Edtech and higher ed: Where we are going & how we will get there

Education is and always has been one of the fundamental pillars of society: bringing together the history of human progress and compressing it into teachable curricula, so that the next generation of students can move forward and build a better future.

Recently, this progress is moving at an unprecedented rate, particularly in areas of technology. However, although almost every institution of higher learning has courses on the latest trends in computer science and electrical engineering, these same institutions have been remarkably slow to actually apply digital technologies to either their pedagogy or operations–until now. The rise of edtech is rapidly transforming both how we learn and how education institutions operate.

At Toptal, I have worked with over 50 education institutions–including nearly half of the Ivy League universities–and organizations at the forefront of technology in education, matching them with freelance talent from our network in order to successfully deploy educational technology initiatives. Through my interactions with both our clients and talent, I have become somewhat of a student myself, learning what edtech can do, where it is going, and what it will take to get there.

The rise of edtech
Searches for ‘edtech’ have doubled in the past three years, but edtech is much more than just a buzzword. Toptal, for example, saw a 114% increase in job requests from edtech clients from 2015-2017. Meanwhile, the first 10 months of 2017 alone saw global investments of $8.15 billion in the edtech market. And this is only the beginning.

Razvan Burciu, a Toptal designer who has worked for ClassDojo and Big Interview, told me, “I envision edtech becoming a core component of modern society, as its applications are endless and future-altering. It’s a common effort towards a better future.”

But technology applied to education is an incredibly wide classification–so what do people actually mean when they say edtech? Broadly speaking, there are two main categories. First, there are products, both hardware and software, that students and institutions can use to take their learning to the next level. Second, there is technology applied to education institutions’ infrastructure and backend processes.

Both of these categories are integral to improving outcomes for our education institutions and the students they educate.

Why is edtech important?
Burciu sees edtech improving student outcomes in three main areas: accessibility, affordability, and personalization.

America has long struggled and failed to provide equal educational resources to all students. The democratization of the internet has the potential to change this, and a large wave of edtech products and services are aiming to do just that. However, rampant disparities in the accessibility of quality education still exist, making this a massive growth area for edtech moving forward.

Similarly, the cost of higher education is prohibitively expensive for a large segment of our country, and even those that can afford a top-tier education often enter the workforce with crippling student debt. By helping universities cut costs while maintaining or improving the quality of instruction, edtech promises to make education more affordable for everyone.

Finally, as the speeding pace of technological innovation continues to accelerate, the traditional American model of four years of intense, formalized learning followed by a career of gradual on-the-job learning is increasingly becoming unworkable. This is not to say that the undergraduate university is obsolete–it is more important than ever–but rather that serious education must continue far beyond the university’s gates.

What will it take to realize edtech’s potential?
We have worked with over 50 edtech clients on even more individual projects. But across every project, our clients have faced one common challenge of paramount importance: finding and staffing excellent talent. This is especially true at institutions of higher learning.

“Generally, a company’s success is directly correlated with their choice of talent,” says Burziu. “You need the right people for the right job. And people with the right mindset. Working in edtech comes with a huge amount of responsibility, since you are involved in creating a better future.”

Yet higher education institutions have a difficult time finding great talent in the technology space. For one, they generally have small budgets compared to tech industry giants such as Google and Facebook, and they cannot offer lucrative stock option packages like small tech start-ups can. Additionally, while researching and teaching at a university is undoubtedly prestigious, working with a college or university on edtech initiatives has not yet garnered the prestige it deserves, particularly relative to other tech sectors.

Finally, institutions of higher learning may not have long-term, steady employment opportunities for designers and engineers. According to Kristopher Hardy of Messiah College, one of Toptal’s edtech clients, “our projects and project loads shift very rapidly due to the seasonal environment in Higher Ed. This created a need for a flexible and, most importantly, a reliable solution for contracted development work.”

For Messiah, the solution was turning to an external freelance network to staff their projects. The developers Toptal matched with Messiah “have played a large role in building our campus map, campaign landing pages, a new program listing page, and redesigning portions of our website (to name a few).”

External freelance talent networks like Toptal grant educational institutions and organizations access to top developers, designers, and engineers so they can continue to improve education outcomes, building a smarter, more modern workforce and a better, brighter future.

Of course, this is just one solution. However our education institutions and organizations choose to source their tech talent, it is essential that they are successful in this pursuit. After all, as Burciu told me, edtech is “a common effort towards a better future.” And that is something our best minds need to be working toward.

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