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Pursuing the Ed-Tech Unicorn

Only one of the 110 mystical "unicorn" companies has a connection to education, and none touch the K-12 market.

What do you do when you leave home and realize you left your phone next to your bed?

If you’re like me, you probably turn right around to retrieve it. The idea of not having a phone all day is terrifying. I can’t hail a ride or tell my colleagues I am running late. How will I pay for coffee? I would have to sit on the bus in silence staring into space, and my work productivity would likely collapse. I can’t even imagine the texts from family and coworkers I would find when I got home: “Are you okay?” “Where are you?” “It’s your mother — why are you ignoring me?”

In today’s work and societal landscape, the idea of not having a connected device is terrifying. To many, even the idea of leaving their phones at home by accident is preposterous — in 2014, 87 percent of millennials agreed that “my smartphone never leaves my side, day or night.”

But if you took all the connected devices out of a school classroom for the day, there would be little impact. Teachers would continue to teach and productivity would not stop.

This is because technology is only a small part of most teachers’ classrooms. In a survey funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, non-digital resources are currently used 60 percent of the time that students are in classrooms and 73 percent of the time they are learning out of the classroom. Additionally, only 54 percent of teachers believe that the digital products they use with their students are effective. This classroom dynamic is in direct opposition to other sectors of the economy. How much of your time is spent on non-digital activities?

Technology must be integrated into classrooms in a deep and holistic way. If it isn’t, our students will be left behind.

This is an immense opportunity for ed-tech ventures to integrate technology into education in a way that is so effective, productive and essential to learning that teachers would have a reaction like mine if they had a day without their devices. The potential is clear to entrepreneurs and investors: According to CB Insights, more than $1.87 billion was invested in ed-tech technology in 2014, a 55 percent increase over 2013.

Yet despite this increased investment, in 2015, only one of the 110 mystical “unicorn” companies (those startups valued at more than $1 billion) had a connection to education, and none touched the K-12 market. Why?

There is an inability for those in the education space to fail forward. Most unicorn success stories are based on companies putting their product in the market, learning from consumers as their products were rejected, and then rebuilding them to meet consumer needs and demands. Success is often the fail forward. Burbn begat Instagram, Tiny Speck’s collapse was Slack’s gain, and Pinterest was originally Tote. These companies put their products in the market and watched as consumers rejected them — but they learned from this experience what consumers did want, and then they built it. Many of your phone or tablet apps are as good as they are because of their failures.

Failing forward in the consumer market may not be easy, but it’s crucial. And this dynamic exists because consumers have few consequences when they try an app. They delete it if they don’t like it. The switching costs are low enough that experimentation is fun and exciting for both the company and consumer.

But failing forward in ed-tech has greater consequences. It involves our students. Understandably, we are not risk-tolerant in this environment, and the switching costs for teachers and schools are too exorbitant financially, both in time and effort. Many have concluded that implementing and learning a new system is not worth the potential and possibly incremental benefits of improvement.

What do we do? Ed-techs need to first focus on outcomes and user interface through pilots and hands-on teacher feedback — conversion, sales and financing will come. Edupreneurs need to consider putting outcomes ahead of business models. And user-focused design becomes much more important at earlier stages of development, because it is harder to iterate with feedback along the way.

Teachers, schools and districts will use a product and service that will help their students succeed. But they won’t upend systems for a product or service that might help their students succeed.

Building an ecosystem that fosters digital education tools that are as necessary to us as our personal devices will require all parties to work together. We can start by focusing on teacher feedback, outcomes and learning by doing in “failure-safe” environments. We won’t ever find a unicorn if we don’t at least have the tools to pursue them.

Jacob Saperstein Jacob Saperstein is the director of innovation policy and social investment at AT&T, where he works with startups, venture capitalists, trade groups and the rest of the technology ecosystem on innovation programming and public affairs. He also leads the AT&T Aspire Accelerator, which works with organizations that use technology to help students succeed, strengthen schools and communities, or prepare learners for employment. Prior to joining AT&T, Saperstein was the COO for Ground Floor Public Affairs, where he worked for political campaigns and corporations throughout the Bay Area. Reach him @JakeSaperstein.

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