Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015: The Business of Ed-Tech
This is the tenth and final article in my series Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015
Who’s Funded/Who’s Funding
In February of this year, Techcrunch, one of the original Silicon Valley-focused tech blogs, looked back on venture funding during 2014 and pronounced that an ed-tech investment revival was underway. But by June, Techcrunch had changed its tune, proclaiming that funding for ed-tech startups was drying up: “Investors Rethink EdTech As Dealflow Declines.”
2015 has actually been a record-setting year for ed-tech investment if you look at the total dollar figures. Investment analyst firm CB Inights wrote this summer (just a month after Techcrunch’s doom-filled article) that “the period from 2010 to 2014 saw more than a 503% growth in investment dollars.”
“Ka-ching!” — Edsurge
What’s striking to me isn’t so much that Techcrunch got it right or wrong when it looked at investment numbers from the first half of the year and extrapolated what was happening in the sector. What’s interesting, I think, is that, with all the data at its disposal, this is the narrative that Techcrunch chose to tell: one of wariness, hesitancy. Like many industry observers — investors and journalists alike — Techcrunch appears ready for the ed-tech boom to turn to ed-tech bust once again. You can sense it in their commentary: education is a really “tough space.”
Techcrunch is also the owner of Crunchbase, a crowdsourced database that tracks who in the technology sector has received venture funding. (More accurately, I suppose, Techcrunch and Crunchbase are owned by AOL.) Crunchbase is not a perfect record; as I said, it’s crowdsourced, relying on entrepreneurs and analysts entering funding data in order to keep it up-to-date. But the data on Crunchbase is freely available. And that does set it apart from many other venues that charge for the data and the analysis about investments. (Like this one, for example: market research firm MarketsandMarkets claimed this summer that “the global Education Technology (Ed Tech) and Smart Classrooms Market is expected to grow from USD 43.27 Billion in 2015 to USD 93.76 Billion in 2020.” But the report will cost you almost $5000, so all I can really say is that the market for selling data about ed-tech remains strong.)
Me, I want to be able to see the data itself.
At the beginning of the year, I started to keep track of all the funding reports news I came across. I wanted to make this data openly available in turn. (You can find the site and the GitHub repo that powers it at matrix.hackeducation.com.) It’s important to “show your work” when it comes to these sorts of reports, I believe, because the figures and the analyses from various sources always differ wildly. This is partly based on “what counts” as ed-tech. Again, it’s not so much a matter of right or wrong; it’s more the kind of narrative that frames or is framed by the data.
My calculations differ from, say, Edsurge’s, which recently published its look back at funding in 2015 for US startups. Here’s its list of the “Top 10 US edtech deals in 2015”:
- HotChalk ($230 million)
- Lynda.com ($186 million)
- Udacity ($105 million)
- AltSchool ($100 million)
- General Assembly ($70 million)
- Udemy ($65 million)
- Coursera ($61.1 million)
- Civitas Learning ($60 million)
- Varsity Tutors ($50 million)
- Duolingo and Sphero (tied with $45 million each)
Here’s my list of the 20 biggest deals this year:
- Social Finance ($1 billion)
- Earnest ($275 million)
- HotChalk ($230 million)
- Social Finance ($200 million)
- TutorGroup ($200 million)
- Lynda.com ($186 million)
- Hujang.com ($157 million)
- Udacity ($105 million)
- 17zuoye and AltSchool (tied with $100 million each)
- Xioazhan Jiaoyu ($84 million)
- General Assembly ($70 million)
- Udemy ($65 million)
- Yuantiku ($60 million)
- Civitas Learning ($60 million)
- NetDragon Education ($52.5 million)
- Genshuixue and Varsity Tutors (tied with $50 million each)
- Coursera ($49.5 million)
- Knewton ($47.25 million)
- Ortbotix and Duolingo (tied with $45 million each)
- LittleBits ($44.2 million)
My list includes investments outside the US — doing so highlights the booming market in China. Mine also includes Social Finance and Earnest, two companies that specialize in private student loans. While Edsurge says it’s excluding those that aren’t focused on “learner outcomes,” I think it’s important to recognize investors’ interest in the student loan sector, particularly as these companies increasingly partner with coding bootcamps.
