Using technology to improve how we teach and learn in higher education has often just been hype and wishful thinking. We believe Covid represents a unique moment in time for the emergence and growth of much-needed solutions in this space.
The last decade has laid waste to hundreds of startups and hit the brakes on the handful of successful technology startups looking to improve teaching and learning in higher education. They have often hit walls against ambivalent customers, competing priorities and complex bureaucracy and market dynamics. They have also often pursued the wrong strategies and priorities lacking a basic understanding of their customer contexts and needs. Companies like Knewton once promised but failed to personalize learning for everyone while Kno was among the first of many failures to disrupt textbooks.
Covid has overnight shaken up and radically changed the higher education industry. Campuses across the world were forced to close, while digital online teaching strategies were built over just a few days. Educators have had to rapidly patch up basic digital teaching infrastructures using the first tools at their disposal.
Through this most challenging year in its existence, we at Emerge have worked closely with the higher education sector, with leading organisations like Jisc, Universities UK and AdvanceHE. Our most recent publication laid out a long-term digital strategy framework for university leaders. Through a recent Jisc and Emerge Education survey of more than 1,000 university stakeholders, we are convinced that change is here to stay and the world of education will never be the same.
The potential for technology in higher education has always been there. Now the time is finally right. Covid is reducing barriers to innovation and creating the best time for technology entrepreneurs to fill in much needed gaps in how we deliver and consume education. Many technologies in our life rely on operating systems to ensure a reliable and smooth experience, from Windows for computers to iOS to phones. The time is now to move towards creating an education technology operating system for teaching and learning.
We are grateful to the more than 50 university leaders and 30 leading entrepreneurs that have helped inform the forecasts and give advice to founders building the next generation of technology solutions for digital teaching and learning.
The digital teaching and learning market is attractive and still untapped
The teaching and learning market is large and universal
There is a wide variety of universities with different operating principals and serving different markets. However, when it comes to the education itself, most universities are the same. Professors create curricula and teach through large lecturers. Teaching assistants help distill and clarify lectures and materials. Students attend lectures, use textbooks and complete homework, assignments and exams required to graduate.
Technology solutions that can solve a problem in this process for one university, have likely also solved the same problem for many of the other 10,000 universities worldwide. Between them there are more than 200m students globally, expected to double by 2030. A universal teaching and learning software solution charging only $5 per month per student already today has an enormous target market size of $12bn in a gigantic $2tn market. In addition, many solutions in this space have use cases that extend into the increasingly growing $240bn corporate learning, as well as K12 markets.
Leading technologies of today focus on infrastructure and non-core students
The leading technology businesses in education today serve as the foundational infrastructure that help run higher education institutions. Most mid- and large-sized universities today have significant expenditures on technology used to attract students and process applications (CRM), store and manage student information and education materials (SIS and LMS), manage content and business intelligence (ECM / EBI) and manage staff and business operations (ERP). On top of this sits spend on categories like IT services, telecoms, generalist software, hardware and devices and data centres.
Each one of these often-overlooked industries represent huge markets by current revenue and validates institutional willingness to pay for technology deemed core and essential. The LMS market was estimated at $2bn in 2017, the SIS market alone is $8bn and the ERP HE market is $8bn. There are large education businesses that dominate certain arenas including Canvas, Blackboard, Ellucian, Jenzabar and Anthology, while big tech players dominate others including Oracle, IBM, Workday, Salesforce and Microsoft. US universities alone spend $16bn per year on technology.
When it comes to teaching and learning the leading higher education technology companies have a primary focus on non-core, working adult graduate students and enterprise customers. These are Online Programme Managers (OPMs), a $7bn market and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a $5bn market in 2019. OPMs act as effective but costly wrap around service providers that create online degrees, while MOOCs help digitizing existing courses for mass consumption at low cost but high churn.
