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There’s a story published in Techcrunch back in 2013 that I think about all the time. The headline: “Aardvark Co-Founder Max Ventilla Departs Google To Read A Lot Of Books On Education.”

The story announces Ventilla’s job change and speculates about his plans based on a photo his wife posted to Twitter featuring 20 education books laid out, side-by-side on the floor. “My husband’s last day at Google was yesterday. Can you guess what his latest obsession is?” (The titles include John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and two copies of Allan Collins and Richard Halverson’s Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology.)

Ventilla opened AltSchool just a few months later charging $19,000 a year for a private school touting a new model of “personalized learning.” One year after that Techcrunch article, Ventilla announced he’d raised $33 million from Founders Fund (Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm), Andreessen Horowitz, First Round Capital, Harrison Metal, John Doerr, Jonathan Sackler, Learn Capital, and the Omidyar Network. To date, the company has now raised $173 million.

So, how does someone go from being a Google engineer to starting a private school within four months, and from knowing next to nothing about education – about pedagogy, policy, institutions, systems, or histories – to running one of the most well-funded education technology startups?

Trick question.

The answer is, of course, intertwined in the cognitive biases that are pervasive in Silicon Valley – in entrepreneurship and investing. You can start a school knowing nothing about school because you believe in the ideology of disruption; you believe that everything is an engineering problem, and you’re smart enough to “fix” things. You can invest in that guy – and yes, it’s likely to be a guy – because you know he was an engineer at Google, someone who’d been successful in the past at starting and selling a company.

I don’t (necessarily) expect investors to have robust theories of learning when they fund education technology companies. But I’m interested nevertheless in the stories they tell about education. Where do investors (and entrepreneurs) hear these stories? Where do they learn about education? What can we tell about these narratives based on the patterns in their investments?

I’ve spent the last few days looking at the investments and staff at some of the major venture capital firms. (You can find the list of all my data sets at data.hackeducation.com.) In general, I’m interested in seeing how ideas about education and ed-tech spread, so I’m looking at how entrepreneurs and investors are connected – financially and otherwise.

Education technology startups largely fell out of favor among venture capitalists following the dot com bust. Why was interest renewed circa 2008? Who convinced them ed-tech would be a “good deal”? And then who convinced them about what ed-tech should do?

(Bill Gates, probably.)

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Audrey Watters


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