Perspective on student debt, edtech investment, and procuring the right people.

GUEST COLUMN | by Martin Chikilian

As student debt balloons and school models become increasingly outdated, calls for greater technological innovation in education continue to grow.

While education has proven far more resistant to technology-driven change than have other industries, demand for such change has increased from both inside and outside the education space.

As a result

Numerous edtech initiatives have emerged as a result, and capital has flowed into edtech at an unprecedented rate.

According to a report from Metaari, an analysis firm that tracks advanced learning technology, venture capital investment in education technology climbed to over $9.5 billion in 2017, up 30 percent from 2016.

“According to a report from Metaari, an analysis firm that tracks advanced learning technology, venture capital investment in education technology climbed to over $9.5 billion in 2017, up 30 percent from 2016.”

Many have also written about the need for technological innovation in education.

However, one area of this discussion that has not been addressed stands as a key underlying driver: Talent.

Let’s talk about talent

Indeed, with a greater appetite for experimentation and desire for technological disruption, so too has there been a growing need for top technical talent in all corners of the education space, from startups to colleges and universities.

Without high caliber talent, innovation happens at a far slower pace at best, and may not happen at all.

Despite high demand, such talent remains in short supply, particularly at the highest levels of technical skill.

After all, the difference between a good engineer and a truly excellent engineer can be night and day when it comes to developing a great product in a timely manner.

Furthermore, edtech companies and institutions of higher learning face fierce competition in attracting this talent, as tech giants with virtually unlimited resources and benefits often look for the same scarce, high-value skill sets.

27 A.I. companies and more

Apple and Google, for example, have acquired a combined 27 artificial intelligence companies since 2010 — investments equating to billions of dollars.

In another explicit recognition of the importance of elite talent in edtech, Google has also launched a number of its own education initiatives, releasing multiple programs to teach engineers about artificial intelligence and machine learning, including a “machine learning crash course,” numerous formal AI workshops, and more.

With tech giants willing to devote billions of dollars to acquiring and nurturing top engineering talent in areas crucial to the future of education, smaller edtech startups and universities with relatively limited resources face steep competition.

How to succeed in this landscape

To succeed in a difficult talent acquisition landscape, it behooves edtech companies and institutions of higher learning to look to freelance — rather than full-time — engineers and designers.

Doing so dramatically expands the pool of talent to choose from without necessarily sacrificing quality.

Many edtech companies, colleges, and universities have already reaped the benefits of freelance talent.

Kristopher Hardy, Director of Web and Digital Marketing at Messiah College, has relied on freelance engineers to build Messiah College’s interactive campus map, campaign landing pages, a new program listing page, and portions of the college’s website.

Hardy suggests that colleges and universities, in particular, stand to benefit from such talent due to the nature of the academic calendar.

Needing flexible and reliable solutions

“Our projects and project loads shift very rapidly due to the seasonal environment in higher ed,” Hardy says. “This created a need for a flexible and most importantly a reliable solution for contracted development work.”

Others in edtech have also utilized elite freelance talent in developing products.

Jim Reynolds, Vice President of Product Development at LiveSchool, which has created an application allowing teachers to track student behavior, says that hiring remote talent enabled him to push a key initiative forward without significant delays.

“LiveSchool had a complex, high-priority data project which required a difficult-to-find developer with some special skill sets,” Reynolds says. “[With a freelance engineer], we were able to get the project underway quickly without a lot of time wasted searching for the right person to help us spearhead the project.”

Freelance engineers and designers also recognize the value they bring to the table.

Razvan Burciu, a freelance creative director and product designer, says there is a unique responsibility that comes with working in edtech specifically.

“Generally, a company’s success is directly correlated with their choice of talent,” Burciu says. “Working in edtech comes with a huge amount of responsibility since you are involved in creating a better future. One piece of advice for edtech companies: Be sure to find talent that can deliver great work, while making sure vision alignment exists and persists.”

As time goes on

As time goes on, technological innovation will only become more critical in the education space.

Solution providers exist that have dedicated significant resources to supplying institutions of higher learning and edtech companies with the elite talent necessary to create world-class products and experiences.

Only through attracting and cultivating this talent will some of the most pressing problems in education, such as curriculum design, student debt, and learning management be solved.

Martin Chikilian is VP Talent Operations at Toptal, a global network of the top 3% of on-demand talent in technology, design, finance, blockchain, and education/edtech. Responsible for ensuring that clients get the right talent quickly and that all engagements are successful, he draws on his experience as a long-time engineer and system administrator (HP Enterprise Services, IBM Global Services, and now Toptal) to lead teams of hundreds of core domain experts in finding, screening, and matching top talent to clients, according to their needs. He studied Software Engineering at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba.