What About an Ouya (or Kickstarter) for School Reform?
Chances are, if you are among the tech-savvy types out there, you have paid attention to the venture funding story behind Ouya, a start-up founded by video game veteran Julie Uhrman that is looking to break into the videogame console market (and make life less cozy for giants Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo) by offering a $99 Android operating system-based gaming system. Although the odds for success in this cartel-driven market may be long, the tantalizing prospect of a cheaper videogame system that can eventually scale up into the kind of home entertainment systems that Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation have become (or even, just give a new option to those out there who play Angry Birds on their HTC Ones and stream Internet content through Roku boxes) was so tantalizing to tech enthusiasts that Ouya raised more than $1 million in funding in than eight hours through the Kickerstarter, the venture crowdfunding site (and is on pace to get $10 million total).
The very idea of Ouya does make one ponder the possibilities of future gaming and entertainment devices. After all, those of us with an EVO 3D or the original EVO 4G can already hook up a phone to a flatscreen TV, either through a built-in HDMI port or an adapter that plugs in through the micro-USB drive used for charging up phones and moving photos. Chances are some tech-savvy DIY type is already out there using an old Android or iPhone to do exactly that, streaming Netflix movies and videogames through the home Wi-Fi connection; given the evolution of cellphones from brick versions of landline phones to microcomputers with the processing power equal to that of a 2005 Windows-based laptop, chances are that Apple Computer, Samsung, Amazon, and HTC are already on the job.
But imagine Pearson selling a low-cost Ouya-style system that can be used to stream lessons to homeschooling families in Baltimore or Baptist churches in urban communities looking to launch their own schools (and help kids escape dropout factories and failure mills)? Or Rocketship Education teamed up with Amazon and telecom giant CenturyLink to launch a video-streaming box (with built-in 3G connections) that the blended learning outfit can hand out to students, especially in rural communities, and American Indian reservations? And suppose a Parent Power group works with Barnes & Noble, Microsoft, and civics gaming nonprofit iCivics on developing a version of the Nook Tablet that can double as a streaming device that allows kids to learn about government through gaming? One can imagine the possibilities for helping families, especially those from poor and minority communities, be able to choose and get the high-quality teaching and instruction their children need and deserve, and in the process, addressing the digital divide that keeps some of them (especially those in rural parts of the nation) from the utilizing technology.
As Dropout Nation noted last week, the very technological changes that have effectively ended Microsoft’s monopoly on computing, along with the expansion of school choice options and the failures of the traditional district model in providing high-quality instruction (and offer customized learning opportunities), will mean that the century-and-a-half monopoly on education held by districts will come to an end. Blended and online learning opportunities, either delivered in the form of virtual charter schools, by existing online learning outfits, or even by collections of high-quality teachers, families and communities crowdsourcing high-quality learning, will be as much a part of the landscape as the neighborhood school. Yet the high cost of technology for our poorest families, and even for middle class households in rural communities — and school reformers have yet to address it in a meaningful way.
Poor and minority communities throughout the world have in many ways been able to bridge the divide on their own. Thanks to cellphone technologies, farmers in India and the sub-Saharan African subcontinent have been able to keep connected to global agricultural markets. The advent of prepaid smartphone plans from outfits such as Virgin Mobile, along with the subsidized phone plans offered by the four major cellphone carriers in the United States have allowed poor families to have phones that are nearly as advanced as those bought by middle-class households. But the advances in the rest of the consumer market haven’t really made it to education, especially in allowing poor households to access the high-quality teaching and curricula they need for social mobility in the knowledge-based economy.
Embracing the cost-cutting aspects of technology development, especially the use of open-source software such as Android could help bridge that divide. Barnes & Noble and Amazon have already proved the possibilities over the last two years as both firms, driven by their efforts to sell e-books and other digital materials, developed the Nook Color (and successor Tablet) and the Kindle Fire, effectively creating a market for cheap-but-high quality Android tablets (as well as proving that an Apple iPad wasn’t the only way to go). Roku managed to do the same thing with its Internet-to-TV streaming device, which, at $79, is less expensive than either a similar device from Apple or Google (and even cheaper than an Xbox, which has proven to be as much an entertainment hub as a video game console of choice for hard-core gamers).
School reformers could easily work with big-named outfits in this arena. After all, Amazon and Barnes & Noble already have the contract manufacturing processes (including the relationships with the firms that actually manufacture their respective tablets). But reformers with enough tech savvy could also do it alone. As Wired editor Chris Anderson has detailed over the past few years, the easy access to information unleashed by the Internet (including the kind of open-source software efforts that led to Android smartphones and other devices), the advent of cheap prototyping tools that were once only available to manufacturing giants, the DIY gadget boom driven by Arduino and Limor Fried’s Adafruit, and the reductions in costs brought on by outsourcing and the global economy, allows for the development of low-cost devices that can be sold on small scale or large. One can imagine reformers launching their own Ouya-like startup and develop such devices so long as they can gain crowdfunding of some sort.
Which leads to one of the more-important things that will have to happen in the school reform space, not only to allow for such tech-based reform startups, but even fund lower-tech grassroots reform efforts. As Tom Vander Ark has pointed out, one of the biggest problems in the school reform movement today is that the philanthropies that dominate funding have become more strategic in their donor activity, preferring to focus on scaling up what seems to work instead of spurring innovative grassroots reform efforts. This approach, borne out of the fetish of scale among Beltway and operator-oriented reformers, has resulted in less money for new ideas for overhauling American public education that have yet to be proven on the scale that they prefer. And because many of those ideas are coming from Parent Power outfits and others without connections to players within the Beltway and philanthropic circles, they struggle for funding.
Given this reality, there is a clear need for what the Chicago Council on Global Affairs calls venture philanthropy, specifically focused on the innovative reforms and even education technology concepts that are too small for the Gates Foundations of the world to sniff at. More importantly, it is time for the school reform movement to embrace crowd-philanthropy arrangements similar to what Kickstarter does in the private sector. There are already some organizations already helping nonprofits in other arenas raise money for their efforts, but none are specifically dedicated to systemic school reform — including developing low-cost education technologies that can be used to expand school choice, promote Parent Power, and even help teachers become social entrepreneurs leading reform. (Dropout Nation is helping out on this front with this year’s Summer of Grassroots Reform Campaign; do your part by supporting these important organizations.)
We need Ouyas for advancing systemic reform — and we need Kickstarter-type crowdfunding outfits to finance these and other reform efforts on the ground. Seeding and growing such efforts will help provide our kids with the high-quality education they need — and help poor and minority communities bridge the digital divide.