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What's the most compelling argument to convince ed tech skeptics?

What's the most compelling argument to convince ed tech skeptics?

Ed tech executives point to skill development, the availability of data and the ability to reach new communities.

Good afternoon! In today's Braintrust, we asked a group of ed tech executives — from companies that span the field — about how they respond to people who doubt their field. Questions or comments? Send us a note at

Apratim Purakayastha

Chief technology officer at Skillsoft

Every business has investments in capital equipment and software, both of which need continuous maintenance. The cost of maintenance is often between 5% and 20% of original purchase price or yearly license price. Businesses often take this for granted and call it total cost of ownership.

Human capital is certainly not machines or software. However, human capital needs the same level of investment and maintenance — if not even more. For knowledge workers, this maintenance is about staying relevant, competent and ahead of the curve with today’s changing technological, social and geopolitical landscape. The fuel for this maintenance is learning. Why would we not spend at least 5% of annual “license” costs (e.g., salary) for human capital so that the capital investment stays in tip-top shape to handle change such that the enterprise remains competitive and the workforce remains motivated and engaged?

Those who are not investing anything close to that are essentially ignoring the potential of human capital and letting it atrophy; or, worse, watching that capital move to another enterprise that is willing to invest in the growth and development of its talent. Ed tech is very simple; just like you think about total cost of ownership, think of it as total cost of growth — synchronized growth for the employees and growth for the enterprise.

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Ken Eisner

Director, business development, Global Learning Systems at Amazon

Ed tech and online learning provide our clearest pathways to affordability, advanced pedagogy and innovation in learning. Online learning and e-learning aren’t just inevitable: They are an imperative. Online learning is a cloud-based disaster recovery mechanism for situations ranging from pandemics to winter storms; without it, students are stuck. Perhaps more importantly, online learning scales, leading to cost reductions that can be passed on to students. This has already started in “organically scaling institutions” such as Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University, whose digital enrollments have shot up while other nonprofit institutions have dropped steadily. This enabled SNHU to cut tuition by approximately 50%, part of President Paul LeBlanc’s plan “… to fundamentally reimagine a broken model that too often leaves students behind.”

Secondly, ed tech enables education leaders to leverage data about the learner. While zealously protecting leaner data privacy, we can also enable all actors in the learning process — the learner, learning designer, institution and parent — to better support the learner. While not a perfect example, I witnessed my second grader’s wonderful teacher take the learnings from a summative test and apply them real time in a formative way. At Amazon, we would say we’re still Day One in leveraging data for student success, but I have witnessed vast promise, both inside and outside of Amazon. While many would seek to preserve educational institutionalism, leaders in educational pre-K to gray realize that we need to accelerate the pace to innovation, not dampen it.

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Lisa Lewin

CEO at General Assembly

The U.S. ed tech industry attracted $20.8 billion in investment in 2021 alone, and for good reason. Compared to other industries like retail or banking, companies in the education landscape have long faced resistance and regulatory challenges to innovation and disruption. The pandemic and the rise of digital education mediums challenged the assumption that the old way of learning is the best way, and the benefits of ed tech became widely documented and (mostly) embraced.

I am most excited about the potential of ed tech to bridge the gap between those who can access high-quality education and those who historically could not. Online and blended learning technologies make it possible for General Assembly — and other fellow travelers in the digital education space — to train a wider range of students (regardless of socioeconomic status, previous experience, location or background) on the sorts of skills that will land them a high-paying, stable job and change the trajectory of their life.

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Geoff Watson

President and chief business officer at the Minerva Project

Most skeptics are right. Too much of ed tech is dominated by poorly designed curricula, transmission models of teaching, and insufficient feedback to students. These are precisely the same practices that make so much of in-person traditional education ineffective. In short, the problem with ed tech isn’t tech, it’s ed.

The promise of ed tech is that it doesn’t have to start with those poor practices. It offers the almost unheard-of opportunity in education to start anew. But ed tech cannot exist in a vacuum; it only works when it is intentionally improving learning. And a lot of that depends on matching the right learning modality with the right learning outcome in hybrid models, widely considered the future of education.

