The promise and potential of education start-ups

Rui Shi

Hard economic times have meant budget cuts across the board for higher education. But while universities across the nation are facing financial challenges, education-technology start-ups are experiencing a boom.

In recent years, investments in education-technology start-ups exploded from $146 million in 2002 to $429 million in 2011. Even with the rest of the economy in recession, higher education is experiencing its own dot-com moment. In recent years, websites such as MyEdu and Cramster shot up in popularity on the college scene. It is clear that these tools have a noticeable impact on students; however, are these kinds of technologies moving higher education in the right direction?

Millions upon millions of dollars are poured into education start-ups in the name of innovation and in hope of bringing about a higher education renaissance. Investors in these companies hope to provide universities with a digital makeover. But as more and more venture capitalists go into the education business, universities are becoming a battleground of for-profits competing to milk the system. Granted, start-ups have created many genuinely revolutionary tools that changed the way we learn. However, venture capitalists are in the business of making money. Do they have the interests of the students and the integrity of universities in mind?

Websites such as Cramster and Course Hero allow students to view solutions to homework problems for a fee. Sites like these provide students who are stuck on problems with detailed step-by-step instructions. In the short run, these tools give students a quick-fix way of getting an A. In the long run, however, they provide little of value because they do not increase the quality of learning. Rather, they are only selling answers to turn a profit. These types of companies do not add anything to the classroom experience. In order for start-ups to make a real impact, they must supplement the college classroom in a way similar to how the Khan Academy supplements the K-12 classroom.

Khan Academy is an online learning medium containing thousands of YouTube video lessons, ranging from instruction in physics to history. Khan Academy introduced a new classroom model where students watch video lessons at home and do problem sets at school to master concepts. By “flipping” the classroom, students are able to learn at their pace at home and are still able to get individual attention at school if they get stuck on a problem. This system allows students to completely master a topic before moving on.

Khan Academy might not translate well to the college classroom, since there are many highly technical courses at the university level. But it is one example where technology increases the quality of learning and is a model that must be emulated by future start-ups. Companies need to create technologies that will improve student comprehension. The creation of tools that are tailored to individuals’ learning curves will go a long way in transforming the way students learn.

Though imperfect, education start-ups have the ability to revolutionize higher education, but only if they emphasize the quality of student education first.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.