Skipping Copper: The Consumerization Of Edtech

Asia accounts for nearly half of the mobile learning revenues in the world. Thousands of hagwons, or “cram schools,” line the streets in South Korea, which has about 15 percent of the global tutoring market. Parents spend an average of $1,000 per month on private tutoring — an estimated 20 percent of the monthly cost to raise a child there. In India, 7.5 percent of consumers’ monthly spending goes toward education. Affluent Chinese households devote 9.5 percent, and the Vietnamese spend a whopping 40 percent.

The U.S. consumer-education market is, in contrast, anemic. Parents in the middle-income bracket spend just 1 percent of their expenses on education. The highest tax bracket spends 3 percent. It’s not that U.S. parents are apathetic:, which provides school ratings, is one of the nation’s most viewed websites, but search Google for “algebra help” and you may not be served a single ad. That won’t hold.

Cristiano Antonelli was one of the first researchers to use the phrase “leapfrogging” to describe the concept that countries can speedily adopt new technologies by skipping intermediate technologies used in more developed countries (e.g., copper wire). The U.S. may be poised for its own leapfrog moment as big brands and new delivery models enable consumers to experience — for the first time — supplemental learning online.

Consider the case of For more than a decade, the company has offered instantaneous, one-to-one homework help for students — largely through libraries and public schools. The consumer market just wasn’t ready. And they’re not alone: Dozens of online tools and resources exist in subjects ranging from early literacy to AP Calculus. Nearly all have focused on distribution to schools, libraries and other institutional customers. None are household names. Even well-known education brands like Sylvan and Kumon have yet to break out with online offerings.

As policy geeks, it’s easy to forecast limited investment in supplemental learning because of cultural norms or the structure of U.S. public education. But convenience has a funny way of shaping consumer behavior. Broadband ubiquity and mobile computing are beginning to bend the curve on access and, in turn, consumption. And it’s happening quickly.

Convenience has a funny way of shaping consumer behavior.

Today’s four-year-olds are the touchscreen generation: the first to grow up alongside mobile computing and 4G. Many have never seen a compact disc. Their parents spend hundreds of dollars on educational apps and games. They consume their favorite PBS shows on mobile devices in grocery carts and strollers. Meanwhile, their only slightly older cousins grew up with vinyl folios and scratched copies of their favorite Disney movies.

When today’s touchscreen kids become screenagers, they’ll expect immediate access to online homework help and resources. Parents will, in turn, begin to spend more and more on educational tools and games. This isn’t a zero-sum game, but a dynamic new market made up of historic non-consumers.

These trends haven’t gone unnoticed by big players in consumer tech. IAC, which acquired in 2013, tapped former CEO Mandy Ginsberg to build the brand among moms. Last year, they acquired The Princeton Review. recently went public as part of the Match Group’s $400 million IPO.

Two years ago, Amazon quietly acquired a relatively unknown math intervention tool called TenMarks. In October, iconic publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt launched Curious World, a subscription-based Netflix for kids’ educational content.

A renaissance in direct-to-consumer education technology may also have big implications for public schooling. Parents and kids familiar with a new generation of learning tools will have different expectations for school-based learning.

But there also are major equity implications. One-to-one computing initiatives and low-cost/high-speed home Internet will help address equity concerns, but we worry that disparate access to early learning tools, in particular, might exacerbate our large, and growing, school-readiness gap.

It’s still early to pick winners and losers or assess the real implications, in terms of educational outcomes. Big questions remain: Will big consumer brands make a play in consumer edtech? Where will moms and dads, teachers, employers and students find and evaluate the most appealing and effective tools? Can we overcome the risk of perpetuating a system of educational haves and have-nots? Stay tuned…