New emergency funding promises much-needed internet access to millions of Brazilian students and teachers
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Edtech giants are poised for ascension

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” per Plato’s proverb. What does the future hold as the world finally embraces edtech and remote learning, accelerated by the global pandemic and new infusions of private capital after more than a decade of slow growth and investor interest?

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Educators and administrators often joke that change happens at a glacial pace in the education world, and some might say the edtech industry as a whole was a sleeping giant before COVID-19 shook things up. Now that the edtech giant is fully awake, more well-funded and roaring to life after years of listless growth, the time is ripe to examine this sector that is so crucial to the planet’s future. 

Against the backdrop of pandemic-related school closures and mandatory lockdowns around the globe, there’s been an abrupt pivot to remote and hybrid learning. Edtech investments increased by 146% in 2020, according to a report by the Association for Private Capital Investment in Latin America  (LAVCA) published in March. During the first six months of 2021, U.S.-based education technology companies raised more than $3.2 billion in investment capital, a figure that surpasses the $2.2 billion total that EdSurge reported for all of 2020. 

It’s no surprise that smart investors see dollar signs attached to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to digitally transform education. At the same time, edtech leaders and scrappy startups are eager to create more solutions and tools that can serve learners of all ages – from kids working in virtual and hybrid classrooms to adults who want to learn everything from how to cook to how to code.

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Though it may not have made headlines, Latin America has been quietly growing into a hub of edtech innovation for almost 10 years, said Fernando Valenzuela, former edtech executive and founder of the Global Impact EdTech Alliance (G.I.E.A.) headquartered in Mexico City.

Compared to the global leaders, the Latin American edtech startup space is still fragmented and small, but it is already the fourth-largest market and has grown at an annual rate of 14% since 2013. We now have a very strong ecosystem here with about 150 or so recognized edtechs in the region.

Fernando Valenzuela, founder of the Global Impact Edtech Alliance

The adoption of remote learning and edtech solutions has accelerated out of sheer necessity during the pandemic, compressing “three to five years of normal technology adoption into about 12 months, with this disruption driving the sector to think completely differently about the way the world learns,” said Thiago Payva, vice president of education at HolonIQ, a market-intelligence firm that monitors the global education and edtech markets.

The economic case for embracing edtech

The edtech sector has a particularly critical role to play in Latin America, where systemic education gaps and limited resources directly impact both lives and livelihoods – especially those living in poor, rural and indigenous communities. 

According to the World Bank, about 120 million school-age children in Latin America and the Caribbean had already lost or were at risk of losing a full academic year as of this February, resulting in an estimated 7.6 million more “learning poor” primary education school-age children in the region.

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Those unexpected learning losses will have long-lasting ripple effects, and experts say the pandemic could lead to an entire generation of “lost children” who simply drop out of school and never return to the classroom.

“This is the worst educational crisis ever seen, and we are worried that there could be serious and lasting consequences for a whole generation,” said Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, World Bank’s vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean. 

The economic impacts of pandemic-related job losses are already being deeply felt across the region. During this same period, the World Bank estimates that Latin America experienced a 7% economic contraction, and 30 million people became unemployed or were left out of the labor market. Gender, education, connectivity, and experience played a huge role in determining how a person fared.  

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Not surprisingly, unskilled and informal workers, women, and those without internet access at home have suffered the most. By May 2020, two months into the pandemic, 20% of women had left the workforce because their childcare and homeschooling responsibilities kept them from working outside the home. And one in four workers with only a primary education lost their jobs – further underscoring the inequality that exists between those who have access to quality education and those without.

Solving for success with upskilling and reskilling 

As demand for highly skilled workers across LatAm continues to rise, and job seekers look for ways to better themselves or change careers, edtechs are responding with solutions aimed at helping people build the skills they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive digital economy. 

Traditional higher education institutions have been slow to adjust their curriculums to address many technology-related skills gaps. This has left the door wide open for upskilling and reskilling to become a viable alternative to pursuing a college degree.  

Rather than attending an expensive college or university program, students can now engage with thousands of on-demand courses at their own pace and receive professional certifications for in-demand fields such as coding, medical billing, HVAC and many more, said Renzo Casapia, managing director of Latin American markets at Cengage Group, a global edtech company that’s been offering digital coursework and an evolving suite of online learning solutions for more than 20 years. The company has over 100 years of history serving the education market.

Renzo Casapia, managing director of Latin American markets at Cengage. Photo: Courtesy

“Last year, we saw a 60% increase in student interest in career training and skills advancement offerings through our ed2go brand. As a result, we’ve seen a more than 40% increase in ed2go revenue in our previous fiscal year,” he said. Cengage Unlimited eTextbook subscription services and several other tools are available in the region, but Ed2Go is not available for Latin American students just yet.

Upskilling doesn’t just benefit employers and career changers – it’s a “rising tide that raises all boats.” Global adoption and investment in upskilling and reskilling of workers could add at least $6.5 trillion to global GDP, create 5.3 million (net) new jobs by 2030, and help develop more inclusive and sustainable economies worldwide, according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum.