A market gap persists in improving how we teach and learn through technology
While OPMs and MOOCs both improve digital curricula, they essentially help move existing education online for new audiences while improving the flexibility and at times quality of support and experience. Neither category moves the needle when it comes to radical technological innovations for teaching and learning focused on core student audiences. OPMs often use existing university and market technologies to design programmes around, while MOOC’s in-house content creation technologies are relatively simple and limited in features.
Three fundamental challenges in the education market persist where technology can play a major role pertaining to resources, delivery and support.
Resources: The central units of education remain the textbook and class materials. Neither have significantly evolved since the beginning of education. The textbook remains monodimensional and expensive, while class materials remain disconnected and confusing outside of class context. While many technologies have found ways to tailor towards our diverse styles and preferences, university resources remain one-size-fits-all solutions imperfectly patched up into a course. Videos as a new resource category are no different.
Delivery: We have not yet solved the problem where the fundamental unit of educational delivery, the lecture, often remains unengaging and that the role of the educator ends when the student leaves the classroom. While a concept is often best learned through an excellent explanation, the way we have institutionalised the lecture leaves a lot of space for something better. As lecture sizes continue to grow, and more students join either in a classroom or via Zoom through blended learning models, the more challenging it becomes to teach and manage students while aiming to deliver engaging, high quality and impactful education inside and outside of the classroom.
Support: Universities do not offer a smooth and supportive student learning experience. Rather than building ladders for each student to climb, educators rarely understand and are available to effectively support each student’s needs. Support is mainly offered through fixed office hour and study group times and in the forms of academic advisors offering high level advice. The student learning experience is often more like a of disconnected and fragmented experiences. The best students are those that can most effectively navigate all learning roadblocks thrown at them, with limited personalised and tailored academic support.
Higher education has a long history of solutions trying to tackle these problems with very limited success at large scale due to conflicting priorities and incentives, mistimed and poorly designed solutions and challenges from incumbents.
Why digital teaching and learning has failed to reach its hype and potential
University priorities and incentives have not been aligned with better student education
Better teaching and learning do not necessarily translate into better career and business outcomes for faculty and institutions and have to date been low priorities.
Depending on the type of institution, academics and professors are either motivated by research that leads to tenure, lack interest and incentives to change curricula once they are painstakingly developed or just prefer to teach the way they have been taught. While universities do care about hiring professors that are good educators, the reality is that unlike in K12, professors often lack formal training and are far behind school teachers, where there are clear qualifications and prerequisites.
University leadership is preoccupied with keeping their institutions afloat in light of increasing financial challenges. We have covered these challenges extensively through our revenue diversification research. There are many variables that affect university rankings tables which continue to carry a lot of weight against university brand strength and student choices. Unfortunately improving education is not given enough weight to warrant changes that can produce a return on investment through increases in new enrolments.
Those university leaders that do see the need and potential to improve teaching and learning, often encounter strong resistance from faculty who defend their teaching autonomies and freedoms. It is hard to sell solutions when end users don’t think they have a problem. In contrast, innovative faculty members can struggle to push for the adoption of new tools if the student operations and technology teams are unable to implement them or leadership doesn’t see a clear business case.
Solutions have required too much behavioral change or have offered too little impact
Changing how we teach and expect students to learn is hard. Learning how to use new software can be a step outside of the comfort zone for many educators. Students on the other hand have high standards and expectations when it comes to technology. Institutions are overwhelmed by endless digital offerings with limited usage support and transparency.
For education businesses it is difficult to find the balance between easy adoption and large impact. Solutions that cover large parts of the value chain and command higher prices, are more difficult to sell given large behavioral change requirements. Solutions that cover small parts of the value chain are easier to adopt but can struggle to deliver meaningful integrations, functionality and impact. Such solutions often do not warrant high enough prices, which makes business economics difficult given sales cycles and difficulties in raising capital to support enterprise sales. These challenges have produced a market of subscale businesses, best portrayed below using the model-market fit framework with Average Revenue per Account on the X and #of customers on the Y-axis.
