Indie EdTech: Future and Funding

Note: This post is 3 of 3 in a recap of the Indie EdTech Data Summit: The Personal API held at Davidson College. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

This part of the series is probably most fluid and evolving part of my thoughts on Indie. Ben Werdmüller of Known was kind enough to give everyone a very detailed walkthrough of how Known got start through the Matter startup accelerator. Matter was initially funded by the Knight Foundation and KQED to help usher in the next generation of media-focused startups. Matter gives startups (all who are accepted have a working prototype) $50k and require them to complete a 5-month accelerator program (longer than the normal 12-week schedule of Y-Combinator).

Why is this compelling? Silicon Valley is what it is because the requirements of venture capitalism. VCs are looking for quick and large returns on their investments so startups are incentivized to find money quickly, most of which comes through high growth and advertisement dollars. Targeted advertisement is only possible when data is harvested and monetized, which is why we have the web we have. Free = scale, data = advertisements. These do not mesh with the values of the education industry, but you see quickly why Coursera and Udacity are what they are. Matter is made up of entities from media that are interested in changing media for good. As Clay Shirky put it in 2009 (cited by Matter):

If the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for lots and lots of experiments.

It makes sense that a group higher education institutions would unite to support “lots and lots of experiments” around education technology that focus on the needs of teaching and learning rather than the needs of administration (where the bulk of IT money is funneled). But possibly rather than investing in one large behemoth solution (like edX), institutions can focus on more Indie solutions. These solutions are more niche and aren’t meant to broadly serve the needs of the entire institution (though let’s be honest–no tool is) like enterprise solutions. They are tools like SPLOT, Wikity, Reclaim Hosting, Known, Github, and to name a few.

Conversely, there are already plenty of good folks already in higher ed (see those listed above) who are building great tools that are adoptable by other schools and there may even be a greater need for that. Our community benefits most from a deep literacy embedded in our local institutions. We have to continue to educate our students, faculty, and staff to understand the complexities of both data and technology. One of the main ways to combat the notion that technology will usurp higher ed is to make sure everyone is knowledgeable about the affordances and freedom that technology can supply while also recognizing its real limitations. We can do this by creating (or supporting the creation of) tools that our communities can utilize to develop, manage, and better understand themselves and their identities. This is going to require a commitment towards education, development, and broad sharing of strategies and practices to the community.

The exact, right next step is fuzzy (more focused sessions designing along students is a must)–but the thought of what can be done if we can get some larger support behind the development of Indie EdTech feels promising at the moment, and I’m excited to see what lies ahead of this small but mighty movement.

Cover photo is by Didier Weemaels made available via the CC0 license on Unsplash.