Tech accelerators are bringing learning into the 21st century

Tech accelerators can help bridge the gap between the classrooms of yore and the connected classrooms of the future.
Tech accelerators can help bridge the gap between the classrooms of yore and the connected classrooms of the future.
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Educators today know more than ever about the way children learn. But in most classrooms, the tools for teaching have scarcely changed in 100 years. A growing group of education technology startups are focused on bringing learning into the 21st century, but they face challenges other startups don’t, delaying delivery of innovations that schools need, and ultimately hurting teachers and students who could benefit most.

The problem isn’t engineering, but going to market. The process of trying, buying, and using education products works far differently than in the worlds of business or consumer technology, and requires a more specialized strategy.

To meet the needs of these startups, a handful of cutting-edge corporate accelerators have begun to emerge, offering access to engineering support, funding, and guidance from teachers and administrators. Last year, AT&T founded one of the biggest of these accelerators, a national ed-tech venture program called AT&T Aspire Accelerator, part of the company’s $350 million commitment to education. It joins programs like LearnLaunch and EDGE in a burgeoning private sector-led effort to create space for education innovators outside the normal startup ecosystem.

For entrepreneurs, these accelerators meet mission-critical needs. Startup capital can be hard to come by, especially for non-profits or B-corporations who don’t measure their impact in dollars. Mentorship for these young companies is just as scarce, because even the most tenured teachers and administrators have only partial visibility into how the educational system works at scale. District-level procurement of textbooks, teaching resources, and technology can work differently from state to state, forcing startups to engage in numerous far-flung pilot programs to ensure they’ll be usable everywhere. 

Despite the obstacles, technology does hold promise for educators, thanks in large part to the rapid proliferation of mobile devices. Many students today have access to a smartphone or tablet, providing a perfect channel for educators to engage them, whether at school or in homework. By using the very same software interfaces that students have mastered in their personal lives, ed-tech developers can build increasingly sophisticated learning experiences without the need to train students on how to use them. There’s an accessibility advantage, too: since all major mobile device platforms have built-in support for hearing, learning, or visually-impaired students, developers don’t have to do extra work to include everyone.

The future for ed-tech is still uncertain, despite its promise. Schools that lack digital expertise may hold back procurement in fear of wasting money on bad tech; entrepreneurs may give up if they don’t find funding and mentorship. If educators and technologists aren’t given a space to collaborate—free from budgetary pressure and revenue metrics—advanced new teaching methods may develop too slowly, leaving an entire generation of students at a disadvantage.

Unlike most other accelerators, AT&T Aspire places primacy on societal impact, not monetary return, and even makes special provisions for startups targeted at keeping students in school. It also provides startups with more capital than a typical accelerator program, giving entrepreneurs more runway to tackle the complexities of working within the school system. For 2016, the accelerator has doubled its initial investment size, deploying $100,000 per startup.

If accelerators like Aspire proliferate, startups in the education space will have the chance to sweep away antiquated teaching methods and replace them with tools that enfranchise students in their own education—leaving them confident as they approach standardized tests, college exams, entry-level job applications, and gratifying careers.

This article was produced on behalf of AT&T by the Quartz marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.