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New Generation Edtech

  • 21 June 2022
  • By Mary Curnock Cook and Chris Hale

Mary Curnock Cook, Network Chair at edtech venture capital fund, Emerge Education, and Chris Hale, interim CEO at Universities UK attended a gathering of leading edtech founders and report back. You can find the authors on Twitter @MaryCurnockCook and @chrishaleuk.

London EdTech Week runs from 20 to 26 June. You can find out more here.

As in many sectors, venture funding prospects for early-stage start-ups have been disrupted by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the effect that higher interest rates have on financial markets and investor appetite. Valuations are down, the cost of money is up and risk appetite is flexing with the uncertain times. Nevertheless, a sense of optimism prevailed at the Emerge Education Summit in May, hosted at one of its investee organisations, the London Interdisciplinary School. Edtech, it seems, is unbowed by the headwinds. Former president of the American Public University System, Dr Wally Boston, also reviewed the summit here

In a conference largely directed at founders and funders, we were amongst a small number of sector-facing delegates, and we reflect here on the implications for higher education.

Firstly, the sense of purpose and mission amongst delegates was palpable. Edtech founders and funders are drawn to the education sector because it has meaning and social purpose and Emerge’s own manifesto is strongly rooted in its principals’ backgrounds that have been dramatically shaped by education opportunity. The edtech community has no pretentions to make a quick buck, with one delegate saying that it takes at least ten years to develop into a mature, successful operation, and observing that ‘I’m nine years in and only just getting started’. 

We noted that a new generation of edtech opportunities is emerging, going beyond some of the narrow functional innovations of the last five years – for example, simple matching algorithms for students and courses. Think PaaS over SaaS – platform-as-a-service over software-as-a-service. (Although, as this excellent piece from Michael Feldstein points out, universities’ ERP and student records systems may yet be holding them back).

There are new providers reimagining higher education and it is merging seamlessly into a renewed interest in using personal learning and development in the corporate world – not just for upskilling and reskilling but also as an employee benefit to address the shifting balance of power between employer and employee driven by acute skills shortages. Many delegates assume that demand for the traditional school-leaver undergraduate experience will fall (and rapidly) as people recognise that they might be able to learn more and better in the context of their own career story as it unfolds. The growing offer of micro-credentials in higher education and the opportunity that the Lifelong Loan Entitlement offers to fund potential students will fuel this shift.

In turn this puts a new focus on innovative approaches to learning and teaching and a nuanced conversation about the relative importance of face-to-face learning and the opportunities to apply digital tools to enhance student engagement and improve outcomes. As Professor Jeff Grabill wrote in THE recently, ‘learning and teaching needs to go digital not online’. Both of us reflected that developments in digitally enhanced learning and teaching (DELT) create an urgent need to provide support and training to academic teachers, not just to demystify the tech, but also to ensure that educators have the confidence to introduce and use the enhancements that digital can bring to the student academic experience, with an emphasis on the underpinning pedagogy. 

The unhelpful public (and policy) narrative that pits face-to-face teaching against online learning is out of date with developments in this space which, amongst other things, have the potential to prepare students much better for the changing world of work they will encounter when they graduate. 

Graduate jobs and careers were singled out as an under-served segment where edtech has yet to come up with solutions that go beyond the often-flawed matching of skills to jobs. Several people noted that the early career job switching cycle has moved from an average of around four years to more like 18 months to two years; and in the US already a third of workers are freelancers. This points to a fundamental shift in what we understand a job, an employer or a career to be, with important implications for how we support students to imagine and pursue their future in a changing world of work.

As a consequence, universities need to get better at surfacing the transferrable skills their courses provide to students so that graduates can be much more fluent in articulating what they are good at and in mapping this to the jobs and projects they want to participate in. Perhaps it also heralds a generation of new course, programme or module offers that will make the link between going to university and a successful career more explicit without losing the inherent motivation of studying a subject which in itself might not seem to point directly to a particular career sector. Importantly, careers education needs as much focus on sectors as it does on job roles because of the interdependence between the two in a changing landscape.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this event, however, was the feeling that higher education policy needs to move on from merely improving the current offer. Effective policy and regulation should support and encourage universities to innovate in learning and teaching as well as in research. Students want and deserve this, but the regulatory sandbox remains small and regimented; many providers are playing safe as a result.

As Franklin D Roosevelt said, ‘We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.’

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