physics -- newtonian mechanics to be specific -- made accessible to grade schoolers.

Here's his TED talk from 2007. Skip ahead to 9 minutes 30 seconds and watch the next 9 minutes of juicy educational ideas: http://www.ted.com/talks/alan_kay_shares_a_powerful_idea_abo...

Think about it. Fourty four years after Papert gave elementary kids a tool to understand and experiment with differential geometry, we still don't see even LOGO among educational standards, or any programming tools. The culture of education has not recognized what a huge leap turtle graphics are for teaching mathematics. In the late 1970s Apple II computers poured into many schools and LOGO became widely available in education. But those thirty plus years ago a bunch of adults saw some pretty pictures, shrugged, and ignored it as child's play instead of recognizing it for the little revolution it really could be.

Moreover, Alan Kay and company have been actively pursuing educational technology for four decades and still no traction for computing in education. Four decades by the people who brought you OOP.

Education is a big mountain to move. I'd very much love to be proved wrong, though.

There is a basic problem with many of these ideas. Current research in education is showing that technology alone is not enough enhance student learning. In other words, putting a computer, device, method or software in a classroom adds nothing to test scores or student outcomes. (As a time saver, I'll let you Google up the citations). We have learned this far too late in education, having spent billions and billions in this area with virtually no return in concrete results. The trend is to use these things as fancy drawing and typing and adding gizmos that simply replace pens and paper: a waste of potential.

It is also true that teachers don't want to mess with more of this stuff. We are already beat over the head on a regular bases with the latest and greatest methodologies, books, ideas, etc. on a regular basis. Ask any experienced teacher about their faculty development meetings and they will just laugh and tell you about the last 30 years of innovations that were supposed to have changed education.

Here is what someone needs to do in my opinion. Ideas should include LONG TERM training (2-3 years) that is mandatory in their sales package, back it up with solid research, and provide a payment model similar to a lease or student pay-to-play (where you aren't hoping their newest principal or school board also likes the idea the previous group did). In other words, PROVE it works, teach teachers how to use it, and give schools a realistic way to pay for it over a period of years. If not, you're just another one of the 40-50 "latest and greatest" idea I've seen come and go over the decades.

Good luck.

For what it's worth, there is also a new SF incubator for physical products called Magic Beans. I haven't seen them get any press yet, but it seems like they have some quality companies.

The major problem I have with any of the computer learning stuff out there is that I still need to reach for paper and pencil each time I actually try to solve a problem.

I wish there was an iPad app that taught college-level introductory physics (with a place to draw with one of those 3rd-party stylus things).

I have a naive notion of business, but does your startup idea necessarily have to be a for-profit venture?

I don't know how most states are doing on education budgets, but the districts around me in Texas aren't doing so hot. From what I can tell, we're cutting budgets by 1/6. (I saw spending of 54 billion in 2008-09 with cuts of 9 billion this year in separate reports)

How does that play into this?

Alan Louie (one of the founders of Imagine K12) has been advising us on Quizlet.com for awhile. What they're doing is terrific. I think it'll produce some great companies.

(see http://quizlet.com/about/team/)

This is fantastic, and aligns with a project my wife and I have been discussing. It's frustrating that one or both of us would have to hit the Bay Area to do it (on the wrong coast), but certainly going to consider it.

This is nice and all but the real issue lies with getting all families involved in their child's education. All of the technology in the world will not solve this problem.

Maybe that is an opportunity in itself.

This reminds me of SchoolTool - http://schooltool.org/

It's a project conceived by Mark Shuttleworth, the Ubuntu project founder.

Two things which should be basic human rights and absolutely free, are: communication and education. But people wish to earn $$ off of them. And then they wonder why the world is in such a messed up state.

Kudos to Khan Academy and Bill Gates for patronizing and liberating the education.

