The ‘Zoom boom’ of the past 18 months has seen more people work and play in video calls, leading to a much-discussed sea change in employment and entertainment – but the impact of virtual conferencing on the future of education will be just as great as on the future of work, and there is growing investment in ‘edtech’ as a result. Edtech isn’t just for schools, either: it is also a new way to train staff in areas such as cybersecurity – an increasing workplace danger – and another reason to invest in the virtual sphere even after the Covid-19 pandemic. Hybrid models, in other words, aren’t going away anytime soon.
Formally speaking, edtech means the disruption of education by technology, whether through virtual classrooms on Zoom and Teams, virtual reality (VR) rooms of the sort Facebook is hyping, or automatic grading using artificial intelligence (AI). Edtech’s current booming success reflects the disruption these technologies are bringing across many business sectors, and shows the degree to which the hybrid of real and virtual is taking over many facets of public and professional life.
Some would claim that edtech disrupted Zoom itself when the former head of public sector for Zoom in the UK and Ireland, Jane Ross, shifted her focus in mid-2021 to become the video brand’s Europe, Middle East and Africa education lead, aligning sales in its approach to education. She also tailors software to customers’ needs in the sector, requirements different to those of the white-collar and homebound sort. An example is the Zoom whiteboard, which allows teachers to share a screen for students to annotate, regardless of device or location.
As Ross explains, in the same way the world became rather different rather quickly during the pandemic, teaching and learning has also “changed dramatically in the past 18 months”.
“Globally investment in edtech stood at a record $16.1bn (£11.9bn) in 2020, nearly doubling the previous high set in 2018”, she says. “Teachers will naturally use a combination of technologies such as Zoom and more traditional teaching methods as students of all ages are welcomed back into the classroom.
“This will be beneficial for students that, for whatever reason, may have to step away from the physical room for a while – they can still feel connected to the classroom.”
Ross believes technology that is introduced into classrooms will need to add to the learning experience and be simple to use so that teachers can focus on teaching. She also believes Zoom’s edtech presence goes beyond children and lockdown-afflicted schools.
“Edtech has a role to play in all teaching environments, from younger pupils and university students through to business training,” says Ross. “At Zoom, we aim to ensure our technology supports everyone in how they learn. In the UK, 70% of educational institutions from primary schools to universities use Zoom, and that is something we are incredibly proud of.”
One size doesn’t fit all in education, and Zoom’s offerings change according to client, as Ross explains. “For younger pupils, we know it is important for them to learn at their own pace, which is why our sessions can be recorded with automatic transcriptions, so students can come back to it time and time again,” she says. “We also have a range of Zoom apps to encourage participation and inclusion and make learning fun.
“In higher education settings, students have access to video breakout rooms, multi-sharing, polling and group chats to support collaboration, and their Zoom accounts can be seamlessly integrated into existing learning management systems to enhance engagement.
“It is this combination of technologies that will lead to more successful, inclusive levels of learning.”
Investment in edtech and the ‘hacker factor’
Zoom isn’t the only platform out there for virtual classes, of course. There are brands such as Class and PowerSchool that are doing well off the current investment in edtech and offering a way for institutes to live-stream lessons. Popular e-learning brands such as Skillshare, Udemy and Udacity, delivered as a service in the edtech sphere, are also helping to drive the boom in education technology.
Corporate e-learning is also fast becoming a goldmine, according to new GlobalData research on the edtech sector. In July 2021, software-as-a-service platform Articulate, which helps create training courses for employees, raised $1.5bn in a Series A funding round. The company is now valued at approximately $3.8bn.
“Its ability to raise so much funding demonstrates how important the e-learning market has become,” write GlobalData researchers. “Articulate claims to serve 106,000 companies, including Fortune 100 companies such as Oracle, Morgan Stanley and Visa. Its core apps include authoring training courses, which companies can export to the web or host on their own learning management system.
“The need for e-learning has increased as companies implement cyber-awareness training to educate staff on evolving cyberthreats. With staff slowly returning to corporate offices but still wanting to spend some days working from home, remote working remains a cybersecurity risk,” the researchers add.
