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Helping EdTech Companies Navigate U.S. Digital Education Ecosystems

“From a company or startup perspective, the biggest challenge in the US is the fragmentation of the market and the multitude of decision-makers when it comes to buying their products and services.”

Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, PhD, Senior Analyst and Deputy Head, Directorate for Education and Skills, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

The educational technology landscape (edtech) in the United States is dynamic and multifaceted, with abundant opportunities yet fraught with challenges. Digital transformation is reshaping the educational landscape, and edtech companies are increasingly integrated into learning systems—with a massive market value projected to reach $421 billion by 2032.

As digital education becomes increasingly integral to the American educational system, understanding the complexities of this sector is essential for educators, policymakers, and edtech companies alike. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released the Country Digital Education Ecosystems and Governance: A Companion to Digital Education Outlook 2023, providing an in-depth look into the digital ecosystems and digital governance in education across diverse countries, including the United States.

The data provides a lens through which we can examine how central governments are equipping schools, teachers, and students with digital resources. The report also delves into the multifaceted roles governments play in ensuring their digital educational infrastructure’s security, privacy, and effectiveness, fostering an environment where edtech companies can thrive and contribute to the diversity of digital educational tools.

The data and findings presented in the book offer a snapshot as of the end of 2023, providing a baseline for assessing future developments in digital education. This article highlights the diverse strategies and infrastructures employed by different countries. It addresses challenges such as inconsistent terminologies and the devolution of responsibilities that come with adapting to a rapidly evolving digital world.

To better guide and inform educators and institutions on the subject, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) Directorate for Education and Skills recently hosted a panel called “Collaborating with edtech companies: the ways forward.”

Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, a senior analyst and deputy head at the OECD’s Directorate for Education and Skills moderated the panel and discussed with how governments and institutions can implement policies to manage and support the integration of edtech in learning systems.

Meet the Expert: Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin

Stephan VincentStéphan Vincent-Lancrin, PhD, Senior Analyst and Deputy Head, Directorate for Education and Skills, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

Dr. Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin is a senior analyst and deputy head of the “Innovation and Measuring Progress” Division at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (Directorate for Education and Skills). He currently leads work on education during the Covid-19 crisis and the OECD’s project on digitalization in education, “Smart data and digital technology in education: AI, learning analytics and beyond.”

Dr. Vincent-Lancrin also focuses on disciplined innovation and change management, showing what kind of support, environment, and tools school teachers and university professors could give to improve their teaching and students’ learning. Generally speaking, he works on educational innovation, research, higher education, and how new trends influence the future of learning and education policy at the schooling and higher education levels.

Dr. Vincent-Lancrin holds a PhD in philosophy and economics from the University of Paris, a master’s degree in economics from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Paris, and a grande école diploma in public management and action from the ESCP Business School.

Challenges for EdTech Companies in the U.S.

Edtech companies operating in the United States face a complex landscape, where market fragmentation and the conservative nature of educational institutions pose significant challenges. This complexity is further nuanced by the involvement of federal agencies, particularly the Federal Department of Education, in integrating digital technologies into the education sector.

“From a company or startup perspective, the biggest challenge in the US is the fragmentation of the market and the multitude of decision-makers when it comes to buying their products and services,” outlined Dr. Vincent-Lancrin.

The U.S. educational system is distinguished by its decentralized nature, leading to a diverse array of decision-makers from state departments to individual school districts. This fragmentation results in a challenging environment for edtech companies, as they navigate through various procurement processes and decision-making frameworks to offer their products and services.

“Another challenge for companies and startups is to demonstrate the quality of their digital products and services and to find ways to make them truly useful to teachers (or school administrators),” said Dr. Vincent-Lancrin. “School systems are often conservative and not always open to changing their processes. Now I shall add that the suspicion against ‘commercial’ interests and the concerns about privacy are not necessarily as high as in other OECD countries, which make it easier to serve US learners.”

Amidst these challenges, the Federal Department of Education and various federal agencies play a significant role, albeit contributing only a fraction of total expenditures in primary and secondary education. Through earmarked and discretionary grant funding programs, they guide states and territories in their digital initiatives.

The involvement of non-governmental organizations and foundations adds to this complexity. These entities often play a harmonizing role, which is evident in initiatives like the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards adopted by many states. This collaboration between governmental and non-governmental entities creates a dynamic environment, fostering digital education evolution across diverse learner needs and state-specific educational requirements and legislations.

Despite this intricate milieu, the U.S. market is relatively more open to commercial interests in education, with less pronounced concerns over privacy than in other OECD countries. However, edtech companies must still navigate privacy and security issues, balancing innovation with compliance with regulations.

Government Support for EdTech and Digital Education

The U.S. government, particularly at the federal level, plays a pivotal role in supporting and shaping the edtech and digital education landscape. While the Federal Department of Education (ED) contributes a relatively small portion of the total funding for primary and secondary education, its influence is substantial, primarily through various grant funding programs. These programs are crucial in guiding states and territories in incorporating digital technologies into their educational systems.

The federal government supports schools’ access to connectivity, which is important,” Dr. Vincent-Lancrin explained. “In terms of collaboration, some US ED programs require that researchers collaborate with school districts and companies regarding digital education, which is a good practice.”

Ensuring access to high-speed internet is a foundational step in enabling digital education. This support is about providing the infrastructure and creating an environment where digital learning resources can be effectively utilized.

