Posts from hacking education

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


A few months ago I posted some data on this blog that showed the growth of homeschooling in the US with almost 5% of K12 students being schooled at home. I wrote at the end of that post:

This is a trend to watch and, possibly, to invest in

Well, invest in it we did.

Yesterday Rebecca posted our investment rationale for Outschool, a company that offers real time group classes taught largely by very experienced K12 teachers over live video.

I encourage all of you to click on that link and go read our investment rationale. There are a number of interesting trends we are betting on here and Rebecca articulates them well. There are also some examples of classes your kids can take that are amazing.

But what I want to talk about is how important services often start in the fringes and over time move into the mainstream. We are certainly betting that is the case with crypto-currencies. We have seen that with Airbnb (couch surfing>hotel alternative), Uber (ride sharing>car alternative), YouTube (video sharing>TV alternative), and so many other examples.

Homeschooling is a fringe market right now. But education is not.

Outschool can exist with excellent unit economics for the students, teachers, and company because there is a market of almost 2.5mm students in the US who need to learn things like Algebra, European History, Biology, etc, and will pay to do so.

But of course, there are over 50mm K12 students in the US and many more around the world who need to learn these subjects as well and often don’t learn them very well in the legacy schooling model.

When our kids were in school and struggled with a class/teacher/subject, we would get them a tutor to come to our home in the evenings. That is a 1%er solution and is not affordable for most families.

But the Outschool model, because of the scale it has reached in the homeschooling market, is driving down the cost of learning these subjects and can and does replace the high cost tutorial market for a number of families already. As its scale increases and economies kick in, it can reach more students and families desperate to master challenging material.

Great teachers are one of the most valuable resources we have in our society. I can trace much of what I know to a handful of these people.

But school buildings, classrooms, and the supporting Infrastructure for them are very much replaceable with new technology. Outschool is showing a way how to do that.

At USV, we seek to back trusted brands that can open up access to knowledge (and wellness and capital). Many (most?) of these brands start out on the fringes and move into the mainstream over time as they scale and the benefits become obvious to mainstream consumers. Outschool is squarely in the sweet spot of our thesis and I am excited to see what it can do for learners around the world in the coming years.

#hacking education

Exploring An Investment Thesis

I remember back in the 2005/2006/2007 time frame when blogging and social media was coming of age, I used this blog as a petri dish to explore ideas like influencer marketing, social advertising, and virality that have become critical parts of a growth marketer’s playbook a decade later.

That “hacking around in social media” taught me so much that I could not have learned reading or talking to people. Of course, I did those things too, but getting my hands dirty with the technology and ideas helped me understand them and see the power of them and invest in them before others did.

So it is always great to see when other investors are doing the same thing.

Dani, one of our awesome analysts at USV, has been exploring the area of “free learning.” She has been writing about it. And she has been hacking around in it too.

Yesterday she launched a free learning game you play via text message.

She built it on “twilio/node/express/firebase.” I know she also built a version on the Kin Testnet to see how cryptocurrency rewards could impact how students stick with a game like this.

I just played a couple rounds of Numberline on my phone and thankfully I got the first two correct. I am quitting while I am ahead. If there was some Kin involved though…….

#hacking education

Teaching Geometry With Javascript

When I started my now ten-year journey down the “let’s teach computer science in our public schools” path, I knew that getting students to instruct machines would open up new methods of teaching and learning. But I did not understand just how powerful that would be.

It is good and necessary to offer dedicated classes in computer science to students. It is even better to use computer science to teach complex concepts in subjects like math, science, art, music, literature and more. When you do both, you can really impact student’s learning and comprehension.

I was in a high school class in the Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx yesterday. They were doing geometry lessons in Javascript.

They started with a lesson on the translation function and how it could be used to move objects around. This is a photo I took of the smartboard at the front of the classroom as the students discussed how this function works.

After this lesson, the students played a game of Battleship in Javascript with each other on their laptops.

This is a photo of the Bronx Borough President, Ruben Diaz Jr, playing Javascript Battleship with one of the students in the class.