These numbers demonstrate that there were some giant funding rounds this year. (When Lynda.com announced its $186 million round in January, it was hailed as the largest the sector had seen in the past five years.) As Edsurge notes in its analysis of the year’s funding, these big numbers do skew things: “These record-setting numbers may be deceptive as a large percentage of funding is concentrated among a small number of companies.”
Edsurge finds that seed and angel rounds of funding have increased in size and number, but it notes that the number of Series A and B rounds has fallen. “This increase suggests that investors are becoming more reluctant to invest in Series B deals,” it says (echoing what Techcrunch observed in June), adding that this might be “a symptom, perhaps, of early investor darlings’ seeming failure to establish a core business model?” Perhaps.
Here’s my list of the most well-funded education technology startups:
- Social Finance ($1.37 billion)
- TutorGroup ($315 million)
- Earnest ($299.1 million)
- HotChalk ($235 million)
- Hujang.com ($187 million)
- D2L ($165 million)
- Pluralsight ($162.5 million)
- Udacity ($160 million)
- Coursera ($146.1 million)
- 17zuoye ($135 million)
Again, this list differs quite a bit with one that The Chronicle of Education, with Edsurge’s help, published in October.
In April, Pitchbook, another investment database listed the most valuable ed-tech companies. According to its calculations, those were Pluralsight (valued at $1 billion), Instructure (valued at $554 million), Lynda.com (valued at $46 million), Coursera (valued at $367 million), Open English (valued at $350 million), Sympoz (valued at $339 million), D2L (valued at $330 million), Lumos Labs (valued at $265 million), Clever (valued at $247 million), and Edmodo (valued at $236 million). Following its investment this year, Udacity would certainly now be near the top of that list, as it became a “unicorn,” that is a company valued at $1 billion.
The most active investors in ed-tech this year include Learn Capital, Kapor Capital, New Enterprise Associates, NewSchools Venture Fund, Owl Ventures, 500 Startups, and Rethink Education. German media company Bertelsmann was involved in two of the biggest investment rounds this year: Udacity and HotChalk. The same could be said for Andreessen Horowitz, which invested in Udacity and AltSchool. A special shout-out to celebrities Carmelo Anthony and Adam Levine who both invested in ed-tech startups this year.
VC Funding (Some Context)
To put things in a little perspective:
Despite its record-breaking year, ed-tech only receives a fraction of all VC funding and the “big deals” in ed-tech are dwarfed by those seen in the rest of the tech sector. Uber alone has raised almost $5 billion this year, for example.
Via The New York Times: “Nearly two-thirds of the top 71 investment funds have no women as senior investment team members, according to the data compiled by the Social and Capital Partnership and the Information, a news site. Roughly 30 percent of those funds have a senior investment team that is composed entirely of white members.”
Recommended reading: Tad Friend’s profile in The New Yorker of investor Marc Andreessen: Tomorrow’s Advance Man.
Meanwhile: “Is Silicon Valley Driving Teachers Out?” The Atlantic reported in July that, “As housing costs in America’s tech hub continue to soar, local educators are finding it tough to stay and work in the area.”
Beyond VC Funding
“US education is a $1.5 trillion industry and growing at 5 percent annually,” McKinsey wrote excitedly this summer. Of course, venture capital is just one source of the money that’s pouring into ed-tech. There’s government funding, of course. There’s personal spending. And there’s lots and lots of “philanthropy.”
The Gates Foundation is perhaps the most famous of these philanthropic organizations, having spent billions of dollars pushing various education initiatives. In October, Bill Gates gave what Education Week observed was “his first major speech on education in seven years,” and indicated his foundation would “double down” on teacher preparation and common academic standards.
The other two giants in education foundations: the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.
In September, the LA Times obtained a memo written by the Broad Foundation, outlining its $490 million plan to put half of LAUSD students in charter schools. The memo “lays out a strategy for moving forward, including how to raise money, recruit and train teachers, provide outreach to parents and navigate the political battle that will probably ensue.” It cites several large foundations and California multi-millions who could be tapped for more financial support.
And this underscores one of the major criticisms of these philanthropic efforts: they are profoundly anti-democratic. As John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker earlier this month, “people like Zuckerberg and Gates, by virtue of their philanthropic efforts, can have a much bigger say in determining policy outcomes than ordinary citizens can.”
