This Is the Moment for EdTech (Opinion)

Written by guest contributor Fernando Valenzuela, President of Cengage Learning Latin America.

Over the past five years, I have been fortunate to be exposed to dozens of educational events and hundreds of strategic discussions with university presidents, faculty, students, and government officials in over 20 countries, as the hype of edtech was creating anxiety, uncertainty and confusion, raising expectations, and sending mixed messages of success and failure.

It has been clear to most that education remains one of the few areas still to be disrupted by technology, that the return on investment is highly questionable, and that implementing technology without measuring outcomes is not the path. Yet the amount of energy and capital that has been put into looking for a silver bullet or expecting that technology investments without pedagogical alignment could magically yield the desired results have been outrageous.

In my perspective, the industry can be well analyzed if you regularly attend events like SXSWedu, Transforming EDU, EDUCAUSE, Blackboard World, Bett and others. Yet over the past few years, the ASU-GSV Summit has really risen to the surface as the main event for the convergence of venture capital, education, and technology.

With five years of experience as a frequent speaker and participant at all of these events, I have been able to build a broad network of contacts and develop a deep ability to monitor offerings.

I have represented the Latin American perspective and tried to expand the common U.S. or Euro-centric view of innovation in edtech, for the challenges of education are global in nature. A great share of the innovation will come from poor and emerging countries that have historically faced severe infrastructural, quality, language or access limitations. These exact limitations, when solved by balanced technological innovations, can yield the volumes and quality of impact that the world requires. Usually more developed countries take all these for granted in their approach to transformation, and have difficulty replicating their educational innovations on a global scale.

Education across the globe has changed drastically in recent years. The presumption that a degree equals capability has been abolished. Companies are no longer in search for degrees—instead they try to recruit for capabilities. The learner and the learning moments are finally being put at the center of the discussion.

In my view, the ASU-GSV Summit—led by Michael Moe, Deborah Quazzo and Michael Crow—has established the new standard of global edtech. Over the years, the event has achieved the proper balance between pedagogy and technology, between venture capital and learning outcomes, and between entrepreneurship and incumbents. Some critics would love to see more academics, though every year more do show up. I think they will come when the time is right, when there is no turning back. But this time could be now.

Knowledge has entered the currency marketplace where, unless it is traded as a lifelong asset, it can continue to depreciate in time. This year at the ASU-GSV Summit, it was a common thread among participants that there was a real and decisive impulse to do this. Bill Gates launched a serious focus into transforming education, while Condoleezza Rice brought perspectives on female inequality and social impact, positioning a shortage of education as a national security risk. Frank Gehry and Common also demonstrated long-term commitments within this space, and Jim Collins ignited reflections on passion and purpose.

We have reached the inflection point where exponential ideas are being backed by money and aligned with academic objectives.

Much of this has to do with the level of maturity that has been achieved by newcomers like Khan Academy, Coursera and Udemy, and the sustainable innovation from talented edupreneurs like Declara, Minerva, Edcast and One Drop. Not to ignore the clear and fresh perspectives of openness, collaboration, and flexibility that characterized the big players (Microsoft, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Cengage Learning) present at ASU-GSV, as they pitched for renewed legitimacy, scope and technological capabilities.

The academics were enthusiastic to show up and benchmark elements of their own transformation at higher ed institutions like Arizona State University, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Georgia State University, and Southern New Hampshire University. Yet although much innovation is taking place in higher ed, there were a few signals of a bubble being created in this space and many recommendations and models discussed to avoid it.

Also at the event, there were finally signs of the recently created ecosystem of global edupreneurs. It seems my experience with hundreds of them around the world as a coach, speaker and as a jury of the Global Edupreneurship award for a number of years is paying off.

Some of the main challenges that made it to the front stage were:

  • Achieving global scale
  • Engaged connection from school and work
  • Quality of education experiences and quality of outcomes

In most of these conversations, technology was finally conceived in service of pedagogy, and the context in which every innovation strikes that balance between technology and pedagogy was clear.

Most of what has happened in edtech until now has been around the periphery of education. I am convinced that the time has arrived to hit the core. The recent advancements in cognition, big data analysis, the democratization of knowledge, bring your own learning (BYOL), have brought the focus back to the heart of education. Data is enabling teachers to know exactly when and how to intervene with every student, and rich and frequent feedback to students is the medium by which a more direct improvement is achieved. It also allows them to identify first-generation college students and to get them not only to college, but through college and successfully into the workforce. Gaming, virtual reality, adaptive learning, and competence-based technologies bundled with robots, open educational resources, and MOOCs are making relevant strides all over the world.

Edtech companies are clear on the claims they make of learning and are making bold decisions to be able to demonstrate results.

To quote Jim Collins, “The question is not whether you will get luck, good or bad. It is what you do with the luck.”

I am lucky to be in edtech at this time, even luckier to bring these changes forward in Latin America. The focus now is to aim for my Return on Luck as I had a lot of “what luck,” but the one that inspires is the ”who luck,” the minds and hearts of people passionate about transforming education that I have been lucky to meet. And I think that the place to build that networked luck is certainly at the ASU-GSV Summit.

Fernando Valenzuela

Fernando Valenzuela

Fernando is a recognized executive, entrepreneur, lecturer and advisor who has led companies for over 25 years. He is currently Managing Director of McGraw-Hill Education Latin America, where he is leading the transformation of educational models and learning experiences, engaging students with new technologies.