Education Innovation in 2017:

A Few Speculations from Rethink Education

Matthew Greenfield and Michelle Dervan

Our vision of the future is fuzzier than usual. A cloud of uncertainty and anxiety is blurring our vision. But our values at Rethink Education have never been clearer. We believe that education is the core of democracy. Our mission is to improve education for everyone, but especially for those who are most vulnerable, including the poor, those who experience discrimination, those who are cognitively or physically different, and, in the United States, those who are not yet fluent in English. We want to help prepare people for success in their lives as workers, as participants in the civic realm, and as family members.

This mission has never seemed more urgent. Many Americans lack the basic skills they need to prosper and to make wise decisions for themselves and their families. Primary and secondary education are working reasonably well for the affluent but not for the poor. There are still many schools where students do not have their own computing devices or adequate bandwidth for those devices. College is increasingly unaffordable, and college debt is increasingly oppressive, especially for those who do not even succeed in obtaining degrees. Even those who get degrees often find that they are poorly equipped to find decent jobs. It is increasingly clear that we are not even teaching the right skills.

Here are a few of our thoughts on what we are likely to see in the coming year.

Politics, Policy, and Regulation: Although our nation will change a lot in 2017, we expect relatively few changes in K-12 policy. The Every Student Succeeds Act was a bipartisan effort, and we don’t see congress focusing on K-12 again any time soon, with the possible exception of Trump’s promised vouchers program. We expect the Common Core standards to muddle through, at least in 2017, even if many states implement the standards under another name with a few slight modifications. The regulatory environment has just become much friendlier to for-profit colleges, and we may finally see some mergers and acquisitions in this sector. The real political changes, as everyone already knows, involve a legitimization of intolerance and a heightened risk of international conflict.

Civics Education: Whatever your political beliefs, you probably will agree that a distressing number of Americans do not consider it important to vote, do not understand the structure of our government and our political process and our economy, do not know how to construct evidence-based arguments and detect logical fallacies, do not understand the rudiments of statistics, and, most important of all, do not have a strong capacity for empathy. Technology can help bolster all of these skills. EverFi* has helped teach fourteen million learners about civic engagement and other critical life skills. ClassDojo has helped to teach social and emotional skills to over thirty-five million students. And ThinkCERCA is helping teach students to construct evidence-based arguments about critical social issues. We expect to see much more innovation in these categories in the coming year.

Education for the Workforce: We are seeing a number of exciting, innovative new programs and tools that help people succeed in their careers. There are many new educational programs that, operating outside of traditional K-12 schools and accredited colleges and universities, deliver a sharp boost in the salaries and prospects of their students. These new programs typically have a short duration and are sometimes free or have no up-front cost; in many cases payments are a percentage of the student’s income following the program. Coding bootcamps like General Assembly*, Trilogy, and Thinkful are the most obvious members of this emerging category, but we are seeing programs in areas outside of programming begin to scale. We deeply admire Guild Education, which helps corporations deliver education as a human resources benefit, and Andela, an ultra-selective African coding program that starts off free and then starts paying students for contract programming work that is incorporated into the curriculum. Several companies are also delivering important new infrastructure for workforce education. Burning Glass Technologies* is helping people to decide which skills to develop next and what sort of salary boost those skills will deliver. Most students and employees are flying blind, not knowing what the career implications of their education and training decisions will be. Burning Glass gives them a GPS for their careers.

Credentialing: There is a continual surge of innovation in credentialing, and 2017 will be no exception. Employers need better ways to assess the skills and aptitudes of potential hires and current employees, and we all need better ways to show what we know and what we can do. Problems with our current credentialing system create major friction in the economy. Employers ask for excessive formal qualifications because they lack the ability to measure actual skills, and students are unable to transfer credit and credentials from one institution to the next, slowing their path toward degree completion. One interesting innovation is the use of the bitcoin blockchain to verify academic credentials. Another is Degreed’s* transcript for lifelong learning, which includes both formal and informal educational accomplishments. The new Credential Registry project, backed by our friends at the Lumina Foundation, has the potential to allow rigorous comparisons between different credentials in the same area. This could be transformative for the credentialing ecology.

