The Education Transformation

Back in March 2009, USV hosted an event called Hacking Education. It was the beginning of our effort to invest in the transformation of the education sector.

A few weeks ago, USV held its annual meeting, roughly 15 years after we closed our first fund. And our partner Rebecca gave a presentation on our education portfolio, which is now one of the strongest parts of our entire portfolio.

As Rebecca was developing her presentation, I wrote an email to her that said:

when did we do Hacking Education? Was that ten years ago now? That may also be a useful reference, maybe at the start of the presentation

And so she went and pulled some photos of that event to start her presentation.

Today she wrote a blog post on featuring the big themes of her annual meeting presentation. And she posted a few of those photos, in which we are all looking quite a bit younger.

Rebecca concludes her post with these optimistic words:

Our education portfolio has become a core value driver in our funds. In part, we think this is because we have hit the tipping point in consumers’ interest in self-driven, direct-to-learner education because technology has enabled higher quality education to be delivered at a lower price point, a counter-balance to the inflationary trends we’ve seen to date. Appetite for products and services that reframe what it means to learn – and how to learn – is high, and quickly accelerating.

As Bill Gates famously observed, we overestimate what can be done in a year and underestimate what can be done in a decade. A decade after hacking education, we are working with a bunch of high growth companies that are helping to transform what it means to learn and be educated and we are very proud of that.

#hacking education

Comments (Archived):

  1. pointsnfigures

    the move to private education will accelerate. first, the super wealthy do it but technology enables various aspects of it to become commoditized so innovation and freedom of choice filters down to everyone. In 2009 I invested in which has done well. As we look at our nation’s public school system it is clear something is wrong no matter how much we spend on it. Capitalistic creative destruction and competition will make things better.

  2. William Mougayar

    “Self-everything” is almost the theme here. Education Healthcare Publishing Wellness EtcThe tools and capabilities to empower the individual to know more, do more, are getting better and better.

  3. Josh Grossman

    At edX, we’ve seen this growth firsthand, with over 23 million people taking online courses from Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, and 140 other institutions worldwide. It’s amazing to see people learn new skills and advance their careers through affordable education.

  4. Dan T

    Hopefully, people will start realizing that education is more of a RESPONSIBILITY than it is a RIGHT – just like healthcare. The wealth of FREE educational resources – largely based on technology – are amazing. Knowledge is power – and knowledge is more available and more free than ever before in our existence. Something to be proud of and happy for.

  5. DJL

    From the K-12 trenches: This revolution has created chaos in our school system as school boards have purchased software without proper teacher training. Fort Bend ISD uses Quizlet, schoology, prodigy, etc. So imagine loading your teachers up with new technical tools and no training or guidance on how to properly delivery them.So parents are running around trying to keep track of 6 different username/password combinations. Spending hours tracking down which teacher put which homework in which app. It is 8x worse than traditional textbooks.I understand that this is a much bigger deal than just K-12. But this is a classic “Crossing the Chasm” problem at the teacher level. Just throwing new tech at a problem always makes it worse without proper training.

    1. falicon

      New tech to an old system almost never works.New system (that is built on top of new tech or takes advantage of new tech) is almost always game changing.The problem with education (at least in the U.S.) over the past 30+ years hasn’t really been the technology (even tough there has been a vast lack of it in many places).

      1. JLM

        .Old wine, new bottles.Sort of wonder if the advent of GPS (and auto-pilot) to replace old fashioned VOR (VHF omnidirectional radio) aerial navigation isn’t a good example of a bit of tech wonder dramatically changing an older system.When one plans a flight, one can ask for what is called “GPS Direct” from the takeoff point to an intermediate refueling spot or to the final destination. This is very common and what I do all the time.You get to the runway talking to ground control, you take off under the control of the tower, you switch to departure control to leave the airport environment, who then clears you to depart the area, and transfers you to enroute ATC (air traffic control).Often coming out of busy air space, the controllers will give you an altitude and a direction until you clear the congestion and only thereafter clear you direct to your destination.Once I receive “Cleared GPS direct to Charleston at 9,000 feet,” I am tracked by enroute ATC which knows my planned heading all the way to CHS. They will give me traffic alerts to be on the lookout for nearby traffic. Sometimes, they will require you to depart from your heading if there is other traffic at the same altitude and heading or coming at you head on.Alternatively, the old fashioned VOR system is still in use and I can also use the GPS to navigate, but using the location rather than the radio signal itself. To stay current, I will often cross the country using just VOR to stay sharp.When you get into the approach control at the destination, they often will line you up for an approach (even if it is VFR (visual flight rules) weather) by sending you to a VOR which you punch into the GPS. If you have been to that airport, you know how they will work your arrival. Once you hit that VOR, they will often give you a vector and altitude to bring you to the runway.”Bonanza november one three six mike delta, descend and maintain three thousand, fly heading 030, expect the visual approach to runway 330.”This is the Charleston, SC arrival sequence in good weather with the wind from the north. In IFR (instrument flight rules — bad weather) you will be assigned a specific approach, a set of headings and altitudes that are set by the FAA to get you to the end of the landing runway. These can be GPS, ILS (instrument landing system, the digital wire in the sky) or simply headings and altitudes.When you see the runway lights or the runway, you are on your own to land.All of this evolved from technology growing into the existing system. I have three GPS’s in my plane. Two are required by the FAA and the third is a handheld I use for insurance if the plane electrical system craps out on me. I also have a portable radio I can use.Another example is the use of the auto-pilot which can fly the entire sequence I have described if you program it correctly. Often, on a tiring trip, I will have the AP fly everything up to the actual landing sequence at 1000′ and below.Really big planes can land using the AP.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    2. Rob Underwood