Zuckerberg’s name is next to Gates’ in that sentence because he has signed the “Giving Pledge,” Gates’ and fellow billionaire Warren Buffet’s challenge to the 1% to give away at least half of their wealth. After the birth of his daughter this fall, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan wrote her a letter (and posted it on Facebook, of course). In covering the contents of the letter, the New York Times got the headline totally wrong: “Mark Zuckerberg Vows to Donate 99% of His Facebook Shares for Charity.” The paper later clarified that it’s not a charity but an LLC — a “$45 billion tax loophole,” some suggested. Headlines from Gawker: “Mark Zuckerberg Will Donate Massive Fortune to Own Blinkered Worldview.” And from Rolin Moe: “You’re Not an Asshole, Mark Zuckerberg. You’re Just Wrong..”
Among the projects that the new Zuckerberg Chan Initiative will fund: “personalized learning” (whatever the hell that means).
Zuckerberg’s interest in such a thing is no doubt connected to investments that he’s already made — in the private school AltSchool, for example. And in September, Facebook announced that it had been working on building software for the Summit charter school chain. “Facebook’s move into education may be unexpected, but it seems to be sincere,” wrote The Verge’s Casey Newton about the collaboration in an article that’s not much more than a “longform expanded version of the Facebook press release.”
Joining Gates and Zuckerberg in venture philanthropy is Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow. Her organization, the Emerson Collective, announced a campaign — XQ: The Super School Project — to get folks to “rethink high school.” 5 of the “best ideas” will receive a share of the $50 million Jobs has earmarked for the project. The Emerson Collective also invested in AltSchool and Udacity this year to give you an idea of what “best ideas” might look like.
“I can conceive of no greater mistake… than that of trying to make charity do the work of justice” — William Jewett Tucker
One way to judge interest in ed-tech startups is to look at the amount of funding. Another way might be to count the number of accelerator programs. And wow, did these ever proliferate this year.
Even the the Pope jumped in on this, launching an education accelerator program called Scholas Labs in February..
Other new incubator/accelerator programs: In March, Edukwest reported that “Don Burton, former Managing Director of the Kaplan/Techstars EdTech Accelerator, and Jonathan D. Harber, co-founder and CEO of Schoolnet, [have] teamed up to launch a new edtech accelerator program in New York.” In April, SIIA’s education division announced the participants in its “Innovation Incubator Program.” One of them is some tiny little tech company called Adobe. Speaking of little tech companies, Intel launched an Education Accelerator. So did AT&T, with Edusrge’s CEO Betsy Corcoran and Udacity’s CEO Sebastian Thrun sitting on the Board of Directors. The University of Virginia Curry School of Education launched one in February. BoomStartup, run by “former Pearson pals,” according to Edsurge, launched one in April. The venture capital fund NewSchool Venture Fund launched one in July. Also launching in July two new incubators in Southeast Asia: Topica EdTechLab in Hanoi and Lithan EdTech Accelerator in Singapore.
These all join other existing accelerators, including ImagineK12, LearnLaunch, and 1776.
There’s actually little proof that these programs actually help startups, but hey.
Startups For Sale
There were plenty of predictions this year that all this investment would result in exits — that is, IPOs, mergers, and acquisitions — that would “defy historical trends.” The education sector is “hot” for these sorts of deals, one investment banker said in August.
The big one: LinkedIn’s acquisition of Lynda.com for $1.5 billion.
