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How EdTech Leaders have Adapted to Challenges in 2020 and their Plans for the Future
Georgia Cooper
, 2nd February 2021
5 min read
For Employers

At the end of 2020, Hiperpool gathered together strategy leaders in the EdTech field for a virtual discussion of their thoughts on the current and future state of the sector. We were joined by Eric Brandt, Head of Business Operations, Analytics and Strategy at Springboard, Sajid Shariff, Head of North America at WhiteHat Junior, Fergus Hamilton, Head of Customer Success at CENTURY Tech and Mayla Sanchez, Chief Commercial Officer at Bibliu. Read on for their insights.

What major trends are you currently seeing in EdTech?

Fergus Hamilton: EdTech is a large sector which covers very different customers and use cases. In the school space, the big trends coming in are around personalization. Also, there’s a greater emphasis on bringing in processes that are genuinely new and different to schools, rather than simply digitising or automating processes that already existed. We’re moving away from previous educational hardware innovations that simply replicated older models of teaching, such as interactive whiteboards. Advanced personalisation and adaptive learning innovations which are genuinely new to the educational experience are coming to the fore.

Sajid Shariff:  As a result of the pandemic, most learning has moved online. Most children are now receiving online education through a ‘one to many’ model. In this model, there are around 30 children in a Zoom session with one teacher and each child has around five minutes in which they can speak. This model is not particularly conducive to learning. As such, personalisation is becoming more important. The ‘one-to-one’ or ‘one-to-two’ model is becoming more common, so we’re seeing an increase in parents’ willingness to pay for an online privatised education.

Mayla Sanchez: From the higher education side, there’s a shift towards finding sustainable ways to give students access to content in an affordable and accessible way. This looks like lower costs for students and universities alongside quicker access to content as students have had to rapidly shift their learning from print or in-person to online.

Eric Brandt: In our adult-focused boot camp we’re seeing trends around education that is specifically focused on enabling a career change. The shift away from trust in big-name institutions, which was already happening has accelerated dramatically. Consumers are quicker to accept alternative education to enable them to change their career paths. Where people traditionally would have taken a Master’s programme, in Data Science, for example, people are now less willing to spend the money required of a big brand name school, particularly as the pandemic has moved all courses online, and has put a squeeze on finances. Brand name schools have also lost other benefits such as in-person learning, networking at events and socialisation. All of a sudden, there’s a comparison between a brand name which has had to move classes quickly online and a school which might not have a strong brand name but has been designed to operate online. We’ve seen a very quick shift in the trust of consumers in this regard.

What are the major challenges that EdTech can solve in the next few decades?

FH: One of the challenges that we were set up to face in the K-12 context (Kindergarten - 12th grade) is teacher workload. In the UK and globally, teacher workload is a huge problem. Sometimes innovations and improvement in education are great for children, but actually just add to teacher workload. Reducing this in a way that's meaningful is going to be the next trend. Another meaningful trend will be personalization. As people become more comfortable with digital tools, we’ll see an increase in blended learning with a greater digital component. This will allow EdTech providers to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ model.

MS: One of the main challenges will be how we address the issue of student outcomes to get them better prepared for whichever career they choose. Funding for education is a big problem in the US, returning to the point on affordability and accessibility. Students need quicker access to content and this problem was only aggravated by COVID-19. Other areas like personalization and adaptive learning, for example by making an eBook a more interactive and enhanced experience, are also linked to this.

SS:  In the last few months we’ve seen a greater willingness to explore alternative avenues of education online. Companies are making this very easy for consumers by, for example, dropping paywalls to let them experience the service. Many platforms are offering free hour classes or even modules before a student signs up for a larger class. In the future, we’ll need to think about how we provide education suitable for children with different abilities. A self-learning style platform will only be suitable for a small number of children. Assisted learning needs to be developed, we need to understand how best to allow a child to learn online with the support of a teacher. So, figuring out how to offer a teacher assisted model in an affordable way is going to be a big challenge for the sector to solve.

In what ways has the pandemic transformed the EdTech landscape?

MS: The EdTech sector has been significantly transformed by the pandemic, especially in higher education. Many Provosts, Vice-Chancellors, and executives in higher education institutions, whether traditional or non-traditional, are concerned about decreasing revenues from enrolments. A large portion of students this year have either deferred their course or changed their university. This has a large impact, not just on students’ individual careers, but also on a macro-economic level.

