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Investments in edtech platforms are powering online learning in the age of COVID



ImpactAlpha, April 1 From presidents and provosts to faculty members, students and families, the entire higher ed community is grappling with closing dorms, cancelling commencements, and – perhaps most importantly – moving courses online to continue some semblance of the learning experience.

The fallout from the COVID-19 virus has already reached thousands of U.S. higher education institutions and more than 14 million students.

That means students will have to adopt and get used to, in record time, a whole host of technological solutions, including online discussion forums, video lecture capture and remote test-taking.

For an industry as slow-moving as higher education, this amounts to unprecedented change at an unprecedented pace. Many of today’s college students are plenty familiar with the internet, and online learning is extremely effective. But there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that their schools may not be ready to meet them there. 

Enrollments in online programs have grown steadily through the first 15 years of this century, but it began to look like we were going to top out at around a third of the U.S. student population engaging in online courses. That calculus has changed: for at least the rest of the semester, online learning is the only option. 

When the dust settles, it’s likely that the usage sparked by COVID-19 will not return to the status quo ante. We may see half, or even more, of all U.S. students enrolling in online courses much sooner than anticipated. Soberingly, this may be even more true if an economic downturn leaves millions more Americans out of work and seeking training. 

What does this mean for institutions and investors? The novel coronavirus could be “more of a catalyst for online education and other ed-tech tools than decades of punditry and self-serving corporate exhortations,” as Goldie Blumenstyk put it in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Institutions (and companies and their investors) are rushing out online “content” and “learning” in a COVID-19-inspired hard shift to online environments. What virtually every school has done amounts to buying a Zoom license and asking teachers and faculty to lead synchronous, talking-head online lectures. They haven’t had the time, much less the resources, to implement the most basic best practices of online learning – like incorporating asynchronous learning tasks in with their lessons.

Rapid response

Educators have struggled with the “plumbing” that makes online courses work. But in this new reality, they’d be wise to pay attention to the often-unsung platforms that are helping schools respond quickly and effectively.

That means proctoring tools like Examity, which prevent cheating by verifying students’ identity and monitoring for bad behavior. It means online discussion tools like Packback, whose approach to facilitating student conversations has been shown to increase participation and academic outcomes. Perhaps most of all, it means ensuring that communication channels between students and schools are clear – as dozens of schools are doing with the dedicated COVID-19 chatbot created by AdmitHub’s AI technology.

Across the edtech ecosystem, companies are mounting rapid-response efforts to the COVID-19 outbreak that are worthy of attention. Credly, one of the leaders in digital badging, is spearheading an effort to help individuals showcase their skills in ways that are easier for both education providers and employers to understand and map. Companies like Study Edge and Write Lab, which provide online tutoring and writing support, will become increasingly critical with in-person writing centers closed.

And at a time when networking will take on a new meaning with the lack of in-person job fairs over the months to come, PeopleGrove and Riipen (not to mention LinkedIn) are helping both students and alumni connect with job opportunities, build their professional networks, and stay in touch with one another. (Disclosure: some of the companies above are in Achieve Partners investment portfolio.)

For many of these companies, the last few weeks have marked a shift from “demand generation” to “demand processing” – rather than seeking out new business, they’re managing a massive influx of interest from universities that need their services now more than ever.

For impact investors looking to understand what’s next for the rapidly changing higher education landscape, these often unsexy, back-of-the-house service providers will be the linchpin of institutions’ efforts to ensure that online learning continues effectively and securely.

We already know that online higher education plays a particularly important role in supporting learners who are over 25, or who are juggling work or family commitments in addition to their studies – a population that now makes up a growing majority of U.S. college students. In the months to come, we’ll see how impactful online higher ed is for students at institutions public and private, large and small, across the country.

This will be remembered as a watershed moment for the potential of online higher education. That’s thanks in large part to the work of technology providers working to keep the engines of learning running smoothly. The investment community would be wise to consider those providers as they continue to grow in the months to come.


 Daniel Pianko is managing director of Achieve Partners.

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