With Brexit Looming, Is There a Place for the UK in Global Edtech?

With the Brexit limbo set to linger for a few months yet, uncertainty looks likely to continue affecting the U.K.’s commercial relationships. Foreign direct investment in the country has fallen by nearly 20% in the last three years, and the same period has seen British companies less likely to enter into foreign trade than before.

Despite a difficult short-term picture, though, there is some hope that the U.K. can continue to thrive in areas such as education—a sector that can tap into the country’s strong heritage and international reputation. To be one of the leading players in a $250 billion global industry would be a huge win. But can the country make the necessary step up?

The edtech sector certainly shows promise. It is one of the U.K.’s fastest-growing industries, with a 22% revenue growth year-over-year. It accounts for 4% of all U.K. technology companies, and is projected to be worth £3.4 billion by 2021. Roughly a quarter of Europe’s edtech companies are based in the U.K., attracting 35% of European edtech startup investment. London is a launch pad for edtech startups and has a growing reputation as a leading hub where many foreign nationals choose to establish their edtech companies.

Nonetheless, from a global perspective, the U.K. and Europe as a whole are presently dwarfed by bigger players. More than 3,000 edtech companies are currently active across Europe, but they receive just 6% of global edtech venture capital. On the other hand, just China and India together represent more than 70%. Moreover, UK edtech is currently only generating around £170 million in exports—much smaller than one would expect for a service-centric economy that ranks as the world’s fifth-largest.

However, changes are underway – both from government and within the sector itself – that aim to secure London’s future as a global edtech powerhouse. While the UK is abundant in the technical and creative skills required to create world-class edtech products, it has until recently lacked the ecosystem necessary for products to achieve exposure and make the transition to global markets. But this is beginning to change.

One of the most difficult issues in marketing—and buying—edtech is demonstrating that a product will bring tangible, measurable benefits. Creating such evidence requires both skill in empirical research techniques and, crucially, access to pupils in order to measure impact. To solve this problem, the government has recently announced the creation of a series of school “testbeds” that will work with startups to develop an evidence base for the best innovations.

Alongside this, other institutions are beginning to work with edtech businesses to help them understand how to use research to create solid evidence for the suitability of their product. A prime example is University College London’s EDUCATE initiative, which brings together edtech entrepreneurs, academics and educators in a structured research mentoring program.

The second critical element in supporting this industry is an ecosystem that connects new companies with funders, potential customers, experts—and each other. An increasing number of organizations are aiming to nurture London’s many fledgling startups and create these links. Established events such as the BESA’s Bett show are now working in tandem with new, innovative conferences such as Learnit and peer networks such as the Edtech Exchange. Investment groups like the Nasdaq-listed EdTechX has launched the EdtechX Europe conference and Edtech Week (a series of 40-plus events) in London, as well as hosting other events across Europe, Asia and Africa.

At the government level, the U.K.’s Department for International Development is looking at targeting learning outcomes, supported by edtech, through the development of an EdTech Research and Innovation Hub that focuses on the developing world. And at the same time, Nesta supports edtech impact investment and Emerge Education is building a funding network to accelerate promising edtech projects.

These emerging networks will be hugely important in creating opportunities for U.K. edtech in the coming years. Although Chinese and US startups attract more attention, the fact that they tend to focus on their own large domestic markets means there is a huge opportunity for European and U.K. companies to step in and scale internationally at an earlier stage.

Nonetheless, despite these supports, U.K. education entrepreneurs must be conscious of the future risks to their place in the global tech ecosystem. Many London-registered startups rely heavily on development operations based in other European countries, as well as a good deal of funding from European businesses. There is strong competition from hubs in Berlin, Stockholm and Paris, so it will be important to continue nurturing the country’s overseas links, regardless of what version of Brexit the UK arrives at. However, if London can continue to strengthen its reputation as an international edtech hub, there’s no reason it can’t be a global leader in creating positive educational impact.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital

This article appeared on EdSurge on 19th May 2019

A continental shift in education technology?

While the sector is currently dominated by the US and China, Europe can be the powerhouse helping edtech come of age, says Tmrw Digital’s Vikas Pota

Last month I attended a rooftop event in London hosted by Edspace.io, where a cross-section of European edtech startups and VCs gathered to discuss the latest innovations in education. The talent, energy and enthusiasm of those in attendance was palpable – a sign of the growing confidence within Europe’s edtech sector, a market holding immense potential for companies looking to make a global impact.

