LearnLaunch On the Move as Ed-Tech Market Heats Up in Boston

4/26/13Follow @gthuang

The school year may be heading down the home stretch, but tech companies in the education sector are finding things are just starting to pick up—particularly in New England.

That’s according to Eileen Rudden, the co-founder of LearnLaunch, a local nonprofit focused on bringing the education and business communities together. Rudden also helps run LearnLaunchX, a new ed-tech startup accelerator that begins its first session June 10. (The first group of startups is currently being selected.)

Rudden has deep roots in the Boston area, starting in the 1970s. She’s a Brown University and Harvard Business School grad who built her career in the software industry at companies such as Lotus/IBM, Avaya, and FairMarket. She also has been active in education, having served as a senior executive in the Chicago Public Schools system before returning to Boston in 2011.

Rudden

I caught up with Rudden in the midst of a crazy workweek. One issue on her mind is that the local hiring market in ed-tech is going nuts—there are lots of startups looking for talent, and lots of open positions in bigger companies, she says.

To that end, LearnLaunch is running a job fair this Saturday afternoon (April 27) at Boston University, and is rolling out an online job board to connect companies with talent.

Companies that will be at the BU fair include Curriculum Associates, Playrific, EverTrue, SimpleTuition, and Tiggly. In addition, big companies such as McGraw-Hill Education are looking to increase their presence in the Boston area.

Indeed, the interplay between small startups and established firms is helping drive the ed-tech industry forward. “The giants want the innovators, and the startups want the go-to-market help from the larger companies,” Rudden says.

Because ed-tech is such a large and sprawling sector—it includes everything from online education tools to payment technologies to peer-and-alumni networking—I wondered if Rudden had some organizing principles and trends to share.

“The issue now is the digital wave is starting to wash over education both in higher ed and K-12,” she says. “At the same time, there’s a lot of growth in what I would call informal schooling.”

In K-12 education, she predicts “a more national market” will emerge for ed-tech products, as “compared to the state-by-state adoption we see now.” As I took it, that’s because of the common core state standards initiative. And it could make a big difference for business; selling to school districts traditionally has been a difficult route for startups trying to get traction.

In higher ed, Rudden sees the massive open online course (MOOC) phenomenon as “tremendously exciting,” with the potential to drive a big open-source movement for education. “Online adult learning has been around for a while and is growing furiously,” she says. “As soon as elite institutions delivered MOOCs, there has been a big focus on it.” In fact, online course offerings have become “a new battleground for academic reputation,” she says.

So will this eventually drive down the price of college? Rudden wouldn’t go that far, but she predicts that within 10 to 15 years, “you’ll see much more blended learning,” in terms of a mix of online materials and in-class study. “There’ll be lots of options for highly motivated students to maximize value,” she says.

Lastly, I asked her what the Boston business community should do to foster the local ed-tech cluster. “We believe we need to educate all the investors, including angel investors,” Rudden says, referring to the opportunities to make money in the sector. “And it’s important for there to be support for schools adopting innovative practices.” (Not just STEM initiatives, for example, but reading and writing too, she says.)

“We need to have support for schools and for personalized learning come from the business community,” she says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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