Market incumbents have created structural challenges for the market to thrive
Over the years many have tried to disrupt market incumbents and failed. Replacing the existing university Learning Management System (LMS) is an almost impossible task given how deeply engrained it is in the system and how long average contracts are. Whilst many have predicted the demise of publishers for years, no one has yet managed to replace them.
Integrations with incumbent solutions in the space can also be logistically very challenging. It took a long time for standards to be developed for Student Information System (SISs) to be integrated with LMSs. Integrations with incumbent technologies can also bring technological and feature limitations for smaller companies. Even where integrations work, smaller companies integrating with incumbent players in large consolidated markets have significant dependency risks that can make them less attractive investment and acquisition targets.
Why now is the best time for teaching and learning technologies
Covid is higher education’s ‘emperor’s new clothes’ moment
Although no adult ever remembers more than two lectures from their university experience, the world has long believed that the universities’ core assets have been their educational offer. Taking this as a given, universities have paraded the streets for decades showing off their untouchable, long established academic offers, while building moats around them through investments in flashy campuses.
Then came Covid. With each university’s existence stripped down to its core academic assets, the students and the world quickly realized that the emperor is naked and the university in fact has nothing that special to show. As Wonkhe’s student experience research highlights “Covid-19 has thrown teaching quality into sharp relief, in the absence of all the other activities that would otherwise be filling up students’ days.” As students struggle with motivation they are seeing that pre-recorded lessons are equally boring as lectures especially when there is no social context around them. Live zoom classes and online homework are equally uninspiring and unsupportive as their physical equivalents with high educator to student ratios.
Student demands and expectations for digital will persist and grow against a current lacklustre offer
While students have encountered challenges, they have also for the first time experienced the many benefits of technology, including less travel, more flexibility and at times even less stress. For example, recent data shows only 28% of students would prefer their assessments and exams to continue to be delivered in person and 71% of students find one or more aspects of their courses should be delivered online.
As such their standards and expectations have and will continue to increase even after Covid, against a far from perfect current digital offering. When asked about key priorities through Wonkhe’s recent research 59% of students chose “high quality online teaching” as the key thing. Barebone disjoined digital offers, led by patched-up Zoom classes and far from engaging Learning Management Systems will not be enough to meet these expectations.
Given extreme time pressures, resource, digital skills and capability limitations there are many things the HE sector has done a good job with during Covid as covered in UK HE’s Sir Michael Barber Report of the Digital teaching and learning review. However, when Covid ends ‘good’ will not be enough. Those universities that build excellent teaching and learning offers with the help of technology will truly be able to stand out and differentiate in a market with very little inspiring innovation.
Incentives are more aligned and the internal pressure for and openness to change are greater
Awareness across all stakeholders that change needs to happen is clearly evident from a higher education survey we ran with our partners and leading sector bodies Jisc, Universities UK and Advance HE. There is a sector wide belief that the future of higher education is blended with technology playing a much greater role. Most importantly, the incentives are also much more aligned for university leadership and professors to improve their teaching and learning offers.
University leadership is finding itself under even more financial pressure as governments and students challenge quality, prices and demand more for their money. The role of expensive physical assets, including lecture halls and libraries, will be reexamined. Quality and profitability of course offerings will also be reassessed against the role more effective digital teaching and learning solutions could play.
Professors are for the first time outside of their comfort zones. While their confidence with technology has improved, they are unclear on how to use technology to create a strong connected teaching offer and are showing openness to new solutions. A massive 52% would like to continue delivering digital teaching and learning for the long term. A rare opportunity has been created to redesign and improve courses and curricula, but it needs to be met with greater upskilling and cost-efficient and scalable resources and support for increasingly stretched educators. On the other hand, the faculty that is still resisting technology is seeing direct pressures from university leadership who now increasingly have digital as part of their key agendas.
