Covid-19 has reset our society. In a once-in-a-century masterstroke, the novel coronavirus has brought modern civilisation to a sudden halt. Overnight, schools and malls closed and citizens are mandated to stay home to ride this crisis out.
The business of Education Technology or EdTech is also affected --- in just 8 weeks since many countries implemented lockdowns, 7 broad trends that have emerged in EdTech as a direct result of covid-19, based on the experiences of an EdTech company with a footprint in Asia, China, U.S. and U.K., and from conversations with teachers, school leaders and other EdTech companies. The experiences of the EdTech industry also presents some insights that are useful for companies and entrepreneurs in other industries, as it fundamentally showcases the need for companies to be nimble and respond to new trends emerging from the COVID situation.
1. From “good-to-have” to “must-have”
EdTech is quite advanced these days, from powerful Learning Management Systems (LMSs), to the advent of artificial intelligence for learning. These are great tools, but pre-COVID, many teachers argue that these are only “good-to-haves”, since ultimately, they should know their students best, with deep knowledge that may not be picked up by even the smartest piece of EdTech. Afterall, teachers meet and communicate with their students almost every day and EdTech is but one of many tools in their arsenal to deliver good teaching.
Covid-19 brought the school system to its knees and overnight, teachers were scrambling for digital tools and resources to keep in touch with their kids remotely, to ensure learning continues amidst the lockdown. Teachers who only knew how to use Gmail to communicate are now thrilled to find digital tools that they can use to create powerful lessons online. What’s more, these same teachers cannot wait to tell their colleagues about such tools and what they could do with them. From being a “good-to-have” EdTech has emerged as a “must-have”, with a growing number of educators now seeing its immediate value in lifting the burden off teachers struggling to make sure that their kids are not left behind when left at home.
For EdTech companies who have yet to gain a foothold in the educational system, the time is finally come for them to design solutions that fit snuggly with the current and basic needs of teachers around the world. This presents a good opportunity for EdTech companies to benefit from such a trend, yet there are also many perils. EdTech solutions thrust into the limelight that do not have the robustness to withstand the scrutiny may only increase customer disappointment with their products. Further, EdTech incumbents also have to cope with the sudden influx of attention from potential competitors, as the industry has suddenly become a magnet for new entrants who are attracted by the sudden change of path taken in the education sector.
2. Help first; monetise later
When the world is suffering, no one should be seen benefiting. When a vendor attempted to increase the price of surgical masks in the current pandemic, it drew the wrath of the community. In the same way, Edtech companies all over the world have stepped up to offer their solutions for teachers to use, free of charge.
Zoom offered its video conferencing platform to US educators free to use. Others have offered their contents and lesson authoring platforms too. To be clear, these are not freemium or free-trial offerings. These are premium offerings that are made free to educators because the EdTech companies genuinely want to help their stakeholders.
This is good business at its core, seeking first to solve a problem without worrying about making money at the outset. When the dust settles, the goodwill generated in the hearts of these users will ultimately bear fruit, with many of them loving not just its product, but also the company behind it. This builds brand loyalty and ultimately market share and success.
Yet it is also clear that not all companies are in the position to provide free offerings like the bigger boys. Those who are able to do so tend to be companies with the standing, and the resources (like Zoom), and the infrastructure to provide the scale. Further, the experience of Zoom has also taught us that providing the online resources for free has its advantages and disadvantages. Zoom certainly gained from the fame, goodwill and additional revenue, as more learned about them and they became an industry standard almost overnight. Unfortunately, that also suggests companies have to be ready for scrutiny from the large customer base. Security issues, robustness issues and scalability issues become front and center when used by a large base of users. Recall that Zoom suffered significantly upfront from the security exposures of the technology, even causing some companies to ban the use of the technology in their firms. Overall, we learn that in a crisis like COVID, organizations need to react, but adopting such strategies as providing free online products need to be carefully used and thought through.
3. Deliver what truly matters
In a pre-covid-19 world, educators grappled with a long list of powerful things that LMSs can do. Yet we still hear talks of inadequate internet infrastructure, shortfall of devices for students, and the laborious process of onboarding teachers to use these systems, often to do things which the teachers could otherwise do themselves without the need for online submissions and management.
Enter the covid-19 era, and the challenge of school leaders and teachers now looks incredibly simple:
what are the three essential things I need to be able to do remotely with my students to ensure that they learn what they need to learn, so they don’t have to play catch-up when they return to school?
Covid-19 has provided the opportunity for Edtech companies to cut through the frills of functionality and develop clarity on their products for educators to use immediately and easily. Anything other than a direct fit won’t work. Hence, in a time of crisis, it becomes even more important for firms to present a product that provides clear value propositions for its users. While many firms are now stepping into this space to try to provide support to educators, it appears that the key winners are those with a well thought-through, easy-to-use system that users can pick up easily.