At Bibliu, we saw a rapid acceleration in our business over the pandemic. What we had set out to do in two or even five years, we did in six months or less, because there was such strong demand. On the university side, we're asking the question about what a return to normal will entail. There's a population of students reporting that they like the flexibility of online learning, but there are also components of students for whom being on campus is their source of income. Being essentially evicted from their main source of income as well as their education has brought about a lot of mental health issues, and issues about emotional preparedness and financial preparedness. From the university's perspective, there's a lack of instructional designers to help professors that are so used to teaching live switch to online teaching.

FH: In the school space it’s quite nuanced. This year has been transformational for schools in how they operate, particularly from an EdTech perspective. Every single teacher in the UK will now have an increased familiarity with technology, for example, Microsoft Teams. Without COVID, this shift could have taken a generation. As a result, people are much more open to using different kinds of educational technology. On the other hand, most teachers have found this year incredibly difficult. So, we can’t assume that people’s mental associations with EdTech are necessarily positive. There are a lot of people who have struggled with using video conferencing software to teach this year and may want to go back to normal without any EdTech once the pandemic is over.

SS: EdTech companies have experienced significant benefits because of the current lower cost of acquisition. There’s a marketing push across the whole sector and there’s also an existential argument to be made now around the role of EdTech companies. It’s likely that once the pandemic is over many students will return to traditional education settings, so EdTech companies should focus on moving from core-curriculum to extra-curriculum.

EB: Everyone has now had a taste of online tools. The question yet to be answered is, in 12 months’ time, will we see the changes we saw in the past year continue, such as the dramatic transition to online learnings, or will we say that 2020 was a unique year for education, and old habits quickly returned. Most EdTech companies have experienced extremely high growth this year, often from 200-400%, which has led to an influx of investment. It will be interesting to see how investors react next year when companies may not be able to replicate such success.

Which EdTech companies, outside of your own, are particularly interesting? 

SS: There’s a company called Epic, who are the largest online platform for children’s reading. They have developed a super user-friendly product which appeals to both kids and parents, and they offer it at a very low price point. It can almost be described as a Netflix for children’s education.

MS: I’m interested in two types of companies. The first are companies which help match students with careers suitable for their competencies, for example, Skill Survey. The second are companies that are blazing a trail in helping adults change careers to a more technical role such as Springboard and CodeAcademy.

EB: The founder of Udemy, Gagan Biyani, has teamed up with Wes Kao, co-founder of altMBA to start an EdTech company with more of a focus on assisted learning. From my understanding, they are creating the infrastructure that will allow independent instructors to create cohort-based and supportive learning programmes, whether with live lecture checkpoints or more time-based programmes. A trend that we’ve seen with Springboard, as we’re very cohort-based, is that high levels of support create accountability and this translates into high completion rates. So, it will be interesting to see the MOOC world moving into this cohort-based, more accountable structure.

FH: There is a company called Wizenoze who are focused on reading levels and digital literacy. They have a great blend of content curators coupled with some really quite sophisticated machine learning which assesses the reading age of materials. They can then match appropriate materials to individual learners. The company has a strong track record in social impact work, having been funded in part by the Dutch government in various developing settings. 

Can EdTech help create a more inclusive educational system?

MS: EdTech can certainly help build a more inclusive and diverse education system and, eventually, workforce. Key to this is making content more affordable, particularly for low-income students. There’s a large population of students that can barely afford to buy their basic necessities, let alone get a college education. The more affordable we can make it through technology, the more we can help in increasing diversity.

SS: We may have large amounts of content online from various platforms that are free, but the challenge is delivering this content to a student who can’t afford a mobile device or laptop. EdTech companies need to work out how to vertically integrate both the content and the device in a cost-efficient way, such as a subscription model, to make inroads in the current under provision of services.

EB:  By offering education which can be accessed regardless of an individual’s geography, we are able to access a more diverse group of students. Further, by offering courses on a part-time model we are able to service individuals who may need to maintain a job alongside study. We’ve also been experimenting with different types of payment methods such as deferred tuition, whereby students don’t have to pay until they’ve secured a new job. This de-risks a lot of the investment as students know they won’t end up with further student debt.

FH:  The best way to forward the agenda of inclusivity and level the playing field is to capitalise on the hardware that already exists. In the UK, there’s a big gap between people who don’t have a strong internet connection at home or a laptop or tablet. However, most students here have access to a smartphone, so EdTech companies can make things more accessible by using the channels that already exist for the people they’re trying to target.

As the pandemic continues, industries across the board are experiencing seismic changes. Hiperpool will be continuing our series of online discussions with strategy leaders from different industries in 2021. To keep up to date with professionals’  insider views of their sector, check out our LinkedIn page for upcoming events.

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