Predictive Analytics: The promise of big data in education is finally starting to be realized. BrightBytes* and Civitas Learning* are two leaders that between them are now giving over ten million learners a better chance of educational success. The BrightBytes tool suite includes an early warning and dropout prevention module that is used by one state and numerous districts to prevent students from dropping out of high school. In a back-test in the state of West Virginia, BrightBytes demonstrated an ability to predict with 90% accuracy whether a particular third-grader would drop out of high school. BrightBytes’s predictive analytics then recommend intervention strategies to reduce the chance of that student dropping out. Civitas Learning’s predictive analytics have a proven ability to help colleges reduce their dropout rates by dramatic percentages, and Civitas also has a data-driven advising tool that allows students and advisers to ensure that a student is prepared to succeed in a particular course before enrolling in it. Another interesting player in higher education is the Starfish Retention Solutions division of Hobsons, which is starting to make predictions using data from its messaging system for students and advisors. A younger startup called Yenko is helping to warn students when they are in danger of falling out of compliance with the requirements of their financial aid package.

AI-Powered Helpers and Tutors: High-touch human interventions such as tutoring, coaching and mentoring are among the most effective tools for improving student outcomes and persistence. However, these are difficult to offer to every student at scale. In 2016, we saw a number of experiments in the use of artificial intelligence as a way to scale access to support services. Pearson and IBM announced a partnership in October to develop a cognitive tutor to provide college students with on-demand homework help. A Georgia Institute of Technology Professor used IBM Watson to create Jill Watson, an AI powered Teaching Assistant which worked alongside eight human teaching assistants. In 2017, we believe that additional education use cases for AI-powered assistants or chatbots will be tested and begin to see traction in higher education as a way to expand access to support services. Startups will also apply machine learning to other problems, including learning analytics and the curation of learning objects. None of these AI technologies will replace humans; rather, they will free human educators and administrators to focus on making higher-level contributions to student success.

Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Simulations: We think virtual reality and augmented reality will eventually be very important, but we do not anticipate broad adoption of pedagogically efficacious virtual reality and augmented reality in 2017. Many K-12 schools are still struggling to secure enough bandwidth to give students fast, consistent access to the web, and colleges are still trying to figure out how to use streaming video and video-conferencing effectively. Development of high-quality AR/VR instructional resources will be expensive and difficult, and we do not yet know how to do it. There are exceptions, though, in medicine, defence and aerospace, and, to a lesser extent, general corporate learning. Virtual reality technology is most advanced in the aerospace and defence sector. Simulations technology is currently having a much broader impact than AR or VR. One fascinating company is Moblab, which allows students (and finance professionals) to run virtual lab experiments in business, economics, and the social sciences.

Great Content That Gets Enthusiastic Learner Engagement: This may sound like a very old-fashioned category, and many investors are convinced that the value of educational content is headed toward zero because there is so much available for free on the web, including the videos and tools of Khan Academy, CK-12, OpenStax, and Open Up Resources. We believe, though, that student passion and enthusiasm are rare and valuable and should be honored wherever they are found. And we expect great interactive content to become even more valuable as the platforms for delivering it become more ubiquitous. This is especially true for great content that is tied to active, collaborative, project-based learning. For example, Flocabulary* offers a library of videos, texts, assessments, and activities centering on original hip-hop songs on topics across the curriculum. Students are genuinely delighted by Flocabulary, and they put astonishing amounts of work into creating their own educational raps. Another interactive content company that teachers and students really love is Brainpop. If you find other content companies that inspire this kind of enthusiasm, please let us know!

After This Year: You are probably thinking that we are rather pessimistic about the value in education of cutting-edge deep technology. That is true in the short term. But in the medium term, we think that technology will change everything. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, technological change happens two ways: gradually and then suddenly.

* Companies marked with an asterisk are part of the Rethink Education portfolio.

The views expressed herein are stagnant in time as of the date of this article and are subject to change. Rethink Education is not obligated to update their views and information that could change overtime. This article is not a solicitation or offer of securities of any current or future funds.