First, a confession: We love the Internet. We spend most of our workdays inhaling online fumes. And we’re just fine with that. We also work with clients who’ve created products and services via ones and zeroes, not steel and concrete. Our world is online.

But here’s a second, more sordid confession: We’re absolutely losing our minds on Zoom. This isn’t a unique complaint. Workers lucky enough to perform their jobs online have been singing a similar tune since last summer. But we feel particularly sheepish holding this view, given our focus on technology.

We’re an EdTech Accelerator providing research and development services for early stage companies across the U.S. We could, in theory, perform our roles without ever meeting our clients. Or each other. But we crave an escape from our computers. And our motivations probably say something about learning, too.

Here’s why we can’t wait to get back on planes, trains, and automobiles.

Virtual Conferences are a Mess

We’re an Accelerator, but we could just as easily be described as a Collider. Our job is to orchestrate the collision of the right people and the right ideas.  This alchemy requires the development of trust with a broad mix of people and institutions. And trust is hard to forge in a chat room.

In-person conferences, with their cold scrambled eggs and stiff ballroom seating, aren’t an innovative feat of technology. But they merge disparate parties around a set of mutual interests and allow for serendipitous interactions. Put simply, they encourage the intersection of people who wouldn’t otherwise collide.

Virtual conferences, in contrast, are organized atomically. Participants enter one session. Then exit to another. In physical conferences, the periods between sessions often provide the most valuable forums for interaction. Online, we head to our own kitchens instead. Virtual conferences are impact-free zones. It’s an intractable problem of design.

Inspiration Flourishes in New Environments

Creativity often blossoms in novel places. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the co-creators of South Park, are multimillionaires with access to the world’s top tech tools. But when they host their annual brainstorming summit, they don’t do so over Zoom. They head to a remote cabin in Colorado. There’s just something different about new settings.

Likewise, to use a decidedly different example, church groups don’t hold summer camps over Zoom. Or in dimly lit hotel conference rooms. They do so in settings with mountains and rivers and wild flowers. New environments expose participants to different planes of inspiration.

Reimagining education often requires retreats to similar spaces. Our children have been more or less taught in the same fashion for generations, and our partners are looking to jostle classrooms out of their complacency. This requires viewing old problems through fresh lenses.

For more than a year, we’ve approached these problems from the precious few locations in our homes free of pets, children, and significant others. (Despite our best efforts, we’re often still wrangling with pets, children, and significant others.) We’re getting by. But these are not fertile settings for inspiration.

We can’t wait to meet our clients in a coffee shop. Or an outdoor park. Or even a public library. Wherever. We just want a blank sketchpad and a new view for our tired eyes. Fresh ideas bloom when we’re a bit uncomfortable. Away from our normal. We’ve been trapped in that normal for too long.  

It’s Difficult to Build Trust Online

Crafting well-functioning learning tools that actually meet students’ needs requires constant iteration. This, in turn, demands perpetual feedback from users. And founders must listen to this feedback. That’s where we come in.

A healthy Accelerator relationship sometimes requires us to ask clients to pause. (Yes, Accelerators serve as brakes, too.) Reconsidering parts of the user experience or implementation strategies can be like asking founders to raise their children in a different way. It’s a deeply personal conversation. It helps to do so over a coffee or beer.

Likewise, our clients must build trust with prospective users before agreeing to implement tools that will alter the way students and instructors learn and teach. This is not a simple proposition. And it’s difficult to broker these bonds without access to body language and other subtle communication tools.

The Messy World of Relationships

We’ve been so lucky to continue to work through a pandemic. And we’re grateful that, thanks to biotechnology, an end is in sight. But our frustrations this year have taught us something valuable about EdTech, too.

The problems we’ve discovered transcend modes of interaction. The issue, perhaps, isn’t Zoom. Issues of trust, creativity, and forging fruitful collisions all return to a single theme: The messy world of relationships. And we can create these in any setting.

No EdTech tool works in the absence of a relationship between a student and dedicated mentor who holds them accountable. This relationship, in turn, must be bolstered by a connection between the learning institution and tool provider. It’s relationships all the way down.

Whether we’re serving as an Accelerator, a Brake, or a Collider, our role is to broker these ties between our founders, their products, and the students and instructors who use the tools to make the learning of magic happen.

Relationships can develop online. Magic can take place on a screen. But relationships and the magic of learning sure are easier to build and witness in physical settings. We can’t wait to return to that realm of connection.

John Clark headshot

John is a senior consultant with Accelerator at WGU Labs, which aims to improve access and outcomes for learners everywhere by helping early stage EdTech startups build effective learning resources. We do so by synthesizing learning science, data, and market research. Previously an education consultant at Gallup, John is also an adjunct professor at Dominican University in Chicago. LinkedIn