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How Startl Is Hacking Education From the Outside In

Startl

What would happen if you took the principles of a startup incubator like Y Combinator and applied it to improving education? A new philanthropic venture called Startl aims to find out. The non-profit startup accelerator is being backed by some of the world's best-known foundations (Gates, Hewlett, MacArthur), and has for-profit partners including IDEO, DreamIT Ventures, and investment bankers Berkeley & Noyes. Startl is entirely focused on educational entrepreneurs. Co-founder and Managing director Phoenix Wang, formerly of Accenture Consulting, iVillage, and then the Hewlett Foundation, is holding the organization's first five-day "bootcamp" for ideas in mobile learning from March 15-19. Fast Company caught up with Wang to learn more and find out what's coming next.

Startl Anya Kamenetz: How did Startl get started?

Phoenix Wang: Startl is a group of foundations that got together 18 months ago to start thinking about the failures of a lot of interesting learning products that have had great potential but never make it to scale.

Traditional foundations like the National Science Foundation give away millions every year to support lots of innovative ideas in education, but there isn't an infrastructure that takes these ideas across the entrepreneur's "valley of death." If you look at the Internet industry there are incubation hubs, university labs, public/private partnerships—a fertile ground that supports different people at different stages for different purposes.

In education that layer doesn't exist. There's an emerging set of young players who really want to change education in fundamental ways and they have nowhere to go. It's about money, but it's also about the networks, expertise, cultivation, and insights to figure out how to be a good entrepreneur. So that's how STARTL was born.

AK: What are the most important forces for change in the education world that you see right now?

Startl PW: Technology is one set of forces. Decreasing cost is another. There's another around participatory learning, open content, OER [open educational resources]. And it's not just these new enablers, it's that people's expectations are changing. There's a whole new generation of kids who expect I should be able to have control over how I learn, what I learn, and where I learn. I'm not just a consumer, I'm a co-creator and collaborator. I can share/mashup/remix knowledge.

AK: Where do you see the biggest market gaps in educational technology?

PW: If you look at so-called educational products, the majority are high in entertainment value and so really fall into children's media. Another category is what we call Brussels sprouts: very learning-rich, lots of drill and kill and flashcards. It's like taking your medication. And a third category is more like "edutainment" or what I call the chocolate-covered broccoli. They try to make learning fun by wrapping games or interactive activities around it, to sugarcoat things that are still pretty boring. That's the market, those are the product categories, up until a few years ago.

Today, the Internet, mobile devices, digital media, and virtual world simulations have matured to a point where there are interesting emerging markets and product categories that are not your traditional edutainment or Brussels sprouts. Those emerging markets include referenceware, simulations and virtual worlds, and mobile learning.

AK: How are the approaches taken by these new technologies different?

PW: It's not about distribution or force-feeding of content, but rather placing the learner at the center of the experience and paying close attention to the learner's needs, aspirations, and behaviors. You're leading them through a set of experiences that make it learning—rich.

For example, you might begin with building rockets in a simulation. From rockets you figure out about physics, math, coordinates, etc. It's a whole different approach enabled by technology and digital media that makes these interesting. But unfortunately the market dynamics are in a period of transition.

AK: When I was at the first Venture Capital in Education summit sponsored by Berkery Noyes last summer, a lot of these private equity firms and VCs were saying the same thing: it's a huge market, it's a real opportunity, but so much of the investment is locked down by the fact that governments are the biggest buyers. (See: How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education, from September 2009.)

PW: Exactly. There are $600 billion in public dollar investments in education around schools. But there's a disconnect between the school districts who make the purchases and the students who are supposed to use it. So oftentimes what gets pushed down to students is not really aligned with their interests.

At the same time, private and institutional investors are really interested in emerging products, but they're constrained by institutional purchasing. VCs need big exits, so they end up taking less risk. The center is so constrained it's hindering the development of the edges as well.

AK: The Obama administration is devoting $6 billion to "Race to the Top" funding in educational innovation. How can a "venture philanthropy" outfit avoid duplication of effort with that kind of spending?

PW: I think a lot of times government money is about the codification of innovations—that is, institutionalizing things that already work—and they're concerned about making the existing system better. We're interested in leveraging what's coming from the outside: how technology can improve people's lives and how it can play a role in shifting the culture of education to a more learner-centric model as opposed to institutional efficiency. For example, we're less concerned about things that directly improve literacy, but more interested in saying, how do you engage kids to want to learn about literature?

And for that reason, our whole focus is operating on the edge between school and non-school, formal and non-formal; placing the learner in the middle. Our Web site's not school specific. We're broad in terms of age range: from 5 to 25. We're really interested in engaging adult learners; relighting the fire for young adults who dropped out or never went and figuring out a way to connect them back.

AK: At the "hacking education" summit at Union Square Ventures last spring, one of the most frequently re-tweeted lines was about classroom teachers today being like bank tellers of the 1970s. Do you think that's true?

PW: I was a management consultant with Accenture in the mid-90s when the Internet first came out. Every financial services client we had was panicking about disintermediation: that banks, travel agents, brokers would all go away. You know what? It's not so much they're all gone today but their roles have changed. They have to be better at what they do, redefine roles or add different kinds of value. I think likely that some level of that is going to happen to what we call schooling. It will be part of a whole ecology of institutions or modalities of access available to learners to enable them to develop an interest, engage, deepen and extend their learning.