Students of Laboratoria, a Peru-based nonprofit that trains young women from low-income backgrounds to become software developers in the tech sector. Photo by: Laboratoria

SAN FRANCISCO — There has been a growing emphasis on the need to frame success in education around learning rather than attendance. But if you ask some entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley, there is still too much emphasis on butts in seats, and not enough attention paid to whether kids are learning.

The timing couldn’t be more critical, said Amy Klement, who leads the philanthropic investment firm Omidyar Network’s education initiative globally. “Anything that can be automated will be automated,” she told Devex.

Increasingly, she is focused on how to prepare young people for jobs of the future, which she said will require 21st century skills and mindsets including collaboration, communication, creativity, and grit.

“Silicon Valley recognizes that education is one of the few sectors that hasn't been disrupted for hundreds of years. And the school model — everything from pedagogy to delivery to financing — has been very consistent,” she said.

As Devex reported from the Global Skills & Education Forum last week, global attention to the education crisis is growing. The San Francisco Bay Area is behind a number of new models — from private schools, to education technology, to workforce readiness — in a sector that has been notoriously slow to change. The question is whether this money, and Silicon Valley mindset, can accelerate learning outcomes at the pace that will be needed to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 — quality education for all.

Profit and purpose

Investors making bets in education fall somewhere on a spectrum between prioritizing social impact and financial returns, with philanthropists and impact investors on the one hand and private equity and venture capital investors on the other, and differences of opinion as to whether it is possible to achieve both without tradeoffs.

"There is definitely an interest in for-profit companies that serve the very poor right now, but it's mostly concessional ventures, groups that are quasi-philanthropic,” said John Rogers, a partner and education sector lead at the Rise Fund, a global impact fund led by the private equity firm TPG.

The fund is looking for opportunities to help the mass market in a way that is not concessionary, Rogers said. The Rise Fund’s first investment in Latin America was in Digital House, a group of schools based in Argentina providing digital skills across Latin America. Rogers said he hopes more groups that are making grants and program-related investments will consider for-profit companies because they may find that the focus on profit also delivers greater scale.

But Mariana Costa, the founder and chief executive officer of Laboratoria, a Peru-based nonprofit that trains young women from low-income backgrounds to become software developers in the tech sector, said that just because an organization is a nonprofit does not mean it is not set up for scale.

Based in Lima, Peru, Laboratoria has supporters ranging from the Peruvian government to the Inter-American Development Bank to Silicon Valley funders including Omidyar Network, Draper Richards Kaplan, and Costa decided to make Laboratoria a nonprofit to protect its social impact, targeting young women from underserved backgrounds, even if they are not the most profitable clients, she said. While the organization has not yet broken even, it has a few revenue streams, such as having students pay a percentage of their salaries back, and it often takes time for companies to make profits because of their investment in growth.

“We’re very clear that we don’t want to live on grants forever,” she said. “The borderline between nonprofits and for-profits or impact- or mission-driven for-profits is becoming more and more blurry and it’s great to find partners and funders that understand that.”

One example is Omidyar Network, which places an emphasis on market-based approaches with the potential for large-scale impact, and takes a hybrid approach by investing in for-profit companies and making grants to nonprofit organizations.

Mariana Costa, the founder and CEO of Laboratoria, speaks with Devex from the offices of in San Francisco.

Moving fast and breaking things

New models that push for change are often met with resistance, and that has certainly proven true in efforts to transform education. Bridge International Academies is one high-profile example of the backlash against Silicon Valley’s involvement in education. The tech heavy chain of private schools has come under fire in multiple countries, leading to a legal battle over some of its schools.

Some Bridge investors have dismissed many of the concerns, saying the backlash comes from people who do not want to see the status quo disrupted, and Klement of Omidyar Network echoed that point. In an interview with Devex, another Bridge investor, Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation in San Francisco, called it a controversy that is getting fed by people who like controversy and want to call it a controversy. On the panel, Jennifer Lee of the venture capital firm Learn Capital added that some people are uncomfortable with the idea of making profit off of students. But what many investors will emphasize is that entrepreneurs behind for-profit education models need to make those margins in order to reinvest and scale to reach more people.

