Grockit: real education innovation?

Nivi is preparing what he calls a “hostile takeover” of the K-12 education system, with curriculum that adheres to the standards set by each state for its public schools. Schools will also be able to create private networks, delivering their own content via the Grockit platform, similar to the way another buzzed-about startup, Ning, provides tools for communities to build their own social networks.

Grockit says it is “a social network for studying”. This is not the only such startup, but it smells like innovation is making a tiny step in American education. And not suprising when you consider the investors (plus another $7 million series C in May, total $17.7m now):

(…) Grockit has raised $10.7 million in venture financing from Benchmark Capital, Integral Capital Partners and angel investors like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Zynga founder Mark Pincus.

And the founder knows the test prep turf, and possibly a thing or two about excellence in teaching:

(…) Grockit founder and CEO Farbood Nivi, a onetime teacher of the year for The Princeton Review, designed the site based on his classroom experiences. As the only instructor in a room with 20 or more students ranging in ability, he broke his classes down into groups where weaker students could learn from stronger students, who in turn reinforced their own learning by teaching.

Grockit, founded in 2006, is not a new company, but has recently pivoted to this new “social study group” business model (from the original model = online video prep courses).

(…) The long-term opportunity for Grockit is in matching teachers with students, says Lasky, who compares the inefficiency in today’s educational system to the auction market, pre-eBay (EBAY).

“The best algebra teacher in America may be in Mobile, Alabama, and she sees a random collection of thirty kids who happen to be in that grade, in that place, at that time,” Lasky explains. “I think if we could liberate education from these constraints using the Internet in the same way that eBay liberated collectibles from local flea markets and garage sales, it’s a multi-billion dollar opportunity.”

After all, while standardized tests may not be around forever, algebra is seemingly here to stay.

No question that Benchmark’s Lasky is correct. And I do hope that Grockit finds a path to profitability. The education productivity gap is way bigger than pre-post eBay. More tidbits on Grockit’s 2008 launch are discussed at Techcrunch50 (including video of the Grockit presentation).

BTW, that “hostile takeover” may already be underway at the Grockit Summer Enrichment Academy.

A few of the other education startups are discussed in this WSJ summary (DreamBox, SmartyCard, and Brightstorm). The venture capital numbers are getting to be biggish:

The online educational industry has been getting a big boost from venture capital firms. Last year, about $1 billion was invested in learning technology companies, according to Ambient Insight, a market research firm focusing on education and technology. That’s up from $850.6 million invested in 2007.

Bill Strickland and Waiting for Superman

This TED Talk by education pioneer Bill Strickland will get your attention. Social entrepreneur Strickland is not polite about the state of American inner city schools, but he is doing something about it in Pittsburgh, and branching out into other cities like San Francisco. He has a real talent for raising huge amounts of money for his arts-oriented institute Manchester Bidwell.

Bill Strickland’s journey from at-risk youth to 1996 MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient would be remarkable in itself, if it were not overshadowed by the staggering breadth of his vision. While moonlighting as an airline pilot, Strickland founded Manchester Bidwell, a world-class institute in his native Pittsburgh devoted to vocational instruction in partnership with big business — and, almost incidentally, home to a Grammy-winning record label and a world-class jazz performance series. Yet its emphasis on the arts is no accident, as it embodies Strickland’s conviction that an atmosphere of high culture and respect will energize even the most troubled students.

With job placement rates that rival most universities, Manchester Bidwell’s success has attracted the attention of everyone from George Bush, Sr. (who appointed Strickland to a six-year term on the board of the NEA) to Fred Rogers (who invited Strickland to demonstrate pot throwing on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood). And though cumbersome slide trays have been replaced by PowerPoint, the inspirational power of his speeches and slide shows are the stuff of lecture circuit legend.

Bill’s website is Make the Impossible Possible. Check out the Bidwell training center site. There’s an excellent article on Strickland and the evolution of his ’empire’ Bill Strickland: Role model for social entrepreneurship .

His book is Make the Impossible Possible: One Man’s Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary.

Check out the trailer for the 2010 documentary release Waiting for Superman, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (info page). Bill Strickland is one of the featured educators, along with such successful charter schools as Kipp, Summit Prep, SEED, and Harlem Children’s Zone.

“. . .follows a handful of promising kids through a dysfunctional education system. Embracing the belief in the philosophy that good teachers make good schools, and questioning the role of unions in maintaining the status quo, Guggenheim offers hope by exploring innovative approaches taken by education reformers and charter schools that have – in reshaping the culture – refused to leave their students behind”.

The Waiting for Superman website is a useful resource on American education reform. E.g., this Education News page.

And here’s an excerpt from a review of the film by Elliot Kotek:

(…) Through his dissection of the state of public education by breaking them into elemental units — kids, teachers, administrators, unions, schools, states and the nation at large — Guggenheim is somehow able to present the complex issues at play with relevant simplicity and global context. Are our kids failing school? Or are our schools failing our kids? And how much injustice is being done against kids in the name of harmony among adults?

In 102 minutes, Guggenheim enables us to isolate the institutionalized exigencies inherent in the system, and to identify the heroes and pioneers attempting to become the purveyors of an education that will ready the next generation for the onslaught of opportunities.

While the situational disparity between state of the teachers’ unions and the health of the system they are supposed to serve will no doubt stir heated debate in the months that follow the movie’s release (one could even argue that Randi Weingarten and the two major unions fulfill their roles as villains), the heart of the film belongs to the kids — Anthony, Bianca, Daisy and Francisco. Sampled from across the country, these small individuals represent the struggle for all of those without the means to break the molds that bind them in a vicious circle of “academic sinkholes,” “drop-out factories,” “turkey trots” and “lemon dances.” The film’s dramatic depiction that those who strive to make their children’s lives better must rely on the luck of lottery systems for acceptance into KIPP, Green Dot charter and other alternative schools, is both harrowing and heartbreaking.