At home learning isn’t living up to the hype.
The Fairfax, Virginia school system educates about 189,000 kids and regularly ranks among the best of America’s larger school districts. So in April, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced schooling online, it came as a shock to teachers and parents that the district bungled the transition. As Fairfax schools debuted distance learning, video feeds were hacked, students posted profanities and lewd photos, private student data was exposed and glitches prevented teachers and students from even logging on in the first place.
“They were relying on us to at least bring some semblance of order and reliability in this Covid crisis,” one board member told The Washington Post, “and we fell far short as a school system.”
Fairfax’s technology problems stemmed from the fact that school administrators had failed to train staff. The problem was compounded by the district neglecting to update the software. But Fairfax was far from alone in having problems making the transition to online learning.
Less than half of Los Angeles families (in the nation’s second-largest school system) think distance learning is working. As a parent with a child in this district, I concur. Even the schools in Google’s hometown of Mountain View struggled to start up an online curriculum while distributing laptops to students who had no way to connect.
Some of the difficulty came from how quickly schools needed to pivot to online. Many students were in school one day and told they would be learning from home the next. But this moment should have been edtech’s time to shine. Instead, the crisis shows that the technology industry’s promises of better student outcomes from personalized learning, delivered electronically, are still far from reality. This is proving to be a teachable moment on how the edtech space as a whole can do better.
Two trends bear watching. First, the biggest technology companies have been able to throw resources at schools and make big inroads. Google and Microsoft have won millions of new users by giving their tools away, working directly with governments and repurposing existing products as needed (though these products are not as easy to use as they should be).
Google’s suite of classroom tools doubled users to 100 million in just March, partially by adding Italy’s entire school system. All of its tools are free. Microsoft’s tools have been widely adopted around the globe by, for example, 1.2 million students in Paraguay, also at no cost. As in other areas of technology, the big are getting bigger and squeezing out niche products with free versions that may not meet every need but are passable. Edtech startups that want to compete need to be thinking from the beginning how they can offer something the Googles of the world cannot, such as Yup, which offers on-demand math tutoring, a blessing for newly-minted stay-at-home educators who certainly aren’t math teachers.
The second trend: Tools that offer something of educational value that can’t be gotten from schools right now. These applications will likely remain popular long after the pandemic has passed.
Fiveable, which livestreams test preparation, saw user growth quadruple as stressed out students rushed to get a handle on Advanced Placement tests that would have to be taken online (which became a debacle in its own right). Quizlet, a studying app, found success by piggybacking on larger classroom portals like Google’s, seeing a 400% jump in new users in China and Italy as the virus locked those countries down. Mystery.org provides elementary-grade science lessons to teachers and has seen a fivefold increase in user engagement. All of these companies supplement the kind of one-to-one attention schools excel at when they’re open.
The most valuable edtech company in the world — unless you count Google and its brethren — is an Indian platform called Byju’s that attracted 6 million new students during the pandemic by giving lessons away for free. Parents and students have rushed to the company’s lessons partly out of fear they’ll fall behind but 2.8 million were paying for them before the pandemic, happy to brush up on concepts at their own pace.
Giving tools away for free only works as a business model if you can monetize a portion of your users down the road. That’s clearly the hope for many of the startups now seeing rapid growth but it comes with danger. Fiveable and Mystery.org had to hire extra staff to cope with the surge in customers. And many edtech companies rely not on students but on school systems for their revenue, which could be pressured by a collapse in taxes caused by the economic shutdown. A survey in March found that half of edtech executives thought their organization would be worse off in the near-term as schools shrink their spending.
Still, there’s tremendous opportunity for enterprising technology companies that want to help solve education’s thorniest problems. Barclays estimates that spending on technology by educators will increase 12% a year and is still just 3% of a $6 trillion global market. And with hundreds of millions of kids out of school and trying out online resources, there’ll be less resistance to technology by teachers and parents in the future.