Not Much New in EdTech in 2017; 3 Things Could Change That in 2018

January 16, 2018
Education Week

Despite more global investment in EdTech, not much happened in 2017.

Last year the rise of artificial intelligence (as reported here) was evident everywhere–not so much in education. There were some minor advances in adaptive learning and some ad copy about AI but few new applications.

After lots of hype in fall of 2016, there were no real developments in AR/VR. A few more kids got access to Google Expeditions but no interesting new applications.

Similarly, observers were also surprised to see so little development in gaming and gamification within education this past year (despite the fact that Mary Meeker treated learning as a subset of gaming in her trends report).

Learning platforms continue to serve the schools we have not the schools we need. Most platforms support whole group learning, don’t help personalized learning, can’t make smart recommendations for what to do next, and don’t support mastery-based progressions.

More kids got online with Chromebooks in 2017 (a trend that started in 2012, peaked in 2016) and, now that most schools have pretty good computer access, most kids benefited from more formative assessment but we can’t combine formative assessment from different sources.

Without student loan deals, US EdTech investment in 2017 was about the same as last year but fewer deals are getting done. Funding rounds are getting bigger, fewer and later. It’s harder to raise that first seed round. And, after your Series A (the first priced round) you better have proven market fit and a business model to piece together a B round.

It may have been quiet in the US, but it was a big year in China. Over a quarter of EduVC investments were made in China last year–and mostly monster rounds going to tutoring and test prep companies. Three of the four EdTech IPOs last year were Chinese companies.

After almost a decade of venture investment, it’s clear that EdTech is quite different than consumer internet. Few products go viral and freemium business models (free stuff with the hope that you’ll upgrade to a premium version) doesn’t produce sustainable businesses. With few exits, investors are more risk averse than five years ago.

In K-12, it’s not the tool that is the innovation, it’s the learning experiences that teacher teams create with new tools. For most youth, learning is motivated in relationship and grows in community. Thinking about innovation as a powerful sequence of youth development experiences is very different than designing the next EdApp.

Where is the Innovation?

While not much new happened in EdTech in 2017, there are pockets of K-12 innovation fueled by three drivers: adoption of broader aims, efforts to personalize learning and the (long awaited) platform revolution in education.

Broader aims. Given exponential change in the #FutureofWork, a growing number of schools, districts and networks are adopting new student learning goals. Some describe it as an updated profile of a graduate.

Most schools are paying more attention to social and emotional learning (SEL). The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social-Emotional and Academic Development has advanced the conversation and will propose better measures this year. Leading SEL advocate CASEL will expand its city and state partnerships (check out this podcast with CASEL chair Tim Shriver).

Given the interest in growth mindsets, SEL and career readiness, a growing number of schools are engaging students in project-based learning and all of its more open-ended maker and inquiry-based cousins.

Personalized learning. Most schools have made a commitment to personalized learning which powered a few years of strong Chromebook sales and elementary adoption of adaptive learning tools (DreamBoxi-Ready).

Most promising are new school models sponsored by XQNGLC funds, and NewSchools Venture Fund. These bundle broader aims, new tools, and powerful learning experiences.

Platform plays. Seven years ago (when I wrote Getting Smart) I thought the publishers, in their conversion to digital learning, would make big investments in platform strategies but that didn’t happen. Instead, platform leadership has emerged in three areas:

  • Free app ecosystems: After sharing free productivity tools, Google and Microsoft released lightweight learning platforms (both called Classroom) that quickly became widely adopted in K-12. The good news is that schools have access to simple free tools. The bad news is that the free app ecosystems have been a big damper on platform investment and innovation.
  • Private equity roll ups: Vista Equity Partners bought Powerschools from Pearson in 2015 and started bolting on acquisitions including Haiku, Chalkable, SunGard, and others to create an integrated solution. Frontline, an aggressive HR roll up, was acquired by Thoma Bravo in August. Both have the scale and appetite to invest in platform innovations.
  • Networks: CZI made a big investment in Summit Learning and extended access to 330 teacher teams. New Tech Network updated Echo for its 200 project-based schools. The combination of networked learning models and tools is likely to be a continued source of innovation. Renewed network investment by the Gates Foundation will help spur innovation in platform networks.

Artificial intelligence is creeping in around the edges of learning platforms. There are a few adaptive platforms (RealizeIt and Fishtree) and a few more making use of some machine learning. But few are supporting competency-based learning. Apparently vendors have not seen strong enough market signals that the world is shifting from keeping time to show what you know. Read More…

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