It’s been widely reported that there’s been a boom in investment in the education technology (EdTech) sector; some have even suggested that following the boom we’ll soon see a complementary bust. I think this misses the point somewhat. We don’t tend to think of education as an industry that requires investment in ‘R&D’, possibly because the main provider is now the State itself (with 94% market share in the UK), but it’s an industry all the same and one carried out on a very large scale. In the UK, the education sector is nearly two-thirds of the size of the UK financial services industry. If you included ‘education exports’ it might be close to parity. That would probably come as a surprise to most people and when it’s put in those terms, the investment in new ideas and technology for the education sector suddenly seems paltry. I don’t have figures for the cumulative investment in start-ups and technology targeted at financial services, but I’m going to take a guess and suggest it’s a huge amount more than the recent EdTech investments.
But it’s not simply a question of under investment compared to the scale of the industry, because education is both ripe for revolution and the means to achieve it are at hand. In the last 15-20 years, we’ve built out this wonderful piece of infrastructure called the world wide web, to the point where it’s a perfect platform for delivering mould breaking educational services; something more profound than Wikipedia and Khan Academy. It took years for the US to reap all the benefits of their interstate highway investment and it will similarly take years for the full benefits of the internet to come through. But in education, necessity is the mother of invention. Governments want better educated populations that can compete in the global marketplace, but lack the financial resources to make it happen. They also lack the capability. Big improvements don’t come via the efficiency improvements that most Government organisations understand and seek. They come via a completely new and more effective way of looking at things.
This combination of the huge scale of the education sector, the comparative lack of past investment and desperate need for totally new thinking is what’s been driving investment in EdTech and is why the what we’ve seen so far will look like a small ripple compared to the tsunami of investment that we could see in the years to come.