Earlier this month, our leadership team at Sanoma Learning visited the Bay Area. Our purpose was to learn more about their approach to disruptive innovation in education. The timing was especially good following the recent announcements around Lynda.com (sold to LinkedIn for $1.5 bn), Altschool ($ 100 m investment from Founders Fund, Zuckerberg) and all things Uber.
We started at the Graduate School of Education and d.school at Stanford. Then we spent a few days in smaller teams visiting about 20 edtech ventures and a handful of investors in the area. Finally we wrapped it up with a discussion about what we had learned and what it means for us.
A few things particularly stand out from the visit.
Culture: an “open adaptive learning platform”
Rapid adaptive learning seems to be at the core of the success of the Bay Area ecosystem. The architecture of the platform is good: curious scientists, practical engineers, passionate entrepreneurs and risk-friendly investors. The “intelligence” of the platform is the driven by the culture (open, passion for purpose, fast-paced) which results in a rapid exchange of insights. We found it easy to meet outstandingly good, high-level people, even on short notice. They were enthusiastic to share views and to look for opportunities, to move at a pace. The whole ecosystem gets smarter and better when this much talent gets together in that culture.
Opportunity: return on education
Based on our experience in Finland and other great education systems, we hold the view that the teacher is the killer app in education – and technology can help to super-charge the teacher. We believe a skilled and well-equipped teacher is the single biggest factor influencing learning outcomes, pupil engagement and the cost–effectiveness of education (all “returns” or as we call it “learning impact”). Investors seem to particularly like the return on investment theme (from the customer perspective).
Their thinking is that RoEs should be good for business: for example when completion of a course can lead to career progress, the company providing that course should be able to capture a slice of the benefits (particularly in vocational education). Although clearly influenced by the ventures we chose to visit, we experienced much more enthusiasm for professional learning than edutainment or B2C markets (monetization problem – poor RoE?), and for higher and further education above K-12 (more direct link to career progress in further education and go-to-market approach is very hard for disruptors in K-12). One way or another, proving and improving “returns” will be important to future success.
Evolution (or revolution?): changing ecosystems
Some of the most interesting discussions of the week centred on how ecosystems for educational resources are changing. How can we develop a symbiotic relationship with Open Educational Resources and User Generated Content that could delight teachers and pupils? How can we further boost the “platformisation” of our business? How should we most effectively inter-operate with other players? How can we put data to work for better learning impact whilst carefully respecting privacy? Evolving with our ecosystems must be core to our strategy.
Proud of the team
It was a thrilling trip, full of inspiration and energy, with our team in excellent form: one of the best weeks of my life! Sensing the energy, curiosity and intelligence of the team as we de-briefed what we had learned each the day was simply a gift. Great job team!
Looking forward >> How to become a true learning company?
I believe that Sanoma Learning can rightly be seen as one of the world’s best education companies. Ultimately, I think the most important question to come from the visit was: how can we become a true “learning company”? A company that can consistently learn from and with the best and translate those learnings into great “impact” for pupils and teachers. This is the exciting journey we’re on!
PS I was kidnapped by Betsy Corcoran, CEO of Edsurge during our visit. Check out the podcast here