You can't have an absolute right to something that requires someone else to provide a service for you (remember that rights are inalienable, so you have them no matter how much money you have.) Such an obligation would essentially make the provider a slave to some extent (this effect can be very small for a given person, but the principle is the same: if you have to do something you don't need or want to do otherwise, and you're not even getting paid to do it, what does that make you?)

Rights only make sense when they're defined as legal prohibitions on action. Rights come from our nature as human beings; without the protection that they provide, we wouldn't be able to do all the things that we need to do to flourish (a concept that includes more than just biological survival).

>You can't have an absolute right to something that requires someone else to provide a service for you

Like a lawyer? Pretty sure I have a right to one of them when charged with a crime.

I understand to go with the clean logic of Ayn Rand's definitely of rights and everything, but that doesn't mean it fits all situations of the word right.

Positive rights have some traction and serve a useful purpose too, even though they do in fact require some taxation/other forms of forced payments to provide them.

The 'right' to an attorney should mean that the government cannot prevent you from attempting to obtain an attorney to represent you. (edit: added the italicized words)

Edit: Don't many public defenders think of their jobs as a form of partial charity?

Edit 2: Is it a violation of rights that these public defenders aren't the best lawyers available? I don't think so, and the onus is on people that accept positive rights to show that it is.

Edit 3: You know, I'm not exactly sure that this is Rand's answer at all (I couldn't find it in the cursory glances I took at a couple of books). But it does at least reflect what I think about the right to an attorney, and I think it holds up pretty well!

Not that I'm a libertarian, but if I was I would be inclined to argue the right to an attorney is specifically in place when the government initiates legal action against you. Outside of specific government action you have no right to an attorney -- you can't for instance sue the government and demand the government provide you with an attorney to do so.

The government may have wrongfully initiated the legal action, but this is not certain before the trial is over. Remember, in the case of guilt (context: when someone is guilty of violating an objective law, so this doesn't apply to all of today's laws), it is merely retaliating.

This stuff isn't just an academic issue: "Shrinking funding and access to resources for public defenders and court-appointed attorneys is only making the problem worse." (See: http://www.innocenceproject.org/understand/Bad-Lawyering.php)

I support most of what the Innocence Project does, but I think that charity is the answer here (being a selfish person doesn't mean that I don't support charities; it just means that I don't think that such support earns me moral credit). If the government didn't pay for public defendants at all, I think that the Innocence Project might have an easier time raising money for more and better attorneys.

Hang on, so you're saying suspend publicly provided attorneys for people who can't afford them?

Is this one of those cases where they're more "free" because more of them are in jail?

No, I'm saying that they'd get better representation if people didn't think "the government has already taken care of the problem, so why should I donate?"

Imagine the effect of a government program intended to assist stranded motorists (suppose that the program maintained a fleet of trucks which carried common spare tires, gas, compressed air and the like). Fewer people would stop to help, and that program would function about as well as any other government program does, which is another way of saying that it would work a lot worse than any private roadside assistance program known today.

Either that, or it would become more like the private airplane market- totally inaccessible.

Legal representation can't be totally inaccessible unless the justice system removes the right to trials altogether. Representing yourself in court is possible, at least to some extent,^ and it doesn't require hardware like flying does. (Incidentally, this is also why it's a good thing to have libraries in prisons - the innocent can use them to learn more and help exonerate themselves.)

^I know that it's a very poor idea to represent yourself if you have any other option, but it's still better than being on trial in a 100% rigged system, such as the USSR had.

All this complexity regarding law makes me think of Phillip Greenspun's research into computer-aided law: http://philip.greenspun.com/research/area-exam.text

(Holy cow has this gotten off the original topic. Sorry everyone!)

It's an interesting topic though :).

I concede the point that it can't be totally inaccessible, but the it seems like farmers with hunting rifles going after professional soldiers. Sure, sometimes it works out or you get lucky, but that's not the norm.

Although come to think of it, the public defender situation isn't much better, is it.

There are rights and then there are rights. It's pretty easy to see the characterization of "free speech" as rooted in reason / "natural law", or given by God. It's harder to see the "right" to drink alcohol on such universal bases.

