Tom Vander Ark is an authority on education technology, also known as edtech, a field including startup companies developing apps and other new technologies to serve teachers, administrators, parents and students. Ark is the author of “Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World,” and a partner in an education venture investment firm called Learn Capital. Previously, he was executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped fund the transformation of Baltimore’s former Southern High School into Digital Harbor High in 2002.
Ark recently spoke with MDBIZ News about why he views Baltimore at the forefront for edtech. The following comments are condensed from that interview:
Why is Baltimore a major edtech hub?
“The interesting thing about Baltimore is that edtech is new, except that it’s not. Baltimore has some great legacy companies that have been in the education space for 20 years and several large education investors like Chris Hoehn-Saric and Doug Becker (who developed Sylvan Learning and Laureate Education). Sterling Partners in Baltimore is one of the best private equity investors in education. They launched Connections Education, which sold to Pearson four years ago (for $400 million). They launched Sylvan and Laureate, probably the most important global higher education brand there is. Calvert Street is a private equity firm with some educational investments. And you also have Calvert Education Services.”
Why is edtech emerging now?
“In 2010, an app explosion occurred. Overnight, there was an abundance of cheap devices and good development platforms and a flood of investment that really changed the edtech landscape nationally. It changed opportunities dramatically. Also, this generation of college graduates has a relatively high degree of idealism. You put opportunity, interest and a mission-focus together and many smart kids wanted to work in education. And you had plenty of money flowing from private and philanthropic sources. You also had changes in school development like the charter school movement and in talent development with young people going to programs like Teach for America. Edtech is finally being connected to education reform.
“There has been a viral adoption of free apps in the classroom since 2009-2010. I’m not sure how many of these free apps will turn the corner and become profitable companies, but now there’s a way to gain school adoption and you don’t have to go through the district procurement officer to get in the door. I just met with a superintendent in Texas and asked him if he knew that 40 percent of his teachers were already using Edmodo (a free social network app for school work). He didn’t know. I said, ‘Maybe, I should give you a demo on it?’ It’s a lot easier being able to have that kind of conversation rather than simply pitching him with, ‘I have a good demo. Can I show it to you?’”
How does Baltimore stack up nationally?
“New York, Chicago and the Northern California Bay Area will be important for this industry, but there are a few thousand really good jobs that could just as easily be in Baltimore, Seattle, Boston, Austin or other venture cities. I think Baltimore is in the middle of the second tier as far as edtech cities. Baltimore sits above places like Seattle, Austin and San Diego, which are all tech hotspots, and also rates ahead of Portland, Raleigh-Durham and other cities we think of as innovators. Our index considers about 12 factors. The most heavily weighted is the number of edtech startups, but we also consider the tech scene broadly, the online learning ecosystem and other factors such as universities, state education policy, charter schools, school district innovation, philanthropic investors and nonprofits.”
What made you take notice of Baltimore?
“When I was with the Gates Foundation, we made an initial grant to create Digital Harbor High. This is slightly melodramatic, but an indication of what has happened in the past few years was that a teacher named Andrew Coy left Digital Harbor, arguably the best digital learning school in the area, and took over a nearby rec center and turned it into a tech learning center. He embraced the next edtech explosion. He’s starting to connect technology and teachers. I think that move was symbolic and a bit of a spark. It drew in people like Katrina Stevens, another edtech activist and a blogger. And across from Andrew’s center is the incubator Betamore. EdTechMD just started to raise money to seed more local startups. You’ve got a tech scene heating up. Andrew’s story in particular interested me. And now when he calls a meeting, everyone comes running to take part—the Chamber of Commerce, investors and foundations. It’s been fun to watch.”