Post-secondary education and edtech: high-potential hybrids

From MOOCs and machine learning to collaborative teaching platforms, innovative digital solutions for the education sector are mushrooming, especially in China and the USA. The French sector has long lagged behind, accounting for just 1.3% of global edtech investment in 2017 (€42 million out of €7.7 billion), but it is starting to get organized, with help from initiatives by government, Bpifrance and the top schools. With emlyon business school recently launching its Ed Job Tech accelerator, the question is which French start-ups will come forward to create high-potential hybrid solutions for the higher education market, whose sales are set to expand by 20% to reach $120 billion by 2023.

Scaled learning, artificial intelligence and online entrance exams: great products from French edtechs.

According to the French Edtech Observatory, the industry’s first professional association, France has between 300 and 350 start-ups specializing in educational innovation. That’s taking all sectors into account, i.e. school and post-secondary education as well as vocational training. Michel Coster, who heads emlyon business school’s Ed Job Tech accelerator, makes this point: “Start-ups are being part of the revolution by tackling issues from a fresh angle and bringing different solutions from the ones offered by major firms and long-time players.”

France’s best-known edtech firm is a trailblazer in the field. Open Classrooms, a MOOC distribution platform, boasts three million monthly users and recently raised $60 million to accelerate its development, particularly stateside. Others include the likes of Domoscio, which is using artificial intelligence and big data to build personalized training programs, and 360Learning, a vocational training platform that is targeting European leadership in its sector. Other mature start-ups are working on areas such as tools for teacher/student collaboration, digitalization of relations between students and post-secondary institutions (AppScho), online competitive entrance exams (Mereos), scaling of vocational training (Sparted) and online exam revision solutions (Digischool). Ideas are bubbling up in every field as firms look to anticipate future changes in education. But work is needed to structure the sector and enable firms to develop sufficient presence internationally or at the very least within Europe.

Investment funds, accelerators and incubators: taking the necessary steps to structure educational innovation in France

French edtech start-ups still trail far behind their American and Chinese counterparts. In 2017, ten Chinese and US edtech companies raised funds of over $100 million. Compare that against the €42 million that Metaari, a market research firm, says was invested across the French industry as a whole.

In the face of this situation, there at last seems to be a realization within France’s economic and political environment about the urgent need to structure the sector. On the public side, the government is drawing up a framework to make it easier for edtechs to enter into contracts with educational establishments, while some local governments have set up their own subsidy programs. To give an example, Test We, a platform for digitizing exams, was launched with support from the Ile de France region.

Private initiatives have also emerged in recent months. The establishment of a national Edtech Observatory, with support from Caisse des Dépôts, is promoting a shared approach to the challenges, while EduCapital, France’s (and Europe’s) first investment fund to specialize in edtech, started up in late 2017. Backed by Bpifrance, the fund aims to support the emergence of French champions.

Top schools and institutions of higher learning, the natural clients and partners of edtechs, are also coming out with their own initiatives. For the start of the 2018 school year, emlyon created the first Ed Job Tech accelerator, which is supporting ten or so start-ups. Thierry Picq, emlyon business school’s head of innovation, had this to say about the accelerator: “This project provides individualized support to each start-up. More importantly, though, it connects communities by providing firms with access to expert resources in every area through recognized mentors and major companies that are involved in the project, including IBM and Orange.”

Integrating innovation in educational journeys

While great ideas are flourishing on the market, the real challenge is to make them available to end users, i.e. students and professional educators. Thierry argues that schools and institutions have an incredible opportunity to rethink the sciences of learning and change their educational processes and products. But to do that, they need to be constantly alert to the best new ideas. At emlyon business school, when good ideas are spotted, trials are conducted “to test opportunities in real-life conditions and assess the potential for internal application”, explains Thierry.

A number of start-ups are already operating at different stages of the education value chain. beQbe, a platform for sharing and storing content, offers a highly intuitive interface that is great for sharing knowledge. To promote classroom digitalization, Glowbl provides a videoconferencing solution that facilitates group and non-face-to-face discussions, while We Are Peers, which was the brainchild of a student from the school, deploys peer learning within organizations. All in all, emlyon business school is working on around ten strategic projects in close collaboration with vertical start-ups. Michel Coster also mentions several other firms, which he says are “plugged into educational innovation chains and working and talking with school stakeholders, including students, staff and profs”. One of these, Humanroads, is revolutionizing student orientation and answering the question “How do I get there?” by mapping out thousands of career pathways, while another, Volto, is bringing the magic back to learning English through scaled and generational content tailored to individual targets.

All these great ideas can be gradually introduced to the classroom, provided schools instill a strong culture of change. This represents a challenge of its own, since blending academic and business cultures does not necessarily come easily to every institution.