Discover more from Erik Torenberg
Opportunities in Education
My request for startups in the space
The state of education is bleak.
Test scores, earning potential, employment rates, teacher salaries, and student satisfaction have stayed flat over the past 20 years while college tuition, revenues, and student debt have sky-rocketed.
With a trillion dollar student loan bubble & irrational psychosocial dynamics, the idea of going to college simply no longer makes sense for the vast majority of middle class students attending 2nd/3rd rate universities & amassing enormous amounts of debt. Attending university has become more of an insurance policy than a true education. It's an insurance policy that's overpriced but purchased out of fear of the unknown.
Further, public school teachers have an NPS of -17, teachers say 10% of other teachers are unsatisfactory educators, 55% of Americans think that K-12 education is heading down the wrong track… And yet there’s no innovation — only seven of the top 100 colleges were founded in the last 100 years.
When I look at the state of education, I can't help but feel like something needs to be done. I already talked about how higher education is a bubble, but this week I wanted to dive into where I see opportunities for investment & innovation, and how we can think about building education institutions in the future.
At a high level, schools are outdated.
Schools were built for a static industrial age. The education system assumed that the outcomes you wanted to produce were clear and you could harness massive scale to train students, factory style.
Batch processing made sense in the industrial era, where you didn't have technology to customize learning. In the factory model, you'd teach to the median and lose the kids at the top and bottom of the curve. As a result, we now train people to do things with clear instructions instead of ambiguity, when in reality it should be the opposite.
Schools do an excellent job of training for excellence, where there are clearly bounded domains, and it’s known exactly what has to be done to be successful. But they’re terrible at training for genius — innovation no one can predict. School kills the creativity out of their students.
Schools are more value investors than venture capitalists. Rather than incentivize risky crazy ideas that have asymmetric upside, schools are trying to reduce risk and do everything they can to prevent children from suffering, like medicating a child for mild ADD.
Today, the world is dynamic, so people need to be entrepreneurial and continuously re-learning. Now that we have the technology to enable personalization at scale with community support, the whole education model needs to flip, moving from a "push" to "pull" mentality — from “you tell me the right answer” to “ask the right question and then find the answer.”
But as our education systems have evolved, we've steered away from creating a mass market consumer experience and instead focused on keeping higher ed a government funded monopoly.
Interestingly enough though, the bottleneck to fixing schools isn't only the government, it's also the parents.
As a society, the people making the decisions for who goes to what school are disconnected from those actually getting the education. Of course, you can't ask a 5 year old to pick which kindergarten they want to go to, but as kids grow older, the more their parents' decisions affect where they'll end up for college, and then eventually a job.
Parents of current students are biased by their own experiences. They feel that the common track of going to university, getting your degree, then working a corporate job is the only way to go. To make matters worse, they're prone to social peer pressure, and don’t want to take risks on their kids education lest they look dumb.
There's also the internal struggle of not wanting to upset their kids if something doesn't work out. After all, they're trying to limit their kid's downside risk, even if that means limiting their upside.
So how should education evolve?
Well, first off, education should be fun! The best way to learn a subject is by first getting passionate about it. But in school, they make you start with knowledge & statistics and assume passion will follow.
"Education is not about the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”
Currently, our education fills the bucket — teachers spew facts at students who frantically try to jot down all the notes they can, only to regurgitate the same information on an exam. Instead, we should model learning as something that happens over one’s entire life. We should light the fire inside us all to promote an everlasting love of learning.
Of course, this takes a societal mindset shift. For example, in Hebrew, when you want to ask someone if they've finished college, you ask them if they're done learning. This implies that learning is what you do when you're young; after that, you deploy it and you're done. Learning of course should be a life long venture.
We should also make learning social and peer-to-peer. Right now, kids sit in a class in a "one to many" environment — a professor lectures at a group of people who may or may not pay attention. By adding a social component to learning, we'd be able to show people just how good it feels to experience high-quality education. We also might find even more diversity of thought, as the learning environment becomes less constrained.
In an ideal world, curricula would include strategies & mental models around:
Predicting the future
Asking good questions
How to pick people (to befriend, work with, marry, etc)
Communication & interpersonal dynamics
Eventually, credentialing & higher education as a whole will be unbundled: already, GitHub can act as a credential for developers, and Behance for designers. But what will be the credential for young learners? Twitter?
David Perell said “I think my Twitter account is worth more than my college degree,” and in many ways he's right. As more platforms emerge that enable you to “show your work” new credentials will emerge where skills are quantifiable (and, thus, easier to validate), in-demand, and ever-changing. Competency-evaluation could be the key to verticalized LinkedIn.
The evolution is happening in waves
If we look back, the first wave of ed-tech was characterized by making existing schools better. We brought in things like math practice on computers and built student information systems to help schools better manage student data.
