Brilliant: The Science of Smart

Can Education Entrepreneurs Do Well And Do Good?

Business and education don't always mix, but a new generation of edupreneurs is responding to genuine needs in the classroom in ways big companies haven't

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The history of for-profit educational ventures has not been pretty. Online colleges like the University of Phoenix have come under state and federal investigation for potentially exploitative and fraudulent practices. Kaplan University has had to defend itself against claims that it preys on the vulnerabilities of the down and desperate; its own training manual advised recruiters to use prospective students’ “pain and fears” to get them to enroll. And who can forget Chris Whittle and his ill-fated Edison Schools, as well as the commercial-filled classroom broadcasts provided by Whittle’s Channel One News?

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There’s ample reason, then, to cast a jaded eye on the new generation of edupreneurs — young, tech-savvy innovators who have begun producing products for America’s enormous education market. But a closer look reveals that many of these business owners pair a desire to prosper financially with a genuine sense of mission. They aim to “disrupt” education in productive ways, to introduce tools that will transform the way we learn just as other technologies have transformed the way we work, the way we communicate and the way we entertain ourselves. Unlike the giant Kaplan Corporation or the wealthy Whittle who built entire school systems, these entrepreneurs are often running a one-man operation out of a garage or spare bedroom. They include former (and current) teachers, tutors, school administrators and parents — people whose interest in education goes much deeper than making a buck. They’re not all clustered in Silicon Valley or downtown Manhattan, either; you may have an edupreneur living next door.

I do. Well, three doors down — close enough for someone with a good arm to throw a football from my stoop to Trey Billings’s front yard. When Billings graduated from Cornell University in 1997, he planned to put his psychology degree to work in the public schools, and for several years he worked for the school district in New Haven, Conn., the city where we both live. Billings found himself frustrated by the outdated equipment and institutional inertia he encountered there, however, and he left to co-found a tutoring firm — the first of several education-related business ventures.

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His next company got its start when one of his tutors, a Yale University math and physics double-major named Eli Luberoff, wondered one wintry night why he had to leave the warmth of his dorm room to teach. Enter Tutor Trove — a web-based interactive whiteboard that allows tutor and student to work together in real time, a few miles or (it’s envisioned) a few continents apart. So appealing was the technology designed by Billings and Luberoff that teachers were soon asking for a classroom version. The business made a pivot, in software-company terms, and became Desmos — “one of the best new education startups of 2011,” in the opinion of ed-tech journalist Audrey Watters. The interactive software company’s most popular product is one that doesn’t cost anything at all: a free web-based graphing calculator, with features more sophisticated than the Texas Instruments model that parents have been buying their kids for decades.

Billings is aware that the idea of profiting from education makes some people uncomfortable — but, he says, “no one goes into ed-tech to get rich. If that’s what we wanted, we’d go work for Google.” Instead, he says, he and his compatriots want “to change the world, and be rewarded for doing it.” There’s an esprit de corps among this generation of educational entrepreneurs, a group that includes Nic Borg and Jeff O’Hara of Edmodo, Chris Sprague and Ashwin Ram of Open Study and Pooja Nath of Piazza. Their companies, nimble, flexible and fast-moving, can respond to the genuine needs of students and teachers in ways that the big educational software, hardware and publishing companies often haven’t.

My guess is that more educational innovations will be coming soon from a garage near you.

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