I read about a new EdTech startup this morning in TechCrunch. It's called Galxyz. I started writing a comment on the article page itself, but then it got really long and kind of "meta." So I thought it might make an interesting blog post.
Here's the description of the company from TechCrunch:
Galxyz (it’s pronounced “galaxies”, and it’s a nightmare to spell) is building a science-focused game for tablets and smartphones. And the company really is just focused on one game — Rashid [the founder] described it as “an intergalactic science adventure,” one that kids could potentially play for years, battling a villain called King Dullard across the galaxies. As they do so, they’re also learning about science at their own pace.
You can check out their epic promo video here (I would embed it, but that might violate copyright).
Sounds interesting enough. Although an antagonist called "King Dullard" is a little on-the-nose, if you know what I mean.
What's the new angle on education, I wondered?
Apparently the idea came to Rashid as he saw his own children playing educational games, which he found lacking in several ways. He said they weren’t engaging enough, the content wasn’t deep enough, or they required the parents to get involved in order for the kids to advance. That second point is why he’s focusing on a single title — so that kids can just keep playing rather than running out of material after a few weeks.
Wow - it seems so obvious once he points it out. I wonder why this hasn't occurred to anyone before?
Anyone who follows this blog knows that I believe it is entirely possible to make education orders of magnitude better. And that I applaud any authentic effort to try.
But from where I stand, this has "Titanic" written all over it.
I am confident that producing truly effective education at scale is harder than any business or engineering challenge the good people at Galxyz have ever faced.
This isn't about them, though. I wish them well. For purposes of this blog post, they represent just the latest in an endless parade of investor-backed EdTech entrepreneurs who seem to have almost exactly the same creation story. I'm not upset about it. I'm more intrigued.
One aspect of education that fascinates me is that to outsiders it always looks so *simple*.
As simple as running across that wet, sandy patch of ground in the jungle to get to a fabulous treasure twenty feet away. But wait...it's hard to believe no one has run over there and taken that treasure before...hmmm...don't you wonder why? (Hint: That's not sand.)
What follows is my prediction for this venture.
To be clear, this is not what I wish for them. I want truly better education more than just about anything, and I'm indifferent as to whether it comes from a for-profit or non-profit venture, as long as we get it. And it's so close I can almost taste it.
The prediction is based on a pattern that I see play out over and over and over and over and over again (that's right - five 'overs').
It looks like this...
Day 1: Outlook bright, mattress so overflowing with cash I can't climb onto it so am sleeping on the couch, burn rate 7, feeling great, gonna make history and be a hero by fixing education because I'm...
(Choose all that apply)
- A product of an education system, and therefore I know how to educate...more better...than anyone
- More funner than anyone in education today
- In possession of more revolutionary technology than those other people
- More smarter
- Mo' richer
- A bit confused about the difference between money, intelligence, and expertise
Day 30: Epic teaser promo video produced, first prototype created and friends (who are also employees, or hoping to be) are saying it's definitely the next big thing - time to pick up the pace of hiring animators, writers, and engineers! Mattress so overstuffed with clams that I rolled off it last night. (Ouch.) Outlook blazing, increasing burn rate to 9.0.
Day 180: A bunch more concepts storyboarded and prototyped, things seem to be moving right along. Still, things are getting a bit confusing. We discovered that narratives are inherently linear and learning appears to be inherently nonlinear, so that's creating some "design challenges" (so-called). Can the kids go through the same narrative ten times if that's what they need in order to understand the concept? But wait - even if they will tolerate that, isn't one definition of insanity "doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result"? Should we have multiple narratives for each concept? Wow - that would be expensive. Let's stick with the one narrative. Should we at least present each concept in multiple different ways to help kids understand it? But will all those choices confuse them? And what other ways are there to present the concepts within a single narrative? This is taking longer than we thought - better hire more animators and engineers! Mattress slightly overstuffed with cabbage. Burn rate goes to 11. Outlook bright.
Day 240: Somehow a couple of teachers got wind of what we were doing and we invited them in for a demo. They were really harshing on our mellow. They think the whimsical five minute cut scenes between short sets of learning activities are too long - complaining about how that's going to "steal learning time" or something. But don't they understand that's what makes learning fun?! (And how many simoleons we have invested in those videos?!) They also wanted to know what kinds of student performance data we are going to provide. We showed them the awesome score meter and the leaderboards but they didn't seem to get it. That's why we didn't want to bring any teachers up in here - we just knew they wouldn't understand our Vision. Mattress still stuffed with ample Benjamins. Burn rate holding steady at 11.
Day 330: Brought some kids in to play test for the first time. They thought the narrative was kind of hokey and felt tacked on to the learning activities. Lenny's kid called it "chocolate covered broccoli." That's why I didn't want to bring students up in here - we just knew they wouldn't understand our Vision. The writers and animators are getting a little up in arms because people keep changing requirements and trying to mess with their narrative. I sympathize with them - the narrative is the hard and expensive part, so shouldn't we revise the science material to fit it instead of the other way around? Running a bit behind schedule. Mattress feeling a bit lumpy. Better pull back on contractors to conserve cash. Burn rate reduced to 8.
You can imagine where it goes from here - the way of 38 Studios or a quick exit that amounts to a soft crash landing. Like I said - quicksand. The pattern is that they don't discover where the real complexities in education lie until they are in it up to their necks.
Here's some unsolicited advice for engineers and investors who are eyeing EdTech:
- If you think you can crack the code on better education with money, you are wrong
- If you think you can crack the code on better education with raw intelligence, you are wrong
- If you think the core challenges in EdTech are technical, you are wrong
- If you think the silver bullet is in "making learning fun" or "engaging" students, you are wrong
- If you think the solution is in making clever lessons for each concept, you are wrong
- If you think you can solve this problem with better graphics, animation, and narrative, you are wrong
- If you think bringing even all of the above elements to the table *must* be sufficient to crack the code on better education, you are still wrong - though you might be able to generate a positive ROI that way. Or not.
Don't get me wrong: I strongly believe there is a path to better education. This just isn't it.
I can hear the incredulous guffaws now. We are on Day 30 and the outlook is blazing - we have an epic promo video and the prize is practically within reach!
I don't really see any point in debating the matter right now - this is a prediction, not a challenge. Let's check back in a year and see where things stand. I would be pleasantly surprised to be wrong. But I wouldn't bet on it.