Wireless Generation was founded in 2001, and seems to have a practical, useful, well regarded product aimed at a sector which has seen unprecedented growth in the intervening years, yet:
We have grown to 250 people, serving more than 2.5 million K-6 students, including most of the K-3 classrooms in New York, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Washington, D.C. and more than a thousand smaller districts. We are considered a preliminary entrepreneurial success story, but we are not quite profitable yet, and we remain vulnerable to political funding shifts, to the various ways that the culture of education is slow to change, and to competition from “Big Edu” (the three dominant educational publishing companies).
Waitasec... they "aren't profitable yet?" Whew. This market is even more brutal than I thought.
Berger and Stevenson explain that while there are a multitude of small education consultants (that is, smaller than them), the little guys don't generate much innovation:
The small business owners in education are not necessarily entrepreneurs. Many of them are building “lifestyle” businesses to keep themselves engaged after they retire from the school district. They are not attracting investment capital to drive accelerated growth and in many cases do not want to grow beyond a certain size. In their local community, they get to know the local landscape just like the local Big Edu sales rep, and they learn to thrive in that small pond. They are not entrepreneurs who want to innovate across the sector, to create value by redeploying resources, and to take high levels of risk for high levels of reward – enough potential upside to justify gambling years of low salary, high stress and uncertainty. The would-be entrepreneur scans the educational landscape, notes the crowded field of small companies and the rarity with which any of them cross the chasm to become big companies and starts looking at other sectors.
The bulk of the paper is an elaboration on their "top ten barriers to entry."
- The Education Sector Does Not Invest in Innovation
- Vicious Sales Cycles
- Pilot Error
- No Return
- Viewing Teacher Time as a Sunk Cost
- Short-Lived Superintendents
- The Vendor Wall
- Start-Up Capital
I'd encourage the reader, in exploring the whole paper, to not slip into thinking of this list as ten manifestations of one problem (most likely, educators being generically resistant to change), but an interlocking web of problems. Short lived superintendents means true innovation is swamped in a constant churn of change. Education professionals cannot chose to invest in innovation on their own; their budgets are determined by political processes. There is not an easy solution like simply getting educators to think like businesspeople.
Berger and Stevenson do offer three possible paths forward, and I'm happy that "Create A Welcoming Climate for Promising Disruptions, Including Open Source Business Models" is one of them. They don't elaborate much on this idea, but I think I can.
One possible route is for open source processes to drive more innovation, and more distribution of innovation, by the "lifestyle businesses" described in the paper. In this kind of case I think of Plone Foundation and ZEA Partners. The Plone Foundation is made up of over 100 individual developers who contribute to the Plone content management system. Zea Partners is a non-profit business network for 25 companies building Zope, Plone and Silva systems. These developers and companies are probably more entrepreneurial than the "lifestyle businesses," but they aren't much bigger, and as far as I know, aren't aiming for rapid growth and an IPO. They're pretty much smallish web development shops. Working together through open source processes, they collectively innovate at a rate comparable to, if not faster than, a single big company
There is no reason that small education consultants can't create similar processes and organizations. There is also no reason that releasing open source software and explicitly cultivating such organizations should not be a goal of foundations, universities, etc. seeking routes to scale up innovations.
Also, Berger and Stevenson describe Big Edu's dominance of traditional distribution channels. It is important to try to start communicating the role of the free software community and free software distributions as an alternative distribution channel. While the web is in many ways the ultimate distribution channel for software, there is still something to be said for the integrated packaging systems of Linux distributions like Ubuntu (or, in this case, Edubuntu). At this point there still seems to be a gap between the innovative educational software being developed at universities and what ends up in K-12 oriented distributions like Edubuntu.
Case in point: the Ubuntu Developer's Summit was at MIT last week, including the prime movers of Edubuntu. Scratch, the second most interesting and important educational free software project of the year, also lives at MIT and is conspicuously not included in Ubuntu or any other free software distributions that I'm aware of at this point. I wonder if anyone from Edubuntu called anyone from Scratch to have a meeting, or vice versa (part of the problem here is that it isn't clear whose responsibility it is...). I don't know, but I'd be surprised if they did. The academics don't see the need for a new distribution channel, and the free software guys aren't used to initiating these conversations, especially when they've got more than enough work on their plate already, thank you very much. Nonetheless, these two camps need to be brought together; they need each other.
One final note. The paper says:
Draft: Please do not cite without permission from the author.
Which I interpret to mean, "don't cite this in an academic work" not "don't quote us on the web," which would seem kind of absurd since the paper has been posted on the web in its entirety. But consider yourself warned. Regardless, the whole thing is highly recommended, even if it was written for the execrable AEI.