Increasing Equity through EdTech

Takeaways from ASU+GSV 2020 Summit

Trustin Yoon
Oct 12 · 12 min read
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Source: nonchai, Getty Images

The quality of one’s education determines the quality of his or her life. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, my parents knew exactly what they were doing by deciding to leave all our friends, family, and culture behind in South Korea to immigrate to California in 2004: to provide a more equitable education for me.

The American Dream is largely achieved via acceptance to the top 20–30 universities. There are some exceptions, as a ‘non-target school’ graduate could somehow grit their way to working for a highly desirable employer or found their own successful business. In South Korea, however, one without a degree from the top 3–4 universities virtually has zero chance at working for a highly desirable employer since they strictly do not recruit past these universities. And while entrepreneurship has become more popular in recent years, Asian countries still stigmatize pursuing entrepreneurship over the traditional corporate route. Additionally, a single test solely determines a student’s admission to these top 3–4 universities regardless of grades, extracurriculars, etc.

I will forever be grateful that my parents made the incredible sacrifices to create a much more flexible future for me than I would’ve had if we had stayed in Korea. But this also meant that I had to learn how to play the far-from-perfect American education system, which grossly overvalues yet intentionally restricts supply to a top university degree. Unfortunately, these luxury degrees become the deciding signal to employers with globalization constantly sharpening the competitive talent pool.

During my high school senior year, I was accepted to several great undergraduate programs which can be attributed to: 5% my actual talent and knowledge, 25% my work ethic, and 70% my parents fully investing into my education through tutors, test prep programs, private school tuition, etc. my whole life. I can guarantee that I, among thousands of other privileged high school seniors, took spots from smarter candidates who lacked the finances to better compete in the admission pool.

We need to be racing towards solutions to provide a significantly more equitable future for the less privileged. Closing the equity gap in education will create positive multiplicative effects for not only the student, but also for their entire family — democratizing high quality education and resources will plant the seeds in society that will bear great fruit for everyone.

I will be exploring select topics of the future of education that were discussed in the ASU+GSV 2020 Summit: The Dawn of the Age of Digital Learning, featuring 500+ speakers, 150+ sessions, 25,000+ leaders, 135 countries, and 400+ EdTech companies (all links to referenced talks listed at the bottom). Crucial innovation is taking place in education right now, especially as COVID-19 has accelerated advancements to change the ways in which we teach, learn, and provide access to education.

Major Trends in EdTech

1. The COVID Accelerant

NYU Stern Professor Scott Galloway criticizes that top universities are now luxury brands rather than public services; however, he sees the future of higher education as very ripe for disruption with COVID-19 as an accelerant. As I am currently enrolled in the Zoom University of Southern California this semester, it is even more apparent how almost, if not, all of the value in higher education is concentrated in creating social networks rather than the actual coursework. I have personally always believed that there is nothing in in-person lectures that cannot be learned in a fraction of the time online — I can focus on unclear concepts through video pause/replay and skim through easier ones at 2x speed. COVID-19 has converted traditional classes that weren’t designed to be taken on an online conferencing app into highly inefficient MOOCs — further depreciating the value of Zoom classes relative to the unlimited educational content on Youtube, Khan Academy, Coursera, etc. that have been improving their digital learning models for the past two decades.

K-12 and higher education have largely stuck with the same model for centuries — no other industry has been so deprived of innovation as much as the school systems. From the one-size-fits-all teaching approach in public school districts that educates 90% of the US population to being forced to enroll in the most outdated mandatory coursework determined by 75 year-old college board members, educational institutions’ true value lies in creating incredible social networks that cannot be replicated elsewhere. COVID-19 stripped schools of this value proposition, exposing them with their lagging quality of education.

2. Early Education

Michelle Dervan, Partner at Rethink Education, spoke about how parents are taking even greater initiative in curating their children’s education. It’s great that parents are searching the ends of the earth to find the best solutions to supplement their kids’ education, however, it is still the wealthier families who access and utilize EdTech benefits at a much higher rate than the average lower-to-middle class family. This raises the question of whether EdTech innovation is closing or actually widening the equity gap in education.

