Edtech’s Next Mission: Go Everywhere

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This past week, edtech entrepreneurs, investors and analysts congregated at ASU+GSV, a yearly global edtech conference, to reflect on the sector’s newfound spotlight after the massive jolt of COVID-19. Beyond masked excitement to finally meet Twitter friends in real life, signs of bullishness were everywhere.

A digital-first talent development platform for interns that once didn’t have product-market fit won the startup cup. My panels were all with newly minted startup unicorns. And everyone didn’t know everyone, a feat that shows how the conference went from a niche industry meetup to a broader event for a new generation of founders.

My takeaway from the entire week, though, was more than edtech is booming (which, it is). Instead, I felt like the general sentiment at the conference — even with polite disagreement — was that the sector getting spotlighted means it finally has the buy-in to go everywhere.

In other words, edtech is at a point where it doesn’t need to just rely on itself to accomplish its goals. It can operate outside of a silo, which feels like the needed follow-up to the sector’s 2020.

For example, if a platform brings fun UX to instruction online but doesn’t take into account how that move impacts childcare, mental health and the digital divide, the impact of its savvy solution will be immediately limited. Consolidation, which will continue to play out due to freshly minted unicorns, won’t just be edtech scooping up edtech, but you may see companies begin to launch products that take into account the full human experience.

BetterUp, a reskilling and coaching platform for employees before and beyond the C-suite, is signaling that it’s already happening. The edtech company announced that it is diving more into behavioral health with new products.

Operating beyond edtech insiders is the difference between creating products that reinforce the status quo and inventing ones that question the status quo on its head. Fiveable, a virtual space for high schoolers to study and express themselves, has turned dozens of its users into interns. The feedback loop there is brutal — high schoolers are harsh — but means that the people making decisions for them finally aren’t adults talking to adults.

Of course, the lack of training wheels means that it’s easier for startups to go rogue. As the pandemic unevenly plays out, remote school may become the normal once again. Companies have to be massively focused, and humble, about their reach. Reflection will be important in what distinguishes a Course Hero from a Codecademy to a Coursera — and when it makes sense to leave their own lane.

It was a refreshing, surreal week talking to the people behind the dollars and ideas of our future educational landscape. The jolt of the pandemic highlighted the inequities and work left to be done.

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