TECHNATION200: Edtech UK, a new organisation set up to help accelerate the UK’s education technology sector, officially launches in October. It is created by the Education Foundation, a cross-party think-tank dedicated to education reform, technology and innovation. Chief executive Ian Fordham explains all to Toni Sekinah.
The UK education technology sector is worth an estimated £1bn – and is in many ways comparable to our more widely lauded fintech sector.
Put simply, edtech (the industry’s name for the growing vertical) is about changing the way lessons are delivered in the classroom, offering different ways to access the curriculum and online learning platforms. It is driven by educators and startups alike.
But the marriage of education and technology is no recent phenomenon. The UK has long been a pioneer of edtech and e-learning. The Open University effectively a pioneer of edtech by using the medium of TV to teach, was established back in 1969 and the first students were enrolled on its distance learning degree programmes in 1971.
But Ian Fordham, a former teacher and director of training and policy at different education charities, thinks now is the perfect time to scale up new technologies in the education sector.
He says: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but some plumbing issues in terms of capacity, skills and expertise need to be sorted quite quickly.”
Edtech UK is strategic body being set up by Fordham and Ty Goddard, who has advised the education departments of local authorities, to develop and accelerate the growth of the education technology sector in the UK by showcasing and supporting it.
“We felt there wasn’t a strategic body doing for edtech what Innovate Finance was doing for fintech so instead of waiting for someone else to do it, we set it up ourselves,” says Fordham. They launch the body in October.
Fordham says Edtech UK will be structured in a very similar way to Innovate Finance, the lobby group for tech-enabled businesses in the financial technology sector, by promoting, sharing and campaigning for a better business environment.
“We’ll have a number of members who are founding members and going forward we will have members who will be scale-up and growth organisations but we’re not going to exclude any body,” he explains.
While there will be an annual membership fee, early-stage startup members will be able to access all EdtechUK’s events for free.
Fordham has three main goals for Edtech UK. The first is to raise the visibility of the edtech sector so that more people know about its size, scale and the opportunities it can offer. “I think we’re going toe to toe with fintech in terms of the size of the sector,” he says.
Evidence suggests that he has a point. Of the 2,000 or so companies surveyed for the Tech City UK Tech Nation report, 4% were in edtech. Fintech, games and telecommunications also accounted for 4% each of the digital companies.
Edtech UK’s second aim will be to engage with educators so that schools and colleges will be in the best position to benefit from advances in edtech.
“A lot of edtech is done to institutions rather than for or with them so we need to create a bridge between those who need the solutions and those who are creating the apps and the software,” says Fordham.
Finally, the organisation exists to help close the investment gap. Fordham has seen a lot of edtech organisations secure social or angel investment and responds to concerns among innovators that it is hard to raise large amounts of money for an edtech business.
“Some startups may think this is just a social investment space, that this isn’t a real commercial scalable sector where you can actually make real money,” says Fordham – but he points out the acquisition of video tutorial platform Lynda by Linkedin for $1.5bn in April as evidence of the contrary.
“It has stimulated the edtech market and created a lot of interest in the sector,” he says.
Fordham points also to ClassDojo as an example of a successful edtech startup. The two British founders, who have since relocated to the US, raised more than $10m over four rounds.
“It being used by six million schools globally,” he says. “They are not teachers themselves but they wanted a way to reward good behaviour and improve the interaction between parents, teachers and students.”
ClassDojo is now used by every day by teachers in half of the schools in the US. Fordham sees the US as a place to take inspiration from in terms of edtech. “There are some really interesting clusters around New York and Boston. In Louisiana 4.0 Schools has been doing some really interesting work post-Hurricane Katrina.”
Fordham is also impressed by Toronto and the research and development models at the MindCET programme in Tel Aviv. MindCET brings together educators, entrepreneurs and researchers to create revolutionary educational technology.
To connect to those global innovators, last year the Fordham and Goddard launched the Global EdTech Awards through the Education Foundation and began to work with a range of partners in other countries. Those partners are MindCET, European edtech incubator the Open Education Challenge and Latin American edtech incubator InncubatED.
The Education Foundation itself was set up by Fordham and Goddard in 2011 as a cross-sector, cross-party schools think tank that focuses on education reform, technology and innovation.
Its mission is clear: to accelerate reform and innovation across the UK and help Britain create a world-class education system.
Fordham says that since launch, the Education Foundation has helped 500 organisations, run 20 events supporting entrepreneurs and institutions and held two education reform summits.
Speakers at the 2015 Education Reform Summit held in July had an impressive guest list, including the secretary of state for schools, the shadow secretary of state for education and the chair of the National Schools Teaching Council.
“It is vital to get policymakers, education leaders and technology people together in the same room talking about where the future of education and learning is going,” says Fordham.
A key issue raised at the summit was whether or not digital resources should replace textbooks in the classroom and at home.
In 2014 the Education Foundation partnered with the Great Tech Expedition, which saw 17 British companies including five edtech companies – including Gojimo and RefMe – visit the US for a seven-day trade mission.
One important project that the Education Foundation created, in 2013, was its Edtech Incubator, which focused teacher-led startups and formed partnerships with 10 other edtech accelerators around the world.
(Listen to TCi’s 2013 TechTalk on that initiative, and more, with Fordham, Code Club’s Clare Sutcliffe and Night Zookeeper’s Josh Davidson here).
The incubator no longer offers startup support – and its work is now being absorbed into Edtech UK.
With Edtech UK, Fordham is keen to learn lessons from other countries and other sectors. “There is only one chance to do this and you have to look at countries like Estonia who have been doing this for quite a while and learn lessons from people who have taken things up to scale,” he says.
With positive moves on the UK national curriculum to embed technology into teaching, the growth of coding for kids, and the inexorable rise of MOOCs, the arrival of Edtech UK is timely to say the least.
Fordham says that a critical challenge is to build up the confidence and skills of teachers – so often behind the digital natives that they teach – so that technology is embedded deeply into education.
“If it doesn’t work then people will just bypass the system,” he says. “There is a massive opportunity – but we need to work together to achieve it.”
Ian Fordham – CV
Chief executive, Edtech UK
Co-founder, The Education Foundation
Director, Edtech Incubator
Co-founder, Centre for School Design
Deputy director, British Council for School Environments.
PGCE, social studies and humanities, Manchester Metropolitan University
Sociology, social policy, education, psychology, University of Nottingham.