Sector Spotlight: Three Expert Observers on Ed-Tech in the UK

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‘Word gets around quickly when products disappoint.’ That and other cautions led ed-tech discussions at London’s FutureBook Conference this month.

Pearson’s Tom Hall speaks to the FutureBook Ed-Tech track audience: ‘It’s too easy to sit in an ivory tower and think how great your products are.” Image: Mark Piesing

By Mark Piesing | @MarkPiesing

‘What Can Ed-Tech Do That’s Better?’
Education technology is fun and noisy. While trying to make a living in the field can be enjoyable, though, it can also be extraordinarily complex and demanding. To many entrepreneurs, the education system can seem like foreign terrain.

With investment pouring into ed-tech across the world, this month’s FutureBook Conference in London opened a new track of programming on ed-tech, parallel to the main track and audiobook track. In the session, “Learn In: The State of the Ed-tech Market,” speakers offered insights into the state of the ed-tech market in the UK today.

The standing-room-only crowd in the room suggests that a lot of attendees were interested in indications of how to succeed in the field.

Publishing Perspective listened and collated the comments of three key speakers—an analyst, a publisher, and an industry organization chief—had to say.

Image: From Kate Worlock’s FutureBook Ed-Tech presentation

‘The Holy Grail Is Improving Learning Outcomes’

Comments from Kate Worlock, vice-president and lead analyst with Outsell, opened the session.

Kate Worlock

“So why do ed-tech?…Textbooks aren’t a bad product–so what can we do that’s better? Better is such a vanilla word. What does it mean?

“Is [an ed-tech offering] more efficient? Can it help students get better grades? It might be cheaper. The students might be more engaged and drop out less. Perhaps it can help teachers, academics and administrators gain insight into how learning is taking place.

“You could use data gathered from all of this to track down the impact of individual sentences on learning. It’s easy for teachers and academics to forget that that new students are coming to material familiar to them for the first time. Big data may help this.

“The holy grail is, of course, improving learning outcomes.”

“What makes a product scalable?” Worlock asked her audience. “We see businesses where the collection of data from helping students improve their math homework becomes their main product. After all, the market for online math tuition in the UK is limited. The need to understand its effectiveness is global.

“It can be hard to find evidence that your products work. And so you’re asking teachers to take a leap of faith in you at a time when budgets are tight.”Kate Worlock

“Your ability market to market it is vital,” she said. “In the UK, marketability is an issue. You may need to have a huge sales team going around to individual schools, which is expensive. In France they have a centralized system so it’s easier to market your product, even if they’re not interested in buying it in the end.

“Case studies can be a problem. You need to take these with a real pinch of salt. When you move into real schools, they may not have the tech support or quality of CPD that the school in a case study had. Teachers talk a lot to each other on social media, so word quickly gets around when products disappoint.

“Finally, it can be hard to find evidence that your products work. And so you’re asking teachers to take a leap of faith in you at a time when budgets are tight.”

Image: From Tom Hall’s FutureBook Ed-Tech presentation

‘Getting Your Content Mobile-Ready Is Vital’

Also speaking was Tom Hall, vice-president for global schools and English learning platforms with with Pearson. In his comments, he started with financial elements of the field.

Tom Hall

“There is a lot of hype–rather than facts–about the amount of money coming into the ecosystem.

“Last year there was $2 billion coming into the US ed-tech market alone. The whole market was worth $40 billion. I looked at various reports. In 2020, the market will be worth between $200 billion and $300 billion. People get distracted by the big names in the market—the Zuckerbergs and Jack Ma of Alibaba—who can pour millions of dollars into a project overnight.

“Yet we’re still as an industry trying to work out what pricing and payment models are going to stick. Pricing apps in a store that sells direct to students is notoriously tricky, and I don’t believe it will provide a strong enough revenue stream unless you can mix that up with other business models or services.”

Hall addressed some of the transitional aspects publishers face in the digital dynamic, saying, “Trying to make the jump from selling textbooks to selling digital services is notoriously difficult, as customers have the perception that it;\’s two for one–double-deliverable. Putting that textbook behind glass and thinking that’s going to be an exciting technological product is also misguided.

“It’s easy to spot content that’s not mobile-first. It’s holding publishers back and it’s a real differentiator between publishers and startups.”Tom Hall

“Subscriptions are really disrupting what publishers take for granted—it is a very different relationship to dropping off the textbooks and coming back in twelve months with the next set. There is a lot of very good free stuff out there. For a publisher to stand against this you need to add a lot of value.

“It’s too easy to sit in an ivory tower and think how great your products are. When you put it out there any product experience that relies on hardware or connectivity needs good working wi-fi. If the wi-fi is poor in a school then it is going to break your product because the user experience will be dreadful. Identity management and access tools are things that your learners are going to remember rather than your product.

“Getting your content mobile-ready is also vital. It’s easy to spot content that’s not mobile-first. It’s holding publishers back and it’s a real differentiator between publishers and startups. Students complain that they use state-of-the-art social media at home and then come to school and are expected to use something brown and beige.

“Don’t underestimate how expensive it will be.”

Image: From Caroline Wright’s FutureBook Ed-Tech presentation

‘The Quality of Wi-Fi in the Schools’

Caroline Wright

Caroline Wright is director general of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA). In her remarks, she looked at how fast the ed-tech field has developed.

“Twenty years ago none of our members were in ed-tech. Now more that half are members of ed-tech–there are a host of young startups about ed-tech.

“The next couple of years are going to be tough for ed-tech in terms of finance. The spend on ed-tech devices and platforms has bucked the trend over the last few years and has carried on in a positive track.

“Now we’re seeing such a tightening and contraction in schools that even digital is effected.”

“The biggest challenge ed-tech continues to face in the UK is the quality of wi-fi in schools. Just a couple of years ago over 50 percent of schools said their wi-fi wasn’t good enough to use digital products.

“The next couple of years are going to be tough for ed-tech in terms of finance.”Caroline Wright

“Now, it has moved up, but not enough. We’re trying to get that message out.

“This is not helped by the fact that teachers are the most conservative bunch. After a general election there is always a real contraction in spending even though budgets have already been set. The same was true after Brexit even though funding is from the UK government.

“The good news is that schools see ed-tech as being more important than ever and they want to spend more on it.

About the Author

Mark Piesing

Mark Piesing is a freelance journalist (and teacher) based in Oxford, UK now writing mainly about technology, culture and the intersection between the two for some of the biggest brands in the UK media such as The Economist,, and The Guardian. He also contributes to Warwick Business School's Core magazine. WBS is one of the top business schools in the UK.

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