Q&A: How Kaplan’s TechStars ed tech accelerator plans to get to the head of the class

TechStars is a leader among general tech startup incubators, but can it work its magic in ed tech?

Earlier this year, education giant Kaplan announced a new EdTech Accelerator powered by TechStars. But it’s hardly the only one. In the past few months, no less than five accelerators have launched offering ed tech entrepreneurs money, mentors and a faster track to growth.

Don BurtonEarlier this month, the program announced that it had brought on Don Burton, a serial entrepreneur and investor with a deep background in for-profit education, to serve as the accelerator’s managing director. Ahead of the program’s first acceptance deadline, Burton chatted with me about opportunities and challenges for ed tech startups — and how Kaplan’s TechStars program believes it can rise above the competition.

Here’s a (lightly edited) transcript of our conversation:

GigaOM: Ed tech accelerators are popping up all over the place — why do you think now is an interesting time to be a part of one?

Burton: We’re at the very beginning of major change. We’ve had big success stories, in the sense of online education, like University of Phoenix or Wireless Generation, which was sold to News Corp. (s NWS) But if you look at those opportunities, they’re really more automating the way we currently do education [like] a lot of the education technology that’s been here to date.

What’s really exciting is now we’re thinking of new ways of imagining what learning can look like. Like the Maker Movement and the Quantified Self movement — I think those types of project-based, interest-based and passion-based experiences in the real world are what we can do with all of learning eventually.

GigaOM: TechStars is a big name in the startup world and Kaplan is well-known in education, but with so much competition, how will your program distinguish itself?

Burton: It’s becoming a very popular space so a lot of people are starting up accelerators, but if you think of it, they’re startups. TechStars has been doing this since 2006 and they have such a brand and platform, [including] the network, the mentors and the VC funders. It’s really tough to replicate that. And with Kaplan, we can get you customers [for testing products] right away – other startups won’t have such easy access.

Maybe a lot of startups will get into accelerators because there are so many. But, potentially, we’ll be the graduate school of accelerators, so to speak. Maybe you started at one of the smaller accelerators and, once you’ve graduated and get some traction and are really ready to catapult yourself into a Series A, that’s when you might think now I can apply to the TechStars accelerator.

GigaOM: So does that mean TechStars wants other accelerators to feed into it? Or that you’re looking for slightly more established ed tech startups?

Burton: No, we definitely would take startups that don’t have any traction if we love the idea and we love the team. But let’s say you apply to the Kaplan TechStars accelerator and couldn’t get in early. Maybe you fall back to another accelerator and once you’ve proven yourself, have developed your concept more and have a little bit of traction then you come back to the Kaplan TechStars accelerator.

[We’re casting] a very wide net. We’re trying to find the best ideas and the best teams but also [startups] that we think have the potential to be fundamentally disruptive. We want big impact, not another set of flash cards and exercises for kids to do math. [For example], can it engage kids in a much stronger way than traditional education has engaged kids? We’re looking for a broad spectrum – it could be cradle to grave.

teacher classroomGigaOM: What are some areas of opportunity that haven’t been tapped yet?

Burton: One is the scorecard by which we’re measuring learning. Instead of just a GPA or SAT or IQ score, who is the person that we’re looking at? You look at all the work in the positive psychology movement and Martin Seligman.

They’re talking about the profiles of people’s character strengths [like] curiosity and love of learning and grittiness.  But we don’t really measure that that well. We don’t think about a person’s dispositions or personality but that makes a big difference for how they might want to learn. It’s the same with interest and knowledge areas [and] multiple intelligences. This is a bottleneck issue because in any system, you want to know what your kids are learning and the competencies they’re building. Having a smarter scorecard that can help us profile people in more individualistic ways is going to be really important.

Digital portfolios is [another] big area. How do we represent our competencies as we move to a more competence-based system instead of just a credential or seat-time based system? We’re going to need to capture that in a more effective way.

The last one is smarter pathways. Everyone talks about adaptive learning and personalization and how important that is. But if you look at what’s going on out there today, [it’s] just a scratch on the surface of personalization.

GigaOM: Where do you think the innovation will start?

Burton: [It] will probably come in the informal markets before it comes to the formal markets. There are some innovators in the school markets, for sure — the charter schools and other types of institution. If you look at the MIT Media Lab, that’s really innovative — [students] get to build their own robots or whatever they want to research, they get to build it and perform it, like the Maker movement. There are radical experiments in institutions, but those are almost like rogue departments. But can’t we see all of education looking much more like that?

fundraising educationGigaOM: The industry is in the midst of an investment upswing, but what are the key challenges for entrepreneurs?

Burton: One of the biggest challenges is simply creating change in the formal school systems that are not as market-driven as some other sectors. If you have the best solution, that does not guarantee you adoption in all the schools across all the systems. Even you have amazing success in some districts, how do you get that across the whole system? A lot of these districts across the country have very different ways of doing things and it’s tough to scale your opportunity. And policy — how does the government view technology and for-profit education?

GigaOM: People are already talking about an ed tech bubble — are all these accelerators fueling it?

Burton: It would be a bubble if no change happens, right? If none of this stuff starts to impact how we learn and how we develop. But if you think about where the education sector is [it’s] the second-largest sector in the world. If you think about the change that’s needed and the amount of change that’s needed, we haven’t even started yet. We’re not at a bubble but the very beginning of a new way of envisioning learning. Traction matters and you need to start seeing the impact and seeing tools being adopted, and I think we will see that. We need all of this attention and resources because we have a big issue with education. We need to put some great minds and some great money behind it.