After graduating from college in 2012, I decided to spend a year volunteering with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). This experience brought me to St. Louis, where I lived with five other volunteers and worked at a middle school that provided a high-quality education to girls from low-income families. As a volunteer in a small school I wore many hats, including driving the school van and soliciting parents to chaperone field trips, but my primary responsibility was overseeing a credit recovery program within the school’s graduate support program. The credit recovery program was designed for girls who had graduated from the middle school but were having trouble succeeding in a traditional high school setting and were at risk of failing and/or dropping out. Recognizing that this was a serious problem, and wanting to keep the students on track towards earning a high school diploma, the middle school graduate support team developed an intervention program where the students could take online courses to make up credits they had failed and continue the required curriculum for their grade level. By providing each student with a laptop, an online curriculum portal, and individual attention and tutoring, the program offered an alternative approach to education that catered to the individual students’ needs in order for them to succeed. Not realizing it at the time, the technology that was allowing my students to access education at their own pace was actually an application of a growing industry known as “edtech.”
Education technology is certainly not a new concept, and has in fact been evolving for decades. From the mainstream adoption of e-learning programs and introduction of SMART Boards in the 1990s, to the introduction of learning management systems (LMS) in the early 2000s, to the growing popularity of massive online open courses (MOOC) in 2012, I would venture to guess that everyone in this class has been affected by the evolution of edtech in one way or another. So, if it’s not a novel concept and has been around for many years, why talk about it? Aside from the fact that education is a massive global industry that will undoubtedly continue to evolve, it was recently listed as one of the industries that believed to be on the cusp of technological disruption.
As seen in the chart below, U.S. education technology companies raised $1.45 billion in 2018, matching the previous high for annual funding set in 2015, and the amount of dollars invested in edtech has grown steadily since 2011 (with 2015 being an anomaly). Of the $1.45 billion raised in 2018, $511 million went towards K-12 students and educators and $590 million went towards companies that primarily serve post-secondary education. Interestingly, the chart also shows that the number of deals has declined since 2013, meaning that while investors are spending more money in this sector, they are doing so across fewer companies.
Edtech isn’t just on the rise in the U.S. It is trending globally, with a significant presence in Asian countries. China and India have become big players in this space due to their large population of young people. These countries also have governments that strongly support the growth of digitalization and education technology. Because of these and other factors, it is projected that the entire Asia-Pacific region will represent 54% of the global edtech market by 2020. Between these investment figures and predictions for the future edtech market, there is clearly a lot of excitement for and potential in this space.
One of the main benefits of edtech is that is makes learning more accessible for students with different learning styles and ability levels, especially when they are able to work at their own pace. Furthermore, the rise of artificial intelligence and augmented/virtual reality applications have taken edtech to a new level and are setting the stage for future innovation in this space. Augmented and virtual reality have the ability to bring the outside world into the classroom, both enhancing a teacher’s instruction and creating engaging lessons that are fun for the student (for example, apps such as Unimersiv can transport students to ancient Rome or into the human brain, as seen in the video preview below). AI applications have the capability of helping students get the individualized attention they might need. As suggested by the head of product management at Google, AI applications will soon be able to personalize the learning experience of individual students, thereby breaking the traditional mold of “one-size-fits-all.”
Of course, as with any technology, there are risks and downsides to consider. A few concerns that teachers have expressed is that many commonly used products don’t have rigorous studies demonstrating efficacy, and some products might have the unintended effect of leaving some of their most vulnerable students further behind. There is also the issue that online learning takes away from in-person social interactions if not balanced with enough personal attention. From an industry standpoint, there are also privacy concerns related to data collection. In 2017, the FBI identified several data breaches of edtech providers that occurred in that year alone, and going forward, security will be an important issue for school administrators to consider.
Keeping in mind the risks associated with some of the products and programs that are available, I do believe that edtech will continue to make a positive impact on our modern education system as long as its applications are implemented correctly and monitored carefully. What do you think about the potential of edtech? Do you think we will see a drastic change in education as we know it within our lifetime? Or do you think the adoption of future technology will be slow-moving?
In case you are wondering what happened to the students I mentioned at the beginning of this post, out of the six students who rotated through the credit recovery program the year that I was there, four completed a full curriculum for their grade level that year. Of those four, three went back to a traditional high school after spending one year in the intervention program and one continued to take online courses through her senior year. All four went on to graduate and received a high school diploma (and were the first in their families to do so!).