Over the past several years, I’ve devoted much of my research to understanding entrepreneurial and innovative endeavors in the education sector. I’ve followed educational technology startups, emerging educational consulting firms and services, new forms of schooling (game-based, project-based, self-directed, personalized learning, etc.), the growth in Massive Open Online Courses, the continually growing movement toward blended learning, BYOD schools, and other types of one-to-one programs. In many of these efforts there is an entrepreneurial spirit at work. There is a drive to create, influence, improve, innovative, design, and help. The motives seem as diverse as the people initiating these efforts. As I often point out, we are living in the Wild West era of education. Regardless of one’s assessment of the current state of education, these are interesting times.
We called it the Wild West for a reason. There was risk, uncertainty, exploration, conquest, adventure, the shaping of new communities, and no small amount of merging (and sometimes clashing) passions and values. Rules were challenged, broken, or sometimes seemingly absent. I see similar characteristics in the experimentation and expansion of education today. However, the Wild West was not a blank slate. It was not as if every frontiersman abandoned all prior beliefs and values. Some beliefs and values changed or were challenged, but others continued to serve as guides in these new adventures. I contend that this is good and important. Beliefs and values matter, and if educational entrepreneurs are the frontier people of this digital age, then I suggest that we strive to maintain a few ground rules. Here are five to get us started. I propose this as a discussion starter for what I like to think of as “The Educational Entrepreneur’s Code.”
1) Pursue Social Good – Educational entrepreneurship is a sub-category of social entrepreneurship. While profit and financial goals are not bad, social entrepreneurship is distinct in the fact that it is about addressing social needs, problems, challenges, and opportunities. It is about pursuing social good. When it comes to building partnerships with educational entrepreneurs and merging educational businesses; educators, learners, parents, and learning organizations must all hold such organizations accountable. If they choose to do business in the education sector, then I argue that they also be held to a high standard. Challenge these organizations to articulate their mission and how they see their products and services as providing social good. And you you lead such an organization, make this a personal standard.
2) Be Informed About Educational Research – Can you imagine a pharmaceutical company creating medical products without hiring and consulting with researchers and/or experts? Similarly, I contend that companies and consultants serving in the education sector must strive to at least be informed about current and emerging research in the field of education (Quick Aside: I could say the same thing about educators and leaders of educational organizations. Unfortunately, I meet some educators and leaders who spend little to no time staying informed about current and emerging research.). Consulting and hiring experts in the field certainly helps as well. Consider companies that promote educational software that promises to enhance learning and improve brain function. There is a huge difference between such products on the market. Some consult with and even have a staff of educational psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators. Others just use the word “brain” as a great marketing tool, but with no actual insight into the research. We need more of the former.
3) Keep Student Learning and Benefit as a Core Value – Anyone in the field of education knows that it can be political. However, the reason that learning organizations exist is to help students learn. All educational companies and consultants should commit to designing products and services that ultimately benefit learners. If it is a product for teachers, then how does it help teachers help students? If it is a for a schools or district, how does the service or product help promote a chain reaction of events that eventually leads to improved conditions, services, or learning for students? In fact, this might even mean choosing to not provide a particular service as much as it is requested unless the company develops a clear vision for how this ultimately benefits students. Similarly, it is easy to create products that ride on the tails of the lastest policy or regulation. This isn’t always bad, but in a social entrepreneurial endeavor, this still calls for developing a clear understanding of how the product and service will get at real and significant benefits for learners.
Innovation sometimes involves risk, but ethical practices demand that we persistently strive to minimize risk to the end users. In this case, the end user is the learner. First do no harm. This requires considering the potential affordances and limitations of a given product or service.
4) Be Transparent and Avoid the Dishonest Hard Sell – This refers to financial transparency, but even more importantly, transparency about the limits and benefits of a product or service. It can be tempting to create a marketing plan that makes a product or service seem like it should belong in the top ten list of most important elements of a person’s education, but that is rarely the case. I’ve even seen marketing campaigns for educational products and services that seek to sell by conjuring guilt or fear. We don’t need this any more than we need educational products that are sold to make you feel cool or trendy. We need things that truly benefit learners. We need educators and educational leaders who are given the time, resources, and respect to weigh their options and choose what is best for their organization and the learners in that organization. Ethical educational entrepreneurs strive to do this, and they do not seek to sell at all costs. This goes for schools as well. I’ve yet to find a school that is a great fit for every student. As a result, be honest about what your school does well and doesn’t do well.
5) Contribute to an Open and Collaborative Educational Ecosystem – As noted in the first statement, to do business in the education sector is to be part of the educational system, and it calls for a shared commitment to the pursuit of social good. Yes, businesses compete with one another. Schools sometimes compete each other. However, the end goal of education is not financial gain. Every organization that chooses to do business in the field of education is part of that field and has the opportunity to contribute to an overall ecosystem of products, services, and organizations that, as much as possible, looks for win-win solutions that ultimately benefit the learners. There are wonderful examples of this in startup communities around the world, in the open source movement, and as shown by emerging partnerships between and among diverse learning organizations.