Brentwood Associates bought Excelligence. inRESONANCE bought SchoolYard. Hack Reactor bought MakerSquare. Pluralsight bought Code School. Fingerprint bought Cognitive Kid and Scribble Press. Google bought Launchpad Toys. Blackboard bought SchoolWires. Sibling Group bought Urban Planet Mobile. Alma bought Always Prepped. Elsevier bought Newsflo. The Advisory Board Company bought GradesFirst. Renaissance Learning bought UClass. Hobsons bought Starfish Retention Systems. Harris School Solutions bought Classmate. Embibe bought 100Marks. Rakuten bought Overdrive. Popexpert bought Online Marketing Institute. Bonnier Business Press bought Clio Online. Valore bought Boundless. Proquest bought SIPX. After College bought Collegefeed. The Learning House bought Software Craftsmanship Guild. Rizk Ventures bought Classroom 24–7. XSEED Education bought Pleolabs. Ellucian bought Helix Education’s LMS. Blackboard bought Remote Learner UK. TES Global bought Unijobs. EBSCO bought Learning Express. Oxford University Press bought bab.la. Proquest bought MyLibrary and OASIS. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought Scholastic’s ed-tech business. TAL Education Group bought Gaokaopai. Sandbox Partners bought Pearson’s Family Entertainment Network. The Learning House bought Acatar. Automattic bought WooThemes. Oxford University Press bought Epigeum. TES Global bought Hibernia College UK. West Corporation bought SharpSchool. Learnbrite bought Chatmapper. Pearson VUE bought ProctorCam. Vista Equity bought PowerSchool. Techstars bought UP Global and the Startup Weekend franchise. gphomestay bought Brooks Institute. Kuepa bought First Class. Simplilearn bought Market Motive. Level Data bought Student Sync. Safari Media bought Popforms. Data Recognition Corporation bought McGraw-Hill Education’s testing business. Apollo Education Group bought Iron Yard. Blackboard bought X-Ray Analytics. Recruit Holdings bought Quipper. TargetX bought Uversity (formerly known as Inigral). Pluralsight bought Hackhands. NetDragon bought Promethean. Atomic Learning bought Versifit Technologies. Nikkei bought The Financial Times from Pearson. Unizin bought Courseload. Civitas Learning bought BlikBook. Noodle bought AllClasses.com. Blackbaud bought Smart Tuition. Blackboard bought Nivel Siete. Affirm bought LendLayer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought MeeGenius. Education Week bought Learning Matters. TPG Capital bought Ellucian. Perceivant bought Bearface Instructional Technologies. 21st Century Fox bought National Geographic. Education Corporation of America bought some Kaplan Higher Education campuses. EnglishCentral bought Langrich. Cengage Learning bought Learning Objects. TAL Education bought FirstLeap. Gutenberg Technology bought Neodemia. Joel Klein and other Amplify executives bought Amplify from News Corp. Hack Reactor bought Mobile Makers Academy. Principled Technologies bought WeeJee Learning. Work Day bought Media Core. ProQuest bought Ex Libris. Bibliotheca bought 3M’s library division. Cengage Learning bought Pathbrite. PowerSchool bought InfoSnap. Cross Street LLC bought Double Line Partners, developers of the Ed-Fi data framework. Blackboard bought Blue Canary. Open English bought Next University. Apollo Education bought Career Partner GmbH.
A few comments on this long list of acquisitions:
- I hadn’t heard of the vast majority of these companies — either the ones being bought or the ones doing the buying.
- Pearson sold The Financial Times and its share in The Economist in order to focus “100%” on its global education strategy. It also sold PowerSchool, so it appears its global education strategy will remain textbooks and standardized testing. It’s struggled quite a bit with both this years, losing major testing contracts in Texas and New York and losing textbook contracts with several major UK universities. I’ll have more to say about Pearson’s year in the “failure” section below. Congrats, Pearson.
- I’ll also have more to say about Amplify in that “failure” section. Congrats, Amplify.
- Despite a “brain drain” at Blackboard (really, layoffs at all levels of the company), the learning management system company continues to buy startups, particularly those that offer “predictive analytics.” Blackboard is also seeking to expand its business outside the US, buying three Moodle-related startups. I’ll say more about Blackboard in the “stock market” section below too. Congrats, Blackboard.
- The library technology space saw a great deal of consolidation this year, with ProQuest making several major acquisitions.
- As I’ve written about previously, for-profit higher education companies are interested in buying coding bootcamps. The “skills training” market is really hot — for investment and acquisition.
- Private equity firms sure love buying ed-tech companies. Perhaps because the stock market’s sorta “meh” about them.
IPOs and Education Companies on the Stock Market
According to Techcrunch, 2015 was the “Worst Year For Tech IPOs Since 2009.” Bad timing, I guess, for all those education startups who were hopeful about their IPO chances, following 2U’s successful public offering last year. It’s still much more likely that a big education company will gobble up a little education company than go public.
There was just one education IPO this year: Instructure. Okay, there were two if you count IAC’s Match Group, which does own The Princeton Review and Tutor.com (along with Tinder and Match.com, of course). Don’t ever change, ed-tech.
Two other education companies filed for an IPO in 2015 but have not yet started trading publicly: the world’s biggest for-profit education company, Laureate Education, and textbook publisher McGraw Hill Education. And CL Educate, which announced it would IPO last year, deferred those plans.
