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ASU+GSV has become edtech’s largest industry-facing conference. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

SAN DIEGO — After several years of waiting for the K-12 market to grow faster, and a couple of years getting schooled in higher education, education technology investors seem to have decided edtech’s future is the workplace. At least that’s the sense of what has become the largest industry-facing edtech conference, ASU+GSV Summit.

Co-presented by Arizona State University and the investment firm Global Silicon Valley (GSV), it attracted more than 4,100 venture capitalists, company executives, startup entrepreneurs and others to San Diego this week.

ASU+GSV outgrew the original Phoenix-area venue where it began in 2010. Now, it’s at least five times larger than the peak attendance of more modest, long-running edtech industry conferences that preceded it, such as EdNET or those hosted by the Software and Information Industry Association. But ASU+GSV’s rise mirrored, and likely influenced, the general investment rush to edtech early this decade.

And ASU+GSV Summit is a flashy, loud beast, perhaps as befits the venture investors and industry CEOs it courts.

Microsoft exhibits in and “powers” the GSV Futurelab. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Its keynote sessions sported celebrities, both from politics (George W. Bush, Vicente Fox) and entertainment (John Legend, Matthew McConaughey). Elaborate lighting and frenetic screen countdowns were accompanied by sound effects and drama suitable for Legend’s recent television rock opera performance.

But go behind the heavily produced glitz that entices execs to pony up $1,500-plus per ticket, and you’ll find trends and refreshingly PowerPoint-free talk that may show where edtech, and the money that funds its companies, is going.

No one person can see or even sample everything at an event so large, with so many simultaneous programming tracks. Consider this a series of peeks into windows displaying what those with money are being told will be opportunity worth a look.

Workplace virtual training

An emphasis on training the workforce, both current employees and future, was evident throughout ASU+GSV. It seemed to outshine earlier years’ emphases on disrupting the K-12 classroom (perhaps students do that well enough now) or completely upending college as we know it (MOOCs, or massively open online courses, are now corporate training tools, too). An entire programming track was focused on “talent,” including human resources, recruiting, and staff education.

Center to right: Microsoft’s Ayoub, STRIVR’s Belch, Oculus’ Tran. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

In a session titled, “Mixed Reality: Can AR/VR Transform Enterprise Learning,” Dan Ayoub, Microsoft’s general manager of mixed reality and education, said that Microsoft HoloLens is skewing toward universities and the enterprise so far. Part of its appeal, he said, is that HoloLens has a front-facing camera that allows a remote expert to evaluate how the wearer is doing.

Ayoub added that universities are also picking HoloLens up for training medical students. “Cadavers are quite expensive, as I’ve heard,” he said.

Derek Belch, CEO of ‎STRIVR Labs, talked about the work his company does with virtual reality for WalMart, noting that 70 percent of trainees who used VR did better than those who did not. He also described how STRIVR was able to put what had been a three-hour lecture into a 12-minute VR experience for an insurance company, and found retention of the training material was about the same.

Both Belch and Tina Tran, head of educational VR content for Facebook-owned Oculus, expressed enthusiasm for Oculus’ soon-to-be-released $200 Oculus Go headset and anticipated it would make VR more affordable for more organizations.

But Tran said, “What’s missing also is the ‘killer app'” for VR that one comes back to again and again, outside of games. One possibility she suggested: VR experiences for meditation, which could help calm both students and call center employees.

Amazon’s Ramona Pierson on improving employee learning. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Amazon for employees & entrepreneurs

Amazon had a three-pronged presence at ASU+GSV: one each for employees, education administrators, and entrepreneurs.

Ramona Pierson, the founder of startups SynapticMash and Declara who recently joined Amazon as its director of learning products for HR leadership & development, spoke about creating “a new operating system for learning.” Noting that these are concepts she’s been developing since SynapticMash, Pierson described her vision of using consistent metadata about learning content to better personalize workplace training.

While Pierson said she was focused on building learning tools for Amazon’s own staff, audience members asked whether Amazon will sell those learning products to others or launch an online learning business. Pierson kept coming back to the worthy challenge of her work within Amazon. “It’s like building for multiple companies,” she said.

Amazon’s nod to K-12 at the conference sessions came in the unsexy area of school district procurement processes. In a panel on decentralizing how U.S. schools buy an estimated $700 billion of stuff each year, Daniel Smith, general manager for the education division of Amazon Business, said, “One of the ways I think we can help is by getting Amazon out of the way.”

Amazon touted AWS in its well-positioned booth. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

He spoke of Amazon trying to provide a “Kindle-like” experience for procurement, in which the complicated process disappears into the background of simply buying. Just as Amazon Web Services provides platform-as-a-service, Smith said, “We are providing bureaucracy-as-a-service.”

One edtech opportunity Amazon Business sees? “How … you create a conduit for innovative products,” that are from startups, or companies not at scale, and he cited the Amazon Launchpad program as an example.

Amazon also had a booth directly outside the ASU+GSV keynote room, promoting both Amazon Web Services in general, and its AWS EdStart program for getting edtech startups on the AWS cloud.

Overall, Amazon’s presence was about extensions of its initiatives into education versus any education-only Amazon businesses. There was no mention of Amazon’s TenMarks K-12 business which it recently announced it would be shutting down.

Standing room only for the personalized learning panel. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Regrets and realities

The sessions with the most heft wrestled with tough education and business issues of today. Some even had a mea-culpa-like tone that one might expect in a politician’s or CEO’s apology tour.

Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify, made the case that “personalized learning” in K-12 has been oversold, and part of that over-optimism came from long-time adherents like himself, especially when the subjects strayed beyond early reading and math.

“I think we’ve done a lot of investing in the kinds of personalization that computers are good at,” he said. But Berger said more investment is needed in the kind of personalization that teachers are good at, and that’s one reason why personalized learning programs have not been huge market successes.

On the promise of a flat-fee, easy-to-use, all-you-can-eat model for digital college course materials and textbooks (under the hopeful session title of, “Is The ‘Netflix of Higher Ed’ Finally Here?”), the answer from a panel of industry CEOs was pretty much no, not yet.

Brian Napack, president and CEO of John Wiley & Sons, said, “I don’t think there’s a tipping point because our market doesn’t behave like a consumer market … there are too many gatekeepers along the way.”

And too many incompatible content formats and technology platforms from multiple companies. “If we can get all these bloody things to work together, then I think we’d be in a good position,” Napack said. “What’s missing here is that seamless web of an environment.”

DreamBox’s Jessie Woolley-Wilson and Emerson’s Arne Duncan. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

The best of the keynotes also addressed the difficulties and served a framing purpose: Edtech is not the entire universe of educational experience, it’s part of that universe.

Take the thoughtful on-stage conversation between DreamBox Learning Chair and CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson and former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (now managing partner of Emerson Collective, which invests in startups). Woolley-Wilson and Duncan discussed race, equity, gun violence, and political extremism — everything except education technology.

The implication was understated, but clear: This is the context in which the industry, as well as any tech used by educators and their students, has to operate.

Still, ASU+GSV tended more toward the opportunities of the future than the challenges of the present. But if one listened carefully and intelligently, those challenges were in there, between enthusiastic cheers punctuated by dollar signs.

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