“Universities have learned a lot this year. There has been an enormous shift into the online space and how we use technology, but there has been an intellectual shift as well. People are much more engaged in the conversation about technology — there is collective upskilling and sharing of experience. We are rethinking the whole teaching experience and the role of faculty will be changing, from delivery of content to supporting learning. That’s a big culture change, and it is going to take time, investment and technology.”
Ian Dunn, Provost at Coventry University
The influence of incumbents is decreasing and their ability to reinvent themselves low
In the lead up to, and accelerated by, Covid many technology incumbents in this space are either decreasing in influence, struggling to find ways to reinvent themselves or deciding not to play in the digital teaching and learning space. Publishers continue to decrease in significance and have failed to reinvent themselves after numerous acquisitions and attempts in innovating their products and business models. Mergers and promises of vast digital textbook catalogues have failed to live up to their potential, while courseware and adaptive learning platform acquisitions have failed to reinvent textbooks.
Learning Management Systems have also failed to take advantage of Covid and their incumbent positions as the centre for learning materials and class management. Blackboard’s ambitious foray into virtual classrooms with Blackboard Collaborate has failed to amaze the sector given challenges with ease of use and the reliability of the video and audio technology.
Despite shortcomings, big tech players like Zoom and Microsoft have in fact provided the best solutions to educators and benefited the most during Covid. While there is always a possibility, history has often shown it is unlikely any of them will focus significant efforts on tailoring their products towards higher education, beyond core LMS and communication infrastructure, as they pursue larger markets as vertical agnostic and ecosystem players.
For example, while Zoom has a lot of potential and space to improve educator features and a Zoom for Education team, its early investors have already invested in a video platform that integrates with Zoom. When properly adapted and customised Microsoft can present amazing solutions across the student learning journey as seen through UNSW professor David Kellerman’s amazing engineering class. Years later David’s prodigy work remains a niche versus off-the-shelf mainstream standardised Microsoft use case.
What the present and future of digital teaching and learning holds
Given the tailwinds in the sector, we believe now is the best time to build technology solutions that change and improve teaching and learning. Below we highlight a high-level overview of the main large, incumbent players in the market and principles new solutions will need to follow.
Overview of the current teaching and learning market
The incumbent businesses in teaching and learning in higher education have for decades been publishers and learning management systems. Pearson has long been the dominant publisher in higher education followed by Wiley and the McGrawHill, Cengage and MacMillan trio operating at similar revenue levels. Each have invested efforts in digitising their offers through in-house technology investments and acquisitions, while even experimenting with subscription offers. In the LMS space Blackboard has long been the incumbent leader with Canvas from Instructure catching up to tie for the lead after a decade of strong growth with a superior product, closely followed by Moodle. While the LMS category has evolved by adding new features, it has at its core remained fundamentally the same central course material storage and class management infrastructure for more than two decades.
The B2B category, with the university as the purchaser, has in the last few years seen the rise of large tech players’ presence in higher education, alongside companies helping protect academic integrity through assessment solutions. Educators over night have become reluctant power users of the video conferencing platform Zoom, while Microsoft Teams has been the domination solution for chat-based communication. As Covid emerged, academic integrity and cheating came to the forefront of university priorities with market leaders like TurnitIn cementing their position in this space.
While the B2B market has supported the presence of a few limited technology categories, it has often created bottlenecks for new innovation especially for solutions tailored towards student versus educator and institutional needs. As a result, the last couple of years have seen the authoritative rise in B2C Support solutions in a culmination of more than 15 years of growth. Market leader Chegg has recently been joined by new unicorns CourseHero, Quizlet and Varsity Tutors each solving various pain points of the students learning journey outside of the classroom. Ironically instead of partnering with these B2C solutions and finding ways to shape the offerings, increasing access and improve understanding of students challenges, universities have either failed to notice or stayed away and criticized them. As a result, access to these products is not universal, further increasing inequality and has at times been shaped by cutting corners and cheating rather than genuine learning.
