Using technology to improve education isn’t as easy as handing every child an iPad. A new start-up incubator aims to solve these problems – and get Switzerland’s foot in the door of the so-called edtech market.
Addressing the crowd at the launch of the Swiss Federal Institute Technology Lausanne (EPFL)’s EdTech Colliderexternal link, Lavinia Jacobs of the Jacobs Foundationexternal link for child and youth development did not immediately invoke science, or her organisation’s co-funding of the new centre. Instead, she asked the audience to recall the 1985 American sci-fi classic Back to the Future, and its teenaged protagonist, Marty McFly, who is sent to the year 1955 in a time machine.
“Unfortunately, the plot didn’t send Marty into a school classroom, but if it had, he would have found almost nothing different compared to 30 years later – or now, 60 years,” Jacobs said.
“Today, education is probably the most innovation-resisting area of public policy.”
With only an estimated 2% of the $5 trillion global education marketexternal link currently digitised, education technology – aka edtech – does seem to represent a lot of untapped potential for educators and investors, particularly in Switzerland.
“I think it takes about 100 years or more to get fundamental reforms done [in education]. One reason for that is that education is more difficult than rocket science, because you've got dozens of variables – and humans,” Daniel Schneiderexternal link, a professor of educational technology at the University of Geneva, tells swissinfo.ch.
Pierre Dillenbourg, president of the EdTech Collider, says that most educators reproduce what they themselves have been taught, and new technologies can be especially challenging to integrate into a classroom setting.
“If you are a schoolteacher with 25 kids and each receives an iPad, your life becomes very difficult, because you have 25 kids with something that is more interesting than you. It’s a big effort to reorganise a classroom; I think we have to design better tools,” he tells swissinfo.ch.
Despite this inertia, educational technology appears to be gaining momentum. Worth some $135 billion (CHF134 billion) in 2016 according to French venture capital firm Serena Capital, the global edtech market is expected to grow 17% annually and reach $252 billion by 2020external link. Last year, TechCrunchexternal link magazine called it “the next fintech [financial technology]…poised to be the biggest and possibly most profitable digitalised sector yet.”
As a research university already home to one of Europe’s most successful MOOCexternal link programmes, EPFL seems like a natural fit for the cradle of Swiss edtech.
Officially opened on April 27, the 300 square-metre EdTech Collider is located in EPFL’s Innovation Park, and provides co-working space for over 30 start-ups dedicated to developing digital tools related to elementary, secondary, higher, and continuing education.
“Excellence in education cannot ignore that the world has been totally set upside down by the digital revolution,” said EPFL president Martin Vetterli in his address at the Collider’s launch. “If our children are not conversant in digital technology, I am not sure we will be able to embrace the fourth industrial revolutionexternal link.”
A ‘difficult’ market
The start-ups at the Collider are developing a wide range of technologies – from apps to help students find tutors; to education modules that integrate robotics and virtual reality; to resources for teaching programming and computational thinking skills.
While some of the products under development are for universities, or for businesses to use in corporate training, others are intended for direct use by teachers, students, and even parents. Still others are focused on learning about learning, providing analytics services designed to interpret data and tailor education efforts.
The goal of the space is for these different groups to collide – literally: to bounce ideas off one another and collaborate, while at the same time raising their profiles.
“We want to give these small entities more visibility, both with respect to potential customers and investors,” Dillenbourg said in his address at the launch event.
In another talk, Philippe Hayat of Serena Capital said that such an incubator-style model is important for start-ups in the edtech sector, which need extra support to get off the ground.
“[Edtech] is a very difficult market,” Hayat told the crowd. “It uses machine learning and AI [artificial intelligence], virtual and augmented reality, gamification. And when the technology is complicated, we need to help companies grow as fast as possible.”
Incubator:external link A shared workspace for multiple groups of people who wish to turn a novel idea into a start-up. Incubators provide a place for these groups to develop their ideas, identify a target market, and create successful business models until they are ready to form their own companies.
Accelerator:external link A structured, limited-term programme designed to ‘accelerate’ an existing business and helping it expand to a larger scale, often through expert mentorship and training and/or investment.
There are also few successful edtech business models, he added, and marketing costs to win clients are high because many are not used to paying for e-learning tools.
Such challenges have contributed to edtech’s late start. Currently, there are about 2,000 companies in the sector, most of which are in the United States. The European presence is small and fragmented, but growing – with around EUR227 million (CHF247 million) invested in 2016, primarily in France and Germany.
Back and forth
Schneider points out that in addition to market hurdles, it can be difficult for start-ups to balance the pursuit of novel, game-changing ideas with the priorities of teachers and students.
“Educational technologies are sometimes driven by the interests of the people behind the start-ups, who are not necessarily interested in answering a burning question or filling an important need – they have their own agenda that either leads to successful innovation or failure,” says Schneider.
He says that edtech must be developed in a contextual manner that is sensitive to local needs, which is why the development of the edtech market in Switzerland is so important.
“Currently such an industry barely exists in Switzerland, so you’ve either got not-very qualified people offering services, or organisations that outsource to American companies. So, it's a good thing to have an industry here.”
Dillenbourg says that the EdTech Collider is an incubator, and not a lab, so research into educator needs, as well as other issues like data privacy, will be up to the individual Collider groups. But he says he supports what he calls the “ping pong” exchange of ideas between educators and developers.
"If a start-up works on their own technology and never goes to a school, they will fail,” he says.
In April 2016, the Swiss cabinet launched a Strategy for a Digital Switzerlandexternal link aimed at better integrating digital technologies into society and the economy. The list of action items includes the application of information and communication technology (ICT) tools and skills to education by the government and the cantons. According to the strategy document: “The anytime, anywhere availability of knowledge is leading to an adjustment of learning processes and changes in the roles of teachers and students. These changes should be taken into account at the level of the individual, the lesson, the school (or other place of learning) and education and research policy.”