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Ask Experts: Challenges and Opportunities for EdTech in the New Decade

“While I am so impressed by the new technology, it can be a double-edged sword. You can have great technology that can provide so many different opportunities. But if you do not have policies in place that allow it to be accessible to the masses, you’re leaving a huge number of people behind.”

Hussainatu Blake, JD, Creator of Web Series “Twinfold with Hassa & Hussa” and Adjunct Professor of Business Law, Baltimore City Community College

The 20s have started with a bang to be sure, with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic forcing businesses and individuals to reconsider their practices and work habits. This was no less true for the online learning sector as it fielded an influx of students and educators aiming to stay connected for the duration of the pandemic.

Even as some countries return to normalcy, online learning and edTech is set to continue growing massively over the next decade as the industry reaches its inflection point.

We spoke with two edtech market experts to learn about how the pandemic has accelerated investment and growth of the sector, as well as the challenges and opportunities predicted to dominate the industry over the next decade.

Meet the Experts: Hussainatu Blake and Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin

Hussainatu Blake

Hussainatu Blake, JD, Creator & Co-Host Edtech Web Series “Twinfold with Hassa & Hussa”

Hussainatu Blake serves as Creator & Co-Host of an edtech web series, “Twinfold with Hassa & Hussa.” She is also an adjunct professor of business law at Baltimore City Community College.

Blake has built her expertise in edtech, working in the private and public K12 sector. Previously, she served on the Board Relations team for Pearson’s online and blended learning department. In addition, for 10 years, she was co-founder and vice president of a global edtech nonprofit Focal Point Global, where she developed cross-cultural edtech programming for youth in the US, Cameroon, Gambia, Namibia, and South Africa.

Prior to her career in edtech, Blake was an international development professional and has previously worked for the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Counter-Trafficking Department in South Africa. Blake was born in Limbe, Cameroon and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. She earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and German studies from Tufts University and her master’s degree in international policy studies from Middlebury College’s Monterey Institute of International Studies. She also holds a JD from Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School.

Hussainatu Blake

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

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, as well as OECD’s project on digitalization in education, “Smart data and digital technology in education: AI, learning analytics and beyond.”

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

Q&A with Blake and Vincent-Lancrin on EdTech in the Coming Decade What are the top opportunities for edtech in the upcoming decade?

Blake: Well, from what I see right now, there are three.

There is growth and opportunity in augmented and virtual (AR/VR) technology and education. And this is primarily for K-12 and universities because it allows for immersive types of digital platforms and classrooms for educators and universities to build communities virtually and digitally. And it helps bridge opportunity gaps or gaps in how their students learn or access opportunities that they would not normally have. So I think that that is going to be a very, very big market. Whether it be artificial intelligence (AI), AR, or extended reality (XR), all types of virtual reality are going to be a very big part of creating an immersive occasional community going forward.

In the second opportunity, I see the growth of mobile learning, and this is mobile learning in the non-traditional sense. A lot of people around the world are burdened by the cost of education, and they are really focusing on accessibility to knowledge. And mostly everybody in the United States has a cell phone. But, you know, a lot of people around the world have cell phones, right? And they want to be able to access information not only just via WiFi, but offline as well via their phone because it’s portable. So mobile learning is gonna be a key part of going forward in the nontraditional sense because it’s just at your fingertips and easily accessible.

And then I think the last opportunity that I see in the tech space is really trying to get a handle on online schooling. Covid-19 revealed quite a few things: one, the need for online education if you did not already know about it before; and two—most importantly—it revealed that the world is tremendously unprepared to educate students online.

And so there is an opportunity, especially in the K-12 and even at the university level to really try to understand and create a scalable model that really translates what effective online education looks like.

Mind you, there are models out there already. There are organizations and companies that are already doing that via their virtual charter schools that are online. But really getting a handle on that is going to be very interesting to see going forward.

Vincent-Lancrin: The Covid crisis has made the importance of digital tools obvious, and whatever the new normal looks like, it is likely that more digital tools will be used. Governments have realized that the digital learning infrastructure they offer was not developed enough. This will create new opportunities for edtech.

While before the crisis most of the opportunities lay in the advancement of new technologies such as personalization of learning based on AI, there are now a lot of new opportunities with low-tech solutions, either for schools (learning management systems) or for individuals (learning tools for mobile phones)—especially in middle- and low-income countries. This will require a lot of new ideas though. What trends in technology development and consumption do you think will have the biggest impact on these opportunities? How does this vary regionally?

Blake: Technology and the digital divide is very real. Covid-19 obviously has highlighted that and put it in the forefront. And it varies regionally, right?

In the United States, we often think that everyone has access to WiFi, even if it’s slow WiFi. But to tell you the truth, most people have access to WiFi via their phone. And if they did not have a phone, they really wouldn’t have access.

I think that access to technology and technological development isn’t really being studied in the United States. Oftentimes it’s studied in less affluent countries or less affluent regions. But it’s not really focused on in the United States.

