EdTech Experts Say Hybrid Learning Is Here To Stay But Warn Entrepreneurs That Free-Flowing Stimulus Money Will Dry Up

There is no question the pandemic has transformed the way business is conducted.

Look no further than education technology. The market is exploding. Global investment in EdTech hit a record $20 billion, more than 1.3 times the amount raised in 2020. In the U.S., EdTech investment topped $8.2 billion driven by companies serving pre-K, K-12, higher education, and the work force.

During the pandemic education shifted from traditional to interactive and digitized formats, which had an immediate impact on the online education market directly benefiting learners across socio-economic status, age groups, and geography. 

Think hosted a group of EdTech experts to a panel discussion, The Potential of EdTech, on where they see the industry heading and how young companies should navigate this dynamic market. Panelists included Ashley Williams, CEO, Clymb; Jess Gartner, CEO, Founder, Allovue; Mike Infantino, Founder, CEO, Educational Resource Company; Bob Holtkamp, Vice President, Educational Resource Company. Emily Levitt, Vice President, Education, Sylvan Learning, moderated the panel. Here is what they had to say: 

Q1: We’ve been talking about the pandemic; it is looming with changes. Of those changes what are permanent?

Infantino: I don’t think hybrid learning is going anywhere. Overnight they (teachers and students) were thrust into this virtual world that exposed holes in infrastructure in schools and school districts. Programming, technology – there’s a pendulum swing to digital. Kids are mostly back to school, but there’s a big demand for paper and pens. I think it’s going to swing back and meet in the middle.

Holtkamp: We’re also seeing the pandemic opened doors to virtual and hybrid. It hit teachers very hard in terms of their comfort and working in a hybrid environment. We should not miss an opportunity now to continue working with those teachers to build that comfort level. Forget this idea of teachers being comfortable where hybrid learning works, now might be the time to equip our teachers with tools, knowledge, and resources to be comfortable.

Williams: Teachers were uncomfortable pre-pandemic. These districts and schools are purchasing these products and in a chronic state of, ‘This is something new we have to learn in addition to being a teacher, being a cheerleader, helping students.’ Technology is not a new issue of discomfort, what we’re seeing is teachers feel like they’re at a breaking point. ‘How much more can we take?’ It’s on us in the EdTech space to help them and make sure they don’t feel that overwhelming discomfort and that will contribute to a healthy hybrid experience for both teachers and young people.

Q2: Given the dynamic environment is the time for a young company to move to market, make a bold change or wait until dust settles?

Gartner: From a finance standpoint get anything into customers hands as soon as you ever can because, even when customers can articulate what they want, sometimes when you put what they asked for in front of them, they change their mind, or they have a different idea right there’s just no substitute for giving your end user something to actually try to use and put to work that will tell you more than anything.

Where I would apply some caution is on the fundraising front, there is a lot of stimulus money floating around right now I have seen this movie before, and school districts have more discretionary dollars right now for EdTech then they typically do in their operating budgets.

The problem with that is that these are one-time funds and so when those funds are gone, they are going to have to cut all these things that they bought … and if you are in that bucket, you will lose that business as quickly as you got it.

Q3: Is the digital education market oversaturated with products and new technologies that end up sitting on the shelf?

Levitt: Technology must be critical to teachers. I’ve sold something where a third of the teachers have never even used it, another third is using it at 40 percent capacity.  I’ve been in schools that have four and five and six digital platforms and those cannot all work effectively together when the teaching staff is piecemeal using a little of this and a little of that.

Q4: What has been the impact of COVID on students?

Gartner:  It’s been an incredible impact to students of every age, and there are certainly some students who are far more disadvantaged in terms of their access to instructional resources over the past two years. We’re going to see the ramifications of that for probably the next generation.

Q5: Talk about the challenges of starting a company and moving from one stage to the next. Ideation to funding to expanding.

Gartner: The idea stage was pretty cliché napkin sketch stage: had an idea, filled a whole notebook, decided to take a running leap off a cliff and quit my job. Raised money … $1,000 bucks at a time. For a regular person $5,000 checks at a time is a challenge to build a billion-dollar company. Everything is going much more slowly than you want it to. You can be really constrained than the resources you have. The customers were even slower than the investors.

Williams: I feel I have an opportunity every day to get up and create my dream. IT feels like you’re digging for a goldmine, and you don’t know where the vein is. But I have an opportunity to dig for gold. A lot more of what we’re doing is based on market feedback. I relate to Jess, how it can be a game of wait. Until 2018 when we closed our seed round it was a waiting game. Sometimes when you have a really interesting technology, people need to catch up to what you’re doing. Our product is a result of 12 years of tinkering, I knew it was great, but until recently the market was not ready for the product, but now it is really great.

Q6: What advice you’d give to young company whose funder is trying to nudge their products in a particular direction they don’t want yet?

Gartner: You can’t let the investors run the company. Hopefully, you have found investors who believe in the mission, vision. If they’re working elbow to elbow with you and really putting in sweat equity and have the industry expertise with customers and market, and operational components it might be worth listening. But there are a lot of armchair investors with a lot of ideas, and you cannot execute effectively on products strategy if you are trying to make any investors happy. You must make the costumer happy.

Q7: Is now a good time for a young company to move to market?

Williams: You should start on your idea right away, but … get in front of as many people as possible to see if it’s a viable thing.

Gartner: From a finance standpoint, get anything you can into a customer’s hands. They always change their minds. There’s no substitute for giving your customer something they can use. On the fundraising front, there is a lot of stimulus money floating around. School districts have more EdTech funds floating around than they’re used to, once the funds are gone, they’re going to have to cut the EdTech programs they invested in. I see some companies who might be cut from the business as quickly as they got it. 

Infantino: Investors want to see a product that solves a solution. There’s usually a problem and if the product works, are we right for right now? What about after the cycle? Look at the market, who are the competitors? Anyone else doing what you’re doing? Go back to problem you’re solving, show projection and growth for the long-term. Sustainability and problem-solving.

Q8: There is a lot of self -promotion of AI and personalized education. A lot of people get so excited about technology. Are they forgetting about the people in education?

Holtkamp: Studying social studies and the coliseum in Rome, there is technology that allows us to walk through it from a classroom in North Carolina. There’s a lot of technology and hardware to get there. So many companies are touching on augmented reality – it’s about mainstreaming it, supportable, accessible, can we get what we need into the classroom? Technology and digital learning might be great for some, but we need to give kids recess, learn about the arts. How are we increasing retention of our students because of technology? Sixty percent of our students aren’t performing at average math level. How is EdTech going to support learning theory?