Book Smarts vs Street Smarts: aka Edtech Founders as Action Researchers

September 9, 2013

Last week I was in Boston visiting two of our portfolio companies, BetterLesson and Socrative. Spending time with entrepreneurs is, by far, the best part of my job.

I’m always moved by the passion of our entrepreneurs. As always, Ben Berte (Socrative) and Alex Grodd (BetterLesson) left me inspired by their commitment to supporting teachers. However, in this visit, I took away a new appreciation for how technology products are moving beyond just teacher productivity and into deeper issues of instruction and teacher learning.

Ben, Alex and other edtech founders are at the vanguard of actionable educational research. In contrast, traditional educational researchers study a problem, perform empirical research and describe their results in peer-reviewed academic journals. One of the most popular is the American Educational Research Journal. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry, most educators haven’t either – it’s expensive (AERJ costs about $175 an issue or $35 per article) and is targeted at professors of education who mainly write for one another. 

What I hadn’t fully appreciated until my visit was how the combination of data, scale and a founders’ learning disposition is really the golden trifecta of actionable research. While this may be obvious to some, I think we are entering a new era where the data sets are huge, the usage analytics are sophisticated and most importantly, the insights gleaned from the data can be acted upon immediately. Combine these new developments with educator-founders imbued with a customer development/lean startup methodology and you have a new class of action researchers[1] with the power to reshape teaching and learning.

Two weeks ago we were lucky to hear from James Byers and Adam Frey of Wikispace, another edtech company that has grown steadily over eight years and is now an edtech behemoth serving millions of children. In the early days of their growth, the founders averaged about 200 customer email interactions per day. Over time, this high-volume and consistent interaction with teachers and students leads to a deep and nuanced understanding of the problem an entrepreneur is seeking to solve. The daily customer interactions, the massive data sets, the tweaking, testing, and iterating turn these entrepreneurs into experts with unmatched knowledge of a particular issue. Some edtech founders have a deeper and more relevant understanding of educational problems then some of the top educational researchers studying the problems from afar. 

This nuanced understanding of the problem, informed by a huge amount of data, puts edtech founders in a unique position to develop solutions with a potential to impact our educational system. I saw this dynamic in action last week when Ben and Alex described new product innovations with very insightful rationales for why they were making certain decisions about approach, features, and user experience. Alex is pioneering new approaches to professional development rooted in lesson study, and Ben is testing new pedagogical techniques for teachers to use data to inform their teaching.

The combination of data and scale are powerful, but not enough. The founder must have the right baseline knowledge and ability to turn those insights into product. For this reason, the strength of the founder is considered above all else in our consideration to invest.