Education Leaders Could Learn Sideways From Sectors Further Ahead

First published in Forbes Leadership July 24, 2017. Most leaders never learn that predictive modeling is a false prophet in fast-changing industries, the siren that lulls them to sleep even as their companies smash on the rocks of outdated assumptions.

But for the few willing to kick addiction to false certainties and grapple with the many rich qualitative approaches to anticipating change, one of the best is “learning sideways,” that is, absorbing the shape and pace of change from analogous industries which are further down the road.

A great example of this is offered by Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet, co-founder of the annual EdTechXEurope education innovation conference, who was previously Head of Strategy, Business Development and Ventures for Time Warner, EMEA

In an interview with forbes.com he expanded on how media-entertainment industry evolution is helpful in understanding what’s coming next in the education sector, and how fast.

For example, he says, “five years ago when people were talking about MOOCs, (Massive Open Online Courses) there was a lot of criticism: ‘content is poor, student engagement is low, it’s for developing countries because they can’t access good universities…’”

“I remember at the time, coming from the media industry, that’s exactly what people had been saying when YouTube came out: ‘It’s poor content in the TV industry, it will never rate, it will never work.’”

As with YouTube so with MOOCs, the content quality may be variable, but access is ubiquitous. Therein a groundswell of adoption. And there goes the industry neighborhood.

Says Vedrenne-Cloquet: “In fact, MOOCs were a formidable marketing platform for digital education, because suddenly mass populations were accessing digital education. It was a turning point.”

Coursera and EdX are now surpassing even Oxford and Cambridge in terms of internet search, he says.

Coursera vs Oxford Cambridge

Internet searches, Coursera vs. Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Pic: EdTechXEurope

“Everything media executives didn’t see coming in terms of what was happening and how to react to it, the same is now happening in education, ” says Vedrenne-Cloquet.

“When digization starts, that creates a profusion of new forms of content, which creates confusion because the customer is a bit lost and established providers are losing market share.

“So there is suddenly a need for more curation, personalization, and customization. This is where ‘platforms’ come in, to organize and curate that content.

You suddenly have a shift of power between traditional content providers or publishers, and platforms which are aggregators and distributors.

“These aggregators use ‘programatic curation’ that is adaptive learning software that tailors content to the audiences, and ‘social curation,’ leveraging social communities and social networks, to recommend and distribute content,” he says.

This is what happened in the music industry (Spotify), in the TV industry (YouTube and Netflix), and the publishing business (Amazon). Now in education this is becoming visible with the mainstreaming of the Coursera and EdX platforms.

Overall, the education industry’s digital vortex has been relatively slow in coming compared with other tech-disrupted industries because significant positions held by large institutions, government bodies, and national budgets have protected incumbents from rapid consumer-choice adoption.

The brand protection of long-established universities has also so far been a frictional force in consumer adoption of alternatives.

But, again following the media and publishing industry precedents, Vedrenne-Cloquet suggests established university and executive education providers will likewise fall to winner-take-all platforms, and will be effectively forced to throw in their lot with them.

EdTechXEurope EdTech China

EdTech investment in China already dwarfs rest of world. Pic: EdTechXEurope

Moreover, the brand protection that Western education institutions have enjoyed in Asia and the Middle East is fast dissipating. Homegrown options are gaining legitimacy, not least on the back of massive international investment.

For example, China has 9,500 EdTech companies and is attracting 30-40% of global education investor money. Vedrenne-Cloquet is partner at Ibis Capital, which invests in the region.

Speaking to global opportunity, the annual EdTechXEurope conference and education industry event week in London has in five short years established pre-eminence in the worldwide EdTech calendar, and is itself globalizing. EdTechAsia takes place in Singapore in October, and new conferences are planned in Africa (Cape Town) and South America (Buenos Aires) in 2018.