Ed-Tech Vendors Confront Sudden Opportunity and Risk

With the coronavirus outbreak forcing colleges to close campuses and move classes online, vendors face sudden upside. But the biggest beneficiaries are likely different in the long and short terms.

March 16, 2020
 
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As the new coronavirus outbreak prompted college after university to start shifting classes online -- either for a few weeks or for the remainder of the spring semester -- education technology companies lined up to say they could help.

Tech vendors promoting various free services for colleges or their employees included, in no particular order, communications provider Avaya, chat and video messaging provider Pronto, learning platform Top Hat, game-based learning platform Kahoot!, messaging and notifications service Raftr, online program manager Bisk, and publishing giant Wiley. Another publisher, Macmillan, said it was giving its customers free use of its online learning platforms through the end of spring.

It was a good time for others to launch services. The for-profit Foundry College, which focuses on adult education, started offering its learning management software Thursday as a managed service for other institutions to use. Massive open online course platform FutureLearn launched a new product offering unlimited access to short courses online.

Other big players got in on the action. Blackboard launched a self-service portal intended to cut the time it would take institutions to go from purchasing to deploying digital teaching. Online learning platform Coursera announced it will provide universities around the world affected by the coronavirus outbreak with free access to a catalog of courses from different university and industry players. Its competitor, 2U, was planning a “skinny bundle” of products to be offered to customers on a non-revenue-share basis, said Chip Paucek, CEO of the education-technology company.

Clearly, vendors sense demand in the market. Those that have already built out their technology infrastructure likely see the prospect of offering some services for free -- or tweaking them to meet the demands of the moment -- as delivering large potential upside at little marginal cost.

And that upside could be important in an ed-tech space, where many players have been under pressure because the rate of growth in online enrollments had slowed.

But the sudden deluge of students rushing online in short order isn’t likely to lift all boats equally. The service providers that benefit from short-term demand aren’t necessarily the same ones that would be buoyed by any long-term boost to online learning.

For the next two or three weeks, many colleges and universities that don’t have extensive experience teaching online are going to be operating in emergency, all-hands-on-deck mode, experts said. For many, that will mean MacGyvering together solutions like classes held by video chat and assignments turned in via email.

“You’re seeing much more of Zoom and Microsoft Teams,” said Phil Hill, a partner at MindWires Consulting and publisher of the blog Phil on Ed Tech. “People are essentially saying, ‘I want to replicate my live lecture online. Let’s do it. Let’s just not think about it.’”

That’s probably appropriate in many cases, Hill said. He added a couple of caveats: disadvantaged groups may be served poorly by a mishmash of solutions that don’t take their needs into account. And local support units should be giving advice to faculty members on how to make the transition without significant errors.

In addition to email and online video offerings, many institutions moving online quickly already have learning management software that can help in the short term, said Brett Knoblauch, a senior research analyst who covers ed-tech companies at Berenberg Capital Markets. The company disclosed before Knoblauch was interviewed that it is making a market in 2U and Pluralsight.

“I think universities will be kind of able to get by off of that,” Knoblauch said. “I don’t think that’s a long-term solution.”

Over the long term, institutions are likely to need to have contingency plans that will benefit online program managers offering bundles of services, Knoblauch said. Even if they don’t decide to move more classes online, many are likely to make sure they’re able to do so quickly in the future -- which likely means more investment in more comprehensive technology.

A wide spectrum of activity is the most likely outcome, according to Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of the online learning platform Coursera. Some universities will likely go all in and move whole programs online. Others will put most but not all courses online. Of those that take advantage of Coursera's near-term offer, he said, some will adopt it on a major scale, but most will not. And some courses probably can’t be moved online -- providers don’t have an answer for every individual circumstance.

It’s possible that spectrum of outcomes still increases demand for ed-tech services. Whether online program managers are the vendors who rise to meet demand remains an open question.

“On the OPM side, it’s an opportunity, but it’s not a done deal,” Hill said. “Even though the OPM market has broadened out to include fee-for-service and other offerings, the core of it -- the heart of that market -- has been marketing and advertising, recruitment, to find different student groups for fully online programs.”

Operational support to move institutions online has been largely a secondary offering for OPMs, Hill said.

Those with strategic insight and a willingness to invest might be able to redefine the market, he added. But vendors seen as not addressing current needs could be in for some pain.

Meanwhile, another fraught question looms: How does the short-term mass migration of students online affect public perception of ed-tech vendors and online learning more generally?

Many vendors genuinely want to help in a time of need when they offer services for free or try to roll out new solutions to meet the current challenge, experts agreed. The rush to pitch in during a time of need could help in Washington, as Congress has been turning up the heat on OPMs.

“It builds enormous goodwill,” said Trace Urdan, managing director at Tyton Partners. “It’s going to help enormously in the upcoming fights in the Senate over whether OPMs are good or bad.”

The fact remains, though, that the companies also stand to benefit themselves. It can be risky to appear too eager to help, Hill said. And if any vendors offer free or cheap services that have strings attached, they could be risking their reputations.

Generally, however, being available in a time of need “softens the ground” for vendors trying to break in with new customers, Urdan said.

Simply put, tremendous value exists in making inroads in a U.S. higher education sector where suspicion of for-profit companies runs rampant. The more that institutions and those who work for them are comfortable with vendors, the less likely they are to be hostile to the idea of signing a long-term deal and offering more online educational offerings.

“Anything -- everything -- that makes schools more comfortable with doing this is great PR and marketing,” Urdan said. “The only question is the technical aspect.”

The technical aspect may be the biggest question about how much this online migration will be opportunity for vendors and how much it will be risk.

Concern runs high in some corners that institutions rushing online won’t do it well.

“As with all things, circumstances matter,” wrote Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, in a recent post for Education Next. “At least for now, I’m not betting on this being the moment where online learning triumphs in a decisive or lasting way.”

Some hold out hope students and faculty members will grade on a curve. Even if solutions aren’t ideal for the next few weeks, they might be seen as adequate given the circumstances.

“I think you start with being real that this is not going to be perfect right out of the gate,” said John Baker, CEO of learning management software company D2L. “There are things we’re going to have to just do manually until things are perfectly integrated and set up and configured.”

Urdan put the question of public perception in stark terms.

“Is it going to build credibility for online?” he said. “Or are you just going to stamp an entire generation of students with the idea that online classes are crap?”

Over time, Urdan expects colleges and universities will find more sophisticated options to be increasingly attractive in the wake of the coronavirus-induced move online. That would be bundles of integrated services that have been tailored to take into account what does and does not work in online learning -- and not YouTube recordings combined with message boards.

But with such a wide range of offerings available in the market, he acknowledges uncertainty.

“From the vendors’ standpoint, it will be really interesting,” he said. “I guess we’re going to have to see how it plays out.”

-- Lindsay McKenzie and Doug Lederman contributed to this article.

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