Scaling Impactful Education – for Everyone!
May 02, 2012

As a father of three grammar school-aged children and a venture investor with an interest in education, I have been fortunate to see the world of education as both a customer and as an enabler of entrepreneurship and innovation.

These two lenses often make me think of education in two simplistic time frames – 1. The reality of today and  2. The promise of tomorrow.  As a parent, my wife and I are frustrated and are struggling to piece together an educational experience for our kids which will prepare them sufficiently for the increasingly demanding future they will face.  As a venture investor, I see a lot of new and exciting technological inventions which have the potential to become the crucial ingredients necessary to solve the worsening educational crisis which we are currently facing.  The education crisis is alarming, and unfortunately, I think it will deteriorate further before it improves. However, I am very hopeful and see clear proof that entrepreneurship will eventually repair this industry, as it has done with other industries.

When most Americans think about higher education, it is in the context of budget cutbacks, escalating costs and a complete lack of understanding of the “payback or ROI.” Do we actually know the return of our investment in higher education?  How do we measure this and does it matter?  I would argue that until we really understand the real practical value of education, we will not be able to fix it.  After all, “what gets measured gets managed.”  In order to effectively measure educational impact, we need to reverse engineer the problem.  We need to start with basic economics…supply and demand!  In other words, let’s work backwards and start with jobs/skills (demand) to architect the best education (supply).  The demand for skills in the future will likely dictate more education around healthcare, technology and energy.

On a global scale the issues are magnified because of the massive size of the emerging middle class in countries such as China and India. According to McKinsey, the Indian middle class will reach 600 million people by 2030 – and in order to support this growth, there will need to be a massive investment in educational infrastructure.

Even if every shovel in Beijing and Bangalore were dedicated to building new universities for the next 15 years, there would STILL be no way to construct enough physical facilities to support traditional higher education. Simply put, there won’t be enough classrooms to meet the need, no matter how much building is done. That’s why it is critical to explore new ways of scaling education and measuring the impact to make it effective and accessible to all of the people who will need to earn degrees over the next several decades to sustain economic prosperity. That’s where technology can – and must – play a key role in helping educational institutions scale their operations…scale, measure and manage.

Colleges, governments and other entities need to deliver educational content to massive numbers of people around the world, which requires a sophisticated infrastructure that far surpasses what we have today. This includes cloud-based “big data,” mobile connectivity and social media tools that support the new world of higher education outside of traditional classrooms. I’m proud to say that Norwest Venture Partners is already at the forefront of this trend because we are a global firm with feet on the ground in many of the countries where the education explosion is already happening.

We’ve begun to do this domestically and globally through our investments in such companies as Rafter, which offers a suite of cloud-based software that helps schools revolutionize the adoption, supply, and distribution of course materials. We also backed the largest tablet based education company in India,  iProf, which offers test preparatory content for entrance exams–from engineering to medical, and from civil services to management. iProf makes these teachings available in multiple formats—all via Android powered tablets.

The creation and delivery of educational content – including everything from curriculum development to training teachers – will continue to be critical in the next decade. This is because existing paradigms, such as a lecturer standing in front of a room full of students, will be rendered obsolete by the expansion of education beyond classroom walls. The bottom line is that while there is no single “right way” to approach this issue, there are enormous opportunities for companies that can support the massive global demand for higher education that the rise of middle classes around the world will need. We are seeing more and more teams with innovative technologies seeking funding to solve these critical issues, and we’re excited about the opportunity to back companies that will play a significant role in scaling education.

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