The federal government also fosters collaboration between stakeholders in the digital education ecosystem. The U.S. ED programs often require partnerships between researchers, school districts, and companies; this approach encourages innovation and ensures that digital education tools and resources are developed in alignment with the actual needs of educators and students.

“I would add that the government also supports the digital education ecosystem by funding research about the use of digital tools,” continued Dr. Vincent-Lancrin. “It remains a bit fragmented, with rarely a consolidation of what has been learned, but it remains essential nonetheless—and hopefully more efforts will be undertaken in this direction.”

The insights gained from this research are invaluable in understanding how digital tools can be best utilized in educational settings. Furthermore, the government’s role in consolidating and disseminating this knowledge is crucial for the sector’s ongoing development.

“Last but not least, the ED program on state longitudinal data systems has really made a difference in helping states develop a strong data infrastructure,” Dr. Vincent-Lancrin explained. “More could be done in terms of the reuse of the data by education stakeholders, but thanks to the government’s support the US is really one of the advanced OECD countries in this area.

As Dr. Vincent-Lancrin shared, this ED program is instrumental in helping states develop comprehensive data infrastructures. These systems are essential for tracking student progress and educational outcomes over time. The data collected through these systems enables a deeper understanding of student learning paths and the effectiveness of educational strategies. This approach underscores the importance of data-driven educational decision-making, highlighting a shift towards empirical evidence in shaping educational policies and practices.

However, this program also faces challenges, particularly in data utilization and privacy. Maximizing the use of collected data for improving educational practices is an ongoing challenge. Ensuring the privacy and security of student data is paramount, requiring constant attention to policies and practices. This initiative is a crucial example of how data-centric approaches can revolutionize education, underscoring the need for a balanced approach that promotes innovation while safeguarding student information.

Despite challenges, the U.S. government significantly contributes to supporting and shaping the digital education ecosystem through various programs and initiatives. This involvement ranges from enhancing connectivity and facilitating research to promoting collaborations that align with the evolving needs of digital education.

Policy and EdTech: A Two-Way Street with a Focus on Innovation and Collaboration

In the U.S., the interplay between policy and edtech is deeply rooted in fostering innovation and collaboration. Federal funding, particularly from agencies like the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Science (IES), is critical in advancing edtech research and development. This commitment extends to supporting state education agencies, universities, and organizations in developing digital learning resources and educational software across all education levels. Such initiatives are vital for enhancing learning outcomes, student engagement, and educational management functions, focusing on predictive analytics for early identification of at-risk students and improving digital assessment systems.

As part of crafting policy on digital education and collaboration opportunities with edtech companies, Dr. Vincent-Lancrin suggested, “I wish that policymakers remain open-minded and willing to explore and keep in mind the potential benefits of digital education. In particular, they should think about how it could help them achieve some of their policy goals, which may transform how they conduct their educational operations. They should pay particular attention to teachers’ (and other education stakeholders’) digital competencies, facilitate interoperability within their digital ecosystem, and, of course, make sure digital tools are trusted (which is one of the objectives of regulation about privacy and data protection).”

The United States’ strategy for advancing digital education also hinges on collaboration between the edtech sector and non-profit organizations. These partnerships, often facilitated by the Office of Educational Technology at the Department of Education, are crucial in nurturing a culture of innovation and practical application in educational technology. Initiatives like the AI Institute for Engaged Learning exemplify these collaborative efforts, where research on AI-driven learning environments is conducted in partnership with private institutions. Organizations like Digital Promise play a key role in this ecosystem, promoting technology research and development in education through global networks and practices.

Looking ahead, the future of the U.S. digital education infrastructure is poised for significant advancements. The emphasis on evidence-based tools and resources, highlighted by legislation like the Every Student Succeeds Act, is set to guide the development and adoption of digital technologies in education. Complementing this, the Department of Education’s initiatives to promote scalable solutions through an ARPA-modeled research and development infrastructure promise to revolutionize the education sector. This approach aims to foster an innovative ecosystem involving academic, corporate, and governmental partners, supporting state and local educational agencies in implementing evidence-based educational practices.

In this context, policymakers should focus on enhancing digital competencies and ensuring interoperability within digital ecosystems.

“On the other hand, edtech companies should work more with teachers to ensure that their products and services add value, do not overburden them, and try to define in which use cases and for whom they are most effective. They should also be transparent about how they deal with privacy, data protection, and things like algorithmic bias. Perhaps to add some wishful thinking, like in other sectors I would hope to see more collaboration among edtech competitors and more sharing of data so that the information they collect thanks to public users and public funds can serve the education sector as a whole,” said Dr. Vincent-Lancrin.

This evolving landscape of policy and edtech, characterized by innovation, collaboration, and a commitment to equity, holds the promise of more sophisticated, effective, and equitable learning experiences for students nationwide.

Moving Forward

Edtech in the United States presents a dynamic interplay of challenges, government support, and collaborative innovation. However, these companies face unique challenges, including market fragmentation and the need to demonstrate the quality and utility of their products in a conservative education system. Despite these hurdles, opportunities for growth and impact are abundant, especially when companies focus on adding value and working closely with educators.

Ultimately, the U.S. edtech landscape presents significant opportunities for companies and startups that can take a collaborative, innovation-driven approach, balancing the diverse needs of learners, educators, and policymakers. As edtech continues to evolve, it holds the potential to offer more sophisticated, effective, and equitable learning experiences, shaping the future of education in the United States.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.