Why edtech startups need to build for overlooked communities

The education world has been transformed in the past 10 years thanks to the power of technology. But not all communities have been privy to the benefits of expanding mobile networks and devices.

Programs like Comcast’s Internet Essentials and EducationSuperHighway have increased access to the internet, but low-income students are still shut out of the edtech revolution.

The digital divide is no longer just about connectivity. While many edtech startups operate on a freemium model, at the end of the day their products are not designed with the specific needs of low-income, under-connected kids in mind. That’s where nonprofits come in.

Most edtech companies in the space are VC-backed, for-profit ventures. However, the majority of these paid products cannot reach the communities ripe for impact. We need to see more education apps designed with low-income parents and students in mind. Edtech startups must rethink their offerings and business models if they want to address education needs holistically.

We’re already starting to see companies realize a for-profit model may not be the most effective. In August, the tech nonprofit Khan Academy “acquired” for-profit early childhood education game maker Duck Duck Moose. An untraditional acquisition, Duck Duck Moose joined Khan Academy without cash exchange. The assets and team came under the Khan Academy umbrella thanks to support from a grant from Omidyar Network.

While Duck Duck Moose’s apps have been collectively downloaded more than 10 million times, this acquisition points to the fact that this traction wasn’t strong enough for long-term sustainability. The previously paid mobile games will now be freely available through Khan Academy.

This proves edtech doesn’t have to exacerbate the digital divide. Startups just need to consider how to build accessible, affordable (or free) tech that caters to the needs of those at the bottom of the pyramid.

The digital divide is no longer just about connectivity.

There’s a sector of education startups focused on bridging the resource gap by developing high-quality education tools that students can access for free. And that’s made possible through a nonprofit business model. CommonLit, Literacy Lab and Hack Club, and many others, are uniquely positioned to reach underserved communities and close the education gap that persists in the U.S.

Michelle Brown, founder and CEO of CommonLit, experienced this resource disparity firsthand while teaching at an under-resourced school in rural Mississippi. She decided to tackle the issue herself, and built a digital platform that allows any teacher to access high-quality literature, curriculum and grading resources for free.

Where a for-profit company would have to pay for copyrights to access these literary resources, organizations like NPR, the Digital Public Library of America and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum donated licenses to CommonLit because the startup is a nonprofit. This structure allows CommonLit to focus on reaching at-risk students in low-income communities to raise literacy rates nationwide. CommonLit has already reached 30,000 teachers and more than 850,000 students.

Similarly, Oakland-based tech nonprofit Literacy Lab is working to improve early childhood education in low-income communities. LitLab aims to fix the inequities that result from the fact that high-quality preschool programs are out of reach for 30 percent of children ages 4 and under. This severely impacts children’s early development and holds them back when they enter elementary school.

In fact, children whose families are on welfare are exposed to 30 million fewer words than children from high-income families. LitLab closes this gap through its free digital content and mobile apps that help parents, educators and caregivers bring children up to speed in areas like language and numeracy so they’re prepared to start school regardless of socioeconomic barriers.

Other nonprofit startups are tackling the second digital divide differently. Hack Club, a student-led coding franchise, empowers high school students in any community to create their own computer science programs without relying upon their school to dedicate teachers and resources. Hack Club has enabled 138 schools around the world to start their own computer science programs, including low-income schools like Roosevelt High in the Los Angeles area. Free for students, the program overcomes the resource limitations that often prevent kids from learning code.

So what does this mean for the edtech market? Entrepreneurs need to take a step back and think about building education technology that can really achieve impact. If we want to level the education playing field, it will take a combination of powerful technology and socially minded entrepreneurs.