The potential win-win scenario of reskilling and upskilling is attracting interest and big bucks from investors

Recent examples in LatAm include Argentina-based Coderhouse, which raised a $13.5 million Series A round to help expand its web app that offers live online courses in programming, design, data, online marketing and more. Crehana, a Peruvian edtech startup that bills itself as a “one-stop-shop for employers to retrain their employees” recently raised $70 million – Latin America’s largest Series B round for an edtech company – led by General Atlantic.

Transforming classroom learning with edtech

While there are many innovations to get excited about in edtech, when it comes to deploying them in traditional classroom settings, experts agree that startups and global players need to meet schools and educators where they are. 

Every country in LatAm is at a different stage of connectivity, internet access, infrastructure and education development. While private institutions and more affluent communities may be ready to implement some of edtech’s fancier bells and whistles, others are still mastering the basics of teaching and learning with remote and digital content. 

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“We’re always looking for ways to reach new people and markets, and we are happy to define ourselves and adapt to what customers want. There are some markets in Latin America like Mexico that still buy a good portion of our content in print, especially in the public sector. So even though we have a whole platform of digital tools, we don’t want to impose digital where it doesn’t make sense for institutions or for customers,” Cengage’s Casapia said.

Like it or not, budgets and bureaucracy play a significant role in what’s possible at the local level. Private schools generally have more resources and technology infrastructure to work with than public schools, and moving the edtech needle at the K-12 level – where it would have the most impact – is much more challenging to scale.

“More regulation exists in the lower grades, which makes it difficult for any disruption or transformation to happen. As you move up to secondary level, then university level, and then corporate level you find that those technologies, practices and investments are able to scale successfully because they are less regulated and more flexible to move,” G.I.E.A.’s Valenzuela explained.

Fernando Valenzuela, former edtech executive and founder of the Global Impact EdTech Alliance. Photo: Courtesy

Valenzuela says that more public-private edtech collaborations, data sharing, and government-backed initiatives are critical to achieving more education equity and creating transformational change.  

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“It’s a tough job that requires vision, collaboration, different perspectives, and integrating what already exists with the best cases for learning. Our organization is very active in identifying and connecting different people and perspectives around this idea of moving from a country-by-country approach to more regional edtech collaboration. We can learn from what’s working in Uruguay and bring those best practices to Colombia, and what we’re learning in Colombia can be brought to Mexico, and so on. For example, Colombia recently launched a program where data is being analyzed and used for decision-making in the reopening of schools and in teachers’ leadership training. This use of data is the kind of practice that every single country would benefit from,” Valenzuela said.

The future is data analysis that is AI-driven

For those institutions fortunate enough to have the money and means to implement enterprise-level edtech solutions like learning management systems (LMS) and other types of digital content platforms, a treasure trove of actionable user data awaits for faculty, administrators and students. 

“With this data, we’re now able to say to the teachers: ‘Look at how your students are making second and third attempts on this math problem. Look at how many students actually go to the book versus watching the video. Look at how they don’t solve problems during the day and are only doing their exercises at night. Did the student really read the assignment before doing the work?’ You’re no longer guessing. All of these insights can be used to adapt your content approach and improve student success,” said Casapia. 

Increased digital penetration and the proliferation of smart devices are also making artificial intelligence (AI) solutions more accessible to teachers and learners. Global Market Insights estimates that the market valuation for AI in education will surpass $20 billion by 2027

AI-based technologies have a huge potential in the education sector, particularly those linked to adaptive and personalized learning, self-service (chatbots) or hybrid classroom management. Having said that, most Latin American universities are still catching up with more basic infrastructure needs, implementation of LMS and integration of content.

Renzo Casapia, managing director of Latin American markets at Cengage

There are many benefits to using AI in the digital classroom, not the least of which is its ability to recognize patterns, develop predictive models and collect unbiased feedback. The biggest game-changer, however, is in facilitating individualized instruction and supporting a more informed and intentional learning process.

Traditional classroom education typically takes a one-size-fits-all approach, even though one way of teaching may not work for every child. AI can potentially transform the learning process from one that focuses on the rote delivery and consumption of content, to one that’s driven by a continuous feedback loop that helps educators better understand their students so they can tailor lessons, exams, and content to individual students’ needs. 

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Brazil is already positioning itself to cash in on the global demand for more AI technology. In April of this year, the Brazilian government published an artificial intelligence (AI) strategy to help establish ethical boundaries and guide research, governance, innovation and the development of related curriculum and technologies – including initiatives needed to improve the pipeline of talent to support more AI innovation. This is definitely another hot trend to watch moving into 2022.

Education should be viewed as a basic human right, and edtech has a pivotal role to play in making high-quality education accessible to all. As edtech adoption continues across LatAm and the rest of the world, fewer students will be left behind by educational systems that don’t serve them, and educators will have the tools they need to create more effective, individualized learning plans for their students.