And I think that companies, especially telecommunication companies, are really trying to focus on bridging that gap. So you’re seeing a lot of companies like Verizon and AT&T that are setting up programs that are providing WiFi to schools and to school districts to help close that digital divide. And they’re really focusing on rural communities in the United States.

When I’m talking about a global scale, I’m thinking beyond Europe or Asia. In this case, I’m thinking about the African continent; I’m thinking about India, which has a booming tech environment. You still have issues with the masses having access to WiFi because it can be very expensive and not all WiFi is made equal. You can have access to WiFi and it can be very slow, or you can have access to very high-speed WiFi, but it’s very expensive, so it limits your time and most people don’t have that.

And you have people who are living in villages, who are living in rural communities that are not very close to towers. So, we really need to focus on organizations that are providing technology—specifically, WiFi—in nontraditional types of spaces.

And there are a lot of organizations on the ground that are doing that. You have organizations like BRCK. It’s an organization in Kenya that provides Internet access to rural communities using a specific type of technological device that looks like a brick. And so you have organizations like that, which are really providing those types of services. Also, we need to focus on offline solutions—technological solutions that don’t require WiFi access.

Vincent-Lancrin: The crisis has revealed a much bigger digital divide than what we expected. We knew it would be the case in low- and middle-income countries, but even high-income countries (e.g., the United States) have faced some difficulties. This is mainly because accessing one computer at home and having connectivity can mean different things—and “connectivity” for a full family having to be at home is not the same.

I believe the biggest impact on those opportunities will come from how work will be transformed, as this will have a ripple effect on schooling. We can imagine that if teleworking remains much more widespread, this will have an impact with more “widespread” use of hybrid/blended models of schooling.

Another impact is for the low hanging fruits, such as blockchain: it is very likely that the pandemic will accelerate the adoption of digitally and portable verifiable credentials and degrees thanks to blockchain, just because people have realized that it can be more efficient and useful for people when our societies are blocked, and the solution is more or less ready. Has the pandemic accelerated investment and growth of the edtech market?

Blake: What I see is that there are so many opportunities in edtech. I want people to understand that if you weren’t in the space before—now that you know about it because Covid-19 has highlighted the impact that technology has on education—you need to start to think beyond the traditional sense of the classroom.

The edtech sector is a very broad sector. And a lot of the investment and growth is not going to be in the traditional K-12 classroom platform. It’s not. Actually, the growing investments and trends are in informal, non-traditional types of educational platforms and tools.

For example, everyone knows about MasterClass now. MasterClass is a part of the edtech space. It is a company that is providing educational insight from experts and celebrities who are teaching people about how they have honed their craft.

We have to start thinking about education, especially when we’re talking about technology and education, in a very broad sense, and not focus on just the traditional idea of what education has looked like. Because education is evolving.

Vincent-Lancrin: I don’t have the figures, but we all know that the pandemic accelerated investment in digital companies. There are many examples of accelerated investment within countries. In France, for example, the government has developed its infrastructure in terms of learning management systems during the crisis. Most countries have developed new platforms and solutions. In Saudi Arabia, for example, they invested in a remote proctoring solution based on AI so students could take the national exam.

But one implication of the pandemic is also a change in interest. For example, standardized summative assessments have always been an important share of the edtech market. Because those have been canceled during the pandemic and will be for the foreseeable future, there is a shift of the investment towards other forms of assessments, such as diagnostics assessments. What are the greatest challenges you believe the sector will face over the next decade in pursuing its goals?

Blake: I think that it all starts with policy and planning.

While I am so impressed by the new technology, it can be a double-edged sword. You can have great technology that can provide so many different opportunities. But if you do not have policies in place that allow it to be accessible to the masses, you’re leaving a huge number of people behind.

And so I think first and foremost, you have to focus on policy. It needs to be a part of your education plan going forward when you’re talking about national efforts and improving education. And you have countries that are trying their best to do that.

In Ghana, for example, you can really see that. They have a prime minister that is really focused on education. And a part of his plan is not only educating and making sure students are being educated well, but also including STEM education as a part of his policy. And they have laws set up, like open data laws, that really promote access to information that is going to be imperative for the educational purposes of an organization.

Having a nationwide policy that really focuses on the inclusivity and the accessibility of technology when it comes to education and having that be a primary focus.

Then, you can go into how you can implement that, and the supply chain issues that you may face. And then partnering with businesses and tech companies, universities, and schools on how best to make it accessible and equitable for the masses.

Vincent-Lancrin: The greatest challenge for the sector is always a relative lack of investment, because the education market, notably the formal education market, is a difficult one, which is fragmented and scrutinized. Before the crisis, even though we have good evidence that technology is increasingly used for instruction, there was still some reticence for technology solutions in education. Indeed, there was no evidence that investment in technology was associated with better learning outcomes.

I believe that one of the big challenges for the edtech sector is to give education stakeholders products and solutions that are useful. I believe that involving more end-users in the development of their solutions is what will make them more accessible and more useful.

Given the global nature of the pandemic and the importance of education globally, a more international collaboration to work on both the digital learning infrastructure and the human and legal infrastructure that comes with it would also be welcome.

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.