A view from within the edtech industry.
GUEST COLUMN | by Orly Fuhrman
The Internet is a digital playground for education and learning. Over the last few years, we’ve seen edtech startups climb the ladder of the venture capitalist portfolio to the point where some brands are now widely recognized and are beginning to change the way people engage with education. As desktops become more affordable and smartphone and tablet devices become the norm, the education market has grown to include students and teachers who actively participate in a variety of edtech platforms, both in and outside of the classroom.
This willingness of investors to fund edtech ventures has also seen a 180-degree shift in the industry, particularly since we introduced our own unique style of digital learning just a few short years ago. In the past, from a VC’s perspective, the market was too hard to break into because ventures required connections with schools, higher learning institutions, education boards, and solid monetization strategy. The pressure to slot into established teaching parameters is what brought about the initial change from companies like Coursera and Khan Academy, whose founders decided to tackle digital education in their own way. Now, ventures across the edtech spectrum — whether they are language platforms, personal dictionaries, translation apps, or applications that can be integrated into the classroom — see billions of dollars in investment each year.
As with any other industry, edtech continues to evolve. But through our own experience as an edtech startup, we see that global education needs a massive shift.
As with any other industry, edtech continues to evolve. But through our own experience as an edtech startup, we see that global education needs a massive shift in its structure to cater to a growing population that now has more access to information than previous generations. Students today no longer need to be restricted to rigid curriculums; rather, they require a more personalized medium to effectively take in information.
The Changing Ways of Edtech Platforms
Before adaptive platforms were the norm, digital content was king for most edtech ventures, especially for language teaching programs. Solutions that offered a “new” way of learning a language were concerned mainly with bringing existing content online, creating new digital content and structuring lesson plans—all of which took no account of the individual skill level or interests of the student. Although this approach made it easy for educators to create content and students to access it, it proved hard to get learners to actively engage with online lessons.
Now the industry is shifting again and turning away from content creation. While it is still important to have quality content, it is not the entire focus of the learning process. Rather, the importance lies in an educational immersion method that matches readily available content with the exact needs and interests of the student. This focus on customization has been the biggest shift in the industry. It is not just about sending students into the web equipped with a dictionary and Google Translate. It is about contextualizing real world content — available for almost every language — and applying it effectively to a new way of learning.
New digital devices — such as tablets and smartphones — that change the way students interact with language lessons have complemented this shift in edtech. Now it is easier for platforms to combine games with content and intuitive interfaces to engage their audience and, in so doing, match their style of learning with something they are actually interested in.
Lingua.ly has grown from a few thousand to over half a million users over the past year. It has evolved from being just a Chrome extension to a cross-platform app. The real power and opportunity in edtech startups lies in the possibility of ubiquity across portable devices: a user can sync to the cloud, refer to content and learn from it no matter where they are. For language platforms, mobile apps can now pro-actively remind users of words, prompt them to read articles in another language, or tell them exactly how to pronounce a word.
Applying Crowd-Sourced Content
A key trend within edtech is the shift towards a crowd-sourced means of digital content generation, including videos and sound bites. There are already a number of edtech language sites that enable people from around the world to teach other people pronunciation, commonly used words and phrases from their own countries. Simple yet effective platforms include Tatoeba, which is a database of useful sentences in many languages, and Forvo, which lets anyone hear exactly how words are pronounced in 325 languages.
As a language startup, we promote the expansion of educational content and the methods used to teach it. By leveraging tech and constantly applying new ideas for learning and engagement, edtech can provide a different perspective on the type of content that is taught and can personalize the experience, while learning from users around the world about what does and doesn’t work.
Orly Fuhrman is the co-founder of Lingua.ly, a digital immersion platform that utilizes readily available news content from across the web to teach students of all proficiency levels a new language. The cloud-synced solution is available for desktop and mobile devices and supports 18+ dictionary languages.