There has also been an increasing transition on Pre-K focusing more on crucial early learning over the traditional daycare model. Parents are investing earlier in education than ever before which is a promising sign for upcoming generations. The biggest question mark about this trend regarding venture funding is the longterm CAC of early childhood EdTech, as startups in this niche will need to expand upon their existing products to retain users who will eventually age out of early childhood.

3. Lifelong Learning and Future of Work

The first thing most people think about education is K-12 or higher ed, however, the majority of learning takes place after college. On average, only the initial 1/3 of an individual’s education will take place in school, and the remaining 2/3 will be occupied with employee training and self-learning. This trend will only accelerate as future of work will depend on people across all industries learning to adapt to XR, AI, and blockchain technologies as necessities to succeed in their professions.

Joseph Fuller, Professor of Management Practice in General Management and leader of the Managing the Future of Work initiative at Harvard Business School, spoke about the accelerating focus on investing in upscaling and rescaling existing employees. As the best tools for a trade are constantly changing with innovation, employers are looking to reduce churn and keep employees who have already been trained with the appropriate technical skills. Additionally employers that are based in not-so-sexy locations are beginning to rethink the value of hiring full-time staff, since many highly talented workers tend to use these employers as short-term launching pads for their dream careers in the Bay Area/NY/LA. Employers in less popular locations are now considering to prefer high-skilled contract work over FTEs, which could potentially create a more lean and cost-effective workforce without compromising quality.

4. EdTech Investment Landscape

In Cooley’s Venture Financing Report 2020, EdTech deal volume has shown to be consistent with a surge in March with a 15–25% dilution at each round. EdTech financing has thrived under COVID-19, especially with a flood of new investors who traditionally don’t invest in EdTech.

Holon IQ further debriefs the global education market in their following data:

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Holon IQ EdTech Venture Landscape
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All sources: Holon IQ — Top down research using learning models, technology advancement, and machine learning to scrape thousands of online resources to develop 5 possible scenarios of education in 2030

Biggest Challenges in Education

Fragmented Innovation

We are at an inflection point where we are challenging traditional methods of learning through digitization. It’s an incredibly exciting time to see the progress EdTech startups are making, however, innovation has largely been fragmented and incompatible with each other compared to other industries.

When asked about the gaps in the EdTech market that school districts need, CEO of ISTE Richard Culatta responded,

The majority of EdTech products still act like they operate inside of a silo. They are still not understanding that they are part of an ecosystem with a whole bunch of other tools that are out there.

There are amazing EdTech products being built, but compatibility is the major aspect that is lacking for educators and district leaders. EdTech founders must also prioritize usability of their products on top of having great technology to make it highly intuitive to use for teachers and students. Incorporating the right tech stack is also incredibly difficult, especially as 50% of US school districts do not have an official CTO, which forces other administrators to juggle their other work with innovation -> slow progress.

Need for Greater Patient Funding

Culatta also raises concern over the tendency for EdTech investing in ‘quicker wins’, denoting to the saturated market of software and other tools such as ones that help teach easier concepts, as he eloquently stated,

We need another math app like I need to put a pencil in my eye.

Apps that teach math or grade assignments marginally faster than the last have dominated EdTech funding. Culatta expresses the need for tools that aid traditionally harder-to-teach subjects like English or history in a compelling way or products that can personalize learning experiences for the individual student. Additionally, there is a lack of solid research-backed products especially in early development. The first 5 years of child development are the most crucial in shaping the health and overall trajectory of the child’s life, so why are we still funding apps that have 0 scientific evidence that it works? The types of products that can fill in these gaps for education will require much greater patient funding from EdTech investors.

Gucci, Rolex, Harvard

Prof. Galloway shines light on how elite schools maintain their status as luxury brands by restricting admissions despite marginal improvements in quality.

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Source: Scott Galloway

A more equitable future will not be achieved by saturating even more resources to students to help squeeze into the sliver of admissions to elite schools, rather it will be by improving the lesser known colleges that the overwhelming majority of Americans enroll in. As Prof. Galloway remarked:

We need to shift the focus from turning remarkable kids into billionaires to turning unremarkable kids into highly productive people in society.

