How is the pandemic and other technology and market trends changing the world of EdTech? And just as important, what developments can we expect to see in the next five years?

Before getting out my crystal ball and looking to the future of EdTech, I think it’s worth looking back to see what’s happened over the last 12 to 18 months. What’s clear is that the last few years have shown that digital-only learning tech is simply not cutting it when it comes to educational outcomes. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic and as investors in EdTech, it’s sustainable educational outcomes that we’re particularly interested in.

And as Charles McIntyre, Chairman, EdTechX Global, Europe, commented, “When digital becomes commoditised, experiential becomes premium. We have seen this in many other sectors, for example just look at the music industry. Education and training is no different. The premium experience is blending adaptive digital content with human interaction”.

Doing your homework

I remember when Beech Tree first got involved in the language learning sector back in 2017, we saw almost all of the purely digital language learning platforms were not getting consistently good educational outcomes. Yes, there was some gamification around much of the learning, but trying to give people a proper language capability beyond ordering a drink and a croque monsieur wasn’t really possible. What we believed then is still true today: you need that human interaction – be it through a virtual platform like Teams or Zoom – to really make the learning stick. In fact, you can’t beat that face-to-face interaction – whether you’re teaching kids in the classroom or Sales Managers in the office. It’s personal, it’s interactive and you can make the content as relevant and as specific as you like.

However, the big problem is the more you the scale human interaction, the more challenging and variable it becomes, because you'll have one fantastic tutor and another that's not so great. So it becomes harder to achieve consistently good outcomes across multiple groups in an organisation.

In the last few years, we’ve also seen a big rise in digital self-service platforms that allow you to learn whenever you want, day or night. This is great for tick-box compliance or onboarding staff when they join an organisation, but it’s not enough when you’re trying to teach more complex concepts that need deeper one-to-one explanation. Again, it's a gamified, basic-level of learning that’s fine for a bit of health and safety training or ordering a pizza, but you certainly couldn’t rely on it to learn the rudiments you need to converse or do business in a specific language, for example.

Best in class

There are companies out there, like Learnlight – one of our portfolio companies – that combine ground-breaking EdTech with the world's best trainers to provide blended virtual, face-to-face and digital programmes. They also have 2,000 carefully selected trainers around the world, and can offer that time-zone capability. And this is where I see the future of language and skills learning: a self-service platform that’s supplemented by virtual one-to-one or one-to-many instruction. But, which also draws on new technologies such as AI and machine learning to improve cognitive learning.

I can imagine AI accounting for up to 25% of a course, but you still need that human engagement. What’s more, no one – especially children – are going to sit in a classroom and be taught by a robot. But one area where AI can make a huge difference is in identifying specific weaknesses a student might have in a certain area and adapting content to better support their learning. Given what we've just been through with the pandemic, this is hugely relevant for children’s learning. For example, if you're weak at algebra, AI can pick that up. If you're weak at conjugating the perfect tense in French, AI can pick that up in real-time and adapt the learning to help the student. And we’re seeing that being used in the workplace too, to help people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or to modify content so it fits with people who might need a different approach to learning.

Lessons for life

That's what’s so fascinating about some of these new approaches. They can change people’s lives for the better and have a hugely positive impact on educational outcomes. In a short space of time, things have moved from “How can we better assess people's ability in certain areas and then tweak the course to help with that?”, to “How can we deliver education to speed up the journey for those who learn quickly and for those who need specific support?”.

In effect, you still have the human tutor in the middle, but you’re using tech to improve accessibility and inclusion around skills training in school or work-based environments. Everyone wins because the tutor identifies quickly who needs what type of help and modifies their approach or content, while students who might struggle with particular aspects of learning receive the targeted, personal support and content they need to keep pace with their fellow learners. And what’s encouraging is that in the next 12-18 months we’ll likely have the toolset that brings virtual and digital together into a single platform. A platform that draws on AI, machine learning, data analytics and so on to personalise cognitive learning on an individual level. I think that’s really exciting.

The ethical learning curve

But as with any AI, we mustn’t forget the ethics of using it. For example, if a child or student asks something inappropriate or just needs a bit of encouragement, any true AI needs to be able to understand those situations and respond accordingly. Those capabilities aren’t there yet, so there has to be a human in the loop. However, in terms of spotting issues or strengths and weaknesses and tailoring digital content accordingly, then that technology already exists. And in the next four or five years, I think we’ll see a lot more AI used to enhance and support cognitive learning and, ultimately, improve educational outcomes.

What I also think is interesting is the difference in how some corporates – even countries – have embraced or eschewed digitisation. Take Germany, for instance. It’s still very much a paper-based economy where the preference is face-to-face, so they’re lagging behind the UK and US.

Last word

From a cost point of view, you’d always want to go down the self-service route as it’s the most profitable way to do it, but it doesn't create consistently good outcomes. Hence self-service works in areas where people don't need to learn the fundamental skills to drive that learning outcome. Of course, that can have elements of AI and personalisation to make it more interesting, but I think if you want to fundamentally change things like skills learning, technology learning and language learning, you need to have tutors who can offer that one-to-one personalised learning journey. The trick will be how you use AI and technology to scale that model. That’s where the real opportunity lies.