      @InformationShield:disqus You are absolutely right on this observation.A big issue in edtech continues to be the lack of adequate funding for the appropriate level of teacher training and professional development. I was the ED for a short-lived foundation that made financial grants to teachers to use for both PD direct costs (e.g., tuition) as well as expenses (e.g., child care) in order to learn how to teach computer science and it was very challenging to get organizations to fund and support such training, regardless of how essential it is. It just wasn’t sexy enough.There’s an additional challenge, for both edtech for-profits and nonprofits in that “things” like hardware and software are often capitalizable while training is often not, which means too often that there needs to be different source of funding for teacher training. For example, in NYC, “Reso-A” grants from borough presidents and city council people can be used to but laptops, smart boards, even (now) licenses for software, but can’t be used for teacher training because that’s considered as service, and hence not capitalizable.

      1. DJL

        That makes perfect sense. There is no incentive system at all to enable the teachers to train on tech. And probably no budget. Ironic.We all know from commercial software that untrained users = shelf-ware.One thing is for certain: There is no person or group at the District level that has any idea that there is a ‘technology transfer’ going on.

    3. jason wright

      New venue.

    4. Susan Rubinsky

      There are several interconnected reasons why this happens:1 – The teacher unions fight change at the grassroots level (I actually watched this play out in the New Haven, CT, public school system where the union fought all technological systems, claiming that it was a secretary’s job, not a teacher’s job, to input data into computers.)2 – Lack of organizational vision, leadership, and planning at the municipal level or county/regional levelAnd:3 – Systemic flaws in how contracts are categorized and funded at the governmental level (teacher training would fall into a completely different funding category than tech/software purchases).

      1. DJL

        All of the above. And yes, I was soundly rejected in my offer to act as a “liaison” to provide free training and support to the teachers. But the resistance was from the head of the PTA and the Principle.But yes, tens of thousands are spent each year without any plan for how the stuff will be used. It is SUCH low hanging fruit. But I don’t think Public Education wants private business or people anywhere near their stash.

  6. jason wright

    Knowledge verses education. We know which one is now easier to access. What we need is a way to reimagine the network effect that ‘validates’ the education system, reinvent it around knowledge, and give everyone a chance to live better lives.

  7. Salt Shaker

    The chart in the USV post says the cost of education has risen 150% from 1997-2017. We know in any industry labor is often a large, if not the largest, expense. Teacher salaries have risen modestly over that period, and with inflation in certain instances it has actually declined. We also know at virtually every level our education system is frequently mismanaged, antiquated and terribly inefficient. So, where is all the money going? What’s driving increases in cost if not labor? Is this mostly union related, for example, at the pub school level?

    1. JLM

      .One of the greatest increases in the education model is the headquarters number of positions and salaries.This overwhelms the teach salaries.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  8. Stu

    “this is because we have hit the tipping point in consumers’ interest in self-driven, direct-to-learner education because technology has enabled higher quality education to be delivered at a lower price point, a counter-balance to the inflationary trends we’ve seen to date.”—Bingo!

