Dear Education Entrepreneurs, Please Don’t Sell Sugar Water.

When recalling the pitch that got him to move from Pepsi to Apple Computers back in 1983, John Sculley said that it came down to a single question from Steve Jobs. “Do you want to sell sugar water the rest of your like or do you want to come me and change the world?” Lately, I’ve thought about this quote almost daily as I continue my research on entrepreneurial efforts and startups in the education sector. Edupreneurship is a hot topic and there is a fair amount of funding available for such efforts. That is because it is a 7 trillion dollar industry and there are tons of gaps to be filled, needs to be met, and opportunities to be pursued. Go to an education startup pitch fest and you may come across pitches that address the cost of college, the need for more useful data in the hands of teachers (or principals…or parents), the ability to personalize learning, solutions to address truancy, attempts to improve math and literacy, or hundreds of other topics.

But here is the question that I find myself asking each time I look at a new educational product or service. Is this company’s product or service more like selling sugar water or changing the world? I use Postman’s questions and several of my own.

  • “What is the problem to which this technology [product, or service] is the solution?”
  • “Who are the winners and who are the losers?”
  • Does it a address a real and important need?
  • Is there any valid and reliable research to substantiate the claims behind the problem? If there is not, does the company have an interest and/or commitment to figuring out the true benefits and limitations of the product?
  • Does this product or service hide or blur our ability to see, pursue, address, and invest in the important and more immediate needs for a given context?

Let’s get back to selling sugar water for a moment. What social good comes from selling such a beverage? Or what benefit is there for the consumer? I can’t think of one. Yes, it might be a big company that creates jobs for people and even uses some of the money to do good in the world. Yet, the base product is pretty much sugar water, and if you want something like that, there are plenty of tasty and healthier options. Is the world really a better place because of the benefits of sugar water? I realize that we could point our criticism at any number of other products in society, things that give us a bit of pleasure or enjoyment but are ultimately not very good for us. But when it comes to the education sector, it is too important of an industry to entertain the educational equivalent of selling sugar water.

I write this for the consumer as well as those businesses and innovators behind the growing number of educational products and services. As I’ve written elsewhere, the education sector is about social good. I fully support revenue generating products and services, but I hold them to a different standard in the education sector just as I would in a sector like healthcare. The consumers should demand that the products and services provide true value, and the companies opting to serve this sector have an obligation to work toward social good and substantive educational value.

So, to all the education businesses and startups… If you want to want to make money and don’t care about creating true value in society, please consider moving over to sugar water industry. For those of you in the education sector who want more than that…the more the merrier. Welcome to an industry committed to changing the world. Your effort is welcome and appreciated. If you’re ever in the Milwaukee area, look me up and I’ll gladly take you out for a sugar water…or another beverage of your preference.


Digital Badges & Academic Credentials for Homeschoolers

Homeschooling is one of the faster growing sectors in K-12 education today. As I’ve argued in the past, one of the reasons for this growth is the increased access to free and inexpensive communities and resources. We are no longer talking about a handful of curriculum providers. Open education resources, free learning resources and tools, and the constantly growing number of high-quality online learning communities are available at the click of a mouse (or the tap of a screen). For example, if you were homeschooling your sixteen year old son or daughter today in math, in less than a few hours of searching, you could find a dozen quality adaptive math software solutions, free online homeschool courses in math, MOOCs designed for high school students, several personalized learning math resources, along with access to affordable remote math tutors (some with impressive credentials in math, education, and/or real world accomplishments). As many homeschool families have discovered, there is no reason why a young person needs to be limited by the knowledge or expertise of the teacher…any teachers. There are resources available to help anyone from the struggling math student to the prodigy.

There is still a challenge (although far from an insurmountable barrier) for some who are considering homeschooling or currently engaged in it. I’m referring to obtaining credentials that are understandable and widely recognized evidence of homeschool student achievements. Homeschooling families address this challenge in several ways: using scores on standardized tests, issuing report cards from the home, creating transcripts or using a transcript service, creating portfolios that represent achievements, through a GED, through diplomas provided by a homeschool co-op, through partnerships with local independent schools that help with credentialing, and by enrolling students in some traditional or online courses that provide transcripts and credentials.

As with all things, each of these have their benefits and limitations; but I still stee gaps. What if there was a highly customizable, low-cost solution that provided grade reports, transcripts, diplomas and widely accepted academic credentials for homeschoolers (and others who wanted to provide evidence of student learning)? Now consider some of the things that I’ve been writing about with the potential of digital badges. Imagine a a largely open and democratic communities that specialized in creating and issuing digital badges based upon widely diverse academic programming, serving everyone from the unschooler to the classical education homeschool student. It could provide (but not require) benchmarks for progress and, when students demonstrate that they meet the benchmarks, the credentials are issued. I see the open badge infrastructure as being a useful framework for such a project, and we can expect to see this in the near future.

I realize that some homeschool families would not like this option, as they prefer full control within the home. Yet, there are many others who would see this as a relief and a solution to a an area that is still a struggle. Most homeschool families recognize the value of the learning in their homes/schools. Yet, there is some nervousness about how to provide evidence of that learning in a way that colleges, employers and others will easily understand it and recognize it. I think that digital badges (attached to more traditional formats like transcripts and diplomas) can help.