One of the interesting side benefits of companies going public is that they have to disclose their financials. One insight from Instructure’s IPO filing: “Sales and marketing spending, as a percentage of total revenues, reached 136 percent in 2012 (the S–1 does not include information prior to 2012). Even though Instructure has seen a fivefold increase in revenue since then, spending on sales and marketing has hovered at around 80 percent since 2013.”
Blackboard, once also publicly traded, was acquired by a private equity firm in 2011, so its financials are kept private. Reuters reported in July that the company was going up for sale, as its owner was seeking $3.4 billion for it. The news prompted quite a bit of speculation — but no buyer. Blackboard suffers from messaging problems according to Mindwire Consulting’s Michael Feldstein. But more damning, perhaps, it suffers from “complexity problems” according to former Bb employee George Kroner.
I included a bunch of snapshots of the stock performance from various for-profit education companies in an earlier article in this series. (Spoiler alert: pretty poor.) I’ll include a few more here from other publicly traded ed-tech companies:
Closures and Bankruptcies and Utter Failures
Although startups are notoriously short-lived — 80%–90% fail in their first year — most of the major failures this year came from big education companies, not little one. There were a handful of ed-tech startups entering the deadpool, sure. But the names of the companies that really stumbled in 2015 were big names — RadioShack, for example, which filed bankruptcy at the beginning of the year. They were companies that had raised a lot of money — The Washington Post reported in May that Thinkgate LLC had closed its doors “after receiving millions in Race to the Top funds.”
Last year, I dedicated a whole article to the failures in ed-tech. The massive disaster surrounding LAUSD’s iPad implementation (among other things) surely warranted the scrutiny.
The fallout from LAUSD continued this year, with Pearson eventually reaching a settlement with the district this fall to the tune of $6.45 million — a reimbursement for the flawed vaporware curriculum that was to come pre-installed on those iPads. (There haven’t been any public announcements about the FBI investigation or the SEC inquiry into the procurement process that gave Apple and Pearson the deal with LAUSD in the first place.)
Back in 2013, it was the entrance of News Corp’s education company Amplify into the hardware market that drew headlines — positive and negative. “News Corp’s Education Tablet May Be the Bureaucratic Fit Schools Need to Adopt Tech,” wrote Techcrunch’s Greg Ferenstein (who also authored one of those great “iPads will revolutionize education” stories way back in 2011). From the get-go, Amplify struggled with sales and with implementation and with PR. (It probably didn’t help that it was also closely identified with another massive ed-tech failure, inBloom.) Overheating chargers, along with quick-to-break devices, plagued its much ballyhooed tablet rollout in Guilford County, North Carolina, and the district put the initiative on pause. Guilford County did (finally) get its Amplify tablet initiative up and running this year. Just in time for Amplify to implode.
The signs were there for a while (although not everyone seemed to see them): “News Corp.’s $1 Billion Plan to Overhaul Education Is Riddled With Failures,” Bloomberg reported in April. “Rupert Murdoch’s Education Company Will Stop Making Tablets,” Buzzfeed reported in June. “News Corp. Planning to Sell Off Money-Losing Education Unit,” The New York Times reported in August.
In September, News Corp sold Amplify to Amplify’s management team, including Joel Klein. Terms of the deal were not disclosed (but I bet it was less than the $360 million that News Corp spent to buy Wireless Generation back in 2010).
Education: yup, it’s a “tough space,” alright. Of course, it doesn’t help when ed-tech is so awful.
The Ethics of the Business of Ed-Tech
In April, The New York Times’ William Cohan asked venture capitalists about the ethical responsibility they might have for the investments they make. The query was specifically related to Yik Yak, which as I noted in a previous article in this series was surely one the most controversial technologies on schools this year.
Do venture capitalists and other highly sophisticated and compensated investors, like those controlling large private equity and hedge funds, have any moral or ethical responsibility for the investments they make?
Should the smart-money crowd be held accountable for the harm caused to people who use the products and services created with the money that springs from their coffers?
Or is the bottom line the only thing that matters when it comes to investing?
Cohan reached out to Sequoia Capital’s Jim Goetz who was responsible for the investment that firm made in Yik Yak. (The startup has raised $73.5 million total.) Goetz did not answer Cohan’s questions beyond the boilerplate answers about how the app facilitates connection and community.
