Over the last 15 years, our fine city has become a hotbed of technology innovation, with internet startup companies sprouting up and receiving funding at an ever-increasing rate. Many of our homegrown companies have succeeded in disrupting major industries – from media to commerce, from discovery of new forms of entertainment (e.g. online games) to finding a new job.

Recently, there has been a new wave of startups aimed at an industry that has not yet been disrupted. These companies – some of which already employ hundreds of people, others of which are two guys in a studio apartment – are striving to bring real innovation into a lethargic, but truly critical market – education. It is an area often referred to as “EdTech,” the application of new technologies to Education. Watching entrepreneurs focus on transforming education is thrilling and they should be applauded for doing so. Yet most of these EdTech startups are going to fail – at rates higher than others in the risky startup ecosystem – unless they can learn from the past and work collaboratively with experts in the field they are entering.

This burst of EdTech startups rides a wave of excitement driven by the belief that “now is education’s internet moment.” Confidence comes from the application of new capabilities such as mobility enabled by wireless devices, 24/7 access, social interaction for collaborative learning, great digital content, engaging user experiences, and the ability to collect and analyze tremendous amounts of data, which, it is hoped, can bring about transformational change, thereby solving long-standing problems of teaching and learning.

However, before we get too carried away, let us remember that the potential of technology to improve education has disappointed us several times over the past few decades, starting with the enthusiasm for radio broadcasts of educational programs in the 30s and 40s, to television in the 50s, to renewed attempts to enable distance education (60s), and then computers (80s), followed by laptops (90s) in schools – all examples in which the application of new technology did not deliver hoped-for dramatic improvements. Now, we look to digital technology, particularly online instruction, to drive a revolution that will enable advances such as personalized instruction from the “best” lecturers and achieve long sought after goals, such as engaging underachieving learners, perhaps even at substantially reduced costs.

I don’t bring up these past disappointments to be cynical. Rather, I believe those experiences are critical to review again now so as to learn from past mis-steps. Online learning can be game-changing, but only if all involved parties – entrepreneurial technologists, teachers, education researchers, parents, and students – are brought into the product development process. Communication, feedback, and iteration must be encouraged. Technologists cannot hope to crack this code by working in isolation – they need to make themselves aware of great work done by researchers and incorporate deep experience accumulated by teachers – and researchers and teachers need to be open to consider new approaches. Entrepreneurs (and the investors that fund them) are going to have to demonstrate determination and passion, because these enduring problems are not going to be solved overnight. We all need to realize that technology alone is not going to make a weak teacher productive, but we can hope that a great teacher armed with beneficial technology can become extraordinary. I guarantee you that delivering video streams of the world’s greatest teachers is not going to be the answer – not by itself, not for every student – it is going to take more thinking, testing, and refining. In short, EdTech entrepreneurs, when developing their products and services, must strive to understand how students – from high, self-driven achievers, to those who struggle, become disaffected and underachieve – truly learn. Only then, will they have a chance at facilitating substantial success in improving educational outcomes.

Good luck – what you are doing is meaningful and your success is critically important – we are all cheering for you.

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