What Do Accelerators Accelerate?

Emerging Technologies and Edtech August 11, 2015

In the last years, there has been an explosion in the number of new education and technology projects launched. This impressive boom of edtech initiatives is reaching all sectors and audiences: for-profit businesses are designed to address the new demands of the education market; non-profit organizations adopt technology to new and existing education projects; learners are eager to make use of tools and content that have a technological component. The education world is hungry of technology.

Not only all sectors are jumping in this new – and lasting – trend, but this can also be observed in most regions. It is not longer the case that Silicon Valley is the only and main source of innovation in the world. Education and technology have also been blossoming in Latin America, Asia, and notably in Africa.

Parallel and linked to this phenomenon there is another expansion happening, the one of edtech accelerator programs. The chicken or the egg, the more edtech projects launched, the more accelerators created; the more accelerators designed, the more edtech projects originated. New edtech accelerators upsurge every day to address the needs of these also newly created edtech projects, but the fact that there is larger support available to young initiatives turn this into a very attractive market. In the midst of successes and failures, these programs promise successful formulas to help edtech projects become big and known.

But do edtech accelerators actually accelerate edtech projects? Can they really improve these projects in a sustainable and accountable way?

Let’s start by taking a look at the typical profile of an edtech accelerator. Most of them are located in usual places for innovation in technology: the UK and the USA. Whereas innovation in education and technology is exploding elsewhere, India, for example, will only have its first edtech accelerator this year. In Africa, no strong program is boosting the impressive growth of edtech projects in most part of the continent. Accelerators are thus accelerating innovation on very specific and well-established hubs that no longer, alone, reflect innovation and change in the field of education.

Secondly, most part of accelerators keeps a rather traditional type of support that is very much ingrained in their parents’ DNA, the incubators. Funding and mentorship envisaging scaling are the most common offers, which makes sense considering that young projects need 1/money 2/to expand its activities and grow. But can we accelerate education and technology projects only through funding and mentorship for growth?

The answer to this question is no. Most part of edtech accelerators accelerates businesses, but not necessarily the impact of these same businesses on education. The problem with many accelerators is that they focus on the quantitative aspect of growth, rather than also focusing on the qualitative angle of educational impact and learning outcomes.

Projects often witness that growth alone does not measure how effective a project can be in terms of increasing access to quality education. Ideas Box, a young project from Libraries Without Borders, for example, is rapidly scaling to contexts others than refugee camps, and for that the development of appropriate content is paramount. Apps for Good, on the other hand, has been scaling much more recently, after about 20 years in the edtech market. There is thus a fine line between growing a project in terms of increasing the number of learners/users and growing and improving the quality of education delivered to these learners/users.

It is essential that edtech accelerators understand this difference and accompany the projects in their multidimensional growth. This understanding should also serve to enhance the view that the educational perspective should always be a priority as we are dealing, at the end of the day, with human development.

The core of this debate relies on the type of support provided. This should not be based on pre-established formulas, but instead on tailor-made solutions adapted to different types of needs, challenges and environments. The reason for that is that education remains a local phenomenon and should be adapted and customized to local contexts and demands, even though it has increasingly been internationalized by technology. And as education, innovation is also linked to the local context where it was launched. No pre-established formula is able to address the complexities embedded on each and every single education project in the world.

Based on this picture, I believe a solid edtech accelerator program should thus contemplate three main pillars to provide a comprehensive support to young innovative projects:

  • business development to support the project in achieving financial stability, with a strategic view in place;
  • technical assistance to develop a user-friendly tool that is adapted to the learner’s profile;
  • and education to guarantee the project offers high quality content, a structured curriculum, an efficient assessment system, all these adapted to the learners needs and environment.

These pillars should serve as a lighthouse to guide the structure of the accelerator program, being thus adapted and adopted on a case-by-case basis.

But one can say that a number of edtech accelerators are actually accelerating projects without offering this comprehensive package. The thing is that behind the scenes of what an accelerator program is made of, there are the projects. Accelerators help projects, but projects also help accelerators: the quality and diversity of projects influence enormously on the image and prestige of the accelerator. The added value of an accelerator can be thus measured by its support to smaller, innovative projects, and not necessarily to the giants of the edtech market. The WISE Accelerator, for example, has been supporting young projects located in Africa, Latin America, and the MENA region. This way, the value of program’s offer is evaluated by the weight it has on the development of the project, with less variables of success to take for granted.

In view of the current context, accelerators are not really accelerating edtech projects they way they should be accelerated. Most accelerators actually accelerate business growth, but not learning outcomes; they accelerate the investors market by creating brands, but do not accelerate the quality of education; they also accelerate the market of accelerators itself but turning specific hubs even stronger and more attractive, but they are not accelerating their own potential to promote real transformation in education in different parts of the world.

In view of this, we have many edtech accelerators in the market, but we need more. We need accelerators that offer in-depth support on business development, technical assistance and notably on education. We need accelerators that reflect the different types of innovation in specific contexts. We need accelerators that reflect the diversity of edtech projects in different regions. We need accelerators that are not the sons of incubators, but that are, above all, the new influential actors committed to promote change in education.

Part II of this article will explore the three pillars of an accelerator. Stay tuned!