EdTech Has Faced Many Challenges in the COVID-19 Era, But Experts Say Opportunity Abounds


After years of simmering beneath the surface, online education burst into the mainstream over the course of one week in March 2020. Online learning, which had long been considered inferior to in-person instruction, suddenly gained acceptance as the new normal as COVID-19 forced students and teachers to stay home.

Over the past 10 months, EdTech experts are beginning to understand what’s working, what’s not, and where is the future of education technology will take us from here.

Baltimore’s EdTech networking group tackled these issues at its POE (Potential of EdTech) panel, on Zoom December 9 during a riveting discussion sponsored by Baltimore-based Think, Sylvan Learning and the TU Incubator.

Think vice president and CIO Ed Mullin introduced moderator Emily Levitt, Sylvan’s vice president of education. Panel members included eThink Education CEO and co-founder Brian Carlson, former Laureate senior vice president Aimee Leishure and Ortus Academy CEO Aaron Velky.

A ‘Revolutionary’ Year for EdTech

All of the participants have faced challenges navigating COVID-19, but they also see opportunities and changes that will last well into the future. They have also seen first-hand the challenges schools, teachers, students and parents are facing as they adjust to online learning.

“We’ve taken education and turned it into a screen,” Levitt said.

She asked panelists how this was affecting today’s education.

“Everyone is burned out,” in the second half of the year with the screen-centered approach, Velky said.

Educators, Velky said, “have learned from this experience about how to connect, and how not to connect.” The shift to actual engagement through technology, he said, “will be a more difficult shift than moving to technology.”

But the companies poised to address these challenges are just as vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic challenges as any other company. Carlson said eThink, concerned about its clients’ survival in a COVID-19 economy and its potential impact on their business, took immediate steps to weather the storm.

“The first thing we did was get very resilient,” said Carlson, whose company was acquired by Learning Technologies Group on December 8, 2020.

eThink cut travel, jettisoned its office, squeezed the marketing budget, focused on selling remotely and became more strategic with hiring.

At the same time, the company coordinated the move of 150 colleges from face-to-face to online education in just 10 days. 2020 has brought “nonstop, big changes to say the least,” Carlson said. “Unique is an understatement. It’s been revolutionary.”

Leishure said although 2020 has been unpredictable, investors are ready to pay attention to new technology in education. “At Towson University, David Cross’s incubator turned into an accelerator,” she said.

She said there are “a lot of investment dollars in the education technology market” and that businesses are “recognizing the benefits and accepting this as the future.”

Combating Screen Fatigue: Engagement and ‘Gameification’

As education takes center stage in our homes, Levitt said, parents can see how engaged, or disengaged, their kids are in content delivery.“Six-year-olds should not be on Google Meet for seven hours a day,” she said. “It’s not cool to ask adults to do that.”

“With YouTube, social media, basketball and a houseful of distractions, how do we make sure anyone is watching?” Levitt asked.

Velky said this is first time education has had to compete for attention the way it has.”

Students, he said, have video games, TikToc, play, friends, family dinner. “We want you to choose school,” he said.

Competition will drive the shifts in education.“It’s a great time to completely re-evaluate,” Velky said.

Leishure said she is interested in a new project from Coursera that will resemble Zoom, but for education purposes. She hopes the project will make inroads into student participation, which is lacking in Zoom classes.

Carlson said using breakout rooms instead of taking the big Zoom classroom approach forces students to “collaborate, interact and problem solve,” and gives students the “social learning” and interaction they need.

Carlson said his favorite education platform isn’t a traditional educational platform at all; it’s Tik Tok. It’s a platform, he says, that is used “far below its potential.” On Tik Tok, people become subject-matter experts.

“They get fame, and followers, and a community is built around these topics,” Carlson said.

Velky believes “gamification,” or making the experience of learning feel like a game will combat the attention challenge.

“The game has to be education itself,” he said.

Velky noted that the use of mixed media will grow not just in the classroom but also in professional development.

The shift has already begun. Carlson said the learning experience platform, or LXP, is “a new category” of education technology, allowing educators to create content by “pulling in what you need from different products, creating and customizing” the learning experience.

Rethinking Education
‘From the Ground Up’

But it’s not just education’s methodology that’s changing. In what Levitt called this “giant disruption to education,” assessments are rendered “meaningless.”

Leishure agreed. “How do you assess students having vastly different experiences” during COVID. It’s not just a division between public and private schools either, but the level of parental support available at home. “This isn’t going to be a question of ‘catching up’ anymore,” said Leishure. Educators will have to instead ask: “Where are you, and how do we meet you where you are?”

“There is a real opportunity to rethink education from the ground up,” said Leishure.

Hand writing is less important than keyboarding in school, which reflects the world into which students will be graduating. Leishure pointed out online education means a later start to the school day, which is more developmentally appropriate for teens.

Content will evolve as well, Levitt believes.Education is “always a few years behind. We like our agrarian calendar.”

But 2020 has emphasized the time has come to fit education to the audience, rather than trying to fit the audience to the education.

The panel agreed. Carlson said: “Seeing firsthand what kids are learning,” the “content is far off from what they need.”

“Instead of educating students to fill jobs of the past, we can ask: ‘What are going to be the jobs of the future?’ and work backwards to create an education to get students there,”Leishure said. She sees opportunities opening up for businesses that cater to specific credentials, where students can “learn specifically what they need.”

She also said the interest in mental health and teletherapy is going to accelerate. “I think you are going to see a lot of dollars go that way,” she said.

Soft skills, Velky said, will gain priority. “Education for the last several years has been a train to the past. The content isn’t “resonating with students,” he said.Velky hopes this is an opportunity for educators to“bridge the gap of social emotional learning, wellness, and understanding money.”

While schools know these skills are important, Levitt said, they’re not incorporated now into the curriculum but presented in clubs after school.

Velky said centering education in the practical world of money can unlock the “why” of what students are learning.“In science, we can talk about how to fund a mission to the moon” in addition to how the rocket is built. This, Velky said, puts career identification into students’ minds.

The panelists were asked what needs to be done to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in the EdTech space?

The number one thing is figuring out what problem you want to solve and battle testing, Carlson said.

“Home schooling has got to be the biggest opportunity in the world,” he said.

He said incubators are critical in bringing together entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, lawyers and others with various points of view. He credited Betamore, the well-known South Baltimore incubator, with helping him launch.

Said Carlson, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that support.”

The panel concluded with everyone agreeing that there is much more to explore in EdTech and additional sessions to be held for even deeper discussions. If you are interested in speaking or attending a future EdTech event, please contact Laura France at lfrance@thinkconsulting.com, 443-254-6164 orEd Mullin at emullin@thinkconsulting.com, 410.303.5418. You can also find out more about Think’s work in the field by clicking this link: https://thinkconsulting.com/education-services