Indeed, Europe is the second largest worldwide market when it comes to education spending, totalling over €700bn each year for its 110 million students. The pedigree of its countries’ education systems is world class, with relative minnows such as Estonia, Ireland and Finland consistently riding high in the OECD’s PISA rankings.

Yet, despite 3,000 edtech companies currently active across the continent, they receive just 8% of worldwide investment in the sector. Instead, the US and China dominate, with more than 58% of all edtech funding in 2017 going to US companies and 19% to China. It’s no surprise, then, that the members of edtech’s unicorn club – those with valuations worth more than $1 billion – are either Chinese (such as Hujiang or iTutorGroup) or American (such as Coursera or Udemy). India’s Byju’s is the sole exception.

Can Europe add a name to this list and stand alongside its other tech titans such as Sweden’s Spotify or Germany’s Zalando? Sceptics will argue that lack of access to funding and a fragmented market of 44 countries – many with complex school procurement processes – will hold it back. I take a more positive view. For example, from 2014 to 2017, investment in European edtech start-ups more than tripled in size, from €140mn to €490mn. Yet transactions per year have remained broadly consistent, meaning that investors are devoting more significant sums, in more mature projects. While €490mn represents but a third of the venture funding invested in US edtech last year, just four years ago it was a tenth. Clearly, the historical reluctance of investors to back European edtech companies is abating.

UK stands tall

Attracting 35% of this €490mn figure, the UK stands tall as the main player on the European edtech stage. Of course, Brexit uncertainty poses challenges – particularly to the workforce in the UK tech industry – yet the country has some natural advantages. At the top level, the government is engaged, establishing a national computing curriculum and recently calling on tech companies to help revolutionise the education sector, identifying five key areas of focus. The UK is also home to a host of world-class universities and publishers that can act as key local partners and collaborators for entrepreneurs. And, with its influential Tech City community, London is unparalleled in Europe as a launch pad for edtech start-ups, ranking as a global top five edtech hub.

Other European cities are also rapidly establishing themselves. Paris, for example, is developing into one of the most dynamic edtech ecosystems in Europe. The edtech Observatory, which comprehensively lists French edtech players and researches major trends in the industry, was recently established in the city, as was the EdTech France association. Two venture capital funds dedicated exclusively to edtech investment – Brighteye Ventures and EduCapital – were also recently launched in Paris, closing almost €100mn between them.

Take Helsinki, too. Finland’s education system has created a world-class “’ade in Finland’ brand, with Finnish edtech companies developing best-in-class products that are highly regarded for their quality and innovation, particularly in gamification. Importantly, edtech start-ups in the city have access to one of Europe’s leading edtech start-up accelerators, xEdu. While the US leads the field with more than a dozen such structures dedicated to edtech, Emerge in the UK and LearnSpace in France are examples showing Europe is heading in the right direction.

Europe’s natural advantage

Assuming a European startup achieves success at home, scaling up to become a unicorn requires international expansion. This is where European edtech companies have a natural advantage: its diversity and deep historical links to the rest of the world give it a uniquely international outlook. While Chinese and US startups understandably tend to focus on their large domestic markets before taking products overseas, European companies have an incentive to capture the considerable opportunities overseas.

There are huge markets in the developing world with young, growing populations clamouring for edtech – India, for example, has 300 million children aged 6 to 17. This is where European companies can step in.

A European edtech company that has successfully implemented its product or service across European countries, with different barriers to entry, has proven staying power; if you make it in Europe, the door to the rest of the world swings open. The worldwide popularity of European curricula – such as the International Baccalaureate and iGCSE – further serves to help internationalise European edtech startups. So, too, the similarities of foreign countries’ educational systems to those in Europe, with the UK and Commonwealth a prime example.

Let us not forget the cultural richness and variety of lifestyles on offer in Europe’s major tech hubs, from the uber-cool Berlin startup scene to the more relaxed Barcelona. The continent is a melting pot of different cultures, languages, and ideas like no other, where budding entrepreneurs from all over the world flock to make their big break. Indeed, with President Trump’s H1-B visa program crackdown, and with many European countries creating startup visa programs making it easier to hire foreign talent, Europe is ideally positioned to continue attracting the brightest tech talent.

Over the longer term, if Europe can play to its natural strengths, it could nurture the next generation of start-ups and help edtech truly come of age.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital

This article appeared on the Education Technology website on 29th October 2018

The Rise of the “Teacher-preneur”

Why educator involvement in edtech isn’t merely a nice idea.

Last week we held our inaugural event in London, where two inspirational edtech entrepreneurs spoke about how they made the leap into starting their own businesses, what drove them to take on the challenge, and how they achieved remarkable results in such short spaces of time. They had one thing in common: both used to be teachers.

