Edutech: a $60bn opportunity for brands

Consumers are turning to digital devices in all aspects of their lives and education is the latest area to turn to technology to reach them, an industry forecast to be worth $60bn by 2018.

Have you heard of ‘IF…’? It is not the poem by Rudyard Kipling but the children’s app that has topped Apple’s iTunes gaming and education chart. The free app, which aims to teach children ‘social and emotional intelligence’ has seen more than 200,000 downloads since it launched two weeks ago.

It is significant because it is the latest in a line of apps and other technology developments aimed at educating children and which is helping to turn the idea of the traditional classroom on its head. The game IF has hit headlines because it was created by Trip Hawkins, the founder of one of the world’s most successful gaming companies, Electronic Arts. He has raised more than $9m in funding for his new venture If You Can.

Hawkins’ marketing strategy is to launch a free preview of the game in order to get consumers interested and then a paid version that costs around $4.99 a month. The app, which is currently available only on iPad, will roll out to schools in the US and overseas. The aim is not to replace teachers with technology, says If You Can’s chief learning officer Jessica Berlinski.

“We have to balance real-life interplay with technology. With games, [teachers] can assess learning ‘in the moment’. They can see in a game whether a child is learning, what decisions they are taking and decide how they can support that personalised learning,” she explains.

Parents will also be able to see how their children are getting on, using a separate app that If You Can is also developing. “It will give the parent a window into the child’s experience in the game, and we want to support parents with something that is fun, easy and a ‘light touch’. So if the child is dealing with frustration or feelings of failure, they can help them deal with that,” says Berlinski. The game aims to help children overcome the fear of failure at a task, she adds, while navigating adventures and challenges in an imaginary town called Greenberry.

Just as we’veseen technology transform sectors such as banking, it may now transform higher education

Using technology for education is not limited to the parents and children’s market. MyLab, which is owned by education company Pearson, is a platform for university students and has more than 11 million subscribers worldwide. Students get a MyLab registration and as well as the content from textbooks, the system collects information on how users do on tests, for example.

Tutors can then see that one student might not have understood a particular module and quickly compare their performance with other students on the course. Pearson will continue to focus on this ‘adaptive learning’. Although profit for the group is down 6 per cent to £871m, according to results announced last month, it sees educational technology as a growth area.

Chief executive John Fallon has said he is “particularly excited about the significant opportunity digital education offers for Pearson and the next generation of learners”, and referred to the technology as “transforming”.

At the SXSW festival in Texas last week, Pearson announced it is accepting applications for Catalyst, its ‘virtual education start-up accelerator’. The first round of start-ups finished a three-month programme in December, including tracking tool ClassOwl, which enables teachers to communicate with students, reminding them when work is due, and to see how they are performing at particular tasks. ClassOwl is a partner of Pearson and says its vision is to ‘help students become better learners’.

But while so-called ‘edutech’ is a growing area, senior vice-president at Pearson Brendan O’Grady  warns that getting involved in this technology must be done strategically. “Our place is to make sure that it has educational underpinning and that the technology isn’t just shiny but that it actually improves learning outcomes.”

Pearson also works with universities to develop online distance-learning courses. These are not the free ‘MOOCs’ – massive open online courses – that are becoming more popular with students around the world but do help people who want to balance a job with education, for example.

Future of traditional universities

However, MOOCs and other ways of learning may themselves be a threat to the traditional university. At a time when many in the UK have had to introduce marketing strategies and think like brands to attract students since fees were increased to a maximum of £9,000 in 2012, their very existence may not be guaranteed in future.

According to Pearson’s chief education adviser Sir Michael Barber, co-author of An avalanche is coming, a paper about the future of education: “Just as we’ve seen the forces of technology and globalisation transform sectors such as media and communications or banking and finance over the past two decades, these forces may now transform higher education.

“The solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent but the storms of change now threaten them.”

However, research published by the Higher Education Academy last week says that teachers will still be central to learning, but there needs to be a balance between ‘machinic intervention’ and the ‘pedagogic capabilities of the teacher’.

While an adult may understand the need to balance technology with interaction in real life, children may become immersed in their devices.

If-you-can-game-2014-460
If You Can, a new venture by EA creator, uses games to educate. It is developing a parent tool and aims to roll it out to schools in the US

Too much technology use is not good for a child’s development, says If You Can’s Berlinski. “On the flipside, we are seeing kids who are not building emotional cues because they are so dependent on devices and texting.”

She adds that schools are not likely to adapt fast to the new technologies, even though consumers are. “Changes in education are very slow. It takes a lot of time and there are many different stakeholders that make it a slow process. To really make a change there has to be a cultural change first. I would like to think that our game could be a valuable cultural influencer.”

Skills gap

While ‘digital natives’ are playing games such as IF… and the millennial generation are using services like MyLab, there remains a technology skills gap in the UK, says Gi Fernando, the founder of Free:Formers. His company aims to address the lack of digital workers in the UK, and according to a report commissioned by O2 chief executive Ronan Dunne, published last September, 750,000 are needed by 2017.

Young people working for Free:Formers train marketers in digital skills and in return, Free:Formers teaches youngsters in the skills that the brands themselves are requesting.

Fernando also supports the idea of an education system that uses multiple ways of learning and suggests that the learning ‘campus’ of the future will be a mixture of traditional classrooms and more informal spaces such as coffee shops, where people can share ideas. He suggests that learning may need to be more tailored to individuals, but says: “The problem around education isn’t so much whether it is online learning, self taught or peer-to-peer teaching, it is how you measure learning outcomes in a scalable fashion.”

While the educational technology industry is a mixture of specialists such as Pearson and smaller app developers such as ClassOwl, the sector is predicted to be worth $60bn by 2018, according to research company Markets and Markets. With giants such as Cisco and Philips set to be getting involved with the classrooms of the future, expect more brands to work out how they can be part of the new teaching revolution.

Classroom flip

The Khan Academy is a not-for-profit organisation that is helping to revolutionise how people are taught. 

A free online service, it purports to offer an education to ‘anyone, anywhere’ and claims to reach 10 million students a month. Although 75 per cent of those studying are in the US, it has Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese portals and its video lessons are available in 28 languages.

Brands including Google, Oracle and Bank of America have donated to the initiative and the latter has created the Better Money Habits website with the academy. Content includes videos on getting out of debt, mortgages and the difference between credit and debit cards, which has had more than 2.7 million views since launch last April.

The partnership was set up in response to a ‘startling financial knowledge deficit’ in the US and aims to provide ‘unbiased information on personal finance’.

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