Beyond that, Mr. Goetz directed me to Hilary McQuaide, Yik Yak’s new director of communications. As one would expect, her answers were filled with the usual corporate pablum. Was there anything else she could help me with, Ms. McQuaide wondered? Why yes, I answered: I would still like to hear from Mr. Goetz on the question of what responsibility venture capitalists bear, if any, for financing companies that encourage anonymous cyberbullying? I am still waiting.
I’d add to Cohan’s line of questioning a few more things specifically related to education: what are the responsibilities for investors when it comes to products and services that will, in all likelihood, exacerbate educational inequalities? Are there any obligations to verify if the wild claims made by entrepreneurs during pitch meetings are actually true?
No doubt, these questions are something journalists need to consider too.
Too often, journalists become PR wings of the tech industry, simply repeating those wild claims that entrepreneurs have made to their investors and potential customers. “Mind-reading robo tutors in the sky!” In all fairness, as the Department of Labor reported last year, there are almost 6 PR professionals in the US to every 1 journalist, and so it can be challenging to wade through all the bullshit.
But technology journalism and education technology journalism tend to suffer not just from too much credulity when it comes to the stories they write. There’s an a priori that many of publications operate under: that technology is necessary; that technology is inevitable; that technology makes things better. These publications are advocates for technology (and by extension for the technology industry) and very rarely ask difficult questions of it.
Many of these publications are also funded by the technology industry. As I noted earlier in this article, AOL owns Techcrunch. Among those the Gates Foundation funds (or has funded): The Hechinger Report, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Education Week, and Edsurge. For its part, Edsurge announced earlier this month that it had raised $2.8 million in venture capital from 1776.vc and the Omidyar Network. It’s raised $5.66 million total (that’s excluding Gates Foundation money) from many of the major ed-tech investors: NewSchools Venture Fund, Learn Capital, GSV Capital, and others.
These publications insist they retain editorial control over their content. But there’s no escaping the ideological bent of their ed-tech coverage.
In June, Edsurge announced a new “concierge” service, whereby companies can pay the publication to promote them to schools’ procurement teams. Edsurge takes a cut of any contracts awarded. There are lots of questions here about ethics, I think — journalistic and otherwise. But the move shouldn’t be that much of a surprise as the ed-tech industry has long complained that schools’ procurement processes are highly flawed, and Edsurge has positioned itself as a key information broker in the market.
With all the funding and all the products flooding the space, how do teachers and students and parents learn about ed-tech? Well, other than reading industry-funded publications, they could attend industry-funded events, I suppose. (ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, still boasts one of the biggest ed-tech conferences. It named Jim Flanagan its new chief learning officer this year. Flanagan was previously the National Director of Sales at Amplify.)
EdCamp, which once positioned itself as a “grassroots” professional development event, has itself become increasingly astro-turfed. The organization behind EdCamps raised venture funding from NewSchools Venture Fund last year, and this year it received a $2 million grant from the Gates Foundation. (The news prompted Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez to pen an “open letter” to Edcamps.) Here’s director Hadley Ferguson’s advice to startups: “How to Get Your Name into the Minds and Hearts of Teachers.” (Spoiler alert: give EdCamp money or swag.)
All the Best Ed-Tech Narratives Money Can Buy
All this business. All this disruptive innovation. It’s just magnific… Wait, what? Academic research challenging Clayton Christensen’s famous business school concept outlined in The Innovator’s Dilemma and applied to education in Disrupting Class and The Innovative University and invoked by just about every ed-tech entrepreneur and investor ever? Oh yes please.
But now, as The Chronicle of Education wrote in September,
a new paper, the most extensive test yet of Christensen’s theory, may prove more difficult to dismiss. Andrew A. King, a professor at the Dartmouth College business school, and Baljir Baatartogtokh, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, spent two years digging into disruption, interviewing scores of experts, trying to determine whether 77 of Christensen’s own examples conformed to his theory, studies involving big names like Ford, McDonald’s, and Google, along with lesser-known makers of blood-glucose meters and blended plastics. Only a tiny minority — 9 percent — fit Christensen’s criteria. Disruption is real but rare, King and Baatartogtokh conclude, which suggests that it’s at best a marginally useful explanation of how innovation happens.
King says he’s not out to take down Christensen, although that may be what he’s done. Instead, he wants to prove a point. “A theory is like a weed,” King says. “Unless it is pruned back by empirical testing, it will grow to fill any void.”
Much like the business of ed-tech…