As education moves toward hybrid, technology must be integrated in the learning journey to improve both teaching and learning outcomes. For example, information transmission can be done asynchronously online via readings and videos. Synchronous online sessions, in contrast, are best used to facilitate active learning, where students can interact with an instructor who can answer questions and provide immediate feedback. In-person learning is best for experiential and project-based learning, giving students the chance to apply their skills and knowledge to real-world scenarios. The learning across modalities must be seamlessly integrated and assessed.

When intentionally and effectively implemented, hybrid learning can utilize technology to improve learning outcomes, reduce costs, promote access and inclusion, and increase institutional efficiency, flexibility and resilience. Using our old broken teaching methods in an online modality, though, won’t get us anywhere.

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Betty Vandenbosch

Chief content officer at Coursera

The power of education drives the power of ed tech. Education can create equal opportunity, promote peace and social justice, and drive economic growth. The driving constraint for many students has been access — only those with the financial and physical means to attend in-person classes could benefit. By unleashing the potential for scale to reduce cost, and the potential for online learning to increase flexibility, ed tech enables people across the world to learn online through job-relevant courses, certificates and even degrees that prepare them for high-paying roles in the digital economy. In addition to scale and flexibility, through technology and data, ed tech enables personalized learning experiences and pathways, thereby increasing success and completion. Nontraditional learners in particular, including women and people in emerging economies, benefit from learning supported by ed tech. A recent report in partnership with IFC found that 45% of women and 60% of women caregivers in emerging economies would have had to postpone or stop studies during the pandemic if online learning were not an option. And with modular and stackable learning, students without a college degree or field experience can earn valuable skills and credentials to help them land jobs in the evolving economy while pursuing paths to larger credentials, including degrees. With a combination of new approaches to learning and access to technology, ed tech can remove traditional barriers and help learners from all walks of life unlock personal growth and economic opportunity for not only themselves but also their families and communities.

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Melissa Daimler

Chief learning officer at Udemy

Hybrid work environments are here to stay. A recent poll from Gallup revealed that 42% of “remote capable” workers prefer a hybrid schedule, while 39% are continuing to work entirely from home. At the same time, 94% of business leaders still expect employees to pick up new skills on the job, according to the World Economic Forum. As leaders continue to navigate this way of working and prioritize learning as a business imperative, digital, on-demand learning platforms are emerging as a critical component of the ed tech ecosystem. At Udemy, we’re working with more than 12,500 enterprises globally to bolster upskilling and reskilling opportunities. Not only does it cater to the variety of ways people learn, but online instruction enables opportunities that in-person instruction simply cannot provide. It offers flexibility, allowing learners to pause and pick their education back up when it fits within their schedules. It’s also more inclusive, providing a psychologically safe space to learn and connect with peers and instructors who are not in their proximity. At the end of the day, traditional classroom learning can’t keep up with the evolving technologies and skills needed to stay ahead. Employees need content that keeps pace with industry innovations and stays on top of skills that can be applied immediately.

As online instruction becomes more sophisticated in delivering cost-effective and collaborative learning experiences, in-person learning will need to be rethought. Agile skill development is a win for everyone, enabling individuals and businesses to learn however works best for them.

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Milind Kopikare

President, North America at Greater Learning

One of the core complaints from ed tech skeptics is that online education doesn’t demonstrate long-term student engagement or completion rates, which suggest students are not retaining knowledge or new skillsets. One 2019 MIT study revealed online courses recorded a dropout rate of about 96% on average over five years. However, ed techs are improving their outcomes by investing in stronger partnerships with world-renowned college institutions, building rigorous mentorship with industry professionals, and creating opportunities for networking and real-world projects. As a result, ed techs like Great Learning are boasting an over 90 percent course completion rate.

Additionally, ed techs are crucial because they offer unprecedented access to world-class courses from top faculty to a much more diverse and broad audience. Their variety of offerings are essential in a world where education is highly valued, but traditional schooling is limited and costly. College tuition alone can range from public in-state tuitions costing over $10K on average, to private tuitions costing over $38K on average. These excessive costs are one reason college students and working professionals are questioning whether traditional degrees are worth pursuing.

Ed techs not only grant access to world-renowned college institutions like MIT, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford School of Business among others, but also at a much more manageable cost and with a much more targeted course offering. Further, they offer flexible programming so working students and professionals can incorporate their education into their busy schedules.

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See who's who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (Updated Aug. 23, 2022).

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