Why it's time to champion the European EdTech market

Child with tablet

With digital penetration in the education sector only at 3%, TechRadar Pro talks to Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet, co-Founder & CEO of the Edxus Group and EdTech Europe, about the huge growth opportunities in the educational technology (EdTech) market and the challenges the sector is facing in attracting investment.

TechRadar Pro: What is the size of the EdTech industry and how is it expected to grow?

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet: The education industry is one of the largest industries in the world. Even though its make-up is demonstrably different to other industry sectors, education is three times larger than the media and entertainment industry for example, and we're only at the beginning of opportunities for digital penetration in this market.

If you were to look at overall penetration in the content industries for instance – the ratio stands at 35% digital vs 65% non-digital. Take the education market on its own and digital penetration drops to just 3% vs 97% non-digital – demonstrating the huge growth potential available in the education technology (edtech) market. In fact, some commentators have predicted a 15 fold growth in the edtech market over the next decade and the emergence of an unprecedented investment opportunity in the sector.

TRP: What are the biggest challenges for the edtech industry at the moment?

BVC: There are a few hurdles to overcome before the European edtech industry can grow substantially. Disruptors and innovators, creating new technologies to serve an increasingly savvy digital audience are widespread – the demand is there and a recognition of technology as a channel to deliver learning is apparent.

In fact, Europe has some of the most inventive edtech start-ups in the world. However, the ability to scale their offering is really the crux of the problem. The market is mainly comprised of small companies, which despite their potential, lack the distribution fire power needed to serve multiple markets. If you look at the K12 market (US primary and secondary education) for example, its make-up is 10 million students across half a million schools. These small EU firms simply can't scale to reach this many people.

More importantly though is the lack of investment, which is a huge problem for the European edtech industry. If you look at global volumes of EU edtech funding since 2007, the scale of the problem becomes very apparent. Funding levels in the US are 10 times more than those in Europe. Asia is breaking ground too, overtaking Europe significantly in the funding race. However, the volume of students in Western Europe, substantially outweighs those in the US – so there's a real imbalance.

TRP: What are some of the current technology trends in online learning?

BVC: In terms of higher education, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have opened the education market right up. They have caught the public's imagination and disrupted a market that had been long under innovated. However, the business models to create profitable or even just self-sustaining organisations have been challenging. MOOCs provide access to education to all – creating demand from consumers for the edtech market.

This year we expect to see a move to "Selective" online courses or SOOCS. Selection will arise through pre-qualification requirements or through membership to a vocational organisation. The selection criteria will provide better learner engagement with the course and a more identifiable need from the user which in turn will allow the course provider to charge more easily for the value added provided.

In the K12 market, there is a path of disruption happening, which is being replicated in all markets and that is the rise of the connected device and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) schemes. In the school environment, the penetration of smart phones and tablets is disruptive at several levels. Firstly, these devices are much cheaper than desktop computers and laptops which, for a sector constantly under pressure to cut costs, is very appealing.

Secondly, the level of engagement with smartphones is so high amongst children that it seems like a missed opportunity not to use these devices to deliver education. BYOD is an important trend in the edtech market, for this exact reason. If the tablet can't be in the school, institutions should find a way to put the school in the tablet, to provide a continuum of touch points to support learning outside of the school. Apps, programmes and mobile optimised sites can provide access to teacher approved materials, study guides, quizzes, mock tests and so on – all enabling focused, personalised learning, in and out of the home.

TRP: How do you see that technology has changed education and workplace learning? How does it compare to 'traditional' methods?

BVC: Technology is an enabler. In an already digital market, the digitalisation of education is happening for the same reasons it's happening in other markets - ease of access, personalisation, flexibility, interaction, engagement. Digital platforms bring content to life for users globally.

Traditional methods of teaching are still widely recognised as the best method – and this is certainly the case for some disciplines, language learning and soft skills based teaching for example, benefit from face to face interaction. However, we've seen digital learning legitimised by the edtech market, with disruptors such as busuu launching virtual classroom platforms for students, allowing for greater interaction, better learning, and yet still allows for easy remote access.

TRP: Who are the major European technology players in the industry?

BVC: The companies currently showing greatest potential in Europe are those with an astute understanding of the direction of the market, providing a service that meets the needs of users, which can be delivered in the way they want it. In a recent ranking of the biggest players in the market, the European EdTech 20, three firms, busuu, bettermarks and The Student Room were identified as most influential based on innovation, scale, market impact and revenue growth in Europe over the past year.

Providing continuous touch-points for students, The Student Room is an online platform of resources including study guides and forums and busuu, is a new platform for language learning that uses video chat and native speakers to create a virtual classroom – both of which have been highlighted above as key trends for the industry this year. However, also gaining ground in the market are programmes which allow for adaptive learning. bettermarks is an adaptive learning platform which allows users to access personalised maths learning online, and intelligently analyses answers to improve understanding and performance.

TRP: In comparison to the big players, how are edtech startups fairing in the current market? Do they have adequate support?

BVC: As a relatively young market and low digital penetration, edtech firms are typically small to medium sized enterprises, so there's less variation between company size in this market. Despite their potential, the majority of companies in this sector struggle to earn turnovers of more that £4m. Their size, fragmentation and relative lack of EU investment means that they're incapable of scaling the operation to new markets. Firms in the EU market need investment to change, and fuel growth.

TRP: What more should the European Government be doing to promote and support the edtech industry?

BVC: In the US, early stage companies benefit from more intuitional investor support, a scheme not available to EU firms. Just as importantly though, the European education sector is slow to change and adopt new ways of working. The US has moved more quickly and far further along the curve in the space. It's important to recognise though that all industries are facing digital disruption, and the education sector perhaps has the most to gain from the increase in engagement and interactivity in content.

Technology has the power to help users learn better. This isn't just the case in Europe, it's a global trend and a global need. Without appropriate support, Europe's edtech firms will get swallowed by those in the US and Asia, who've recognised the opportunities, potential and benefits in this market, and are subsequently, leading the way.

TRP: Are tech professionals choosing to work in the edtech market - are there any specific skills required that separate candidates for this vs fintech/medtech etc?

BVC: The tech industry as a whole has long suffered from a skills shortage, with school leavers often falling fowl to the misconception that a job in this discipline is dull. Those of us who work in the industry know that's far from the case – and the increase in government support to improve the ICT curriculum, the launch of coding clubs and high profile IT professionals such as Mark Zuckerburg all help to attract new talent into the industry.

Unfortunately, taking this skills shortage and coupling it with public sector cuts often means candidates don't feel there are stable opportunities in this sector. The increase in outsourcing in the public sector to cuts costs has blurred the lines somewhat, so even candidates heading to large software houses or small tech start-ups have the opportunity to make their mark in the edtech market.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.