Snackable, personalised and community-based: how edtech is changing the way we learn

A one-off binge early on in life is no longer good enough: people are continually snacking on learning opportunities


It’s no secret that the more educated you are, the higher your earning potential is. In fact, the London School of Economics found that five years after graduating, people who managed a 2:1 or higher can expect to earn 7% to 9% more than their peers with a lower degree. But that’s by no means the only reason why so many people are choosing to continue learning long after they’ve left university.

For a start, to keep up with the pace of technological change and get ahead in the age of automation it’s no longer good enough to rely on a qualification gained years ago. According to PwC, the professional-services firm, breakthroughs in AI could mean that ten million UK workers are at risk of being replaced by robots within 15 years. “The shelf life of a skill is less than five years already and, as uncertainty grows over the future of work, people are starting to realise that they need to adapt,” says Daniel Sanchez-Grant, director of sales at Rungway, the mobile app that allows people to have one-on-one conversations about work and life problems. “This means they’re starting to think differently about self-improvement and development.” Of course new types of jobs are likely to be created too but to stay marketable most people are aware that this is no time to rest on their laurels. It’s learn or be replaced.

Technology has also helped cater to this thirst for always-on learning and a host of edtech solutions are cropping up that are on demand, portable, personalised and easy to dip in and out of – hardly surprising in an era when competition for our attention is fiercer than ever. “We find that people are learning in more bite-sized chunks and that’s largely down to the fact that we’re constantly on our phones and looking to snatch learning opportunities on the go,” says Alyssa Demirjian, director of content and partnerships at Skillshare, an online learning platform that offers short, video-based lessons created by subject-matter experts. “Mobile devices have become this tool you keep in your back pocket that can help you learn everything from coding to how to be a more effective leader.”

And as Demirjian alludes to, it’s not just technical skills that employers or workers crave. While the UK does have a digital skills gap that online learning can help address, people are often seeking out soft skills too. A recent survey of business owners by charity Central YMCA revealed that 15% said that their young employees had problems with listening, while over a quarter noted that many young people didn’t seem to be able to grasp what appropriate mobile phone usage in the workplace looked like. “While there’s massive interest in digital courses, many of our users are also looking for courses on soft skills like leadership techniques,” says Demirjian. Whether it’s a new hire wondering how they can influence the company culture or a manager struggling to delegate, university life just doesn’t prepare you for these sorts of scenarios so people are turning to online platforms to find the answers. And as machines get better at doing specific tasks, it will become even more important for individuals to be equipped with people skills like empathy, as well as high-level technical knowledge.

But a desire to get ahead at work and future-proof their careers are not the only things spurring people on to adopt lifelong learning practices. Whether it’s brushing up on their French, teaching themselves how to make pasta from scratch or swotting up on the history of photography in the Victorian age, many just want to learn for the sheer pleasure of it. And according to Stephen Somerville, director of business development at FutureLearn, the online learning platform formed by the Open University, employers that can cultivate a culture of curiosity or attract people who are hungry for knowledge will create a healthier breeding ground for innovation. “While the value of learning about something seemingly unrelated to a person’s job might not seem immediately useful, that’s exactly how people form connections and links that result in innovative new ideas – something the most forward-thinking employers realise,” he says.

And what’s different about this new suite of online learning platforms is that they’re not just more snackable but they’re also becoming better at using personalisation to keep people engaged. For example, video-based corporate learning app VEO allows people to tag content to tailor the course to suit their needs while Skillshare invests in algorithms to learn about people’s interests so it can share personalised recommendations for new courses. “Learning has to be relevant and useful and technology has enabled this in the last few years by creating a culture of personalisation,” says Demirjian. “Just look at Netflix: sure it offers great content but what keeps people coming back is that it’s able to recommend new, relevant shows for people to discover.”

And given how much online learning content there is out there, personalised solutions that allow people to get even more relevant answers quickly have cropped up. Rather than taking an entire IT course, many people are adopting a problem-solution approach instead. “People want to access specific, tailored knowledge and find answers to their questions without having to trawl through irrelevant content,” says Sanchez-Grant. Via the Rungway app, knowledge-seekers can post questions and be matched with someone who might be able to help. And with the option to ask questions under the cover of anonymity, many feel more comfortable raising their hands and admitting there’s something they don’t know. “Women are twice as likely as men to pose questions anonymously,” he adds.

