Smart.ly brings MBA lessons to the smartphone. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

There was a moment in the early 2000s when the Washington area appeared on the cusp of establishing a true economic engine built around education technology.

Upstarts like D.C.’s Blackboard, Herndon’s K12 and the language-learning company Rosetta Stone in Arlington were making their mark nationally, drawing interest from venture capitalists and entrepreneurs alike. Blackboard’s software powered online instruction at something like 40 percent of the college campuses around the country. K12 created an entire online alternative to traditional schooling. Kiosks selling Rosetta Stone’s CD-based curriculum popped up in nearly every major shopping mall, promising to help you, too, learn a foreign language at your own pace. It established offices in Europe, Japan and Korea. All three companies went public, and grew to become some of the biggest in the region.

All three still exist but somehow we lost our leadership. The innovators got innovated, and cheaper, cloud-based alternatives built elsewhere took flight. Suddenly, the excitement seemed to migrate to Silicon Valley, New York, Boston.

That’s the thing about technology; success can be fleeting. To stay on top, progress must be relentless. Many business owners just don’t have the stomach for the risk that entails.

There’s glimmers the region may be ready for a second act. A new set of upstarts are gaining traction, going by names like EverFi, 2U and Echo360, and finding support from start-up incubators like the District’s 1776. Many are being founded by refugees from the first wave.

 

Tom Adams. (Photo courtesy of Pedago).
Tom Adams. (Photo courtesy of Pedago).

Tom Adams is one of those. The 43-year-old former Rosetta Stone chairman and chief executive and two 30-something technology mavens from the company–former research and development director Alexie Harper and software architect Ori Ratner—have teamed up to bootstrap a 20-person education technology company called Pedago, which recently rolled out its first product, an instructional app called Smart.ly. Their big idea is to bring learning to the smartphone by breaking down lessons into quick, snappy digestable chunks. You don’t go more than seven seconds without being asked to click on something.

Ori Ratner. (Photo courtesy of Pedago) Ori Ratner. (Photo courtesy of Pedago)
Alexi Harper (Photo courtesy of Pedago) Alexi Harper (Photo courtesy of Pedago)

Smart.ly’s first classes are intended to serve as supplements for those pursuing MBAs, think lessons about the cost of capital, accounting, marketing and finance.

Think fast lessons. ones you can run through in under 10 minutes. And no video, which hogs bandwidth.

“They can be consumed on a bus ride,” Adams said.

I asked why MBAs? Its a niche ripe for innovation, Adams said. There’s also potential for broad appeal. After all, a lot of online courses focus on teaching people to specific skills, such as writing software code or designing better graphics. Most cubicle denizens, he argues, are “in business functions.  We’re in sales, accounting, marketing.”

A two-week trial is free. Then, MBA students pay $9 a month, anyone else $49 a month. Adams reasons that MBA students will be motivated to work through the courses longer, because most are taking part in two-year university programs. Others might want to dip in for a month or two.

I tried a demo involving a lesson on photo composition and found it pretty much lived up to its billing. It was quick, and I learned a thing or two. But I’m no academic expert and I tend to be skeptical of the change-the-world promises of start-up founders, no matter what their background. Most start-ups fail, and nearly all pivot at some point from their founding idea. So I was interested to hear what Michael Horn thought.

Michael Horn (Photo courtesy of the Clayton Christensen Institute) Michael Horn (Photo courtesy of the Clayton Christensen Institute)

Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and co-author of a well-received education technology book called “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.” Clayton M. Christensen, you might know, is the Harvard Business School professor whose work on innovation has become required reading for many an entrepreneur.

Horn recently stepped down from the institute to begin practicing what he preaches, advising actual companies how to innovate and disrupt the education establishment. He signed on as an advisor to Pedago, giving him potential upside in the company, after being cornered by Adams and his team at an Arizona education technology conference, where they begged for a couple minutes of his time.

“He and his team pulled me aside and literally gave me a product demo. I was blown away,” Horn said. “It is simple…You are actively learning. It didn’t overload you at any point the way many online things do.”

Horn said the Smart.ly has promise not just as a supplement for high-level degrees like MBAs but in bringing education to developing nations, where cellphones are in plentiful supply even if computers are not. As it happened, I interviewed Adams by phone as he was in Rwanda, where he was talking to government ministers about a possible partnership there.

I asked Horn where he thought educational technology was headed. He suspects more and more learning will migrate to smartphones and tablets, like so much else these days, to be used in conjunction with more traditional approaches. There will be attempts to bring education into the Facebook world of social interaction and efforts to harness data to deliver more personalized education.

Horn said Washington could be a player in this next wave, but that’s no sure bet. His assessment is not all that different from Adam’s, who thinks the region must deal with a chicken-and-egg quandary. New ideas need investments, and investments need new ideas.

“My belief is that is all about the quality of the founders and the quality of the early employees,” he said.

“And we in Washington need to learn how to hype things more.”