I’m considering launching an initiative to explore such a solution. What do you think?

3 Helpful Resources About Data-Driven Decisions in Education

Do you go to mechanics who try to fix your car without doing diagnostics?

What about doctors who give prescriptions or recommend surgeries without analyzing the health concern first?

Would you use a financial advisor who did not take the time to learn about your financial situation?

Or, what would you think of a consultant who didn’t take the time to ask questions and figure out your needs or the necessary boundaries for a project?

When some teachers hear the phrase data-driven decision-making, they instantly think of No Child Left Behind and, more often than not, that evokes a negative reaction. That is unfortunate because data-driven decision making is a powerful tool for teaching and learning and does not have anything to do with flaws of No Child Left Behind. Data-driven decision making is about making informed decisions that benefit learners. Are you interested? Here are three useful readings to get you started.

Data Driven Teachers – This article will introduce you to the concept of data-driven decision-making. It will provide you with a good foundation on the subject.

Making Sense of Data Driven Decision Making in Education – This article will give you a helpful framework for using data to make decisions in education.

10 Things You Always Wanted to Know About Data-Driven Decision Making – This is a solid introductory article on the subject.

6 Elements of Democratizing Education


to make (a country or organization) more democratic

: to make (something) available to all people : to make it possible for all people to understand (something)

Follow my blog long enough and you will see a few phrase that show up often. “Democratize” is one of them. When I use the term, I am referring to increasing access and opportunity to education in the broadest sense. It is a concept that has a long and rich history, but it has more recently been amplified by the affordances of an increasingly connected world. As I see it, there are five areas of education that are becoming increasingly democratized in the digital world, with a sixth one on the way, one that truly does have the potential to hold its own alongside traditional forms of education.

Democratizing Information & Knowledge

This one doesn’t require much explanation or evidence. Just look at GoogleWikipediaPinterestGoogle BooksProject Gutenberg, or a site like Forgotton Books (an online library that gives access to over 480,000 free books). If you have a device with Internet access today, then you information and knowledge about an immense number of topics. This democratizes education by providing the self-directed learner with content to study and from which to learn.

Democratizing Learning Resources

Sites like OER CommonsMIT Open CourseWareiTunes UYouTube, and Academic Earth, have gone a step further. They have democratized access to organized learning resources in the form of lectures, course content, and learning activities. This garnered significant attention starting in first ten years of the second millennium.

Democratizing Learning Networks

Then we have the increases in access to learning networks, people leveraging the power of the web to connect with other people and communities around the world. In fact, this goes back to the earliest days of the web. We have communities like Cafe Mocha, free language instruction by interacting with people around the world. More recently, we’ve seen the development of Google Helpouts, further democratizing access to experts and learning coaches from around the globe. Of course, we also have a three-decade history of largely accessible online groups, communities and networks that people use to learn about everything from cooking to computer programming, home repair to getting a job. As such, we have access to not only content and resources, but connections with people from whom we learn. Today we see this thriving in social media outlets like Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Democratizing Feedback for Learning

Within those communities, people have free access to interactive learning…gaining feedback, one of the most critical aspects of high-impact learning experiences. In addition to the communities, we also see the democratizing of learning feedback through initiatives like Khan AcademyCodeAcademy, and language apps like DuoLingo. It isn’t just content, but it is also detailed feedback on one’s learning progress.

Democratizing Courses

From all these, it is natural that we would see people blending these democratizing features into full courses. That is where we see the emergence of open courses, with the most recognizable ones being the many MOOCs on the web today (See the list of providers at the bottom of this post.).

Democratizing Credentials

These all contribute to the growing democratization of education. We have access to high quality content, learning communities, feedback on learning, even organized and facilitated online courses…free to anyone with a device, Internet access, and the skill to leverage them for one’s personal learning goals. Yet, there is another part to education that remains largely closed and controlled by more traditional learning and professional organizations, the credentialing of one’s learning. The democratization of learning credentials may well be a tipping point. As it stands, much of contemporary society uses diplomas, transcripts, and certifications as evidence of one’s learning. It is not a perfect system, and while there remains widespread social trust in these credentials, there are plenty of critics as well.

Now consider the emergence of democratizing credentials. Consider the possibility of open badges becoming increasingly accepted evidence of one’s learning through the other democratized elements above. Think about efforts like, resources that allow you to provide evidence of your learning and share it with others. Consider the tracking and documentation of learning in some of the resources already mentioned like Khan Academy and Code Academy.

We do not live in a time when the public widely recognizes credentials from Code Academy, Coursera, or self-study through Academy Earth as having the same value as a degree from an accredited University, but we do see alternative credentials gaining recognition. People are earning new jobs, gaining access to Universities, even procuring social recognition and influence by using alternate evidence of learning from democratized resources. And as the number of such people grows, so will the perceived value of alternates to traditional credentials. I do not expect to see these alternates as necessarily replacing traditional credentials, but I do envision a time in the near future where democratized credentials become a from of academic currency that holds significant value in society. I see a day when democratized credentials will allow more people to gain admission to careers and social groups that are currently only open to those with an A.A., B.A., or M.A. Or, we are likely to see a growing number of alternative credentialing system that can lead to obtaining a degree (as we already see in competency-base education and prior learning assessments).