  9. sigmaalgebra

    I’m a strong believer in people educating themselves with a lot of good guidance, later some good testing and certification, but otherwise mostly just ALONE. Or “learning is not a spectator sport”. For K-12, “alone” would mean in the context of a version of home schooling.In the end, working ALONE is essentially how I got a Ph.D. degree — some good guidance, some good testing, but otherwise ALONE in a quiet place. E.g., there were five qualifying exams; I did the best in the class on four of them; for three of them the success was just from what I’d taught myself before entering grad school; for the fourth one, the success was what I learned studying alone for a summer. For the research for the Ph.D., before grad school I had identified the problem, gotten three words of advice from a bright guy, and worked out an intuitive solution. For the rest, I did that all alone with no guidance at all. None of my official advisors knew what I was doing until I submitted the final manuscript. I was passed by one guy I didn’t know, Member, US National Academy of Engineering and Editor in Chief of a major, relevant journal and by another guy soon President of a famous university.As I think back to ugrad and high school, really, the actual learning was nearly always out of class, ALONE. Class time was the Ivory soap 99 44/100% wasted time — often in math and science classes, easy for me, I had my head down asleep. I did the real learning out of class, ALONE. Sure, I needed the books, but they were good enough.For freshman calculus, I learned that 100% alone — never took a course, and the first course I took was for the sophomore part. I had to do that because in my college Freshman year they had me in a math class beneath what I’d done in high school and would not let me start calculus until my sophomore year. So, in my sophomore year I went to a college with a quite good math department, started on their sophomore calculus, and to get ready for that taught myself freshman calculus. I did fine, made As. So, I’ve learned calculus, advanced calculus, applied advanced calculus, related subjects, e.g., differential equations, still more advanced calculus, e.g., exterior algebra, and mathematical analysis well beyond calculus; taught calculus in college: applied calculus in business and US national security, used calculus in optimization and statistics and applied both in business and US national security, and published peer-reviewed original research based on calculus, Still, never took freshman calculus!Later as a ugrad, I wanted to learn some topology. So, I got a famous, challenging text (J. Kelley), and gave a lecture a week to a prof. Worked fine.IMHO, bluntly put, nearly all of K-12 is tragically, infuriatingly time wasted in babysitting. Some of that stuff can be just dropped. Much of the rest can be just enormously streamlined.E.g., I would say to teach history with just few dozen or so well done one hour videos (right, an actual case of a spectator sport) — history is such a backwards subject, brain-dead with no decent methodology and next to nothing in actual, solid results, say, with significant predictive value, that just some videos are all the field deserves.For literature, just teach, that is, explain the main goal — communication, interpretation of human experience, emotion, with the usual framework of formula fiction — illustrated by, say, just some movies (another case of a spectator sport; that’s all the field, with no solid information or lessons and no significant predictive value, deserves anyway.For college, for nearly all the subjects, get the price down to just some books, a little guidance, and the tests and certification. The CEEB GRE tests may be good enough already.Reasonably talented kids should be ready to start on their Master’s by, say, age 14.But the quality has to be good. IMHO Khan Academy is JUNK; e.g., the people teaching calculus don’t know calculus very well. E.g., under no circumstances should a high school student even touch pre-calculus or AP calculus — that stuff is incompetent. Instead they should just get a copy of one of the best college calculus books of the last, say, 60 years — lots to choose from. For physics, just start with a good college freshman physics text, e.g., likely with the name Sears on the front.Net, get the students some good learning materials, some good guidance, some good means to ask questions, some good testing, some certification, and DONE. The total can be next to DIRT cheap, MUCH faster, much better.Teaching writing is different — need teachers for that. Since there is no need for hardly any of the K-12 people teaching now, there should be plenty of teachers to help the kids learn writing.Uh, the writing should not be just all creative writing, should go really light on the poetry, and should emphasize good technical writing. Sorry dreamy, working on the great American novel and really emotional poetry English teachers: I’ve got a job for you — teach writing. And if you give a student’s paper grades of B for content and C for style, you better have some darned clear reason, that you did clearly teach, what the heck was wrong and why the grade was not A and A — else maybe we can fit you in helping the pre-K students cross the street.I want to be clear: From all I saw in US education, the teaching of English is gigantic, self-perpetuating, time-wasting, money-wasting, junk-think, made-up, busy-work nonsense. E.g., in K-12 I got ALL the physics and chemistry they offered — one course in each. And in the first two years of college, again one course in each. Meanwhile, in 9-12 I had English each year, FOUR courses, and again in college in the first two years TWO more such. And nearly ALL of that was not about writing but just literature, belle lettre, including the meaningless, despicable, delusional poetry. SIX years of being force fed that nonsense.For literature, the field’s main methodology is for a writer to look into the emotions of their heart and gut and write what they feel in the framework of formula fiction story telling. For the audience it’s at best art as in the communication, interpretation of human experience, emotion. Rarely is it better than vicarious escapist fantasy emotional experience entertainment (VEFEEE). Really, as the ancient Greeks discovered, people are suckers for story telling.Does literature really teach about humans? Not very much; the lessons from clinical psychology (e.g., a science with little predictive value) are not very good but are much better than literature. What is in there? Maybe just a catalog of conjectured human personalities one can consider as examples from which might draw some vague sense of insight.With literature there are no clear claims about was is true, clear evidence of those claims, or independent tests of those claims. Even if try to guess what is being claimed to be true, there is no meaningful evidence or rational argument. There are no solid results. Net, it’s junk. That “brief candle” was not nearly brief enough for me.Could cover all there is to get from literature in a few videos of an hour each — more spectator sport.If want to make literature applied, then teach people how to write screen plays.Bluntly, these few paragraphs of notes on literature are better information about literature than 90% of the content in those six wasteful years. The teachers kept telling me that this and that novel, play, or poetry was “great”; my remarks here are much closer to the truth. Add a few hours of some videos to add detail to my notes here and be DONE with literature in formal education.Sure, one reason for force feeding six years of literature is that it is just dirt simple and cheap to teach. No right; no wrong; nothing cumulative. Let’s see, in six years of physics could cover freshman physics, classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, particle physics, general relativity. How many high schools are able to teach the first four????K-12 is a scam; the worst of this scam is force feeding literature.So, for “hacking education”, show some videos that explain how literature works, supply the popcorn, and otherwise just cut out the literature scam and save the time and money and permit teaching meaningful material. Simple. Obvious.I know; I know; literature and history were semi-intellectual entertainment of young men from wealthy families. Soooo, if teach everyone lots of literature and history, then they will also become wealthy? That’s the justification???Then, think of the savings on the local real estate taxes!!!!!

