By Pranjal Kumar
The purpose of higher education and the way it is getting delivered and consumed is changing dramatically. And it’s the future of work, technology & data revolution, and pervasive internet that are the primary forces driving this change.
So what are these tailwinds?
Future of work: Over 5.5% of adult population remained unemployed in 2018, and this significant number is growing by over 1 million every year. What adds to the challenge is the lack of skills as 54% of the global workforce will require significant reskilling and upskilling by 2020.
Technology & data revolution: With 50% of the companies expecting automation to drive significant changes in roles by 2022, and over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data generated every day, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will demand a specialised workforce.
Pervasive internet: With 3.9 billion internet users currently, the growth of the internet is core to defining the ecosystem.
So, are we going back to the future?
In the current education setup, most students go through a structured learning path—study for 12 years in formal schools, get a graduate degree, and then find a job where you move up the career ladder by honing your existing skills. However, this wasn’t the case earlier. Prior to the college degree becoming the mainstream form of higher education and pathway to jobs, apprenticeship was the primary gateway to get a job. It was almost a ‘sure-shot’ way of acquiring and demonstrating skills.
When one hears leaders like Google and Apple announcing they have dropped their degree requirements, and about 66% employers are open to pursuing a certification for skilling as a sufficient credential, one wonders whether we are ‘back to the future’? And the answer is ‘Yes’.
Today, we are witnessing an increased demand for specialised job roles, such as AI specialists and data analysts. These are organically new roles, not an advanced version of a pre-existing job role, a trend very similar to how the role of a shop-floor foreman was introduced two centuries ago during the first Industrial Revolution. Hence, it’s not surprising that the world is moving back to prioritising skills (over degree) and recruiters are giving priority to practical evidence of skills rather than paper-stamped certificate.
But, unlike the 1800s, through the internet and digital, one can accelerate their skill curve shift and broadcast their role-readiness by putting their portfolio, areas of interest and network strength on platforms visible to a much larger audience than just recruitment teams.
These new perspectives, paired with digital delivery possibilities, are giving rise to a broad spectrum of new-age education providers.
Interpreting the edtech canvas
The canvas of edtech ecosystem is still being painted, but the first stroke was made in the late 1990s, when the internet had started becoming mainstream, and Google and Wikipedia for the first time in history of mankind offered vast amounts of information at just a click. The information bank model evolved into content libraries and MOOC platforms that hosted curated content and offered it to learners for free. While it had its challenges of completion rates and limited outcomes, they triggered an explosion of online content consumption and laid the groundwork for future edtech models. In the last decade, we have seen the rise of edtech models such as OPM (2U), Bootcamps (Trilogy), online skilling (Udacity, Emeritus), online colleges (OpenClassrooms). These companies have succeeded in identifying specific segment needs and configuring their model to serve them appropriately.
One may ask what would the future of edtech look like? Will we see certain models being more successful vis-a-vis others? Or, will they all co-exist, restricting themselves to their respective segments? Will traditional institutions continue to dominate by successfully integrating online or will there be a single Amazon-like edtech aggregator monopolising education?
To answer this, let me offer a scenario of what the final picture would look like, and like any artistic piece, it’s completely your choice to critique or ignore it.
I believe there are going to be fundamentally two edtech aggregators: First, the aggregators of partnership-based models, and second, the aggregators of self-branded models. The partnership-based aggregator will be a MOOC, an OPM offering online degrees, a skilling platform offering short-term skilling courses, and would also offer bootcamp products (think Coursera!). Its strength lies in managing partner relationships and slicing & dicing their content into multiple education products, as well as straddling across target groups to re-target the acquisition funnel, getting repeat learners and managing CAC efficiently. Similarly, self-branded aggregators will offer multiple products under their fold. But this will not come easy. Both these players will have to invest heavily into building their brand through immediate job outcomes for young learners and job-shifters, industry-recognised credentials for working professionals, etc. This is not going to be an easy job for either.
However, no matter what picture you choose to paint of the future of higher education, the following will hold true and relevant for times to come:
Continuous skilling will be a reality for learners and employees;
Digital and internet will be an integral part of skill and education delivery;
High-quality traditional institutions will not only survive but also flourish partnering with school-based edtech players;
Alternate self-branded players will have a role to play.
India’s edtech atelier
India’s edtech future will not be very different. We are already seeing edtech players such as Eruditus, Upgrad and Great Learning—which work with universities to provide short- and long-term courses—gaining scale, expanding into new geographies and more specialised courses. On the other hand, companies such as Edureka and Imarticus are building an independent yet compelling brand by providing quality outcomes for professionals.
In addition, the government has taken several strategic steps such for policies for online degrees and online distance learning, establishing ‘Institutes of Eminence’ and ‘Institutes of National Importance’ that are enabling digital learning by giving autonomy to high-quality institutions.
To sum it up, if you are a student, a founder, an educator, a policymaker or an investor, the next two decades will be an exciting period as the edtech canvas takes its shape. While today it appears that the partnership-based models will dominate the canvas, we should all watch-out for an ‘Amazon-like’ self-branded player to paint the last stroke of the canvas. Hopefully, it will be a masterpiece!
The author is head of Education Fund Investments and CFO, Bertelsmann India Investments. Views are personal