The growing trend of the “teacherpreneur” is timely, and a potential solution to the impasse afflicting educational technology – edtech – in its current state. Despite all the hype, it’s fair to say that edtech isn’t living up to its potential.

Addressing the Facts

In the developing world, governments and NGOs have had little impact so far in addressing the shocking fact that over 260 million children and young people are not in school, and that of the 650 million primary school-age children that are, 250 million are not learning the basics.

Meanwhile, across the developed world, many edtech products are not yet making the educational impact many had hoped for. For instance, in 2015, an OECD report found that there was no noticeable improvement in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science in countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education. And in the US, only 33 per cent of parents surveyed by the Learning Assembly agreed that their child’s school did an “excellent” job of using technology to tailor instruction. The sector is not yet producing the sort of innovation that will bring about macro-level changes in how education is delivered across the globe to those with fewer resources.

A Key Ingredient

A key ingredient that could make a huge difference to this apparent lack of progress is the involvement of teachers in edtech development – educators are all too often left out of the picture by the current norms of the sector. In all the conferences I have attended around the world, I’m struck by the absence of teachers at edtech roundtables, discussions, and panels – which usually revolve around policymakers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and investors. It’s a shame, since the conversations I have with teachers who are on the front line, in my experience, are always the most productive.

Teacher involvement is crucial, in part because one of the main reasons that many edtech initiatives fail is a lack of grounding in the real experience of students and teachers. Designers and developers often miss failings that would be obvious to those on the front line. By contrast, teachers know first-hand what students need, and what they themselves need as educators – a crucial element in the design process. They also understand the distinction between a superficial innovation and one that will actually help pupils, and they know how the education sector works from the inside.

Edtech’s Next Paradigm Shift

Now, trailblazing teachers are taking innovation into their own hands, bringing the knowledge and insight gleaned in the classroom to the world of edtech. This is a profoundly positive step, and there are good reasons to think that the next paradigm shift in edtech will come from teachers who combine their classroom practice with edtech development.

With such a large role to play, people are looking for teachers to enter this debate, and it was therefore heartening, but also no surprise, that last week’s event was oversubscribed, where we listened to Colin Hegarty and Emma Rogers tell their stories (pictured above; Colin middle, and Emma, left).

In 2011, while working as a maths teacher in London, Colin started making YouTube videos explaining important maths concepts for home study and revision, which eventually attracted millions of views from around the world and grew into Hegarty Maths – an online platform that teaches, assesses and tracks everything a child needs to learn in maths from upper primary to IGCSE level. Colin, a Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize Finalist, emphasized at the event how important it is for students to not only receive quality instruction, but for teachers to be supported in helping their students develop metacognitive awareness of how they study – which is why Hegarty Maths offers in-depth student tracking and analytics for teachers to use.

Similarly, Emma Rogers was a school Head of Department and a children’s writer and illustrator before founding Little Bridge, which helps children learn key English skills through its immersive digital world containing hundreds of carefully designed activities, stories and characters. Emma noted that too many products solve a problem that students and teachers don’t really have; her advice to attendees was to find an actual, specific problem – and then solve it.

Emma and Colin’s backgrounds were instrumental in how they developed their products, as is the case for Adam Still, a Teach First alumnus who recently founded Ripple Education, a digital lesson-planning tool designed squarely with teachers in mind. Adam observed that lesson planning – crucial for developing high-quality lessons and driving positive student outcomes – is currently a major time sink for teachers who tend to do it by themselves. Ripple’s easy-to-use and comprehensive platform aims to address this problem, freeing up precious time for teachers – who spend over 50% of their time outside the classroom – to let them do what they do best: teach.

A First Step

To encourage and support this growing trend of teachers using their expertise to build the next generation of edtech products, I will be guiding the new Tmrw Institute to help bring the worlds of education and technology together.

Founded by Sunny Varkey, the Institute will aim to increase teacher involvement in edtech, explore the edtech innovations that make the most difference, and tackle the problem of global education capacity using the best ideas from the edtech world.

Last week’s event was just the first step of our journey – hopefully it inspired and informed potential entrepreneurs and helped place teachers at the heart of edtech.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital.

This article appeared on EdTech Digest on 1st October 2018

To succeed, edtech companies must listen to teachers

Technology can revolutionise teaching – but only if its creators integrate learning or pedagogy, and consult with teachers first

Technology today has an unprecedented power to transform how we work and interact, from social media and Twitter politics to remote working and the digital economy.