Writing and editing code on a machine allows the student to see how geometric functions (and many other functions) work in a fun and interactive way and takes complex notions and makes them real and tangible to them. This is important and powerful.

I now believe that introducing computer science into the elementary, middle, and high school curriculum will not only help students master computational thinking but it will also help them master many other complex concepts and allow them to be better students and better adults.

#hacking education

Opting Out Of The Legacy Model

When you look at industries that continue to operate on old, outdated, and highly regulated models (education, health care, banking, brokerage, etc, etc), it is interesting to look at the numbers of consumers who are opting out of the legacy model.

In K12 education, many people think of charter schools as the disruptive model and there are something like 3.5mm to 4mm students attending charter schools in the US now (out of roughly 55mm K12 students in the US: 50mm public, 5mm private).

But if you really want to look at where the disruptive models exist, you need to look at consumers who are completely opting out and in K12 education, that is the homeschooling movement.

My partner Andy sent around this tweet this morning and it is quite interesting:

In the US, we have almost as many students being homeschooled as are in the charter schools.

And homeschooling, which has its roots in the religious communities, is increasingly breaking out of that and slowly moving into the mainstream:

It has gotten much easier to consider homeschooling over the last twenty years via a combination of technology and infrastructure that has largely been developed by the early adopters of homeschooling.

This is a trend to watch and, possibly, to invest in.

#hacking education

Video Of The Week: John von Neumann on K12 CS Education

As many of you know, I have spent a fair bit of my time over the last ten years on increasing the amount of CS Education in our K12 system in NYC and around the US.

My friend Rob sent me this short (2 1/2 min) clip of John von Neumann in the early 50s talking about how important CS Education and in particular K12 CS Education would be.

We largely ignored his advice for the last sixty years but I am optimistic that we are finally heeding it.

#hacking education

A Hackathon At NYC's City Hall

I like going to hackathons. A number of USV portfolio companies have emerged out of hackathons, like our portfolio company Dapper which created its hit crypto-collectible game CryptoKitties at a Hackathon in late 2017.

So yesterday I headed down to NYC’s City Hall which was hosting the finals of a citywide hackathon competition (called The Hack League) among NYC schools to create the best software applications to make the city better.

The final projects were judged by people like the Chief Policy and Data Office (Comptroller’s office); the Chief Analytics Officer (City of NY); the Chief Technology Officer (Mayor’s office); the Executive Director of NYC311 (City of NY) and other folks in city government tasked with a similar mandate.

There were 28 finalist teams at City Hall yesterday competing to win the trophy. They were from all five boroughs, representing schools from all kinds of neighborhoods. It was as diverse as the city is and that is a wonderful thing.

I gave them a pep talk at the start of the day and encouraged them to “instrument their applications” so that they and others can determine how their users are getting value from them.

This is a photo I took of the students as I was about to address them:

The winning teams came from these schools with these applications:

Middle school Winners:
1st: Queens TWYLS – “Trash Go” game that incentivizes proper disposal of trash

2nd: Staten Island IS63 – “Oh Deer” app for residents to report on deer sightings and upload photos so the Dep’t of Environmental Conservation can track the deer

3rd: Brooklyn Parkside Prep – “Hero Foods” app that delivers nutritious lunches to students with special needs (financial or health)  

High school Winners:
1st: Brooklyn International HS at Lafayette – “Busted” app for students to report real-time data about buses (such as too full, never arrived)

2nd: Manhattan Bridges High School – “Heat track” app that tracks temperatures inside and outside of homes and communicates to landlords about issues.

3rd: Bronx Millennium Art Academy – “Safety 1st” bi-lingual alert system to keep students informed when they are without their phones during the school day.

I was super impressed by how focused and committed the students were on making their applications better yesterday:

Here is a photo of all of the students who competed yesterday in the City Hall Rotunda.

These are the employees of the future for NYC startups, larger tech companies, and, frankly, every company in NYC. And let me tell you something. They are going to be really good.

#entrepreneurship#hacking education