Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’ve been reading EdSurge for years now. You’ve been closely following the rise of Khan Academy, the MOOCs, and every other hot edtech trend. And now, finally, you’re ready to take the plunge and join the edtech revolution yourself.
There’s just one problem: Where do you start?
Because let’s be honest, this world - as sexy as it is - can be downright overwhelming. Breaking into edtech isn’t like applying for an accounting or consulting job, where there’s only a handful of companies that everyone knows. Instead, edtech is as diverse and crazy as education itself, with many different roads leading to many different outcomes.
So in order to help you take the plunge with some degree of sanity, let me break your choice down into six major paths, sorted in order from the greatest direct impact on individual students to the greatest scale across lots of students. That way, you can choose the edtech path that best corresponds to what you want to specifically achieve.
If you love working with kids and are both a great instructor and listener, you’re likely to find the most satisfaction working directly in a school. That’s because no amount of fancy company perks can substitute for the awesome experience of a great educator using both technology and pedagogy to expand a student’s world.
And there are more roads to a school placement than ever before. For instance, to become a teacher, you can apply directly to most charter or private schools - neither of which typically require a formal teaching certificate. Or, if you’re passionate about serving in a traditional public school, programs like Teach For America or Teaching Fellows provide an alternate path. And even if you’re not cut out for the classroom, check out programs like New Leaders for New Schools to see if you might be a better fit for school leadership.
But what if you want to make a big splash in students’ lives but just know yourself well enough to understand that schools aren’t your place? After all, teaching is incredibly rewarding but also incredibly challenging if your skills don’t align (e.g., you’re better with spreadsheets than public speaking). In that case, try moving one level up to work not directly for a school, but for its overarching district or charter management organization (CMO). Because that gives you clear visibility into the impact of your work but with the additional scale and technological resource of a larger organization.
You can apply directly to a district (Gwinnett County and Orange County won the most recent Broad Prize for Urban Education) or CMO (KIPP and Harmony serve the most students). Or you can check out fellowships like Education Pioneers or Broad that place top candidates into roles across the country.
Understandably, the idea of working in a large bureaucracy like a school district can make some would-be edtechies nervous. So how about stepping outside the formal education system and joining a lean, mean education nonprofit? This way, you’ll still likely have significant exposure to schools and students but you’ll play by less restricted rules, allowing you to innovate more freely.
For instance, you could start with the youngest of students by working for Jumpstart, making sure that every child has access to a high-quality preschool. Or you could reach the other end of the age spectrum with The Posse Foundation, ensuring that first-generation college students have the support they need to succeed. Or even connect people young and old via iMentor, which leverages technology to support mentoring relationships around the world. Whatever your passion, there’s likely a great edtech-focused nonprofit out there for you.
Maybe you love the idea of working in a small, nimble organization - but are worried that relying on philanthropic dollars will restrict the impact you can create. In that case, startups give you exposure to significant edtech innovation, amped up by the billions of dollars poured into this sector in the past few years. While schools and educators may look at you more cynically than your nonprofit peers, the fast pace of growth in many of these companies can provide ample accelerant for your career.
EdSurge covers hundreds of these companies and their products in-depth, from relatively established players like Remind and Clever to newer entrants like Pear Deck and Raise.me. Either way you go, the most important thing is to understand what value you can immediately add - after all, startups just move too fast to spend time training staff. To help you articulate that potential contribution, here’s a primer on 12 tech roles that don’t require any formal technical skills.
Perhaps the potential scale of a for-profit company excites you, but you just can’t stomach the risk of an unproven company where your job could change (or end!) on any given day. If that sounds like you, a larger, more established firm may well be your cup of tea. That way, you get exposure to a national or international student audience but with relatively stable compensation and big-company perks.
This genre covers two extremes: Large firms for whom education is their primary business (such as Pearson and Blackboard) and even larger firms for whom education is just a tiny education (think Google or Apple). Generally, the tradeoff you make between the two is that the former are all-in on education but a little stodgier (e.g., textbooks are a centuries-old business), while the latter are more innovative but education can often be a distant priority for the head honchos (e.g., education makes up less than 3% of Apple’s quarterly revenue - even in the fall!). To get a better sense of what it’s like to work at some of the top tech companies with education portfolios, here’s a behind-the-scenes tour of 18 of the biggest tech employers.
OK, you’ve checked out the first five paths to edtech and you’re still not convinced.You want bigger scale even still - not just to impact schools, but to impact the entire education world. If that kind of world-changing focus is what you’re after and you’re willing to give up direct exposure to students and getting your hands dirty building products or running programs, then becoming an education funder may be for you. Because, as anyone who’s ever tried to raise money for a nonprofit or startup knows, funders really do pull many of the education world’s puppet strings.
The big choice here is whether you want to join a traditional foundation or a venture capital firm. Foundations range from Echoing Green, which provides seed funding to social entrepreneurs like Wendy Kopp, to the Gates Foundation, which has given over a billion dollars to the United Negro College Fund. And VC firms stretch from Imagine K-12, which has accelerated new startups like Remind, to Learn Capital, which helped contribute $70 million to General Assembly last year. Either way, be prepared to network your way in as these jobs are few and far between - and highly sought after.
So clearly, there’s more than one road into edtech. The trick is to separate the general hype from your specific passion and skills. Because the last thing you want to do is follow lemming-like into this world and end up in a superficially sexy role that doesn’t actually suit you.
So take a step back and identify what you want to accomplish in edtech before you take the first step forward into it.