Observations on the future of K12 Edtech: COVID Edition

Graham Forman, Managing Director and Founder, Edovate Capital

Graham Forman, Managing Director and Founder, Edovate Capital

I wrote a post several years ago entitled “Six Observations on the Future of K12 Edtech” that now seems like a lifetime ago. Since that post so much has happened: social unrest and a national conversation about racial justice, a new U.S. administration with a very different vision for the future, and the most disruptive pandemic in U.S. history.  There’s also been an explosion in demand for technology solutions in education and venture capital invested in edtech as a result of the pandemic. In the wake of these major developments, here are five observations on the future of K12 edtech.

1) K12 edtech will fuel more engaging learning experiences.

Thankfully, our classrooms are becoming more active and less passive. Big trends include gamification and interactive learning experiences. Duolingo’s app is an example of a gamified app that’s hooked users; with more than 40M active users and growing, Duolingo is changing the way people learn new languages. Their 2021 IPO was a watershed moment for companies serving the education market and I expect other companies will try to emulate their approach.  Epic! is a gamified literacy platform built for early readers that gets them excited to read more books.

Edtech tools that provide more active learning experiences are now mainstream in schools. Once considered “nice-to-have,” such tools are now absolutely essential. Pear Deck is now in 66 percent  of schools in the U.S. and growing. Nearpod is an interactive lesson and video platform that’s popular with teachers and students, and tools like Inspirit are changing the way that students learn science by allowing them to experience science through 3D simulations.

2) Edtech will help educators tailor learning experiences to individual student needs.

We’ve been talking about the “personalization” of education for years and there are more signs pointing to schools moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach of years past. Technology is a critical part of the movement towards personalization. Adaptive learning tools such as Dreambox help tailor personalized math education for students. Literacy tools such as Newsela and ThinkCERCA provide reading content leveled to the needs of different emerging readers and teach critical thinking and argumentative writing skills that are vital for 21st-century knowledge workers. Next-generation platforms provide high-dosage tutoring on demand for all students who need it (Paper) and guided literacy instruction with small group and 1:1 reading support (BookNook).

3) Edtech will provide flexibility and anytime/anywhere learning.

While many parents and students struggle with remote/hybrid school environments, some thrive because they have the flexibility and the resources to add supplemental learning opportunities built around their passions and interests. Outschool has become a leader in flexible, supplemental online learning with more than 50,000 courses available online. When freed from the fixed schedule of a school day, these students can dive into projects that energize them and pursue subjects that don’t fit into the confines of normal curriculum. These include apprenticeships and internships, which are critical formative learning experiences for students particularly as they progress through high school and prepare for life beyond school. CareerWise Colorado is a leading organization in my home state that supports apprenticeship opportunities in high-paying industries that don’t require a college degree. Big Picture Learning connects students to local internships by identifying and sharing existing connections within students’ families and communities. I hope we’ll see more flexibility in seat time for students so that they can continue to pursue learning opportunities outside the walls of school, and that more entrepreneurs will enter the arena to enable these types of flexible, anytime, anywhere learning opportunities.  

4) Equitable edtech will be a top priority for impact investors and entrepreneurs serving K12 schools and districts.

The discussion around equity has been amplified by recent events surrounding racial justice and the persistent opportunity gaps facing underserved students and families.. With the rise of venture investment in consumer-focused tools that tend to cater to wealthy families, investment in solutions that serve all K12 public schools (where the playing field can be leveled for all students) is more important than ever. Entrepreneurs interested in serving K12 public schools should focus on how their solutions deliver equitable outcomes. In the wake of social unrest, many schools are adopting culturally responsive teaching approaches that incorporate students' identities, cultures, mindsets, and personal experiences as part of their equity plans. As students cope with trauma from the pandemic and recent racially related conflicts, schools are leaning into social emotional learning (SEL) like never before. Educators recognize that SEL is an integral part of education and human development and that students need more than academic achievement to become healthy, engaged, successful adults. Rhithm is one company that’s leading the way in social emotional learning.

COVID interrupted learning for so many students, especially in low-income communities. That’s why the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), which includes funding signed into law by both the prior and current administrations, prioritizes tutoring as a strategy to help learners make up for interrupted learning due to the pandemic. Equity-focused platforms including Paper and BookNook are stepping up to help schools provide tutoring support to their students at scale. So is LearnPlatform, which helps teachers and administrators evaluate and discover a whole host of equity-focused edtech tools.

5) Successful edtech solutions will enhance and leverage human capital, not replace it.

Finally, the broader labor market is experiencing shortages as restaurants, local governments, and other small businesses struggle to find enough qualified candidates to fill their vacancies. Schools are also affected by teacher shortages and other staff shortages for roles such as paraprofessionals and bus drivers that are both common and essential in K12 school districts. I believe we’ll see more solutions focused on leveraging vital human capital in schools, not replacing it. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will become more prevalent in classroom tools and will be used to improve, not replace, the work that highly trained teachers do. For example, tools like Formative, which automatically captures student answers and grades them to save teachers time, will become more commonplace. Quizlet is an online destination for studying and learning tools. One of its newer products, Quizlet Learn, is a smart study resource that provides adaptive plans and helps take the guesswork out of what to study. The platform uses machine learning and data from millions of study sessions to show students the most relevant study material.

In conclusion, COVID has shifted the edtech landscape from being a nice-to-have set of tools to must-have solutions. Many of the changes brought on by the pandemic will be lasting changes, while others will fade as we move towards whatever the “new normal” will be. There’s too much uncertainty now at the beginning of the 2021 school year to know how it will all shake out, but one thing is certain: innovators will continue to develop new products and build on existing solutions to meet the needs of students, teachers, parents, and administrators in K12 schools and districts.

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