  10. JLM

    .These companies are all individual skills or techniques which means they are nibbling around the edges — nothing wrong with that.I adore Quizlet which I had been using for years long before USV invested in it. I used it to take my flight training and it was extraordinary. It is a technique and it works like a champ, but it doesn’t deliver education. It is a tool to be used in obtaining education.I see the goal of education as delivering a final product which is a person who possesses basic 3Rs (including tech knowledge like programming these days), bit of a sense of our history, some financial knowledge (the biggest laggard skill), can write a coherent paper, can speak with poise, is intellectually curious, and can think critically (formulate and base decisions on research, data, information, and history).They should also be able to dance and box (krav maga).The 3Rs, history, basic financial knowledge, and writing is a high school level of education.The intellectual curiosity and critical thinking is a college level of aspiration.We are failing greatly on the intellectual curiosity and critical thinking and the history. And the dancing and boxing.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. Michael Elling

      “The intellectual curiosity and critical thinking is a college level of aspiration.”This should be the ultimate goal of primary education. Every individual masters all the other skills at different rates. That’s why so many fall hopelessly behind before ever given a chance “to learn”.

      1. Kayla Bandy

        Only the ignorant ones , they never notice or calm enough they o listen. We see kids die everyday of drugs but no one wants to admit that there are no more scoop and drug going round the street

  11. JLM

    .If you read that I was saying that new tech was “simple” then I mislead you. The future is not simple. The tech that drives the future will not be simple.I am saying that tech — when applied to a specific system — is far better. It is, literally, new wine in old bottles.The new wine is the tech. The old bottle is the challenge of flight navigation.It, the new tech, is more accurate, redundant, quicker, more reliable.It is further correlated with other tech — in this instance auto-pilot — that can use the new tech to actually fly the plane from point-to-point with the pilot only monitoring the instruments.It is, therefore, safer as it also frees up pilot workload to provide more time to monitor instruments.If one was taught how to fly using VOR nav tech, then it is an easily managed challenge to understand how GPS is used to navigate, but you still have to learn VOR navigation.If you are a new pilot, then you will have to learn both, but the GPS nav tech will be more intuitive as you will understand it from a car.In this specific instance, the new tech works better, quicker, more accurately, more redundantly than the old tech.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. falicon


  12. Douglas Crets

    I was at that event, Fred. I also now work for a guy who was inspired you and some of the stuff he saw at YC to create AppWorks, a venture fund managing US$150 million, and an accelerator, in Taipei. I remember being at your event, and also at others. Was this the one that was in the high school gym? It may have been another one. At the time, I was inspired by you to work in tech. It was that event, and several others, that led me to work at Microsoft in Silicon Valley. A lot of of what made me successful in Microsoft, I learned from picking up info about the VC industry in NYC, through my exposure to edtech. Thanks to you and your wife for being a motivating force in the world.