Something like legal representation isn't so much deeply fundamental as it is a pragmatic and institutional response to the problem of checking arbitrary prosecution. We would drop it if we could find some better way of checking those prosecutors.

Actually, many legal systems provide some way of getting free representation. The government is involved in many cases.

Similarly, many states will intervene to prevent their citizens from starving, even if they have to spend everyone else's tax money to do so.

But notice, the lawyer in question is hoping to make money off of representing you. As far as I can tell its always far better if the government collects taxes fairly from the entire population and pays some people to solve a problem, than either waiting passively for people of pure heart to fix the problem or arbitrarily forcing some particular group to solve it.

Right... because Bill Gates didn't make billions from the education market.

You go build a company around giving things to the education market for free and I'll build a company around selling things to the education market, and we'll see whose company is better off in five years and whose customers are better off in five years.

Bill Gates did make quite a bit in the education market. Find one school that does not use MS Office.

Also, Apple was, and still is, notorious for donating or offering heavily discounted products to teachers and schools. Why? They would get familiar with and used to using their products and purchase them in the future. It also gives them great publicity.

Many other companies do this as well. My campus computer store sells software at 90% discounts for the same reason. Sometimes giving things away is where the smart money is at.

Quality education must accessible to everybody. It might, but it doesn't have to be free. What we currently have in many parts of the world is free education of poor quality. That needs to be fixed.

I guess you expect publishers to print and give away textbooks for free too?

Well, I'd love and welcome a good high-quality open source textbook movement that happens to also be high quality. It's the quality issue that's the major problem at the moment, I'd say. I've LOVE to see, for instance, Math textbooks written like they wrote "Real World Haskell" in wiki format with a single (or a small,finite set of) editor(s) ensuring that content and quality is up-to-snuff. I think that there really should be minimal educational infrastructure provided for free or very low cost.

Quality isn't the issue for most subjects. There are plenty of free and cheap textbooks with perfectly fine quality.

For example, when I took thermodynamics in college (in 2001), I used a thermo book from the early 70's which cost me $8 on eBay (as opposed to the modern version which cost $100). I also skipped purchasing many books entirely, and just used free materials online, including this newfangled site called wikipedia.

Agency costs and are the issue. The people assigning books don't have to pay the cost of using them, so they have no incentive to select based on price. Further, it's very difficult for students to use substitutes - if the professor assigns problems 1-10 from the book, it doesn't matter how good the material in your cheaper substitute is.

If you want to crack this nut, focus on problem sets, not textbooks.

Well, I do disagree on the quality aspect. I'd like to see a high quality Calc I and II textbook that's free, coherent, and not aimed at MIT students. My wife is a faculty member and if you can find me one, I'll pass it along (they're constantly looking for one). It's just hard to not choose Stewart..it's a solid textbook for a broad range of students, but it's expensive as shit. A lot of professors are getting that this (if they don't, I make damned sure I mention it when we socialize with them) is a barrier for a lot of students.

Anyway, you're absolutely 100% correct about problem sets. Good problem sets go a VERY long way to making a good textbook.

It's been 15 years since I took Calculus I and II, but looking over: http://www.khanacademy.org/#Calculus

Is there _anything_ in Stewart that isn't covered as well by Khan? You also get advantage of the video tutorial on the topic.

I'm waiting for that point in time when we reach a tipping point and Higher Education Institutions don't just delegate everything to Khan for a lot of their topics.

My Calculus Course (151) at SFU took place in Images Theater at 8:30 in the morning and had 450 Students listening to a lecture on Calculus. The ratio was approximately: 1/8 of the students were bored. 1/8 of the students were lost, 1/8 of the students were attentive, 1/8 of the students were asleep, and 1/2 of the students didn't show up. (8:30 AM!)

