Education has to be Easier, Better, Faster, Cheaper

Twice the outcomes for half the cost


Like every other technology sector, funding is flowing to cloud-based products that support learning and professional development.  Every week is a flurry of new funding announcements and newly donned unicorns.  EdTech is booming because the challenges with the entire system from early childhood education to higher-education are longstanding, obvious, and unsustainable.  To summarize in a sentence: Costs have been rising, and the value of the products and services has not been improving.  All while, the sector has resisted digital solutions. 

EdTech 1.0 is having its day in the sun.

Many of the exciting EdTech press releases cited fast growth, rapid adoption, and a newly minted valuation.  However, as I scanned them I found myself wondering, 'What about the learning? Are students learning easier? Better? Faster? Cheaper?'  Or have they taken the existing paradigm and dumped it into an online, tech-enabled format?  Which of these companies will stand the test of time, and which will be a flash in the pan having simply capitalized on the current pain? 

The solutions for improving learning outcomes are rarely easy, simple, fast, or cheap.

Unfortunately, what many are realizing is that much of the current EdTech paradigm is suboptimal.  It's tech that has been hastily applied to the education industry and then evaluated based on 'engagement and growth.'  Put another way, it is focused on what will buyers pay for instead of asking 'what do learners need to succeed'.  As a result, EdTech often has the educational, nutritional quality of Laffy Taffy.  Given a choice between candy and kale salad, what do you think your average kid would choose? 

High-quality products require deep product development, which comes with a cost.  The content and the technology platform often have to be married together.  And then implementation into the classroom or into the child's routine through the parent might require some training or at least awareness. 

EdTech 2.0: The future opportunity

We've arrived at the inflection point, which seems more gradual than dramatic.  Two forces are at play: Many parents are waking up to the necessity of education quality in EdTech because, as a result of Covid-19, it's in front of their eyes: What are their children learning (or not learning)?  Are they being entertained?  Or are they building valuable skills?  I recently had this interaction on Twitter with a parent:

Second, adopting EdTech has now become impossible to resist as schools and universities went remote during Covid-19.  As released by the Office for Students in the UK this week: "58 per cent of students and 47 per cent of teaching staff we polled had no experience of digital teaching and learning before the pandemic. By December 2020, 92 per cent of students surveyed were learning either fully or mostly online."

So, now that the education systems are adopting new tech tools and digital innovations, are they delivering more learning for less cost?  That's the next step.  One of the biggest opportunities in the sector is dismantling the illusion of the link between cost and quality.  High-quality resources don't necessarily need to cost more at scale.

What does it mean for evaluating businesses?

Many of the companies today who are providing enterprise EdTech products without much regard to learning outcomes will succeed.  Maybe wildly, and low-efficacy tech will persist for a while.  The bar for quality can be frustratingly low and the pace of advancement painfully slow.  For investors, maybe these high-fructose engagement and growth metrics will get you a fast return.

However, investors who think on a long-term horizon should look for products and companies that differentiate on quality for cost.  This aligns with how parents and educators should think about investing in a child's, a students, or an employee's learning.  Does the company produce outstanding learning outcomes? 

How do you measure quality in education?

Efficacy is a technical term that the education industry has borrowed from pharmaceuticals.  Companies are beginning to take, at least on the surface, effectiveness seriously.  These studies aren't a silver bullet, however. They can be gamed.  They will be gamed.  And the conclusions are often unsatisfying and technical.  They are still important to conduct and can be quite helpful but they cannot be relied on alone.

I suggest starting by evaluating the quality of the pedagogical design and its importance in the product development process.  What is pedagogy?  'Pedagogy' refers to the theory and practice of teaching or, in other words, 'how teachers teach'.  You wouldn't invest in an artificial intelligence or quantum computing company without technical due diligence, right?  So why would you invest in or buy the products of an EdTech company without a clear theory of learning placed at the center of the product? 

Companies and organizations that can prove that their products produce quality learning outcomes will be able to succeed over the competition.  There are some emerging leaders here, including Sketchy Medical, a video-based content company for medical students who need to memorize large amounts of technical knowledge.  They describe the use of the Loci pedagogy: 'The ancient Greeks developed a memory technique called the "Method of Loci."  This method exploits the power of spatial learning to connect memories with specific objects placed in an imagined physical space.  The digits of a phone number, for example, can be assigned to imaginary objects placed in your bedroom.  Mentally walk through the room to recall the information."  That's just a smart way to learn and 1/3 of medical students agree as paying subscribers.  

The Social Institute* has similarly placed pedagogy at the center of the company as its curriculum pairs gamification and interaction in technology with current, age-appropriate, efficacious content for students to learn how to use social media in a positive way.  Anurupa, the founder of Prisms VR, received a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the curriculum of Prisms to teach secondary students math concepts in virtual reality. 

And the best part? These solutions are the same cost, if not cheaper, than the traditional publishing alternatives, i.e., textbooks.  

When will the future arrive?

I first published on this topic in 2013.  The future is here and also has a long way to go.  If you know where to look, you can curate the best-in-class education products and find an in-the-know educator who is on the bleeding edge.  It will produce a 10x return in learning and development.  How long will that scale to the mainstream?  I don't know, but I believe it's a societal imperative that we work to make the adoption of high-quality education technology easier, better, faster, cheaper as quickly as possible. 

Further reading:

  • The New Education Frontier. Article by Anurupa Ganguly and Jeffrey Davitz

  • Alive in the Swamp: Evaluating Digital Innovations in Education - Essay that turned into a book written by me and Michael Fullan, a world-known education expert

  • An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the revolution ahead. My favorite piece of writing

  • Gravity Assist: Propelling Higher Education toward a brighter future. Report published this week by the Office for Students in the UK and Michael Barber

*I am an investor in The Social Institute