With the FBI’s 2020 Internet Crime Report revealing that the number of cybercrime complaints reached a record 791,790 in 2020, with e-mail as the dominant point of attack, it is easy to see where the analysts are coming from.
Higher acceptance is key
The next step for edtech is acceptance in higher education, as well as schools – but this could be a big hurdle to clear. The impression lingers that classes held over the internet give lower value for money to students, ones who are paying a lot of money for their course.
The debate was reignited when the UK’s recently deposed Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, argued in August that higher education institutes (HEIs) not implementing in-person teaching shouldn’t be forcing students to pay their full tuition fees. The remark didn’t go down well, and some edtech providers feel Williamson was out of sync with the new zeitgeist.
“We have been speaking to a lot of universities and their students over the past few months, both in the UK and internationally, and Willamson’s comments seem to be out of keeping with what is happening on the ground,” says Peter Collison of RM, a long-standing provider in British education ICT.
Collison, who is head of formative assessment and school platforms at RM, adds that while students should be getting value for their fees, value in his eyes – and those of RM’s clients – does not necessarily equal lecture time.
“Value is far more likely to be measured by looking at a student’s degree outcome combined with their learning experience, than it is by counting the number of hours they spend sat in a lecture theatre,” he says.
The international question on investment in edtech
In agreement is Nick Isles, CEO of London’s Conde Nast College of Fashion & Design, which offers physical, online and hybrid courses for local and international students.
“Students undoubtedly feel that online learning is of lower value than the face-to-face experience and there will be pressure on HEIs to adapt their financial models accordingly,” he acknowledges.
“However, blended learning is here to stay. It will increasingly be the case that online learning will become a component of all learning environments. This could also lead to a more coherent national or even international credits-based system whereby students will pick modules from different HEIs to build their own composite degrees.”
International students are big business in UK higher education: in the 2018–19 academic year, total fee income from international students alone was nearly £7bn, approximately 17% of the total income of the sector and 37% of total fee income, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
There is also the money that foreign students bring to the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) industry. These are not merely a domain of anglophone backpackers teaching abroad: ESOL institutions are a popular provider of pathway courses leading to university doorsteps with language requirements ticked off.
We asked executives in the field whether the value-for-money question mark around edtech could put off international consumers looking to experience British educational prestige by virtual means.
“It is the wrong way of looking at the question,” Isles responds. “[At Conde Nast College] we have students who have done online and then wanted to come to study in person and vice versa. These are different markets with different needs.
“The bigger threats to the annual influx of international students in the medium term are Brexit and the tremendous pace with which China is building universities and growing its own academic reputation.”
While international students have traditionally paid more than local students for tuition fees, Isles also expects edtech to shake the fee paradigm.
“It will only take one or two institutions breaking ranks and cutting online tuition fees for the others to be forced to follow,” he believes.
Harvard’s ‘gross betrayal’
For those considering the university giants of this world to be too old and set in their ways to follow the changing currents, it is worth bearing in mind that hybrid learning existed in higher education prior to the pandemic. News from mid-2021 may also change preconceptions in this area.
July saw Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sell edX, the pioneering massive, open, online courses provider they created in 2012, for $800m. The acquirer is 2U, an online programme management company that helps universities bring their programmes into the online market.
The deal has stirred passions in the higher education world, with an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education describing the deal as “a gross betrayal” and accusing Harvard and MIT of “auctioning off the lecture halls of the future”.
The GlobalData view is different, with analysts noting that in higher education, as in all sectors, “the pandemic has fostered significant digital change, which some organisations will embrace”.
“The change has driven the rapid growth of an array of edtech unicorns, notably in China and India, which may well become some of the education names of the future to rival Harvard, MIT and others’ storied histories,” GlobalData researchers add.
“Despite the rancour over the deal, some believe it will eventually offer more affordable online higher education options for would-be students around the globe. That may well be a justifiable outcome for a deal that has shaken US higher education’s online foundations.”
Aside from the Harvards and Cambridges of this world, there may be one more big and surprising name to keep an eye on.