4. User acquisition costs at an all-time low
In pre-covid-19, Edtech companies expended significant resources to build awareness and traction through business-to-business marketing, channel development and lots of white papers to build their case. These were expensive endeavours, with user acquisition costs ranging from USD10 to USD30 per user. Companies with shallow pockets found it difficult to compete against those with cash to “throw at users” and get them onboard, with the aim to convert them to paying users later.
When schools were forced to shut, and had no budget to buy anything new, school leaders advised teachers to use what was available. But in a pre-covid-19 world where EdTech solutions were “good-to-haves”, there wasn’t very much in the schools’ toolbox to help teachers suddenly cope with the challenge to deliver lessons remotely. The parental instincts in teachers then kicked in and they became adventurous and were prepared to try anything, as long as it works for them and didn’t cost much. Anyone who shared a new find in the form of useful resources quickly got the attention of her colleagues. And if the solution was free to use, the conversation would spread, typically through social media or email communications amongst colleagues. This unprecedented attention by teachers for useful resources and their desire to take the plunge, spend the time to try new stuff has lowered user acquisition costs by as many as 20 to 50 times. This suggests that firms should leverage on this opportunity to provide tools for teachers to use and explore. At this time, taking a highly protective approach towards one’s IP may not be a wise strategy.
5. Speed is strategy
Nowhere in recent history have we seen change take place at such an unprecedented rate. With so many parts moving so quickly and simultaneously, EdTech companies need to respond with the same speeds, often having to think two steps ahead in order to buffer time for development pivots and user adoption.
In the company one author is associated with, we found the need to review and occasionally pivot our go-to-market strategies every 5 days, having listened to our users and testing our hypotheses with them. Such “war-room” requirement for constant close attention to the ‘pulse’ of the end user is unheard of pre covid-19, and companies that can truly rise to this challenge will ultimately design solutions that teachers will want to use. We suggest that such a strategy is probably needed, not just for EdTech firms, but for firms in other industries that are facing fast changes in environmental opportunities and customer trends.
6. Geography is secondary; Practical Value is key
Pre-Covid, we observe that most EdTech products that have been successful have been well-adopted first in their primary market, the place where the company has most of its sales and distribution resources situated. This ‘beachhead’ marketing narrative has important implications: a beachhead territory is often located where the company invests its primary resources such as its corporate headquarters and its first sales and distribution office. Thus, the larger the addressable market in this beachhead territory, the bigger the opportunity (in spite of increased competition), and the higher the chances of gaining significant traction in a short period of time. This is why some of the most successful companies, online or otherwise, have originated from territories with huge market potential domestically: U.S., China, Japan, Germany, S. Korea. This is the same with EdTech too, where the more successful companies today have originated mainly from the U.S. and China.
It appears that covid-19 has lowered the bar, at least for the educator community in English-speaking territories, for viral distribution to happen transnationally at the onset. Prospective users are less scrutinising towards sales and marketing approaches that would fit their cultural nuances and more focused on the practical value of a product in these times. For smaller and leaner EdTech companies located in a territory with a small domestic market like Singapore, this is great news as covid-19 has just levelled the playing field for all, enabling the player with the best solution to win the most votes. Such trends, hopefully, will also pervade other industries operating in the digital space.
7. Flip it! For real this time!
The flip classroom narrative is not new, and many educators would agree that, in it’s matured state, the flip classroom could really work. But there has never been a real incentive to make it work on a daily basis. Until now. Even with the gradual re-opening of schools around the world, many educators and school leaders have embraced the reality that students will not be expected to be in school everyday. School life for a student will take on a new form, comprising in-school learning and home-based (online) learning. This new normal drives educators to reflect upon and implement pedagogical practices that make full use of the affordances of digital technologies, from excellent content design to solid diagnostics and analytics. For the first time, the flip classroom has its place in the regular classroom because of this blended formula of remote and on-site lessons in the long term.
Taken together, Covid-19 has pushed the educator community to adopt EdTech as a key pillar in its response to the current pandemic as well as future crises. Any EdTech company that has the genuine desire to partner Teachers to make a tangible difference in the learning experience of their students will have a place in this new normal of a School Rethought. It is, however, important for EdTech companies to consider how they can provide effective tools that can help educators provide a seamless flipped classroom experience. Online learning will never replace the experience of learning in a physical classroom, but now, more than ever, there is a real opportunity to explore a flipped classroom model that effectively integrates online and offline learning. Doing it well will benefit the cohorts of students and teachers that will continue their education and learning, long after the crisis of COVID has passed.