In a recent article on TNW, Chikodi Chima pointed out that the next big thing in Silicon Valley will be a startup Gold Rush around education. Why the sudden interest? Well…

The educational pie is enormous, and anyone who can get his or her hands on even a small slice can expect to reap huge returns.

Silicon Valley has the reputation of being the pinnacle of technological innovation. Start-up founders all around the world seek to model their businesses and they way they present and talk about what they do after the great Fountainhead of Silicon Valley. (Yes, Ayn Rand is also very popular there. But that’s a different story.)

The past has shown that Silicon Valley knows how to make technology and money.

With such a concentration of brilliant minds already in Silicon Valley, and with the potential upside so clear, expect a new California Gold Rush to begin soon, one we hope will last for decades.

Only now, it’s about “education”.

A Million Dollars is Not Cool. You Know What’s Cool? A Godzillion!!!

Hermione Way interviewed around 200 startups in Silicon Valley and what she found out is all but glamorous:

  • productization of entrepeneurship

Start-ups aren’t garage-projects that get discovered and become hugely successful because they’re so awesome. Instead, they are manufactured and this process is streamlined into a lucrative conveyor-belt sequence by organizations like Y Combinator that promise young entrepreneurs fast success through injections of money upon entering their program. But the focus is not building quality first and then to monetize. Instead, founders are urged to “quickly exit or IPO”.

  • monopoly-game of user-stats and investors

Way describes how at a barbecue with Y Combinator graduates topic #1 is numbers. (Hey, these are geeks after all.) But not complex mathematical formulas obsessed about for their sheer complexity. No, more as in business numbers: investments, customers (sign-ups), growth-rates. It’s like a big monopoly game: Who makes the most money the quickest by building something up and exiting!

  • no real world solution

Another thing that Way found is that almost none of the startups she interviewed are dealing with solving real-world problems:

all these highly intelligent, well educated youngsters, many of whom have been educated in the best universities in the world (Stanford, Yale and Harvard) are not putting their brains to good use by solving real-world problems. Instead they’re building technology to solve trivial issues – like apps that show where to spot your nearest tofu cupcake and share it with your friends.

Way goes on to defend these privileged youngsters by saying that maybe they just don’t have enough exposure to real-world problems and therefore can’t be blamed if they produce one fad after the other: after all, this is what customers want, right?

The Unlikely Pair Of Geeks and Social Skills

The term “geek” has become so fashionable today (yes, it wasn’t always like that) that people wear it with pride. Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, and, yes a geek is a person who is eccentrically devoted to a particular, often highly specialized topic but is also “socially inept”!

Why do we pride ourselves on being socially inept?

In a culture of geeks, of course – noone will feel awkward, because everybody is.

Nevertheless, the geek is not famous for his soft skills. Instead, he’s famed for (mostly left-brained) skills such as working with numbers.

Now, take this social awkwardness together with an obsession with numbers and let it loose on the Monopoly board of Silicon Valley, competing for investments.

This is the mix that is preparing for the Gold Rush in online education.

What is somewhat ironic about this is that some of these founders of supposedly “game-changing education startups” are actually perpetuating the old education system’s notions that they claim to supersede.

How is that, you ask?

Fast-Food Education And The Same Old Same Old

Lured by the bait of huge ROIs, startups and investors are outdoing each other to create “educational” startups, each claiming to usher in the “Education Revolution”.

First of all there is the problem a questionable primarily money-based approach to education, but since that’s obvious, let’s leave it aside.

The real problem here is that education can not be revolutionized through quantification. (More knowledge, more access, more textbooks, more iPads don’t automatically equate with better education.)

It is the same mistake offline education has been doing for decades and in this way most online learning startups are all but new: Education is understood as an acquisition of quantifiable knowledge and the ability to reproduce when called (or tested) for.

Hard skills rule over soft skills. Results over process. This is nothing new.

But maybe there is no magical one-click solution to education… What if it is a long process which involves all of our dedicated human (!) faculties and never really ends?

A genuine “education revolution” would challenge the assumptions we have as to what learning means in an age where knowledge and information are more and more outsourced to machines.

But does Silicon Valley have a long enough breath for that?

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