A challenge for Edtech: Embrace synchronous education

December 01, 2020 08:55
Photo: Reuters

The pandemic emphasized that the human element of education – conversation between users and understanding the educator’s needs – is just as important as the content and the technology.

There was once a vision that you could replace teachers with virtual assistants. Students would interact with software and the costs of education would come down dramatically, futurists would say. Alternatively, students might only need to watch personalized videos.

This year, millions of students experienced online education and found it wanting. It involved humans toggling mute buttons, teachers struggling to get students to participate while adapting to online tools that failed to integrate well with conferencing solutions.

Online education before the pandemic was mostly made for asynchronous consumption – students were assumed to use it to study on their own. They would log on as, watch a video or read a document, take a quiz and perhaps interact with others on message boards. That is how the dominant public companies in this space were built in China, the United States or India.

I predict this will change. Educational technology providers will have to do more than mimic the classroom setting and genuinely facilitate live human-to-human interaction.

Some players are doing that. For example, Educational Excellence Online (EEO), a China-based start-up, offers a Zoom-like platform designed for educational institutions. Its services were in high demand when partners and investors, which include Chinese edtech leaders New Oriental and TAL, were forced to move (or offer more) classes online.

Not only does EEO ensure online classes are simple, materials can also be shared easily with a built-in quiz function. Students can be broken up into different groups with the push of a button rather than the teacher having to assign them to groups.

Another company that we backed houses the curriculum inside the platform so you do not have to manage PowerPoint and Zoom separately. It allows teachers to access learning analytics and see which parts of the curriculum see higher or lower levels of engagement.

Focusing on the humans – the teachers and the students – and their need for interaction and accessibility will be something that edtech firms have to grapple with. Most of the leading edtech firms are supplementary education providers (think after-school tuition) but there is a large market for those willing to work with primary education providers.

This is especially true in the United States. The pandemic has been disruptive for traditional classroom-based instruction. It will also be disruptive for edtech as asynchronous education is losing its luster. People may not accept something that does not involve live interaction anymore.

Notes on Hong Kong, China

At the Cyberport Venture Capital Forum earlier in the month, I spoke with Bill Ning, the founding partner of Blue Elephant Capital, China's leading edtech investor. Ning informed me how mature the Chinese edtech ecosystem is where several B2C players have risen to the fore. In the United States, most are still working with institutions - schools, colleges, offices – as consumers do not spend as much on supplemental education.

The two markets may be evolving differently but they represent the two largest language and economic groupings of the planet. NetDragon Websoft, the Fuzhou-headquartered developer of massive multiplayer online games, has interestingly pivoted into educational technology selling solutions to Chinese schools.

On the other hand, China is a difficult market to crack for companies and venture capital firms. The amount of competition and capital in China and, to a lesser extent, India, makes it less attractive than Southeast Asia or other emerging market locations. Edtech firms in China are bigger than their peers. For any start-up that succeeds in China, thousands fail.

Still, it is far too important a market to ignore and I anticipate that many will try. It will be important to have people who understand the culture in China. It does not have to be the CEO but companies need to have empathy for the market.

The reverse is much more likely. Educational technology firms from Asia can look to the West as a market.

As a bicultural location, Hong Kong is well-positioned for two-way market exploration, partnership, dialogue and for companies seeking to situate their headquarters. As many people speak both English and Chinese, it has long served as a bridge between the two countries.

For any company that wants to move in either of those directions, Hong Kong is the perfect cultural and linguistic translator with a legal system trusted and understood by the rest of the world. Tellingly, NetDragon’s Hong Kong arm scouts the globe and looks for M&A opportunities.

Whatever plans edtech firms embrace, though, it is essential they realize that the education landscape is changing fast. For instance, many employees , mostly teachers, at edtech firms across the world work remotely and schools may follow suit.

Few start-ups can take the playbook that worked in the past and expect it to work in the coming year.

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Managing Partner at Rethink Education