Edtech for the workplace: opportunity or obligation?

As AI and automation change the nature of work and jobs rapidly over the coming years, edtech innovations must be ready to help people and organisations keep pace.

Jean Hammond of LearnLaunch, an edtech accelerator and innovation hub based in Boston, was keynote speaker at a conference organised by Enterprise Ireland and The Learning Forum in Dublin in June. At Impacts and Future Trends in the EdTech and Corporate Learning Landscapes, Enterprise Ireland-backed companies met industry experts and investors, to hear how education is changing, and the opportunities that change presents.

As automation becomes more widespread, the importance of soft skills – including complex problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork – will persist. In her keynote presentation, Jean asked: “Why do we call them soft skills? Because they’re really, really hard.”


Edtech is an unstoppable force

Edtech innovation is accelerating, as the ways people learn in school, university and the workplace undergo a major transformation. Workforce education is about to become intricately entwined with people’s careers, Jean explained: “We’ve had a history of thinking that there was a period of time, four years in college, and then you worked for ten years and then maybe went away for two weeks, or went back to education for a year, but that’s not what the world looks like now.”

This is a challenge facing society as a whole, Jean noted. She advised delegates not to solely focus on the next great start-up or innovation: “Don’t spend all your time thinking about the innovators. Think carefully about the innovation adopters. What does it take to adopt change?”

Industries must interact with edtech entrepreneurs and signal what they need, in order for start-ups to create the solutions required. If the market fails to tell innovators what it wants, it’s extremely unlikely that innovators will be able to develop the right solutions.

Jean described her role linking companies with start-ups: “I have probably seen over a thousand different edtech start-up business plans over the last ten years. We know what people are out there trying to work on.”


Impact of big data and machine learning

Technology has moved at an amazing pace over the past few decades. Jean advised that big data and machine learning will drive change even faster: “Machine learning can analyse any system and find out where there are problems, where there are issues, and then go and provide a way to address these.”

The challenge for edtech is to react to change in time, so that people can transition into new roles before their old tasks become automated or obsolete. Jean commented, “We need to make the systems and processes of learning and deliver them where we need them.”


Today’s edtech market

She explained that only about 2.7% of the global education market is currently digitised: “Probably it will max out at around 12% because we’ll always have teachers, we’ll always have humans as a part of the system, but across the next few years, there will be a lot of change.”

The market globally is worth around US $5.75 trillion, with that value projected to rise to US $10 trillion by 2030. Jean explained that education is the biggest sector to ever undergo digital transformation.

Delegate John O’Donnell of Irish curriculum management company Akari Software asked Jean about lifetime learning and how it may disrupt universities. Jean noted that a level of transformation is inevitable but that universities provide quality credentials and should start offering “bites of learning that can be delivered over and over again into a set of stackable credentials.”

After reaching a high in 2015, venture capital investment in edtech fell but is now rising again. A LearnLaunch study looked at where funding for edtech resides: “Clearly there are some things happening in formal education to bring an increased amount of skill training into the higher education and community college, or sometimes even high school. Then the workplace is delivering both functional skills and soft skills, with a high rate of company formation in technology.”

Jean said that some of the most intriguing innovations were the next generation of learning management systems (LMSs), new e-learning tools, advanced ways of looking at assessment and analytics, and credential management.

Companies who have never invested in edtech previously are entering the market (such as Walmart) and long-time funders are entering the process earlier. Jean explained that earlier engagement is intended to “push those start-ups in the direction that they need because start-ups will listen if you tell them what to do. They care about your opinion so they will be steering themselves to try and meet your needs.”

This is advanced strategic thinking, which will help ensure companies have the tools they need to upskill their workforce: “I don’t just think edtech is the opportunity of the decade, I think that we have to do this.”

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