"The growth mindset Silicon Valley brings is very powerful and it's unusual in the nonprofit and education space," David Risher, the president and co-founder of Worldreader, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that aims to bring digital books to developing countries, told Devex. "The ethos that says grow big or go home, and a growth mindset of always learning and experimenting with an eye toward scale, can be quite energizing to the sector."

At the same time, he recalled the phrase that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and said that for Silicon Valley, everything looks like an app.

“‘Move fast and break things’ doesn’t work when it comes to kids’ lives,” Risher said.

The approach that works for Worldreader is to focus on appropriate technology and relevant content as well as technologies that support rather than replace people, he added.

"We're not tech idealists. We recognize that learning is social, emotional, and academic and deeply rooted in human relationships and we also recognize that education can further leverage the unprecedented global connectivity we have today in support of students, teacher, families, and administration.”

—  Amy Klement, head of Omidyar Network’s education initiative

What remains to be seen is whether Silicon Valley will focus its investments in education on sustaining innovations, which are really just incremental improvements or disruptive innovations, said Lant Pritchett, research director at RISE, or Research on Improving Systems of Education, which is funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and is working to drive a shift from a schooling agenda toward a learning agenda.

“In order to lead to transformational improvements, educational technology should be not sustaining technology but disruptive technology reaching everyone with the kind of education they actually need and that means going head to head with the education establishments,” he said.

One example of disruptive innovation, said Pritchett, is MindSpark, a computer-based adaptive learning platform. A randomized controlled trial found that this customized learning technology improved test scores across all groups of students in India. Pritchett said innovations like MindSpark will be critical to tackling a barrier that is holding back progress in education: Levels of learning have not matched rates of school enrollment.

Problems of perception

Bridge International Academies serves as a cautionary tale about the problem of perception when a model appears to be replacing people rather than supporting people. But Pritchett said he thinks Silicon Valley can play a critical role in broadening the focus from attendance to access and quality and relevance in order to address “the hidden exclusion,” in which kids are in school but learning little or nothing.

“The key is to figure out how you can scale quality education that is equitable,” said Megan Haggerty, coordinator of the International Education Funders Group, a network of foundations, donor advised funds, and other private grant makers focused on basic education in the “global south.”

Whether it is private school or personalized learning, none of these interventions exist in a vacuum, so the question is how they work together on a systemic level to deliver on better education for all, she said.

“How do low-cost private schools affect other schools in that community or district?” she wrote in an email to Devex. “This isn't just about ensuring those kids going to that particular school are doing well, but does it have any unintended effects on the children's neighbors or siblings who don't go to that school?”

For example, a low-cost private school might free up spaces for kids in overcrowded public schools, or, it might instead draw resources away from public schools, she said.

“These are important technical and political questions that we don't yet have the answer to — but it’s clear we need to be better at working in partnership with all actors in the system to figure them out,” she said.

While its investment in Bridge might have gotten the most press lately, Omidyar Network has a wide range of education investments including Teach for All, demonstrating its interest in leadership development for teachers; Khan Academy, demonstrating its support of a nonprofit organization that is working on education for all; and Andela, which has a similar model to Laboratoria, but is for-profit and based in Nigeria.

"So much of the narrative shared has been around tech versus teacher, and I think that's completely the wrong framing, because what we're seeing is how tech can support teachers, how tech can support administrators, how tech can support students and families,” Klement said. "We're not tech idealists. We recognize that learning is social, emotional, and academic and deeply rooted in human relationships and we also recognize that education can further leverage the unprecedented global connectivity we have today in support of students, teacher, families, and administration.”

The question that entrepreneurs and investors should be asking, she said, is: “How do we deliver and finance better education in a way that meets the future demands of the globe?"

“The idea that you put a kid into a school where the teacher doesn’t show up and they aren’t learning anything and call that equity is a travesty,” Pritchett said. “I’m in favor of enabling teachers to reach students with disruptive technologies. Some people hear disruption and think we are going to McDonaldize every school and de-skill teachers. We can empower teachers to teach to heterogeneous classrooms by giving them differentiated tools and not making them take a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Pritchett said he understands the resistance to the growing role Silicon Valley is playing in global education, but he noted that in most cases it will not be entrepreneurs and investors from the Bay Area owning and operating and implementing these schools. Those who will be working directly with students, he added, might consider how to tap into this Silicon Valley money and mindset so they get the tools they need to help kids learn.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.