Measuring the impact of Edtech
2021 was the year for edtech. Investment capital peaked at an all-time high, adoption rates skyrocketed, and many voices in and outside the industry said that edtech hadn't just arrived but was here to take over.
Now, twelve months on, how have those predictions played out? What does the 2022 UK edtech market look like? What challenges lie ahead? And, perhaps most importantly, does the 2021 level of optimism surrounding edtech correspond to current real-world impact?
Edtech investment in the UK
The UK edtech market is in a very good place. With around 1,000 UK companies providing educational platforms/software and thriving start-up space, it's one of the first places investors look to when searching for investment opportunities. In fact, the UK edtech sector is making the rest of Europe feel slightly left out - and even a little jealous.
UK edtech start-ups and firms attract around 41% of all edtech investment capital across the continent.
In London alone, venture capital investment increased by 21% between 2019 and 2020, while over £90 million was invested in emerging edtech companies across the rest of the UK.
2021 was even better, thanks to the speculative mania that gripped the global edtech industry. Over £500 million of venture capital investment poured into the UK's digital education market as Covid-19 lockdowns prompted a quick pivot to online learning and software.
The edtech market in 2022
Investment in the UK's digital education market has been down since the gold-rush days of 2021. But by removing that anomaly from the charts, we can see a steady line of investment growth that looks set to continue throughout 2022 and beyond.
AXD Marketing Director Alan Davies works with several edtech start-ups. And he knows the space inside out. Alan previously spent ten years working at edtech market leader OneFile. He shares his thoughts on the current UK edtech market.
"I've seen a lot during a decade in this industry, and 2021 was unprecedented - completely crazy. Deal rates went through the roof, and the investment capital tap was flowing."
"Frankly, I'm glad that's all over. Many deals would have never happened at any other time. The market fever meant there was more emphasis on quantity than quality. The market was overheated and completely unsustainable."
"Investment is 'down.' But, in reality, it's just gone back to the pre-covid levels. That flushes out a lot of the short-term speculation and opportunistic players. Start-ups, companies, and investors must now be more transparent and accountable. And that's a good thing; it drives real growth based on real-world value and application."
Edtech unicorn: Multiverse, a recent edtech success story
The UK edtech market has just thrown up a massive signal that it's moving in the right direction.
Earlier this year, Multiverse earned a $ 1 billion valuation, making it the UK's first edtech unicorn. Multiverse is a viable alternative to expensive and lengthy university degrees. The platform connects young people with tech and STEM-based apprenticeship opportunities at leading firms, including Rolls-Royce and Mastercard.
There are no admissions fees and zero debt to take on. And over 90% of Multiverse apprentices find full-time roles with their company.
"Young people have been faced with a trade-off between getting a degree or starting a career and immediately learning real-world skills, but now they can do both,"
says Elisabeth Barrett, Multiverse's vice president for learning.
"[Multiverse] allows people to obtain a quality education – but where a salary replaces debt. Apprenticeships allow young people to obtain a high-quality job from the start, instead of being unprepared for the modern workplace after graduation."
AXD director Alan Davies agrees:
"Multiverse is fantastic. It replaces theoretical lectures and outdated exams with applied learning and personalised coaching tailor-made to produce people with marketable, in-demand skills."
"The rise of Multiverse is exactly what we need in this space. There's always a stand-out company in a new market, a brand that establishes industry credibility and raises the standard. That's what we're seeing now with Multiverse. It could become the UK's edtech version of Facebook, Twitter, or Coinbase."
The next tech trends to watch closely
The edtech hype train might not be running as fast as it was in 2021, but it's still full steam ahead. And while this is excellent news for anyone involved in online education, not to mention the millions of students who can benefit from the mainstream adoption of edtech software, there are still plenty of challenges to overcome.
News of the UK's first edtech unicorn will inspire more start-ups and private companies to chase that illustrious $ 1 billion valuation. The question is: will the hype bubble around Multiverse and edtech technology incentivise (some) private companies to focus more on growth instead of creating products that lead to better learning outcomes for users? In other words, what will they prioritise: profits or people?
Unfortunately, some evidence suggests this - intentionally or not - may already be happening. The latest report from independent review platform Edtech Impact revealed that only 7% of edtech companies used randomised controlled trials and tests to determine the efficacy of their products. Instead, the vast majority preferred to use customer quotes (otherwise known as opinions) and case studies as evidence - not exactly a shining example of the empirical method.
And it's not just the tech companies demonstrating a lack of scientific rigour; schools and colleges must do better too. A survey of schools by the EdTech Efficacy Research Academic found that only 11% of decision-makers demanded to see peer-reviewed research before signing off on purchasing edtech software or platforms.
Fabio Segura, Co-CEO of the Jacobs Foundation writes:
"This has to change. Considering the vast amount of capital pouring into edtech and the increasingly high stakes, it's essential to finally put robust science at the heart of the sector. This would help investors identify solutions that deliver long-term growth, ensure that products stand the test of time and allow consumers to benefit from innovations that genuinely transform learning."
Sunil Gunderia, CIO at Age of Learning, believes that the rapid influx of education technology into schools during the pandemic explains why so many decision-makers failed to perform due diligence.
And she goes on to suggest (and probably quite rightly) that firms and start-ups aren't trying 'con' their way into adoption. Instead, tight budgets and a rush-to-market mentality (again driven by lockdowns) may have prevented them from establishing effective benchmarks for measuring all the complexities in evaluating learning outcomes.
The biggest challenge ahead
The message is clear: evidence-based research is key to establishing edtech credibility and quality moving forward. After all, you can't just tell people how great your platforms are; you have to show them. There's no other way around it.
So how does this happen?
Firms need to take more responsibility. That's precisely what Bamboo Learning did. The voice-activated literacy app has had a user-focused, data-led approach from the very start.
"From the founding of the company and being a lifelong educator, I knew we wanted to have a product informed by research and focus groups,"
says co-founder and chief content officer Irina Fine.
"It was always important to base our product design on research and user feedback. As soon as we shifted our strategy to schools, we said right away: we need research, evidence, we need validation."
Bamboo Learning worked with LearnPlatform to show that its products meet the criteria of showing evidence in accordance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The ESSA is a wide-ranging piece of US federal legislation that requires edtech companies to meet specific standards of an evidence-based approach before certification.
Critics have pointed out that the ESSA bar isn't particularly high. But it's a start.
Education is just as important as health and food, both of which are rigorously regulated. Currently, there are few barriers to entry for edtech companies and no governing bodies or regulators to oversee their claims.
To say the edtech industry needs cleaning up is a huge exaggeration, but some regulatory oversight and clarity are required and would, long term, be a real boost for the industry.
A framework for evidence-based edtech optimism
Regulation will take some time to play out.
In the meantime, the industry requires more initiatives like the Edtech Evidence Group (EEG). Founded in January this year at bett UK, one of the world's leading technology shows, EEG brings together edtech companies demanding the evidence-based approach. The EEG's core objectives are to support schools in understanding how they can assess edtech solutions and develop an industry-standard framework for weeding out unfounded claims.
"I like what the EdTech Evidence Group is doing,"
says Alan Davies.
"I like it a lot. It's industry leaders taking charge and banding together to demand more transparency, openness, and collective thinking. They're putting learning impacts and improving outcomes at the centre of their approach to edtech. And that's the way it should be."
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