I see little need for Stewart in the Face of Khan's Video Collection on Calculus + a bit of wikipedia (Seriously - check out their section on Derivatives and compare it to Stewart)

I will agree with you on the Problem Sets - and perhaps that's the missing ingredient in Khan - He needs to more fully flesh out his test bank - but http://www.khanacademy.org/exercisedashboard is moving ahead nicely. (And, in my mind, is far superior to any static test bank)

Problem set quality is not the issue. If it were, I would donate a week or two of my time and build a problem set generator.

The issue is that you need the same problem sets as the instructor. If the instructor uses Stewart and homework is graded, you get a 0 on HW. This is why you can't even go back 1 edition of the book, and why the legacy publishers print a new edition every 2 years with minimal changes beyond tweaking the problems.

A startup idea I never pursued, but one I think has a lot of merit: build an online problem cross referencer. It provides a) free problems to any instructors who want to use them and b) crossreferences these problems with existing textbooks (that way students who don't want to buy the book don't have to).

I'm pretty sure that Int[ 1/Sqrt[3+5x^2], {x}] can't be copyrighted.

Int[ 1/Sqrt[3+5x^2], {x}] can't be copyrighted but a problem set that consists only of exercises as routine as this would be almost worthless. A cross referencer is a neat idea though.

http://tutorial.math.lamar.edu/ seems good (after 30 seconds of googling, and 5 minutes of skimming).

Have you heard of OERCommons (http://www.oercommons.org/)? They sound like what you describe.

I have not, thanks for the tip. I looked at a book or so, but didn't see an easy away to comment on individual paragraphs like in "Real World Haskell", but maybe more of the interface opens up if you log in. ANyway, thanks for the tip!

My site is a wiki similar to what you describe, http://inperc.com/wiki/index.php?title=Category:Courses. I would like to allow comments but afraid of spam. Maybe one day.

Honestly, that is not a ridiculous idea. If we remove the standardized testing, the community developed textbook would explode.

In many of my college classes I spend more time using wikipedia than my textbook.

Furthermore, I know many teachers who have written widely used (assigned reading in over 1k classes) who want their books to be available for a greatly reduced price if not all together for free. Unfortunately the publishers ban this and the writers must relent since the only way to get their book known is if it comes from a major publisher. They justify this mostly based on promotion costs, but this is not even close to their profit margins.

Books are expensive because there is little competition, particularly with k-12 schools, largely based on political lobbying.

Of course, we aren't likely to dissolve lobbyists anytime soon; but the idea of socially conscious startups is to dream big.

I should also add. Technology is driven by people so it matters how they use it to the advantage of all and not just some. When technology helps people, we generally mean to say that people are helping people. I am not being altruistic here but there are things which should be free and available to all equally and education is one of that.

I expect basic education to stay within the realm of government and free. Public giving up education to private/corporate sector is a recipe for disaster.

How technology can help government improve the quality, and how technology can keep the education free for the masses, is another thing.

I don't think that the goal here is to degrade public education; one of the main attractions with this incubator is that it has connections to get your product into public schools.

To provide a good education, public school systems need all kinds of supplies, products, books, services, etc. that don't make sense to produce in-house. This is where the private sector comes in -- though it's hard for small companies (who can often give the schools the best value for their money) to build relationships with schools, get through the red tape (getting onto vendor lists, going through bid systems, etc.), so often the schools are getting lower-quality supplies/services for more money.

...so wouldn't it be nice if there were some group that would help new education-focused companies to get their innovations into the (free) public schools?

I hope this makes more sense now.

"If we fund you, the goal will be to build a compelling prototype or demo to raise money from appropriate investors"

- Perhaps i'm a bitter competitor* yet shouldn't this read.

"If we fund you, the goal will be to build a compelling prototype or demo to raise the standard of education for all, inspiring a thirst for learning"

I'm skeptical to private groups with funds who want to invest in a lucrative market which is not purely based on "capitalistic ideals". To use a famous quote in context "Education is for life, not just for Christmas".

* One day! for those who know me and my snail like pace at getting to a version 1.

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