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It’s been a most-frenzied spring of conferences in the new hotbed of startup and investor tech opportunity, education technology. And “frenzied” isn’t too strong of a description.

At one point in early May, three different edtech conferences overlapped in the San Francisco Bay Area in the same week: NewSchools Venture Fund’s invitation-only NewSchools Summit, the Software and Information Industry Association’s annual Education Industry Summit, and the U.S. Office of Education Technology’s Future Ready Summit.

Coming on the heels of other high-elevation edtech events with record crowds (Austin’s festival-like SXSWedu in March, and Scottsdale’s Burning-Man-for-investors ASU+GSV Summit in April), it’s no wonder attendees are all left gasping as the seasonal climb nears its end. It makes no difference if one is in industry, policy, funding or teaching, or focuses on K-12 schools, higher education, or lifelong learning. By the time summer arrives, everyone is dazed and confused, and only part of it is altitude sickness.

Lightning round at SIIA Education Industry Summit
Lightning round at SIIA Education Industry Summit (Image: Jim Rosso)

It’s with the confused part that I may be able to help.

At two of the events – SXSWedu and SIIA – I hosted lightning rounds of education executives giving their quick, three-to-five year assessment of hot .edu topics to help determine their current status and better define their trajectory. The first had top execs of major education materials providers Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; the second had a long-time investor, an industry association head, and a content company executive. Then layer on the common element of a seasoned, sardonic analyst parsing responses and looking at actual data, too.

The result? If you’re an old hand, new to the industry, or just want to understand what all the self-described cool kids are abbreviating (education does so love its jargon), here is your highly opinionated cheat sheet to ten trends, fads, and inexplicable WTFs of edtech, spring 2015 edition.


Freemium is better
Freemium is better (Image:

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement: Encouraging students to bring their own laptops, tablets, and even smartphones to school to help get to 1:1 computing (that is, every student has a device) faster than relying solely on school-issued devices. A strong trend, more so at the high school level where many students are more likely to already own a mobile device. Big drivers are the move to digital materials and strained school budgets; challenges are network security and equity for students who don’t have devices or broadband access at home.

Open Educational Resources (OER): Creating digital instructional materials that teachers are free to use, change, and share. A moderate trend, propelled by foundation and government money and pockets of highly motivated educators who develop the resources on their own time, or on school time as part of an institutional effort. Appeal is, well, the free part (except labor); a challenge is maintaining OER over time and getting the resources to combine neatly with other digital content a school may already have purchased.

Freemium: Products or services that have a useful version that is free forever, with an upsell for more scale (say, from individual classroom to school district level) or for more features. A strong trend that has its roots in the long-time concept of consumer or business freeware or shareware, brought to education by savvy startups either wholly aimed at schools (Schoology) or that crossed over from consumer (Evernote). Once considered a fad, freemium moved to trend after some school districts stopped resisting the idea that teachers could identify, try, and recommend good products – and bought.

Sal Khan
Sal Khan

Flipped classrooms: Assigning video lectures or other basic instruction as digital “homework,” leaving class time open for discussion, hands-on practice and interaction. A weak trend if you stop with the model popularized by edtech celeb Sal Khan of the Khan Academy, but a strong one if you realize the analog humanities have always had flipped classrooms (they called it “assigned reading”). Now it’s gone digital, and it works for more subjects.

Student data privacy: Protecting digital student data through security, policy, and practice as consumer apps enter the classroom and pieces of the data persist across 12, or even 20, years of formal education. A moderate trend if you go with the training-wheels (but important starting point) Student Privacy Pledge signed by 140 companies. But much stronger when you add in proposed federal legislation and overdue updates to laws like FERPA (look it up, as your teacher may have once scolded).

Bubble memories

Edtech investment bubble: Too much investor money chasing too many similar or bad ideas (for reference, see “dot-com era” and a cute mascot). It’s a strong trend. While the total amount of venture investment in edtech pales by comparison to, say, a single Uber, stupid money appears to be tripping over smart to get in on action and into a market they don’t fully understand. The debate isn’t about whether there is a bubble; it’s whether the bubble is limited to certain segments or is over-inflating all of education technology equally. Unless you’re asking an investor benefiting from inflated values – then it’s all about the kids. Greater fools may abound.


Going 100 percent digital: Replacing everything a student touches, from instructional materials to tests, with digital equivalents. Works great in a world of unlimited bandwidth, perfectly reliable devices, and totally flexible and intuitive software. Oh, and lots of money. This has been attempted in a few perfect-world school districts in the U.S., or where mandated (and funded) by top-down education ministries in other countries. But in much of the messy, unequal, real world, it’s still easier and more common for teachers to do a pop quiz on paper or to ensure educational equity by simply sending home a paperback copy of Shakespeare.

Coding classes and camps: From CoderDojo and to many more, one hour, one weekend, or after-school efforts to get kids to learn computer programming languages to develop logical thinking and STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) skills. We’re in the middle of an if-then bubble. But the ultimate result will likely be non-binary and more trend than fad, as groups like hope: More recognition of computer science, which is far broader and deeper than coding, as a legitimate part of the K-12 curriculum.


Not everyone seems to need no … never mind

Open Badges: Portable digital graphics with embedded data that represent a skill or achievement and can be easily and securely shared by the earner, then confirmed by an institution or employer, as micro-credentials. Launched by the Mozilla Foundation, Open Badges have failed to take off in K-12 schools as much more than digital gold stars for motivation – there’s far more (albeit still nascent) traction in higher education and professional certification where “chunking” and “stacking” individual accomplishments into, say, a degree or resume is better understood. Open Badges in schools may be facing a classic chicken-or-egg problem. Or districts too chicken to try something this new.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses): Free classes held online at huge scale that are open to anyone. After a burst of success with computer science topics, companies trying to monetize MOOCs have conveniently begun dropping words from the acronym, mostly “massive” (limiting enrollment to a specific institution or company) and “open” (by charging to take part). While MOOCs haven’t been the harbinger of traditional higher education’s doom that some had gleefully predicted, they have succeeded in attracting students of every age to learn more about parts of classes that interest them, and shone a light on the potential of the remaining two words: “online courses.”

With careful study, this cheat sheet of education technology developments and their near-term outlook should make that next education meetup, pitchfest, or conference far more understandable, if not tolerable. Because there will be a test. In education, there always is.

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