Many of these platforms also have one key element in common: they tap into people’s intrinsic desire to help each other, share knowledge and tell stories. “If we have a course on, say, cancer, we’ll have healthcare professionals, students and people affected by cancer all speaking to each other and exchanging experiences,” says Somerville. “Rather than learning passively, people are collaborating with each other. And we know that the more people we encounter and the more serendipitous connections we make, the better we learn.”

What’s more, several edtech startups are borrowing a few tricks of the trade from the world of gaming to make learning more immersive, visual, competitive and fun. Take languages app Memrise, which encourages a healthy dose of competition by allowing people to compare their scores with their friends while notifications motivate them to progress to the next level. And this style of learning may be particularly appealing to the younger generation. “Millennials in particular are constantly measuring and compiling stats on themselves as if they were playing a video game, so as they enter workplace they’re looking to continue that approach to self-improvement,” says Somerville.

But these aren’t the only lessons being learned from the world of gaming: VR and AR are set to play a much bigger role in courses in the future. “We’re seeing learning become more gamified and there’s a real opportunity for startups that can combine AR or VR technology with course material,” he says. FutureLearn already offers a course titled Virtual Hong Kong: New World, Old Traditions, which allows students to discover Hong Kong using a combination of 360-degree video and VR, something that could become more commonplace in the future.

But while it may be tempting to cram in a bunch of bells and whistles to win over millennials, it’s important to remember that to really reach the people most in need of lifelong learning these platforms also need to be accessible for everyone. “Too many learning interfaces are stuffed with features that don’t need to be there, which can make them alienating – especially for people who aren’t digital natives,” says Somerville. “An online learning tool needs to be streamlined and instinctive like Uber, rather than feel like a chore. That way, you might have a fighting chance of reaching people who are perhaps slightly less confident with technology.”

One thing’s for sure: as the UK continues to grapple with a skills gap while simultaneously gearing up for a potential post-Brexit brain drain and a robot revolution, demand is only going to increase for platforms that make adult learning easy, convenient and even fun. According to Edtech UK, the body aimed at accelerating the sector’s growth, there are now over 1,000 edtech companies in the UK and on a global level the market is set to be worth $220bn by 2020. The major players and investment rounds tend to originate from the US but the UK is gaining ground. And given that Britain currently exports over £15bn worth of educational expertise each year and our education system is widely respected overseas, the opportunity is there for home-grown startups to make a splash on the world stage.

Learning for grownups: mapping the edtech scene

Memrise: A learning app that uses scientific methods like constant testing to help reinforce what people have learned. Founded by a grand master of memory and a Princeton neuroscientist specialising in memory, the startup has raised $6.28m since being founded in 2012.

Skillshare:  Offering more bite-sized lessons, this online learning platform enables 2.5 million members to pick from 15,000 different classes. Subjects range from coding to cooking and are taught by professionals. Its latest funding round in 2016 attracted $12m, bringing the total to $25m.

FutureLearn:  This spin-out from the Open University caters to students looking for both short- and long-form courses. Founded in 2012, it’s the largest MOOC (massive open online course) provider in Europe and caters to a global audience.

Pluralsight: Styling itself as the Netflix of professional learning, this US startup equips people with digital skills such as coding, 3D animation and ethical hacking. Since 2012, $162.5m has been invested in the startup over two rounds and it’s already made eight acquisitions.

Rungway: This mobile mentoring app allows people to pose work-related questions as and when they crop up. Algorithms matchmake you with someone who might have an answer and then leaves the two of you to speak in private.

OpenClassrooms: Founded in France in 2016, this online learning platform offers vocational training and digital qualifications to over two million members across Europe in a bid to boost people’s employability chances across the continent and beyond. Investors have poured in $9.69m in three rounds to date.

nhance: Based in Singapore and Bangalore, this mobile app uses interactive games to encourage busy professionals to take in small nuggets of information every day and make learning a regular part of their lives. Having launched in 2015, the startup went on to raise $300,000 in seed funding in 2016.

VEO: This app-based edtech spin-out from Newcastle University helps people with their professional learning needs and is now working with corporates like LV=, the insurance company. Since 2015, it’s raised over $228,870 in seed funding.

Maria Barr
Maria Barr

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