Nudging ed tech to do the right thing: Equity, impact investing and narrowing the digital divide

In all the obvious ways, Silicon Valley and other hubs of high tech innovation are the antithesis of the low-income, urban communities the foundation serves. And yet, they’re of deep interest to us.

Why? Because ed tech has a clear and promising role in addressing the educational needs of the families most deeply affected by the challenges so prevalent in America’s urban schools.

Students in low-income neighborhoods are currently on the wrong side of too many divides – digital, educational, economic. But if the tech sector steps up, it can, perhaps, narrow the gaps.

Certainly that notion sounds ambitious. But we, along with many others, believe that appropriately designed ed tech can act as a tool for social progress. It can – and should — help level the playing field by directly targeting some of the biggest educational concerns facing families in low-income communities.

What are those concerns? In a recent series of focus groups conducted in Philadelphia, Phoenix, Kansas City and Seattle, we heard common themes. Chief among them: large class sizes that make it hard for educators to address students’ individual needs, and a test-focused education system that offers few of the rich learning opportunities that parents want for their kids.

The promise: Mission-driven ed tech

A new generation of ed-tech companies – many of them led by educators-turned-entrepreneurs – are focused on providing solutions to these challenges. Five companies backed by the NewSchools Seed Fund (a non-profit, K-12 focused venture fund backed by the foundation) offer examples of the range of ways ed-tech entrepreneurs are tackling very specific issues:

  • Ellevation addresses the needs of educators who work with English language learners (ELL), a population that suffers a massive achievement gap compared to their non-ELL peers.
  • Newsela provides students with daily news articles, sourced from national and regional papers and rewritten at specific reading levels. “Students who’ve never had a newspaper delivered to their homes show interest and curiosity in important, meaty subjects once they are given articles at the proper entry point,” chief content officer Jennifer Coogan recently told the American Press Institute.
  • MasteryConnect[1] addresses the challenge of helping educators and parents know if a student is on or off track in learning progression, even in overcrowded environments.
  • Mystery Science enables elementary school teachers to deliver high-quality science lessons, even if these teachers do not have a science background (a common phenomenon in many U.S. urban schools).
  • Nepris helps educators connect students with high-tech and other professionals, in order to help the students understand the link between the concepts they’re learning in class and the real world opportunities they can lead to.

How can we ensure that the sector stays true to its educational mission: enabling deeper learning?

The big question: Can we nudge the market in the right direction?

Such companies represent just a sliver of the innovation now happening in the burgeoning ed tech sector, but they are at the heart of a critical question: As it evolves, how can we ensure that the sector stays true to its educational mission: enabling deeper learning?

And beyond that, how can we ensure that it does more than deepen the educational divide? How do we ensure that it fulfills its promise of providing rich learning opportunities to the disadvantaged children most in need of them? After all, new companies looking to break into the sector will not automatically train their attention on the pressing needs of students, families and educators in our nation’s low-income communities. Nor will traditional venture capital (with its pure focus on financial returns) be likely to back them if they do.

Which brings us back to our interest in Silicon Valley. The foundation has had success using impact investments to develop new market sectors focused on addressing poverty-related problems in urban India. We believe there’s a parallel opportunity for impact investors, and in particular, philanthropic impact investors, to help shape market-based ed tech solutions.

In his latest news-making appearance, Pope Francis argued that markets “can serve the interests of peoples and the common good of humanity.” Yes, exactly – but they need a nudge in the right direction.

Micah sits on the advisory board of the New Schools Seed Fund, a non-profit entity supported by the foundation, which provides seed capital to social entrepreneurs focused on solving needs in the U.S. K-12 sector.


[1] The foundation was one of MasteryConnect’s early investors.