What are the edtech trends to watch this year, and what are the key takeaways from 2017? A group of EdSurge reporters and editors recently asked readers—and shared a few of their own thoughts—during an EdSurge Live online forum.
EdSurge’s CEO, Betsy Corcoran, argued that 2017 was a year when educators and schools were trying to take control of their technology choices “We have said from the time we started writing the newsletters that not every piece of technology will work for every student, or for every school or every classroom,” she said. “It's all about asking the right questions to figure out if there is a piece of technology that will support learning goals. What we're starting to really see across schools, districts and teachers, people really owning those questions. They’re saying, ‘What do I want to do with my classroom? With my kids? And what are the technologies that will support me?’”
Meanwhile, venture capitalists are asking more careful questions as well. In 2017, U.S. edtech companies raised about $1.2-billion dollars across 126 deals. That’s the second-highest tally since 2011, which is when EdSurge started counting these numbers. But it’s also the smallest number of deals.
“You've got these divergent trends, where the total amount of money is going up, but the number of deals is going down,” said Tony Wan, managing editor of EdSurge. “We've learned that investors are being a lot choosier about where to put their money. I think the bar is a lot higher for edtech companies to raise money now. You’ve got to be making some money before you raise money.” Wan says it’s “no longer efficient to just get a lot of eyeballs and users,” but that funders are more seriously looking for “paying customers.”
In higher education, more colleges are starting online programs, but they’re facing a challenge in getting the word out. Some are spending big bucks on Google ads; others worry that institutions are racing to outspend each other to nose ahead in search engine rankings--a strategy that may only serve to raise students' costs, which could raise the cost of education for students.
Traditional colleges are also facing increasing competition from a new breed of for-profit competitors so-called bootcamps, companies offering career-focused programs, usually in tech fields, that take only a few months to complete. “The numbers are really increasing in terms of student enrollment and the number of programs,” said Sydney Johnson, assistant editor for higher education at EdSurge. But the new sector has seen consolidation as well, with two pioneering players—DevBootcamp and Iron Yard—announcing they would close because they couldn’t find a sustainable financial model. “One program in particular that I am curious about and want to watch the next few years, will be a program called Techtonica, which is a nonprofit coding bootcamp that's focusing on women and non-binary people specifically. And I think we may see more of these non-traditional coding bootcamps,” says Johnson.
Much of the live session keyed off audience questions. Jennifer Harrison wanted to know whether K-12 schools and districts were keeping their IT infrastructures up-to-date “relative to the rest of the world which runs via technology.”
Jenny Abamu, a K-12 reporter for EdSurge, said she has worked in schools where there weren’t enough plugs to charge all the devices brought by students (or that the power would go out if everyone plugged in at once). “I mean how do you innovate when you can't do that?” she asked. “It's a very basic thing, but [infrastructure] does get overlooked a bit as far as just infrastructure. And it varies from region to region.”
Another discussion participant asked whether colleges and universities are starting to accept cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, or experimenting with the blockchain technology that drives those systems. Johnson said most of the hype around unversities' blockchain experiments has centered on storing and managing credentials. One argument for the tech is to prevent degree fraud—people misrepresenting the degrees they’ve earned—but she said it’s unclear how big a problem such fraud is and whether it’s enough to warrant developing a new system.
Corcoran asked the audience how much they are experimenting with virtual reality or augmented reality in classrooms.
A participant from Stanford University said she is seeing a growing interest among colleges in VR. “Stanford pretty famously has something called the Virtual Human Interaction Lab. It's led by a faculty member in the Communications Department and a lot of the VR experience is there are meant to provoke empathy and help visitors think more about putting themselves into experiences they might not have access to otherwise,” she said. “So I think those kinds of VR experiences that are bridging humanistic inquiry and ethical questions with the capability to evoke immersive reality is really exciting and compelling.”
The Stanford guest also said that she wants to see professors use VR in their classes to help students “engage in more critical inquiry of what virtual reality experiences might be like.”
Corcoran, however, said she wondered whether such systems, while well-meaning, could actually stop people from asking questions down the line if not adopted carefully. “VR feels like it can give you that insight, but at the same time it's a static insight,” she said. “You're capturing a moment or you're capturing a particular set of experiences I wonder whether it's almost misleading empathy doesn't give people chance to push back and ask questions.”