Whilst EdTech is seeing an array of well-funded, big new players, smaller enterprises are finding themselves squeezed out of the conversation. Having the best ideas and the best companies executing them will always help, but ‘survival of the fittest’ has its downsides. For a start, universities may find that they only ever see a fraction of the brilliant ideas and people developing them who are out there.
But universities have their own part to play in this John Miles, CEO of Inkpath points out. From streamlining procurement to celebrating internally produced innovators, an active role can be adopted by institutions and here, they can truly start shaping EdTech to their benefit…
Sprouting unicorn horns
EdTech has been flourishing worldwide, with Global venture capital investment rising from $8bn to $16bn between 2018 and 2020 in the sector. This has only been propelled further by coronavirus pandemic and the accelerated ‘pivot to digital’, reaching $20bn in 2021 according to Holoniq and Brighteye Ventures. Consequently, the ‘unicorn’ phenomenon –where companies reach valuations exceeding $1bn – has become well-established in the world of EdTech. Brighteye further highlights that over a third of all EdTech unicorns sprouted their horns in 2021 alone.
So, what does all this investment mean for technology in Higher Education? Perhaps most excitingly, universities can anticipate greater breadth of choice and depth of innovation than ever. And collaborating with external companies rather than developing in-house solutions can prove highly efficient and sustainable in applying strategic imperatives, as well as building engagement and retention among students and staff.
A plethora of choice
However, there is a risk that the variety of offerings and opportunities could dwindle, not particularly as the pace of EdTech development could outstrip the rate at which universities can adopt technologies. From business analysis of functional and technical requirements, to tenders, to data privacy and protection assessments, to contract and service level negotiation, the process of procuring such tools and software requires considerable time and resources spent in the sector.
In order for university procurement to be as successful as possible, stamina is needed for all involved. Whilst this is likely not an issue for big-pocketed unicorns, there are numerous examples where innovative start-up EdTech companies have felt under pressure by long buying cycles. Along with the domination of big-player marketing and messaging, where it’s pay-to-play into high-level policy agenda, we may find the community of unicorns dominated and thus, the potential for innovation born of competition diminished.
Prioritising diverse technology
So, what can universities do to shape the EdTech agenda to their favour, ensuring that our cornucopia of technological tools becomes more bountiful over time, and not less? Here are five key areas to consider:
- Adopt a dynamic mentality. Dynamic and open-minded are the two key characteristics of some of the best business analysts in universities. They consider how collections of technology solutions can slot together in one and understand that one solution alone only works on the rare occasion. Giving support and freedom to think laterally will confirm universities are more than able to examine the creative solutions on offer to fit their technology requirements, rather than feeling tied down to the biggest names.
- Recognise the innovators. All too often, university staff can feel disconnected from the decisions IT has ‘done to them’, where they haven’t had the opportunity to practise agency or influence upon the decisions that affect them. Promoting institution-wide technology is possible with the right training programmes and awarding and recognising those who are actively innovating will encourage more staff to contribute to their institution’s technology trajectory. And most importantly, more staff will be open to adopting diverse technologies in the future.
- Thoroughly research the market. The larger companies in EdTech have the means to reach the people needed to promote their solutions and create partnerships in the policy space that illustrates their credibility. However, for the natural critical thinkers of universities, they can form their own conclusions and conducting thorough market research allows them to do this.
- Streamline the procurement process. In order to help speed up procurement, specific, transparent purchasing and procurement framework (G-Cloud may be a start) is essential and will ensure that companies are able to prepare a suite of documents and responses ahead of time.
- Take pride in the UK EdTech landscape. UK universities can take pride in UK innovation and actively look to nurture it, even if this is externally.
One of the hopeful glimmers of the pandemic was that we found a willingness to try new things quickly. Whilst the immediate emergency may have faded, our collective spirit to innovate must remain.