Measuring Learning Outcome and Social Return On Investment

  • Matt Greenfield (US). Management Partner, Rethink Education, a venture capital firm focused on education technology
  • Joseph Fung (HK),  Managing Partner, Saltagen Ventures,  a deep-technology venture capital fund dedicated to scaling Canadian startups globally
  • Philo Alto (Moderator), Founder and CEO, Asia Value Advisors,  a purpose-driven philanthropic capital advisory firm based in Hong Kong

This panel looked at impact measurement from both the investor and educator sides, under the UN Sustainable Development Goals framework of making education more equitable, inclusive and sustainable. 

Importance of impact measurement: With a background in finance and research, Fung highlights the importance for startups to prove efficacy with evidence. Impact measurement may be challenging for early-stage startups, He recommends startups to collaborate with the academia in developing the pedagogy and sharing datasets.

Case for a better measurement framework: Fung points out the phenomenon whereby funders tend to split the return and impact considerations, as in their own model which has the VC firm looking into financial returns and the philanthropic side that goes with their early childhood education work. There are discrepancies in the needs and expectations of the investors, educators and users.  

A professor-turned-venture philanthropist, Greenfield sensed the inadequacies of existing impact frameworks. They have devised their own set comprising four aspects: pedagogical model, transformation of institutions and communities, technology and enterprise models. He further suggested a few heuristics to examine an early stage startup: 

  • What is your theory of change? 
  • Who are you serving? 
  • What do you expect to do for them? 
  • Why do you expect it to work? 
  • Is it a cultural/social fit? Do people use it? 

Correlation between impact and return: Greenfield does not agree that there should be a trade-off between impact and return, as evident in the multiples of returns of their fund. Investors have to start figuring out what their values are. In the case of their fund, they seek to invest in solutions that help the vulnerable to realise their potentials. Introducing the need for every business to have a ‘Chief Empathy Officer’, he believes that edtech startups will be scalable and profitable if they can solve real problems. He further explains that:

  • education solutions should comprise three aspects (1) fun (2) intense collaboration and (3) deep self-directed exploration in all stages of learning
  • it is essential to address the needs of various stakeholders and incentivise them to adopt the solutions 

To stimulate more capital into the edtech space, Fung would like to see the development of a framework that could integrate the two different sets of correlated considerations on a spectrum of weightings to impact and return. It would be necessary to have a benchmark that could be validated not just internally when making an investment decision but also by external investors.

Edtech Market: On the characteristics of the Asian market,  Greenfield thinks that it will move over time from the current B2C to more B2B models. He also believes that the value of the education business is grossly underestimated. Informal education, corporate and lifelong learning will certainly be growth areas, as learning should be an integral part of a person’s life and in all organisations. To conclude, Greenfield looks forward to more cross-sector and cross-border collaborations. He thinks that Hong Kong can be a valuable gateway between China and the rest of the world.