Thursday, December 27, 2012

Why Blended Charter Schools are "Whales" in the ed institutional context...

My past few posts, I've painted a pretty grim picture of what it takes to sell to schools and districts.  I want to take a moment just to answer the question "But hey, Rocketship doesn't act that way, you work with a ton of companies, you pay for products, etc."  It's actually taken us a surprisingly long time to figure out just how different we are.

The fundamental reason we are different is that we are completely comfortable with the idea that we will use the best method for every type of learning for every student.  What this nets out to for edtech is that if there is a program on which students learn certain concepts faster than with a tutor or from a teacher, we are overjoyed for them to learn that online.  The efficiency of online learning (i.e. its cheaper per minute of learning time) allows us to redirect resources to pay teachers more, support them better, and put even more effort into the code we write to understand our students better.  Because we are incredibly incented to allow students to learn as efficiently and effectively as possible, every time we can use edtech, the cost of that program is insignificant on a learning per minute basis compared to our other options.

So while traditional schools often having no budget line for edtech and having to steal money from their curricula line item, any serious blended school has a budget line for edtech.  Ours is $100/student.  Before your mouth starts watering too much, that $100 gets cut up among dozens of programs for assessment, instruction, scheduling, etc.  So it's not a goldmine, but the point is that we have a line item.  That means when you come to us with something good and we test it and it works, we want to buy it just as much as you want to sell it.

Compare this behavior with traditional schools.  Traditional schools are not agnostic about learning methods.  In general, they believe that a teacher with their class of students is the one and only best learning approach.  If they happen to have computers in that classroom, the number of kids learning on those computers has nothing to do with the number of students that teacher can impact.  So economically at least, they are disincented from purchasing technology.  The school has already sunk the cost on its teacher salaries, and providing better online learning might be nice for the teachers, but since the perspective is that learning comes only by teachers teaching, the technology is just an afterthought.

So that's basically how blended schools are different.  For many years, we implored vendors to build things for us and we convinced quite a few.  What we've realized is that we aren't a very big market yet.  Even within the charter sector, blended schools have only started to take off, there are probably fewer than 100 truly blended charters at this point.  And on the district side, I have not seen a district make labor trade-offs yet, meaning that technology is not strategic, just a support for the teacher doing everything themselves.  So a market of 100 schools with maybe 50,000 students is not nearly big enough to build a company around.  How quickly does this change?  My guess is that within the charter sector, this begins to change extremely rapidly (for our world), but nowhere near fast enough to worry about for the next decade.  I would not be surprised to see 1000 blended schools in a decade, representing 500,000 students.  If you had a great product and could charge $5/student, that would be $2.5M in revenue.  Not so good.  Outside of the charter market, is there a chance that things flip over quickly to blended and we see edtech become strategic?  I'm usually pretty optimistic that change can happen, but unfortunately this goes right at one of the sacred cows in education - that only a teacher can provide the learning a child needs.  There are many forces between unions and districts and school boards that will be very reluctant to rethink this belief. Even when Rocketship and other blended schools are getting 2X the learning for kids and 2X the salaries and job satisfaction for teachers, I think those institutional changes at traditional schools in district will be painful and slow.

Higher ed is a really good analogy here.  The new wave of online higher ed companies like Udacity are going directly to students (for free!).  While there may be some universities that get it and will be able to address the needs of students as well with a blended model (EdX from MIT and Harvard for example), the vast majority will not make the transition and there will be a new way that students learn after high school.  This undoubtedly will make access to quality courses much higher and create a lot more equity than anything we could do physically (absolutely everyone is going to have a smartphone before the traditional institutions get on board).

So as a K12 edtech entrepreneur, I think that if you make the student your customer, you are in good shape.  Schools like Rocketship will be great ways to validate and test products and we are happy to do it, but ultimately, you are going to make your money by doing a great job with the students themselves and we are just a channel to the student.

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