Most of us accept that we live in a digital world and that technology is transforming the way we live our lives. But an often-overlooked area where technology is having an increasing impact is our education system.
Educational technology, or EdTech, might bring to mind interactive whiteboards, augmented-reality headsets and cloud-enabled robots, but it is often less visible than that. Whilst there is some debate around the precise definition, it’s generally thought of as any technology that supports learning, teaching and the effective day-to-day management of education institutions.
Investment is Increasing Rapidly
In line with the increase in EdTech adoption, investment in the sector is growing fast, with a significant jump between 2017 and 2018 figures. Beauhurst, the market researcher that specialises in tracking private companies, reports that £90.9m was invested into UK EdTech companies over 2018, distributed over 50 announced investments, compared to £66.9m in 2017. This figure marks the highest amount invested into the sector to date, and a 140% increase on the amount invested in 2016, demonstrating just how much the industry has grown so far.
Investment in the field comes from an ever-increasing number of sources, including the government, non-profit organisations, tech giants like Google and private equity companies.
Why is EdTech Attracting so Much Attention?
Here are some of the main factors driving growth and increased interest in this rapidly expanding industry:
Government Support is Growing
The Department for Education (DfE) has now launched its long-awaited EdTech Strategy, which sets out plans, backed by £10m funding, to support innovation and ‘realise the huge potential of technology to transform our schools’.
The DfE has declared that supporting the development of the UK’s innovative SME EdTech businesses will be key to the success of its new strategy, and it has laid out its commitments towards achieving this. The list includes creating new opportunities for buyers to meet vendors, facilitating a better online marketplace for EdTech and generally supporting businesses in promoting their products and services, providing access to expert support and advice, and ensuring that businesses can access the finance they need to start, scale and grow, to name but a few.
It has also set out its intention to work with the British Business Bank and a new EdTech Leadership Group to ensure that potential EdTech investors and EdTech innovators are aware of, and can benefit from, the array of options available.
Relentless Pressure on School Staff and Budgets
There is currently real pressure on school budgets across the UK, which contributes to the serious, intertwined issue of teacher recruitment and retention. It is hoped that the tech sector can increasingly cut costs for cash-strapped schools which have been operating on very limited budgets and the goodwill of burnt-out teachers for many years. A recent National Education Union survey revealed that 4 out of every 10 teachers in UK schools plan to quit the sector.
One of the key challenges put forward to the industry in the government’s Strategy is seeking to reduce the burden of ‘non-teaching’ tasks, which could include, for example, time spent on staff time-tabling and recruitment. This is where providers like EdTech platform Teacher Booker can make a real difference.
Schools often have an urgent need for contracting supply teachers at very short notice, which is currently provided inefficiently and expensively by recruitment agencies. A secondary schools survey carried out by the Association of School and College Leaders found that more than 70% have increased their spending on agency supply teachers over the past three years and that the teacher recruitment crisis is a major factor in driving up costs.
A Motivating Factor for Students
Regardless of generation or age group, technology can be a motivating factor in the classroom environment. Given millennial and digital-native students’ interest in, and level of acquaintance with, technology, EdTech tools can assist with engagement and motivation, particularly through the ability to personalise experiences for individuals. For example, in the case of programmes and apps, appropriate difficulty settings and goals can be set in line with individual students’ progression, which can add a gamification aspect to the learning experience.
Whilst tech can be thought of as clinical and impersonal, it’s been reported that it can actually help teachers build better relationships with, and understanding of, individual children – which, in turn, can improve both academic performance and school attendance levels.
But there is still a lot to learn – future research will help to clarify technology’s role in boosting student motivation and engagement levels, with more rigorous research needed.
Things to Consider
As with many industry sectors, there are several barriers to starting and growing a business in the EdTech market. Here are some of the main challenges that potential investors in EdTech companies should bear in mind.
Does it Solve a Genuine Problem or Need?
A key consideration when looking at the EdTech sector is whether products and services actually solve a problem – is there a genuine need for them or are they simply a “nice to have”? Whilst technological advances mean increasingly alluring products are coming onto the market, bringing the likes of virtual reality and holograms into the classroom, is this actually helpful?
It’s important to remember that EdTech has the ability to hinder rather than help – for example, through increasing teachers’ workloads, with concerns that they can effectively become slaves to the technology, spending a lot of time training with it or preparing lesson materials that may not be necessary.
With key issues in the sector including budget limitations and overworked teachers, genuinely useful products and services are likely to cut down on either workloads and/or costs, or perhaps provide means of standardisation or replace inefficient processes, rather than simply applying cosmetic improvements.
Improving Dialogue is Key
The burgeoning EdTech industry is frequently accused of failing to form relationships between the key parties in the ecosystem. It may well be true that few education entrepreneurs can grasp the responsibilities and problems that educators face on a daily basis in our schools, and there is a feeling that many EdTech providers have built products to replace teachers rather than assist them and meet their needs.
The DfE’s EdTech Strategy talks of needing to support a partnership between the EdTech industry and the education sector to ensure product development and testing is focused on the needs of the education system rather than being carried out in isolation. Collaboration and improved dialogue will undoubtedly benefit the whole system.
Fast Paced – Staying Relevant and Up-To-Date
With technology moving so fast, there are valid concerns that any EdTech offering(s) educators invest in could require bug fixes to operate smoothly and may require updating to stay relevant, with the risk of even being superseded and made redundant. With this in mind, it’s important that products are built and developed to be ‘future-proof’, scalable, and stay relevant.
Concerns about updates and staying relevant in such a fast-paced industry only add pressure where budgets are concerned, since there is a risk of being tied into potentially ineffective, or just poorly suited, products in the long-term. How do educators work out what the right options are for them, their students and, of course, their budgets? Whilst there is LendEd, an online lending library that allows educators to test-drive products, there is still much to be done on this front.
The pace of change in the exciting EdTech sector looks set to continue, if not increase, and the government’s EdTech Strategy should help foster further innovation within this fascinating industry.
EdTech exports are now worth an estimated £170m to the UK economy and 2018’s investment levels into this field demonstrate investors’ growing interest in EdTech’s potential for transcending resource restrictions such as teachers’ precious time and budgets. It’s clear, however, that we have only just scratched the surface in terms of EdTech’s enormous promise when it comes to tackling some of the main issues facing our education system today. EdTech has the power to lead a revolution in schools, with it set to transform the future of how education is resourced and taught, and ultimately, the results that it can then produce.