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Source: Scott Galloway

Improving the unglamorous colleges will have a much greater impact on raising the general standard of living in the US than by focusing on the top schools that only represent a tiny fraction of the nation.

Tradeoffs of Online Education

CPO of Coursera Shravan Goli expressed his concerns that although EdTech has the potential to bring a more equitable future, reliable access to devices and the internet still remains the biggest bottleneck in furthering progress. Additionally, online learning democratizes quality educational materials at low costs, but engagement becomes a trade-off in a non-physical classroom setting.

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Furthermore, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely preoccupied with dealing with challenges of their environments, so how can we better inform and motivate these students to utilize the best EdTech?

Looking Forward with Solutions

Equip Teachers with the Best Tech

We are not very close to a future where a student learning from an AI teacher or attending school through VR will be the ideal environment for learning. The interactive experience that one receives in an actual classroom through collaborating with peers and the mutual attention between student and teacher cannot effectively be replicated by technology anytime soon. However, the ideal classroom should equip educators with the most innovative technology to most effectively teach and tailor to every student’s unique needs. Making the life of the educator easier such as automating mundane tasks will allow teachers to focus more on students and not busy work.

I am therefore quite bullish on Panorama Education — a Series B EdTech startup that equips K-12 teachers with a dashboard that uses data to curate specified teaching methods for the individual student. Panorama also presents quantitative insights to the teacher regarding progress and areas that require focus using a holistic view of the student. The future classroom will be highly data-driven, significantly improve the effectiveness of the teacher, and prevent students from falling behind in the cracks. The value of Panorama Education’s product is amplified during this year’s Zoom classrooms where maintaining student engagement is extremely difficult.

New Approaches to Early Learning

EdTech will play a crucial part in the most formative years of one’s life. The earlier a child receives quality resources for development, the better. LEGO Ventures takes an innovative approach by investing in the future of early learning through play. They believe that the most effective learning is achieved when it is joyful, actively engaging, social, and meaningful. The traditional learning model of reading lecture slides and textbooks contain none of these qualities.

Create & Learn is a venture-backed EdTech startup that shares this vision of learning through play, as they are teaching K-12 computer science through interactive games and projects. Traditional computer science education is taught through coding practice; however, with Moore’s Law in full force, it will be more important for the next generation of computer scientists to know how these technologies are deeply integrated into the core fabric of our societies to continue innovating upon our changing infrastructures. Students will get inspired to become future creators by learning disciplines like software engineering and data science as early as third grade through fun games and building their own real world projects that are applicable to their lives. Being tech-savvy will no longer just be a nice thing to have — it will soon become a necessity in any trade.

Jessica Rolph founded Lovevery in 2017 to strengthen the connection between parents and their early age children’s development using research-backed play products for each stage of childhood. These products are integrated with neuroscience methodologies to teach children important concepts while also providing the whole development process to the parents to understand how their children are developing at each stage of development.

Personally, the best education I have ever received was not from any class or teacher, rather by playing Roblox in my 3rd-6th grade years. Looking back, I realize how much Roblox has taught and, most importantly, excited me about entrepreneurship: building amazing products/services, creating a brand, marketing and growth-hacking strategies, building strong communities, and even participating in the capital markets by trading limited edition hats on the Roblox items market.

I have never viewed the classroom as my ideal learning environment, and I firmly believe that it is through alternative approaches to education that will ignite passion for learning that can be more effective than traditional methods. Expanding the boundaries of how we think about education will be able to greater reach and impact students who are motivated to learn in vastly different ways.

The road ahead for increasing equitable education will be very difficult and require immense support outside of tech, but we are on the right track with compounding innovation from founders and investors who are incredibly passionate about democratizing education, as evident by the sheer number of amazing speakers at the ASU+GSV Summit.

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Trustin Yoon is a Senior Partner @ California Crescent Fund 🌙 and studying business + analytics @ USC ✌🏼.

Want to reach out👋🏼? Feel free to say hi on LinkedIn, Twitter, or email!

Always looking to have great conversations 🙂

California Crescent Fund

Investing in SoCal Students

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