That name belongs to a certain social network that first made its name on prestigious US college campuses.
Facebook study rooms: press ‘like’?
Everyone knows Facebook, but does everyone know the metaverse? The metaverse is described by GlobalData as a “virtual world where users share experiences and interact in real time within simulated scenarios”.
The connected nature of the metaverse could see users jump unimpeded from a game into a social network, or from a virtual classroom into a virtual concert. Many players in the field are hoping that this, at last, could kick-start acceptance of VR headset technology, which has mostly proved to be a tough sell so far. Big names in the theme include game studio Mojang, owned by Microsoft since 2014, whose famous offering Minecraft has even been backed by the Welsh government as a teaching aid in schools.
The latest Facebook entry to the metaverse is its recently launched Facebook Workrooms, a new way for remote workers to collaborate. The service enables users to join their colleagues in a virtual room through use of Oculus headsets, where digital whiteboards can be found and participants sit around an imaginary table. Rather than seeing each other’s faces, as on Zoom or Teams, users view one another as virtual avatars.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for Facebook to expand its services into edtech should it make a mark in remote business conferencing. VR is already being used as a training tool in sectors such as oil, medical and defence. VR edtech providers such as London’s BodySwaps, meanwhile, use VR to deliver employability and soft skills training for higher education students.
BodySwaps co-founder and chief technology officer Christophe Mallet believes that Workrooms is “perfectly in line with Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse vision: Facebook will develop, distribute and monetise the next generation of tech-enabled social experiences”.
Mallet believes that the potential of the metaverse is a reminder that “we learn better together and we learn better by doing. Ultimately, that is what VR will bring to edtech: social and experiential learning experiences accessible to the masses remotely and at low cost.
“Pre-Covid, the difference in experience between face-to-face and online education was still big enough to justify the old campus-based high fees model. That gap is shrinking fast and bricks-and-mortar institutions will suffer unless they manage to gain new competitive advantage through tech.”
However, it may not be Facebook doing the disrupting, argues GlobalData principal thematic analyst Laura Petrone.
“I don’t think big tech companies such as Facebook, whose reputation on data privacy is already damaged, will be able to launch the metaverse for the edtech sector easily,” she says.
“The edtech sector in Europe falls under the GDPR with minors being the primary category to be protected. In China edtech companies have been caught in the government’s crackdown of big private companies, with the new data protection law tightening regulation – particularly around data.”
An AI grade on your homework
If Facebook flops and VR headsets don’t plummet in price, then a different disruptive theme might represent the next stage of edtech: AI.
“The interesting thing that I think is going to happen longer term is just as a direct result [of having all this] content,” says Michael Chasen, CEO of edtech one-to-watch Class. “Because schools have been purchasing more online content to use in their classes, you have more classes that are going online.
“With the push of all this, you have all this data… and that lets us collect information in a way that we haven’t been able to before. For example, within Class, we can tell you how long the teacher held class, for how long the kids spoke, how many kids raised their hand, how many talk with the teacher’s assistant, how they did on an exam, how long they took to take that exam…
“The reason this is important is because it then really allows you to do analysis of the individual classes and the engagement and how the students are doing over time.
“When you combine that with predictive analytics and AI, I think for the first time we are going to have a data set that can really be adapted to how individual students learn, and I think that that is going to be the next step forward in education.”
For the Class CEO, such potentials aren’t “a myth”, and those with investment in edtech should listen.
The numbers would seem to bear this out, with GlobalData forecasting the market for AI platforms to reach $52bn by 2024. Education’s helping hand could legitimise the technology further, along with VR and video conferencing for those who aren’t gamers or office workers.
Class itself upped its total funding secured to $46m in 2021, proof of the rising investment in edtech. It would seem that the portents may be true, then, and education will change regardless of Covid’s retreat.
“Hybrid models are here to stay,” agrees Zoom’s Ross. “The acceptance of edtech has been greatly impacted by the events of the past 18 months. A lot of teachers and students had to turn to remote learning, with people relying on and therefore welcoming technology with open arms.
“This should not fade as more students are invited back to in-person learning, because edtech has a place in all learning environments.”