The future of digital teaching and learning in higher education
Before Covid everything was in person and even though the evidence has been building up against it, we persistently continued with in person formats for every part of the core student learning experience. Crammed lecture halls with unengaging lectures where distracted students browse the internet. Inconvenient office hours or support groups when students either don’t need them or aren’t even awake. Expensive laboratories where more time is spent preparing versus doing. Covid has helped open our eyes and realise that technology can help make education more convenient, accessible and effective.
As Covid accelerates change we see many new opportunities arising for the next generation of education technology leaders, covering all 3 market segments. When it comes to learning resources these include new forms of courseware authoring tools, curriculum transformation support providers and educator learning and resource communities. Delivery of education has serious gaps that the generation of interactive instruction technologies, learning experience platforms and virtual learning environments can bridge. Lastly, we see the future of student support provision coming through subject specialized learning pathways, essay writing solutions and innovations in peer to peer support and video and audio content learning formats.
The above table shows some of the most promising companies we have come across against the innovation subsegments from relatively new startups to already more established up and coming brands that might have started to innovate across new products and use cases.
The new principles of digital teaching and learning
After Covid higher education will never be the same. Informed by extensive research with more than one thousand sector stakeholders, we have assisted our partners Jisc to produce a report on what learning and teaching brings in a new dawn for higher education. In collaboration wit our Higher Education advisory board we have also produced a sector guide on how to implement digital learning.
It is important to remember that technology alone cannot create disruptive change, but it may provide the grain of sand HE can coalesce around. University leaders and educators will need to lead the efforts and create conducive environments for technology to play an enabling role. In bridging the gaps there are four summary principles that each education stakeholder and technology innovator will need to optimize for.
Format: Flexible, blended and fluid delivery
The sector to date has had two fixed and separately managed offers for on campus and online students, often taught through two different sets of materials, formats and often even teaching staff. In the future the line between a traditional and online student will be blurred. We will need to acknowledge differences across teaching mediums and formats like from textbooks, presentations and quizzes to lecture recordings. We will also need to optimise across varying preferences and demands of face to face, hybrid, blended and online classes.
Content: Intentional, pedagogy-informed, outcomes-focused and personalised
Today the LMS is higher education’s digital learning hub, while the average course is outdated and sporadically assembled. Professors often lack the time to refresh courses and the pedagogical expertise to create them. In the future learning design and technology will play much greater roles in creating pedagogically sound and outcomes-focused learning with a skills and knowledge emphasis. Content will be distilled down to interconnected atoms, which each having a clear feedback loop between inputs, experience and outputs that identify individual gaps and progress allow more efficient and personalised learning.
“We are seeing more and more universities moving their core student offer online. Many are however still doing this through their LMS, which is essentially just a very limited content repository. Successful migrations and creation of online content will require solutions that enable course design and learner analytics while supporting different student learning modalities like remediation, adaptive learning and competency and skills-focused education.”
Prasad Mohare & Senior VPs of Higher Education at Learning Mate
Design: Supportive, inclusive, engaging and learner-centric
Today academic resources are made in isolation and detached from the learner. Professors as leading academics are assumed to be the best teachers too. Students often encounter motivational and learning challenges, yet universities fail to offer adequate support. In the future courses will be designed to optimize towards student engagement using principles of active, peer to peer learning and even gamification. Technology must not be at the detriment of those with financial and learning challenges, but purposely built to support and include them.
Structure: Interconnected, insight-rich and collaborative
While today we are flooded with data and dashboards, due to their siloed nature and poor quality, structure and relevance we are still lacking actionable insights and recommendations to help educators improve teaching and support. The future will in part need to create more interoperability standards to connect disparate pieces of the teaching and learning ecosystem. More fundamentaly, we need to acknowledge that HE is currently built on a sole trader, specialist model where content design, teaching, technology and advising all happen in isolation and try to find ways to interconnect when it is too late. The future needs more collaborative staffing models for creating the course and student journey from scratch.