Venture capitalists do it. Why shouldn't philanthropists do it, too?

Pitch a new idea to venture capitalists and the first question they’ll shoot back is: “Who else is in your space?”

If you can’t answer that question, go straight back to “Go” and don’t even dream of collecting $200.

VCs, of course, needs to weigh competitive as well as potentially complementary efforts. But answering that question should help the entrepreneur, too. Entrepreneurs are most likely to help a field move forward if they build on the knowledge and the mistakes of the past rather than tripping down the well-trodden road.

Really compelling ideas draw multiple entrepreneurs (think of how the idea of social networking brought out Facebook, MySpace and a swarm of other startups). And sometimes ideas have to wait for the technology to catch up (picture phones and electronic books come to mind).

Smart startups, however, look for unique approaches even when tackling a problem that others are–or have–taken on. And the fastest way to assess whether an approach is fresh or a rerun is to know what else is going on.

So what about the educational-technology space? We want to invent new approaches and ideas that will engage students, teachers (and even the occasional parent). But do we have good maps of what’s going on—not just in the for-profit venture sector but in the philanthropic sector, too?

Dale Dougherty, who’s no slouch when it comes to staying on top of the latest technology, summed up the problem well in his recent post:

“I wished the teams themselves were a better judge of their own proposals, and that they understood how their project advanced appropriate uses of technology in education. I wished that each of the applicants had been able to consult an evolving set of best practices for developing educational technology projects. …. They might help others avoid pitfalls and learn from failures.“

Our problems in education are too intense, funding is too thin and time too precious to take on duplicative efforts. We need to apply some of the same discriminating standards in our philanthropic Edu2.0 projects that we use in for-profit ones.

So what would be the relevant features of a topographical map of the educational-technology sector? Here’s one set of categories:

Projects aimed at:

• Improving instruction
• Individualized (adaptive) instruction
• Doing assessment
• Improving teacher practices
• Promoting project-based learning
• Improving transparency
• Bridging the school-home communications gap
• Improving school infrastructure

What would you add? What elements do you think would help people designing education-technology projects get a useful picture of what else is going on?

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