This should be a great time for EdTech in the UK. According to the Education Foundation, it accounts for 4 percent of digital companies; the Guardian reckons the sector leverages over £900 million of spend by schools; and the Government finally have an EdTech strategy. The sector is growing at 22 percent per year. And yet, If you look for companies that have good market penetration and reasonable levels of EBITDA, there are very few. It seems that it is really hard to grow beyond a certain level and when you do there are then plenty of acquisitive “partners” waiting to gobble you up.
There are some well-established technology tools used in schools. Capita SIMS is dominant in the MIS space, and remarkably resilient in seeing off seemingly superior cloud based solutions. I work at Tes, awell-established software services business in teacher recruitment, resources and now training. Twinkl are doing well in resources for primary, and Google have great adoption of Classroom and other tools.
Despite the name, not even the last of these really tackles pedagogy. Perhaps that is why the Government’s EdTech strategy notably avoids mentioning learning! I can think of few EdTech companies that are winning in the core business of classroom practice.
This goes to the adoption problem. There are some great applications of technology that solve a problem that education doesn’t know it has. If you don’t start with teachers then wide scale adoption is too hard. Education is a profoundly human business. If the product helps, rather than replaces, the teacher then a good product team will at least be close to the teacher, and then adoption may happen – as long as there is understanding that the purchaser is rarely the user.
Hence the second problem - the fragmented nature of the market. I regularly have conversations with excited EdTech entrepreneurs who want advice on how to grow in England. My instant response is “why England?” Here we have an unenthusiastic policy environment, a very traditional curriculum that we know how to deliver well without technology, and over 25,000 separate purchasers!
There are very few education businesses who are big enough to employ a field force. Too many schools are still run by a “hero-head” whose inbox and in-tray are overflowing. Getting their attention is exceptionally hard.
The other core problem is agility – and this is where I see the most opportunity.
The world outside education is changing. Education will have to respond sooner or later. Why? Look at the dependencies.
The school system is a filter for universities and jobs. The presumption is that your future is determined by your success in acquiring the qualifications that serve as a useful proxy for admissions tutors and recruiters as to what you are capable of doing. University is an additional filter for access to more high-end professional occupations.
This funnel served us reasonably well in an industrial age that had plenty of unskilled and semi-skilled work for those that don’t make it through to degree level education.
It’s unfairness in entrenching disadvantage has then absorbed huge energy as we try to mitigate against the social impact of the funnel. For example, we have been trying to widen the neck at the bottom of the funnel by increasing the numbers going to university. This has been funded by student debt. The consequent marginal tax rate, of as much as 50 percent for graduates, is another push for changing the system.
Now, technology is redefining work and creating new occupations. It is also shifting how corporates recruit with profound potential consequences for education.
Talent analytics are giving corporates new ways of seeing beyond qualifications to what a granular view of a person’s capabilities. These tools can also show what the ideal or acceptable level of prior attainment is for a role, giving more flexibility on the person specification. Companies also want to use their apprenticeship levy to grow their own, recruiting school leavers over graduates.
This impact on universities. Innovators in the sector are responding. The Starbucks College Achievement Plan offers staff who work at least 20 hours per week, and have over three months employment, a paid for degree at Arizona State University. ASU is a successful online provider and are probably the most innovative university in the US at the moment. They understand that the post-qualification future requires close partnerships with employers, helping them to grown their own talent.
This trend, alongside degree apprenticeships in the UK, begs the question of 18 years olds: “why take on a lifetime of debt to go to a traditional university, and hope that there will still be a need for your human barrister skills in twenty years, when instead you can work as a barista and earn as you learn?”
And if school is no longer about qualifications for university entrance then what follows? Could we start to see the same talent analytics be used in education? Will a broader curriculum develop emotionally, socially, and cognitively stronger people? Will technology capture shareable data on those strengths? Will it turn the funnel into a pipeline?
This is when the EdTech rubber hits the road. This when we see AI really helping teachers. The tech will be help them to manage their weaknesses and bias, the differences in their pupils, the different content they could use, the best tech tools for learning, and the relationship of the learning to the curriculum. It will capture achievement and gaps in core knowledge and capability.
This future is exciting. It will wrap education around learners, and allow EdTech to realise its huge potential.