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An Education Giant Gets Entrepreneurial By Investing In Education Hackathons

Pearson makes billions of dollars a year providing educational materials. So why is it getting into bed with a small education startup incubator?

Here comes another experiment in ed-techdom: Pearson, the largest education company in the world, just announced it is pairing up with one of the innovative spark plugs of the ed-tech world, Startup Weekend EDU, for a year.


At first glance, this pairing might look, well, awkward. Pearson’s education unit had a whopping $2.8 billion in revenues during the first half of 2011 (more recent figures are due out soon). By contrast, Startup Weekend, a nonprofit that stresses the "lean startup" model, cheered last November when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation earmarked $250,000 for its education vertical. (Pearson, too, is putting some cash behind its support, but both it and Startup Weekend are being coy about disclosing the amount.)

Even so, both Pearson and Startup Weekend need one another. It’s easy to see why Pearson might find cozying up to Startup Weekend an alluring prospect. The corporation has been energetically taking the pulse of the entrepreneurial ed-tech space and placing some discreet bets for a year or two. It already sponsors Rocket Space, a tech incubator in San Francisco. Pearson also took a big part in sponsoring last year’s gamification conference in Seattle.

Working with Startup Weekend Edu brings the corporation to ground zero. (For those unfamiliar with Startup Weekend events, here’s the general idea. Entrepreneurs have 54 hours—from Friday night until Sunday afternoon—to build a startup: to pitch an idea, assemble a team, and build and demo a product. That demo is judged on a number of factors, including whether it’s been vetted by the community, the strength of the business model, and, of course, whether the actual product works.)

Originally funded through modest grants from the entrepreneurial nonprofit Kauffman Foundation, Startup Weekend has held hundreds of events in hundreds of cities since its inception, with at least one occurring somewhere on any given weekend. Late last year, the group created a division devoted exclusively to education in hopes of nurturing  a new generation of education entrepreneurs and education startups focused on locally driven solutions for problems faced by teachers and learners alike.

The weekends are no-frills, hard-driving events that demand that participants prototype rapidly and rely on customer feedback for quick iteration. That customer feedback piece is particularly important  in rethinking how education entrepreneurship works, as the education technology sector has long been known for ignoring the consumers of products (teachers and students) and building for those at the administrative level (or those that control procurement decisions, at least). Education, in turn, is accused of being slow and bureaucratic and difficult to "crack"—both in terms of the business processes surrounding schools’ procurement of new tools and in terms of the size and reach of companies (like Pearson) building and selling those items.

There are, of course, a lot of limitations to what you can actually do over the course of a weekend-long hackathon (although you’d be surprised how much actually does get built).  As such, the emphasis on "building an education startup" might be the wrong thing to tout.  

The most valuable outcome of Startup Weekends may in fact be the process itself: an intensive learning process during which educators can describe the problems they face, rather than simply having entrepreneurs and engineers offer a "solution" that actually solves little or nothing.  

That educator voice is too often missing from the ed-tech industry, and Startup Weekend Edu is working hard to help welcome and include it, highlighting for example those pitches that teachers make or teachers like as part of the initial pitching and team-building process.

So what does Startup Weekend Edu need from Pearson? Ideas about going the next step and helping make some of these new companies and ideas gain traction.

As a sponsor for the Startup Weekend Edu events, Pearson will be able to offer its participants insights into what it’s like to build and sell products directly to schools and school districts (arguably a missing piece from the process of Startup Weekend Edus thus far, as entrepreneurs at the events are often encouraged to bypass that process altogether and focus instead on building for teachers, students, and parents).  "We have people who have built a lot of products and watched the market for a long time," says Tom Hall, head of partnerships at Pearson’s Future Technologies and Partnerships.

In addition to its financial support, Pearson will provide mentors at the events, as well as additional guidance for startups that move forward with their projects after the weekend. Hall says Pearson will "plug them in to Pearson early on if they’re looking for distribution or sales relationships."

Hall adds that the company will also offer assistance in helping Startup Weekend Edu "go global." "We’re passionate about promoting innovation in education and believe that supporting education entrepreneurship globally and in local communities is a key way to achieve that goal," Hall says.

Will that reassure educators who worry about large corporate interests in education? Pearson is a recognizable brand name for teachers, but it’s not one that’s popular in all circles. For some teachers, Pearson is part of the existing problems education faces: textbooks, standardized testing, learning management systems. Indeed for many education startups, Pearson is the giant and powerful company they seek to topple.

It remains to be seen then if what’s good for the partners will appeal to the participants. Stay tuned as Startup Weekend kicks off its 2012 events, beginning in New York City February 2-5.

EdSurge friend Audrey Watters blogs regularly on HackEducation.