Getting the ‘ed’ right in EdTech

Growth in education technology investments is not the same as better learning outcomes. This will require technology to better understand the human learning process and solve the underlying problems that plague it.

Global edtech investments fell by more than half in 2022. Indian edtech was not immune: investments fell by 40%. The industry, which could not recruit fast enough, has laid off up to 10,000 employees in 2022. Hundreds of thousands of crores have been reported in losses. There are rumors that the “unicorns” are no longer magical and are in financial trouble. What’s going on?

EdTech, short for educational technology, consists of products and services that deploy technology to achieve better outcomes in education. At least that is the theory. Over the past two decades, companies have attempted to exploit market opportunities with various offerings, including digital classrooms (hardware), learning management systems (software), video content, adaptive learning, big data, and most recently through promises of blockchain, intelligence. artificial and machine learning.

While Covid has been devastating to many, it has proven to be a boon to many EdTech companies. Children were confined to their homes, and parents worried about their academic education; They were excited about adopting an educational alternative and ways to keep the kids busy. Enter EdTech Companies. Armed with massive funding from private equity and venture firms, these companies unleashed a massive advertising and sales assault on parents, offering recorded or live video clips, various online practice apps, and “customized” educational options as well. These were generally quite expensive, requiring a commitment of tens of thousands of rupees or even lakhs, and backed by attractive freemium and EMI deals.

With Covid over and normalcy returning, the urgency to get the kids involved at home has diminished. Studies are starting to emerge on the effectiveness of some of these products; Concerns about screen time have resurfaced, and parents are becoming more cautious about jumping on the bandwagon. This, in turn, had a cascading effect on sales, ratings and financing. A study among parents showed very low levels of satisfaction with K-12 EdTech offerings. Less than a third of parents were more likely to renew the product they were using, and they had a negative NPS (Net Promoter Score that indicates the likelihood of recommending the product to others). The first cause of dissatisfaction seems to be the quality of the product: lack of resolution of doubt, quality of teachers, and insufficient personal attention.

John Hattie of the University of Melbourne, arguably the foremost expert in measuring learning outcomes, studied data from 80 million students from 50,000 studies from around the world. His research discovered that “teacher related” factors have the greatest influence on student learning outcomes. Hattie also stresses the importance of softer aspects such as students’ self-esteem and the level of “struggle” or “challenge” in the learning process. His writing refers to Edtech as “the emperor’s new clothes” with “shiny gadgets” but there is no data showing any transformative effect. Not everyone likes Dr. Hati’s methods and method, but his message cannot be ignored.

Technology-based educational solutions are not always doomed to fail. A large-scale study of more than 61,000 school-age students in India, conducted by a Singapore-based organization, found that 31% of the same students gain learning within one year post-Covid.

Education is a complex process characterized by individual differences. Even before EdTech, with its promises and its failures, education was grappling with several fundamental problems: the diverse distribution of talent, the unequal distribution of motivation, and the transition from knowledge to learning. These are difficult problems that will need many iterations. However, the willingness to solve it, along with an evidence-based approach, is paramount. Finance and marketing alone will not do the trick.

All evidence so far indicates that there is not a single silver bullet. The most likely path forward is a combination of pedagogy, personalization, and measurement (goals, outcomes, and feedback). If technology can tangibly address some of these fundamental problems, it’s in business. If not, we will continue to discover melting glaciers and giants with feet of mud.

(The author is the founder and president of a Singapore-based company.)