The second wave brought the direct-to-consumer model to education, as we saw the proliferation of platforms like Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, and more. While this was interesting, it wasn't enough: completion rates were too low, and there was no sense of community amongst participants in each course. We thought the scarcity was the content, but really it was accountability, which can be better achieved with community (hence all the interest in cohort-based courses).
School is intensely social, and internet education was isolated. Now we're making it social again, but with internet scale, which is why I'm excited for the third wave, which will combine the best of synchronous and asynchronous learning.
Why now? We have both the tooling and the culture necessary for this new hybrid learning model to work. As we've seen in Covid, with university students calling their experience "Zoom University," synchronous instruction requires A+ video & interactive functionality. (For example, Lambda School wouldn't thrive as easily without Zoom & Slack) Though we didn't use to have this, we're forced to adapt in these changing times.
On the other side, culture has adapted too — young parents who grew up with Google & YouTube are shocked to see no change in the education system. They're already used to learning through video, so why not invest in a 10x better digital learning experience with a community component as well?
With so much room for improvement, it's time for startups to unbundle education
As it relates to education, here's my request for startups as it stands today:
Cloud powered schools: Reinvent school from scratch, incorporating the right technology, infrastructure, and best practices to build low cost schools with consistent quality at scale. (e.g. bridgeinternationalacademies.com)
Platforms for Homeschool: Underlying homeschool is the belief that students/parents understand what's best for them better than politicians do. Students/parents set their own goals & curriculum. 10% of families today say they'd homeschool if it was easier; if we're currently at 3%, there's room for new entrants. (We at Village Global invested in Primer, which is solving homeschool problems.)
Continuous education: We need some version of SoulCycle, but for learning, something community-driven where people feel it as a piece of their identity. I'm also interested in online collaborative syllabi, as referenced in this great piece by Dani Grant here.
Peer learning: How can education learn from the success of behavior change organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous or weight watchers? How can the social pressure from others around us make us more likely to study, learn new things, and do things we wouldn't otherwise do on our own? (e.g. Microverse)
Future of Credentialing: Mentioned earlier, I'm bullish on platforms that enable peer to peer credentials. But aside from peer to peer, I think there are other opportunities for credentials as well: what if being a part of a certain network or community afforded you a credential? What if we had ways of measuring competence outside what school you went to and what degree you received? We need Triplebyte for X (data science, design, cybersecurity, etc.)
Direct corporate placement out of high school: There's a wealth of undiscovered talent in high schools, and colleges do a poor job of matching students with careers that maximize their potential. We need companies that can help employ folks directly out of high school, providing them with a living wage and educational experiences that prepare them for the future. (Right now, the main other option these folks have besides college is the military. There must be another alternative.)
Gamified Education: Don't try to get kids off Fortnite or Roblox. Try to add educational components on top of games kids already play. Or perhaps just better appreciate how motivated kids are to learn when it is structured like a video game. Go where the kids are. (More on this idea here)
Upskilling: Employers have a vested interest in upskilling their employees for jobs of the future, but good options are few and far between. 80% of corporate executives say their L&D departments aren't innovative enough, and NPS by employees is very low. Employers are the new educators. Universities aren't positioned to do the upskilling since they're not connected to the skills needed in the workforce — their faculty are not incentivized to train people for jobs. So who is?
Internal universities as a service: We'll see more external-facing CorpU from *platform* businesses — Salesforce teaching trailhead, Unity teaching game development, etc. Certifying students helps them get jobs & the company expand its reach - (h/t @willhoughteling)
And last but certainly not least...
Unbundling & rebuilding the university: Of course, there are many different ways of doing this. Michael Staton from Learn Capital put together this great graphic depicting how their firm sees the unbundling and rebuilding of education.
As examples, Guild partnered with companies & built training programs. Trilogy partnered with college brands & did coding bootcamp equivalents. Lambda School is the outlier here — they built something entirely outside the system. This is where we should be looking. (More on this here, by John Danner)
Interestingly, What's old is new again:
Homeschool: Before public schools, elite were homeschooled.
P2P learning: Before grades, there were one-room school houses where kids taught other kids.
Continuous learning: Apprenticeships used to be very common. Learning forever was the norm.
Fittingly then, I’ll close with this T.S. Elliot quote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Thanks to conversations with Dani Grant, John Danner, Michael Staton, Ray Batra, Will Houghtelling, David Perell, and James Currier that informed this piece
Read of the week: The Assault on American Excellence by Anthony Kronman
Watch of the week: Justin Murphy and Michael Millerman on their new course about Leo Strauss. I love the work Justin is doing with these courses.
Cosign of the week: Lyn Alden. Her blog and interviews are fantastic.