But one area whose potential has not yet been explored to the full is technology in education – even though it could help us meet the serious educational challenges facing our world.

For decades it seems that governments and stakeholders have been discussing the lack of quality educational provision, particularly in the developing and emerging world. The damning statistics should be burned into our consciousness.

It is a scandal that in 2018, nearly 263 million children and young people are not in school, and of the 650 million primary school-age children that are, 250 million are not learning the basics. To meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of quality education for all, we will need to recruit 69 million more teachers by 2030.

With no realistic sign of politicians being able to solve these deep-rooted problems we have to hope that edtech can help bridge this education chasm. Teachers should be able to use technology to access hard-to-reach pupils as well as helping pupils access educational content for the very first time. Time is running short for another generation that are being denied their birthright: a quality education.

Even here in the UK, where pupils have good access to teachers, it is hoped that technology will play a role in improving the quality of education through personalised learning, smart feedback, and improved access to information, networks and resources. Celebrated apps such as Remind, ThingLink, Wonder Workshop and ClassTag for parents are all just the tip of the iceberg.

The growth in the global edtech market over the last few years should be enabling even bigger and better innovations. In 2015, funding of edtech startups reached $3.3 billion, and overall sector investment hit $9.5 billion in 2017; the market has been forecasted to grow 17 per cent year-on-year (20 per cent in China) to an overall value of $252 billion by 2020.

Importantly, this growth is also reflected in developing economies: for example, in the last decade India has become the second-largest edtech market in the world after the US, and an estimated eight-fold increase to $1.96 billion is predicted by 2021.

Despite this huge potential, however, there is a sense that edtech products are falling short. The recent failures of some edtech companies to deliver on projects are well documented: sometimes these occurred because the original aim was too ambitious – or not grounded in the real experience of students and teachers.

However, the problem is not merely individual companies “getting it wrong”. A 2015 OECD report found that even countries that had invested heavily in information and communication technology (ICT) for education had seen no noticeable improvement in their PISA results for reading, mathematics or science.

And in the US, only 33 per cent of parents surveyed by the Learning Assembly say that their child’s school did an “excellent” job of using technology to tailor instruction.

There are many reasons for these failures but three stand out for me. The first is that some edtech startups may not be fully integrating the science of learning or pedagogy into their products. Some companies even confuse market research with educational research.

There needs to be a much greater focus on bringing the education into edtech; in particular, there needs to be a deep research-based understanding of how edtech can usefully augment educators. One piece of meta-analytic research from 2014 showed that improved outcomes in edtech principally depended upon three factors: interactive learning, exploring and creating, and crucially, the right blend of teachers and technology. Edtech is most successful when teachers also play their unique roles as curators, mentors, and facilitators of meaningful peer interaction.

The second is a related issue about the economics of tech entrepreneurship. Some new entrants to the market hope to launch a product that will scale quickly and potentially allow them a lucrative exit.

But those who come to the education sector without an intimate understanding of its economies, timescales and ways of working will struggle – and many companies who have not been aware of this have failed to realise their value or become profitable.  

Edtech investors must have the mindset that they have a rare opportunity that transforms people’s lives. That is a complex task that can take many years of work before they will start to see any results.  

Thirdly, and most crucially, entrepreneurs need to understand that edtech is just as much about people as it is technology. Understanding how the different interest groups involved in education fit together – from governments to parents, policymakers, teachers, parents and students – is key to success or failure.

I have come to believe that we need to make research and consultation more central to the edtech debate. Student outcomes are most improved when innovations work as part of systems that have substantial educational research behind them.

We also need rigorous evaluations of how a new product actually works in the classroom. Furthermore, we have to bring teachers to the fore in everything we do. In all the conferences I have attended around the world, I have never once seen a teacher invited to be a part of the edtech discussion – which often revolve around policymakers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and investors.

It’s surprising that the sector hasn’t much consulted the teachers who are actually on the front line: in my own experience, the conversations I have with teachers are always the most productive ones.

To promote this approach, I will be guiding the setup of the Tmrw Institute that will look to answer some of the key questions about the role of technology in education. In particular, I want to look at how edtech can help provide a quality education to the billion-plus young people who are either not in school or have no access to a good teacher.

The institute will aim to infuse edtech entrepreneurs with an understanding of what it takes to shift those educational outcomes. And with a rigorous, evidence-based approach, we have reason to hope that technology can help bring a good education to young people wherever they are in the world.

Vikas Pota is the group chief executive of Tmrw Digital 

This article appeared in the TES on 17th August 2018