10 EdTech Impact Opportunities

There are five mega-trends in learning:

  1. Mobile access & always-on ubiquitous computing
  2. Globalizing employment markets
  3. Increasing ROI on competency & initiative
  4. Declining ROI on 2nd tier postsecondary, and
  5. Next gen learning: blended, personalized learning, & competency-based.

Given the opportunity associated with trends, there has been increased investment in new tools–more than $1 billion in venture investment this year alone. But compared to other sectors, the level of investment and private sector participation is tiny. For example, the global healthcare market is about $6.5 trillion and market cap of public companies is $5.2 trillion or about 80%. Global education is a $4.5 trillion market and public companies have a comparatively tiny $100 billion in market cap (0.2%) suggesting significant potential for investment and innovation.
Categories. There are several ways to segment the market–by customer: consumer, teachers, schools; or by level: early learning, K-12, higher ed, adult and professional. (See Hacking Education – Fracking Education by Jeff Bussgang for a useful market map.) Segmentation by geography and market maturity is also useful given the importance of government policy and investment.
At Learn Capital (where I’m a partner) we like to think about functions. Following are eight functional categories and examples of leading companies:

  1. Learning networks: Edmodo, Bloomboard
  2. Learning marketplace: Udemy, Creative Live
  3. Employability: Hire Art, Kalibrr
  4. Learning media: Coursera, LearnZillion
  5. Direct Instruction: General Assembly, Bloc
  6. Learning productivity: Class Dojo, eSpark
  7. Distributed Schools: Bridge International, AltSchool
  8. Education Analytics: BrightBytes, Junyo

Pathways. With the shift from web to mobile, there are two pathways to sustainable impact: the sprint to break even and the bet on viral. Schoology started out chasing Edmodo (where I’m an investor) and pivoted to premium enterprise software and quickly began adding paying customers. Edmodo, on the other hand, remained free and focused on teacher adoption and now serves 44 million teachers and students and has begun offering premium apps and assessment services.
Betting on viral is a higher risk/return approach that requires different product development and marketing strategies–and pro-social investors willing to be on the potential to monetize network benefits.
The adoption of free/cheap apps makes this decade much different than anything we’ve experienced before. Old school district management approaches don’t work in light of this bottom-up mega-trend. Students, parents, and teachers aren’t waiting for districts to get their act together, they are blending their own learning and bringing their own devices and apps to school. This new backdoor to school offers edupreneurs new avenues to impact.
The viral pathway is usually associated with a lean startup approach. But attacking big opportunities (like a platform ecosystem) requires a what John Katzman called a thick startup. High impact work may require an impact investor willing to buy a longer runway.
K-12 impact opportunities. Cheap devices and nearly ubiquitous broadband are expanding learning opportunities worldwide. Powerful application development platforms make it faster and cheaper to prototype and pilot new apps. Ten K-12 EdTech impact opportunities include:

  • Achievement recognition. Competency maps (what students should know and be able to do), competency-based assessment systems, and achievement recognition capabilities (e.g., badges) that promote high student agency.
  • Credentialing: Competency maps for learning professionals, learning experiences, and assessment and observation systems (see Preparing Teachers).
  • Adaptive learning. Some great adaptive learning systems have been developed in the last few years (e.g., Dreambox, i-Ready) but the next opportunity is moving beyond walled garden to incorporating open and teacher developed experiences. NewClassrooms has 10,000 middle grade math experiences from many providers–watch for v2.0 in six months.
  • Tracking subskills. More students are learning, practicing and applying skills in several engaging modalities most providing frequent instructional feedback. Unfortunately, there is no way to combine the assessment information from multiple sources in ways that are useful for driving instructional improvement or managing student progress. Super gradebooks will be a killer app (see feature).
  • Comparable growth measures. Once formative data can be tagged and combined in consistent ways, it will be possible to develop comparable growth rates to compare academic progress of individual students in different learning environments (see feature).
  • Blended & competency-based secondary. Summit Public Schools is pioneering a new approach to secondary education that combines individualized playlists and projects (see feature and apply for their Basecamp). Michigan’s EAA uses the Buzz platform to support personalized learning and competency-based progressions. Advancements. Low cost models have the opportunity to extend quality secondary to hundreds of millions of young people in developing economies.
  • Guidance and support systems. With more informal modular and mobile learning options, expanding Course Access, and new postsecondary options, secondary students need stronger guidance and support–it should be the spine of secondary schools (see paper).
  • Innovation. Experiences that promote creativity, innovation mindsets, and entrepreneurial skills will grow in demand from schools and parents (see feature and ch. 1 of Smart Cities; check out DIY.org, Blink Blink, and Imagination Foundation).
  • Motivation. Games and game-based learning have moved the learning design conversation from “learning styles” to broader efforts to unlock student motivation and boost persistence. While it has been a challenge to monetize games, services and platforms that cultivate a motivational profile and deliver experiences that boost persistence are likely to be important (see feature on learning experience design).
  • Platform ecosystem. All of these categories are promising, but putting them together is still hard. Platforms that integrate content, assessment, learner profiles, a recommendation engine, a super gradebook will be a big hit (see feature).

Beyond K-12, services that boost employability–coding, skill development, language acquisition–will continue to redefine the postsecondary landscape. There’s never been a better time to build a business and make a difference.
For more on trends in learning, check out:

DreamBox Learning is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner. 

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Tom Vander Ark

Add human resource information systems to the list of big impact opportunities. Given the importance of talent development and the sad state of the HRIS category, there is a big chance to promote personalized, blended, and competency-based professional growth.

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