I’m glad that one of our first tasks was to look in some detail at current startups and current trends.  If you’ve read posts like this one or this one on my “regular” blog, you know that I’m very interested in applying design thinking to educational problems … and of course one critical aspect of design thinking is to keep working until you understand the needs and the available resources and the constraints that face you.  The EdTech startup space as it’s currently taking shape is both a resource and a constraint.

It’s a resource because there’s just so much going on!  From classroom management apps like ClassDojo to analytics packages to companies like Clever that will pull useful real-time data from legacy SIS databases, the education market is full of change and ferment.  And of course everyone claims to be “disruptive” – a word I’ve loved ever since I read Christensen and Horn’s book Disrupting Class.

A friend recently asked me if everything has to be disruptive.  And of course the answer is “No.”  There’s always a need for sustaining innovations (that help existing players in a given space do the “old thing” better) as well as disruptive ones (that create new spaces, new markets, for folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t participate in the “old thing”).  There’s nothing inherently superior or inferior about either type of innovation, either.  But it’s important to know what you’re doing when you innovate, so I’m using disruptive and sustaining innovation as a lens to look the innovative companies profiled in our assignment.

As I look at the beautifully crafted sites and pitch videos, I see a lot more sustaining innovations than disruptive ones.  It seems to me that very few of these startups are really competing against non-consumption,  and very few are trying to create new markets (or blue oceans in the terminology of one of my favorite books) by creating a radically different value proposition.

Maybe it’s just my perspective, of course.  But let’s take a closer look at some of these companies.  (I want to save Coursera and Instructure for another post.)  It seems to me that a lot of them are more about sustaining (and, of course, improving and refining) the 20th-century, factory-model, age-graded structure of schooling than they are about building new models of teaching and learning.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, as long as they know what they’re doing.

I’m impressed with the power and simplicity of ClassDojo … and if it were 1995 or even 2005, I’d be beating down their doors to participate in their beta.  In those days, my classes used a very well-developed reward and incentive system that would have been a perfect fit with the ClassDojo approach.  My students gained points for positive behaviors, lost them for negative ones, and converted the points (in increments of 10) into “homework passes” which could replace homework assignments or add points to other types of assignments.  For teachers and schools that use those kinds of reward systems, ClassDojo would be a huge timesaver.

But it’s not 1995, and it’s not 2005.  In 2012, when Dan Pink and others have made us aware of the pernicious effects of extrinsic rewards, I’m deeply skeptical of reward-based systems … and I watched, first-hand, as they stopped motivating my students over the past few years.  So I’d have to classify ClassDojo as a sustaining innovation in a market (student behavior management plans) that’s saturated and slowly dying.  To be fair, factory-model schools with behavior management system needs will probably be around for a long time.  But if you take a perspective of decades rather than months or years, I think their target market’s best days are in the past.

What do you think?

I also think the idea behind Clever is wonderful, but, again, I’m concerned about the timing.  My face-to-face teaching environment was one of the first to adopt a statewide Student Information System solution; unfortunately, we’re now looking at an end-of-life timeframe for the product.   My concern with Clever is that they’re pursuing a shrinking market of legacy SIS users.  It’s a good bet today, but what will happen in the next 5 years or so?  If they’re looking at the short term, though, they have a really excellent opportunity.

It seems to me that Degreed and Dreambox and CodeAcademy and Goalbook and Knewton are much more interested in disruptive change in the education space.  And they have the potential to make some real disruptive changes in education and create some blue oceans along the way.  Degreed intrigues me because, like the Mozilla Open Badge project, they’re moving education away from seat time and toward certification of competency.  If they can get that to work, it will be a huge game-changer, and a lot of second-tier universities will be hurting badly.  CodeAcademy is doing something similar in its specialized niche of programming (an area where competency has always been more important than credentials anyway), and DreamBox aims to do something related with its self-paced approach to elementary math.

If the folks at Goalbook can really get teams together around the idea of virtually and instantaneously sharing students’ progress, then maybe the personal learning plan can move out of the expensive, time-consuming world of special education and become part of every young learner’s experience.  Now that would be a game-changer!  And as Knewton builds its library of lessons and refines its recommendation engine, it should also help to move education from a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to a more deeply personalized experience for each learner.

See why I say ClassDojo and Clever are more about sustaining innovation while the others are more about disruption?  And why I keep repeating that neither type of innovation is superior or inferior to the other?  They’re just different.

But if you’re building a sustaining innovation in a dying market, it’s really important to realize that … and to be thoughtful about time frames and about the next thing you need to do.  When we get to my Idea, I’d really like to have your feedback about issues like this.  Sustaining or disruptive?  If sustaining, what’s the timeline?  And what are some good next steps if the timeline is short?