What Does the Future of EdTech Look Like in 2021?

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The end of the year is both time to reflect on what has passed as well as turn our minds towards the future. I have dedicated some time during December to focus on the key trends I expect to see in EdTech in 2021.

It is so easy to underestimate the depth and breadth of the EdTech industry, and nigh on impossible to visualize the over $5 trillion ecosystems that it forms a part of.

I exist in the realm of K12 digital and 21st-century skills education with an increasing amount of time spent tackling challenges around career-focused learning for students aged 16-24. Sitting on the boards and advisory groups of schools, education foundations, and nonprofits, I am fortunate in that I get to experience a broad spectrum of education throughout each year from a number of different perspectives.

EdTech Investment

EdTech has taken a front-row seat in the global business landscape in 2020 with investors making significant bets on established and larger companies in growth investment rounds. I feel that venture capital investors can struggle to balance early-stage educational investment with the return demands of their own investment models. This is driven by a lack of specialization in specific domains of education, which even with an overall sector-based generalization is highly complex. They also lack confidence in the strength of their networks to influence growth within a huge institutional addressable market and a consumer segment that can suffer from poor unit economics. 

That said, a number of education investors with clear specializations are now establishing early-stage funds presenting a strong opportunity for high-quality investment in early revenue stage companies. Well-tested and validated through the pandemic, these companies will be more robust than normal for their stage and likely undervalued. 

In 2021, whilst it will still be a journey back towards normal, schools will begin to operate with more established processes and protocols providing more stability for smaller but growing EdTech companies to gain a foothold and deliver initial results. With this in mind, I believe investors will deploy a continued growth of investment to a wider range of companies across the EdTech industry in the coming year. 

Online Learning

Online learning was already anticipated to be an area of significant growth in 2020. This has been accelerated by COVID-19, and has permeated traditional schools to a greater extent than previously foreseen. Where a good standard of online delivery of formal education has been achieved, its status and perception in the eyes of both educators and parents have improved. In 2021, schools will seek to determine which aspects of learning were improved by online learning and which remain best delivered in person. This will drive growth in the definition and practice of hybrid educational models as well as the technology and training that supports them.

Growth in Pedagogical Technology

Many approaches to online learning have focused on the implementation of video conferencing tools and achieving full adoption of learning management systems (LMS) by faculties. While an initial step in the right direction, this combination of administrative and communication technology does not provide a seamless transition between offline and online learning or the ability for the same learning to be delivered in the same amount of time. 

Elementary school educators have struggled to deliver the full spectrum of learning online – a challenge that remains largely unresolved and one not likely to be solved any time soon – however middle and high school learning has continued online with less disruption. Overall time constrained learning has focused on tested topics and exam preparation, resulting in a significant rollback in enrichment and elective learning which is arguably more relevant to students’ futures in the real world than much of traditionally tested learning. 

I believe educators will begin to adopt and seek pedagogical technology tools in 2021 that focus on content creation and engagement, real-time student learning data, and feedback to empower best practices and bridge the gap for effective teaching between LMS and communication tools.

LMS Consolidation and Interoperability

With technology tools remaining at the heart of quality teaching and learning experiences, streamlining their usage, and allowing educators to move easily between systems will become critical. It will also mean a growing demand for and a definition of the requirements for interoperability. Currently the fragmentation of the LMS market and unpredictability of application programming interfaces (APIs) is a barrier to wider and more consistent standards for interoperability. I believe this will begin to be resolved as the LMS market starts to consolidate towards the latter part of 2021.

Data and Privacy

Against a backdrop of increasing regulation and legal scrutiny, growth in pedagogical technologies and interoperability will lead to more real-time educational data being produced about student learning in 2021 than ever before. EdTech companies will therefore need to be acutely aware of data privacy, protection, and storage requirements at both the consumer and institutional customer levels. Companies growing internationally will need to consider effective data regions within their technology infrastructures and understand the security and architectural implications of scaling their technology, particularly where real time data is involved. 

Career-focused Learning and Assessment

As many developed nations continue with employment stimulus packages, the economic repercussions of COVID-19 have yet to be fully felt around the world. Going into 2021, however, these effects will become more significant and unemployment levels will likely increase to levels similar to the post-war era of the mid-20th century. This will accelerate growth in career-focused learning, re-skilling, and reduce university application and matriculation as people focus on faster and cheaper means of validating skills and experience that give them access to employment in developing, likely technology-driven industries. For EdTech, this will lead to growth in opportunities for curriculum creators, new assessment providers, and credentialing organizations that have strong partnerships with the industry. 

At this point you might be wondering why I have not mentioned artificial intelligence in the trends that I am predicting. I do believe that meaningful AI implementations in education will take place just not in 2021. We are currently still witnessing the early phase of the development of validated solutions for real-time data, and analytics in terms of machine learning. The longitudinal validation of AI in education and complexities of algorithmic bias will make progress slow whilst other EdTech developments will have more impactful and verifiable immediate results.

Although it has been said that 2020 was when the impact of EdTech on education was really felt, I would say that the door has only been cracked open. Rather, it has been a year of learning and discovery in preparation for a truly significant level of adoption at a later date. 

2021 will be a year when the disruption of 2020 becomes the new normal and it is against this backdrop that the future of EdTech will truly be defined.

about Chris
Christopher is the CEO of BSD Education. He has spent his career as a ‘venture builder’ operating and investing in technology, education and consulting.
Christopher was shortlisted in the Enterprising Young Brits Awards 2007. In 2011 Christopher was nominated as a Global Shaper and Founding Curator of this community’s Hong Kong Hub by the World Economic Forum and was elected to the Global Advisory Council of this community by the World Economic Forum in 2016, Chairing this council from 2017-2019. Between 2011 and 2014 the World Economic Forum sponsored Christopher’s participation in 3 Global Level WEF Events including as a speaker at their Davos Annual Meeting. In 2014 Christopher received a You’re a Star Award for Contribution to Young People from Kely Support Group in Hong Kong. In 2017 Christopher was recognised with a Certificate of Appreciation for contribution to Hong Kong Initiatives from Variety Children’s Charity and in 2018 Christopher was nominated as one of the top 10 outstanding young leaders in Hong Kong.

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