DAILY INSIGHT: Are we about to experience an ed tech bubble?

By Carl Hooker, CIO Advisor

In the late '90s to around 2001, the Internet boom was on. Venture capitalists were experiencing meteoric rises in revenue and stock prices because the Internet was taking off all over the world. It seemed that this new avenue of commerce was as close to a “can’t lose” scenario when it came to investment. Back then, companies were funded on the idea that “growth of profits” would rule the day in this new economy.

Well, I’m here to tell you I see another bubble coming and this one is in the Ed Tech market. I don’t have any hard evidence to support this theory other than my own experiences in the last 2+ years. There’s a lot of money in the field, as Bill Gates spoke of during his SXSWedu keynote, so everyone is trying to rush to market in order to capitalize. However, some signs are pretty glaring that this marketplace is about to implode. Let’s look at three examples of Ed Tech fields to see if these trends mirror those of the late '90s.


What was a blundering area of the tech market over the '90s and first decade of the 2000s has blown up all around us in education. Much of the reason for this can be singularly pointed to Apple’s launch of the iPad in 2010. For the first time, a consumer-centric device was useful enough and cost-effective for educational circles. Back then, there were really only a couple of choices on the market other than Apple’s iPad. The HP Touchpad with WebOS caught fire before quickly burning out in late 2011 and RIM's Playbook followed a similar trajectory and as of this year no longer exists. Little did we know this would just be the beginning.

Once the Android and Windows 8 operating systems caught hold, a whole new market of tablets hit the marketplace with furious demand. Nook, Kindle Fire, Samsung’s Galaxy, Microsoft Surface, Asus Transformer, and Google’s Nexus tablets now all hold some share of the consumer market but little break in educational circles to the iPad.

Enter the new world of the “educational tablet” with the LearnPad and Fox NewsCorp’s Amplify. These and their consumer counterparts have all hit the market in the last 6-9 months and continue to increase at an exponential pace. Where the consumer models have some staying power over the long haul, the fickle purchasing of K-12 educational systems spells some rough roads ahead for those in this new educational tablet space.

The biggest reason? If we are focusing on authentic learning and digital wellness with our kids in the everyday world, will that be able to happen on a tablet built to just be used K-12? Sure, tech directors get more control of the device and teachers can control the screens and learning from their desks, but isn’t that just a digital extension of the militarized structure of teaching we’ve had for hundreds of years? In the words of 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra, “We need schools…not factories.”


Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching first grade, my software choices were pretty simple. I could go with a read-and-repeat type of game like Reader Rabbit or focus on creation using a tool like Clarisworks. In order to get some highfalutin software like Adobe Photoshop, it would take several committees, an act of Congress and the blessing of the Pope to purchase it and add it to the three computers in my class. This process usually took about 2-3 years and tech departments banked on teachers becoming frustrated and giving up or the software becoming obsolete before it was even installed.

Welcome to the wild west of apps in 2013. All of a sudden, having 10 CDs or 30 floppy disks aren’t required to install software. In fact, most software isn’t even loaded at all, it exists on the Web. Apps aren’t seen as software, but they are in essence. Of course, with apps, it only requires a quick couple of taps and BLAM!! Instant installation and gratification. This consumerization of IT has a lot of benefits to personalized and customized learning, but there is a downside. When are these apps and Web tools being vetting for educational value? Who is making the district purchasing decision now?

It seems that in the last year especially, apps and Web-based tools are preying on the “first one is free” approach to break into school districts. I like the idea of organically grown tools being brought up by the end-users, but wonder if there isn’t some sort of legal line that’s being crossed in all of this. I mean, we had 80 teachers using Edmodo with their Eanes email addresses when Edmodo finally called me to say, “Hey, we noticed a lot of your teachers using our product; want to have your own domain with us?” While Edmodo is a great (and free) service, many other companies are following that lead and giving away “30-seat classroom licenses” for free in the hopes that enough users getting hooked will overpower the purchasers.

With over a million mobile apps on the market, how can our teachers hope to sort through all of that to find relevant, useful educational tools? Add in the new tablets hitting the market, along with the expansion of Google Apps for Education, and the market is ripe to burst.

Learning Management SystemsThe race to build the perfect LMS has almost become so flooded it's hard to make sense of it all. This marketplace was dominated by two choices about 5 years ago: the paid route of Blackboard or the free route of Moodle. While Blackboard was still focused on higher ed, it was the first to really jump in with both feet in the K-12 market. However, unlike the tablet market, just because it was in there first, doesn’t mean it will win out.

It’s hard to determine how many K-12-centric LMS companies are out there now. Findings from this June 2012 Education Week study show that there are 163 commercial educational LMSs and 66 open source LMS platforms. Those numbers alone are staggering, but when coupled with the fact that I have personally seen at least 6 startup LMS companies since then tells me this market is over-flooded.

This level of healthy competition can spawn some amazing advances in a fairly dull field, but there is a lot of risk for the administrator taking a gamble on a company that might not be around in a couple of years. I think a company that is device-agnostic, Web-able, and inexpensive on a per-user basis has a firm ground to stand on in K-12 space. But in terms of staying power, it has to be transformative for teaching and learning—not just digital extensions of the classroom.

SummaryWhat does all this mean for us in the Ed Tech field? It’s obvious the iron is hot. As Gates said in his keynote, there is upwards of $9 billion dollars available in this marketplace so someone is going to grab a large slice of that pie. The question for the users and purchasers of these devices and software packages is, will it have any level of sustainability? Does that even matter any more? Maybe instead of looking for stable, long-term solutions, we need to start being more flexible and able to pivot when the situation calls for it.

Then again, we are in education. The reality is this growth is exciting but while the Ed Tech marketplace is exploding, we need to take the focus off the “what” and focus more on the “why” when it comes to anything we do. That’s the key to surviving any future bubble that might be coming our way.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some .cwk files that need converting…

Carl Hooker is director of instructional technology at Eanes ISD in Texas and blogs at Hooked on Innovation, where this is cross posted.