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24 Apr 2024
Lulu Shi

EdTech from the Perspective of Edtech Firms and Investors

In this blogpost, Lulu Shi presents some takeaways from the edtech summit EdTechX, which provided an opportunity to gain insights into the edtech sector. She notes that EdTech firms conceptualise education as a market rather than as a common good.

A part of NORRAG’s digitalisation of education blog series, this blogpost is the first in a two blogpost mini-series on EdTech summits.

 

In June 2023 EdTechX organised its yearly edtech summit, which “attracted global leaders, investors, and founders at the forefront of innovation in EdTech and the Future of Work to London to push the boundaries of our ever-evolving sector” (EdTechX 2023). The summit aimed to bring together “the most influential, impactful, and disruptive players in the sector, […] all driven by a shared ethos of profitability, sustainability, and inclusivity” (EdTechX 2023). The event was advertised to be an opportunity to learn about cutting-edge AI advancements for innovation and growth, as well as new challenges for the future of education and society. I was invited as one of the panellists to talk about the values and impact of education technology, or edtech. Mainly targeting edtech firms, investors, and consultancy organisations, the event presented as an opportunity for me to gain insights to understand edtech as a market.

Throughout the day, I attended several talks and discussions, visited exhibition booths, and met people at the networking socials. The event took place in London Tobacco Dock, an event space with a contemporary industrial air. Three parallel sessions took place in different halls, all filled with smartly dressed attendees. The invited speakers were predominantly from edtech and the finance sector, and it became clear that “pushing boundaries” was hoped to be achieved mainly through match-making the tech providers with funders. Looking at the program schedule, I could identify only a few speakers from other areas, such as governance (e.g. a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Estonia) and academia (myself and three other people with university affiliations). One group whose absence was noticeable was the intended edtech users – teachers, students, and parents. Their voices were represented by a few school-level staff, often with titles such as “director of digital education”. Only later during the networking socials I met one teaching professional from a private school – they came to listen to the talks.

Several panels discussed the challenges in education and the role of technology in overcoming these challenges. At this event, the prevalent discourse around education technology centred around using technology to solve problems in education such as poor student-teacher ratios, biases in human decision-making, traditional or outmoded teaching and learning that is not aligned with wider societal transformation, or limited access to education in deprived and remote areas. Edtech promises range from using technology to deliver personalised learning, to detect, measure, and intervene in student behaviours, to equalise educational access for all, to raise attainment, to support society’s most marginalised, to introduce “innovation” within outdated practices, to save teachers and institutions time, or to make learning more efficient. Some of the presenting tech companies were not originally focusing on providing “education solutions”, rather, their products were (or still are) geared towards for-profit businesses. As part of their market expansion strategies, they entered the education sector. The language used to describe their services – such as “retain the usage rate”, “improve engagement”, or “compare performances” – seemed to align more with market principles than educational values.

In my session, the moderator invited us to discuss the values of education technology. My co-panelists – a CIO at an edtech VC and a portfolio manager of education equity fund at a globally operating bank – discussed the question mainly from the perspective of economic values, and edtech as a market was described in a systematic way: broken down into distinct areas of identified demands (e.g. private tutoring, day care, or language learning), with each area subsequently further dissected into segments (e.g. by country, by age group, or by earning power), and each segment attached to numbers (e.g. population size, turnover rate, cost, or potential profit). The market sizing exercise served to define the edtech market as a tangible entity, to conceptualise it in its monetary values, and helped to identify potential areas of marketisation.

The summit provided an excellent opportunity to gain insights into the edtech sector and to understand how education is conceptualised by tech providers and investors, and several points of concern surfaced. First, there was an underrepresentation, if not absence, of teachers, students, and parents in the panels. If this reflects a typical edtech development process, it raises concerns about the implications when discussions and decisions mainly involve edtech businesses and investors determining what kind of products receive funding and come to fruition. Secondly, Edtech tools and services may not be originally designed for education but rather developed for businesses unrelated to education and then later adapted for educational purposes as part of the companies’ expansion strategies. There is the risk that schools need to adapt to the market logic that is inherent to the designs of these tech products. Lastly, investors’ top-down, quantifying approach to conceptualise education, assigning numerical values to various educational aspects and treating education primarily as a market runs the danger of prioritising the monetary value of education, at the cost of education as a public good.

Key takeaways: Edtech firms and investors should:

  1. Bring students, teachers and parents to the decision making table: edtech firms and investors play a main role, and students, teachers, and parents are not represented.
  2. Move beyond the tech solutionism and market logic inherent in some edtech products.
  3. Challenge the top-down approach of investors in conceptualising education as a market rather than prioritising education as a common good.

 

About the Author:

Lulu Shi is a lecturer at the Department of Education, Oxford University, and a research associate at the Oxford Internet Institute and Sociology Department Oxford. She is a sociologist and her research spans technology, education, work and employment and organisations.

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1 Response

  1. Mike Douse

    While it is reasonable enough and I suppose inevitable for EdTech firms to look at EdTech from an EdTech perspective, the time has arrived for attention to focus upon how EdTech including AI may best help people bring about effective, enjoyable and equitable education worldwide . This would involve

    a) Determine what the fundamental educational challenges and problems are;

    b) Gain agreement on how those fundamental educational challenges and problems may, taken together, best be overcome by humankind, in careful and creative partnership with contemporary EdTech, notably benign Artificial Intelligence; and

    c) Decide how such a worldwide Plan may best be effectively implemented and sustainably maintained (considering the political, financial, public information and relations, managerial, monitoring and other implications).

    Now that really would be a Conference!

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