The fact that our education system is a one-size-fits-all model based on the approaches of the Industrial Revolution has become a common complaint. Historically, educational institutions have sought to deliver material to the most children possible with the least amount of effort, much like a factory seeks to maximize outputs and minimize inputs. This approach invariably left behind those students who learned in different ways from the mainstream. Their voices were lost in the drive to standardize instruction.

Recently, due to the explosion of cheap digital technologies and a deeper understanding of cognitive science and pedagogy, innovations have popped up to cater to learners in the margins. To make use of Chris Anderson’s long-tail metaphor, education is starting to shift away from a focus on mainstream learners and toward a focus on creating learning pathways for personalized instruction.

The mantra of personalized instruction for all types of learners and for all types of pathways to employment has become the rallying call for many education funders, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund. In this sense, the margin has now become the mainstream, as administrators realize that fulfilling the potential of all of our students is integral to the future prosperity of the economy.

As Chris identified in his book, there is tremendous market potential in the long tail. Entrepreneurs who figure out how to tap into the large number of learners who are traditionally left out of the mainstream education system will do very well for themselves.

Featured in our latest report on education changemakers, here are eight companies from the MaRS’ edtech cluster in the information technology, communications and entertainment practice that have this market strategy.

TwentyOne Toys
Twenty One Toys

The history of technology is full of examples of products that started as devices to help people with special needs and then found mainstream success. Voice recognition, originally designed as an assistive technology for people with disabilities, is now used in most consumer electronic devices, sold as a feature of convenience.

Toy company Twenty One Toys was founded with the goal of allowing people to feel what it is like for blind people to communicate complex instructions. The company has seen its market expand into corporate training for creativity and communication, as well as to kindergarten to Grade 12 instructors looking for ways to teach empathy to students.

LEARNStyle holds the core premise that all students learn differently, not just those who are on the margins. For example, some people prefer visual learning, while others prefer hands-on learning. LEARNStyle seeks to share instructional strategies with teachers who are used to the one-size approach. What started as a way of differentiating instruction for special education students has been recognized as a solid pedagogical strategy for all teachers.

Raise Your Flag
Raise Your Flag

Ryan Porter’s Raise Your Flag focuses on a market that even education professionals continually underserve: those students who graduate high school, but who have no interest in attending university or college. Three million students graduate from high school every year in North America, with roughly 45% of those students going straight to work when they graduate, creating a robust long tail that has never been tapped.

Heliotrope is a learning game that combines personal assessment and co-creativity to foster 21st century skills such as self-knowledge, empathy, collaboration, and appreciation of diversity. It is currently used internationally in schools and in professional development and a version specifically for virtual team collaboration is in the works.

Keen For Learning has created a solid instructional framework to engage boys in the classroom, but is finding a wider market resonance with parents who are struggling to understand their boys.

YMCA Academy
YMCA Academy

Squag and Remediation Plus tend to focus on students who have identified learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or autism, but they have also found market opportunities that extend far beyond those constraints. The YMCA Academy, which has piloted both products, is starting to see interest in its curriculum from independent schools in the United States that are looking for a competitive advantage in the rapidly growing charter school market.

In a modern economy, where Canada’s strength is defined by our intellectual outputs rather than by how many widgets we make, it makes sense to maximize the intellectual capital of all of our students. It will require a big shift in the education system and entrepreneurs like those listed here are making sure it happens.

Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…