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The Future of EdTech: How to Become Essential to Lifelong Learners
Education is in the midst of a revolution, presenting opportunities for EdTech companies to connect with customers in unprecedented ways. More personalized, learner-centric experiences were trending before the pandemic, but the sudden shift to fully digital due to lockdowns accelerated this transformation. With people of all ages taking charge of their own learning, what’s missing is a market leader that can capitalize on the necessity and opportunity of lifelong learning. What will it take to become an Amazon or Google in the education technology industry?
The need is clear. It’s challenging for learners to keep up with how technology impacts education, forcing them to navigate apps, videos, IoT devices, real-time online lessons and everything in between. Learners of every age are under more pressure than ever before to continuously acquire new skills or enhance the skills they already have. The market is ripe for a friendly guide that will partner with these learners as they transition from students to workers to active retirees.
Amazon and Google might have once been exalted unicorns of their day, but now their operations can be compared to an octopus, stretching in every direction, wherever they find demand. Amazon, of course, began selling books and retail, but now reaches into healthcare, cloud services, entertainment and advertising. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, started on our desktops and made its way into our homes, cars and anywhere we take our smart phones. By acquiring companies like YouTube, Nest and Waze, and constantly stretching the Google brand (Gmail, Google Maps), Alphabet intersects with almost everyone, almost everywhere. Each company has earned success by building an ecosystem of services and brands that consumers want.
To rise to the occasion, EdTech companies will have to break out of the silos they have built, reimagining how to serve learners for life.
Transforming the Education Journey: Meet Jane
We can see the future, or at least one vision of how cool the future could be. Let’s call our dream company “Swim,” in honor of the friendly octopus that is going to move in whatever direction our example student, Jane, might need.
Swim first meets Jane as a preschooler who has fallen in love with an app that is helping her learn the alphabet. Jane’s dad creates a profile for his daughter because he is familiar with using Swim through work. He signs her up for apps that help Jane learn numbers and colors, as well as pre-reading skills that are appropriate for her developmental stage. Jane’s parents give her preschool teacher permission to link Jane’s Swim accounts at home and school so her progress can be more accurately tracked. They also sign up for Swim’s subscription service, which delivers hands-on toys and learning materials to support what Jane is learning online.
This same model supports Jane’s K-12 journey through her public school district. Using machine learning, Swim not only follows Jane’s progress through every subject, but it also anticipates her future needs and supplements what her school district offers. She has always been particularly drawn to music, and her parents are thrilled when they discover she has taught herself to play a digital piano using videos and apps suggested by Swim.
As the range of devices Jane can use widens (smart speaker, smart phone, laptop), all of the apps track her progress collectively, delivering “just-right” lessons via audio mini-lessons or quizzes or games. Swim not only tracks what Jane is learning, but it also tracks how she is learning so content is delivered in a way that is engaging to her. Swim ensures a smooth transition between learning at home and learning at school. For example, once Jane enters high school, chemistry becomes her hardest subject. Swim offers some hands-on materials tied to online tutoring that she can access at home or school to help her understand the concepts that are causing her frustration. Jane also signs up for short daily quizzes through her smart speaker to reinforce the content she’s learning. Her chemistry teacher tells her how impressed he is with the A- she earns on the final exam.
The options grow and mature with Jane through high school, linking to appropriate summer internships, specialized summer camps and, eventually, post-secondary education opportunities. Swim helps Jane find the right colleges to apply to and streamlines the financial aid process. In college, lessons and content, delivered via Swim in various formats and channels, continue to update—tracking progress, understanding what Jane knows and anticipating what she needs.
All of Jane’s data, housed within Swim, is helpful when it comes time to match with employers. Supported by Swim’s algorithms, Jane finds a job as a high school music teacher. She connects her Swim account to her employer’s portal to receive appropriate professional development. At home, Jane takes courses that focus on the film industry through Swim because she is interested in working on creating music for movies someday.
Decades later when Jane retires from the movie business, having transitioned from film soundtracks to management roles in movie production, Swim is still a trusted partner. After all, Swim matched her with a summer internship in the movie business when she was still a young teacher, and it was Swim that offered the management courses that helped Jane grow her career.
Throughout her journey, Jane receives suggestions from Swim on content related to life and recreational skills. Jane starts playing chess on a smartphone app in middle school and eventually joins the local chess team for a couple of years. In college, Swim helps Jane learn how to cook with video tutorials. She doesn’t cook much as an adult, but after retirement, she discovers, via Swim, her favorite podcast, all about gardening and cooking. This leads Swim to notify her, based on her interests, about a volunteer opportunity that ends up being a great fit.
Swim offers wellness education throughout Jane’s life as well. Content is tied to her school’s curriculum on nutrition and physical education when she is younger and becomes more personalized as Jane gets older. The wellness content supports her as a long-distance runner in high school and connects her to critical resources after she is diagnosed with high blood pressure as an adult. Throughout Jane’s journey, Swim grows and evolves alongside her, a trusted partner as her learning needs change.
Partnering With Learners for Life
This sort of personalized scaffolding is absent from the market today and represents an enormous opportunity. The opening was there before the pandemic, but now it has widened significantly because after being forced online for months, our society is much more comfortable with (and reliant upon) using devices for our learning needs. The branding opportunity is unparalleled: a company that grows with the consumer, using data for smart customization.
Of course, Jane is only one of Swim’s tens of millions of customers. Swim partners with John the same way it does with Jane, offering courses, content and hands-on materials for both his academic and recreational interests. John’s path might have looked similar during his K-12 years, but he learns a trade rather than going to college. He discovers he wants to be an electrician when he’s a junior at his vocational-technical high school and earns an apprenticeship, found on Swim, right after graduation. With his on-the-job training and coursework via Swim, he becomes a licensed electrician. John finds the virtual reality lessons particularly helpful. He works for a commercial contractor for several years before taking entrepreneurship and management courses through Swim and launching his own company.
Even before the pandemic rocked our day-to-day lives, workers across all industries could no longer rely on a single degree or credential to sustain them throughout the duration of their careers. Our parents and grandparents began working right after graduating high school or college, and for them, remaining at the same company for 30 years was commonplace. Maybe they received on-the-job training or took a few management courses to score a promotion, but there was little need for full-scale reinvention.
Our world is different–shaped by digital transformation and the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Now, the half-life of the newest, hottest advance is shrinking. Fast. That means skills are becoming outdated more quickly than ever before, pressuring workers to grow and evolve throughout their careers. The need for upskilling and reskilling accelerated during the pandemic as workers suddenly found themselves needing to switch jobs or even industries.
Simultaneously, K-12 education leaders have been debating for years how best to teach children teamwork, creativity, critical thinking and other skills that will be demanded by jobs that haven’t been invented yet.
For education companies, the race is on to see who can meet so many ever-changing needs. They must continue to adapt to how, what and where people want to learn. The space is ready for an ecosystem-driven company.
EdTech companies could benefit from a trusted partner that is already working in this new world of strategy, data analytics, experience design and learning platforms. It will require a range of forward-thinking expertise to become essential to lifelong learners.