The article below is from our BRIEFINGS newsletter of 17 March 2020
As universities across the US, Europe and Asia cancel in-person classes in an effort to contain the spread of coronavirus, traditional classrooms are adopting virtual classrooms—which could jumpstart the long-term adoption of remote learning. We sat down with Goldman Sachs’ Adam Nordin, who covers the educational technology sector for the Investment Banking Division, and shared his thoughts on one of the fastest-growing segments in higher education.
As a growing number of schools and students turn to online learning, what is the impact for the sector?
Adam Nordin: COVID-19 could sharply accelerate the adoption of online learning in higher education. Historically, online learning in universities was largely a function of self-selection. At first, many institutions were apprehensive about introducing fully online classes, believing the experience would be substandard and learning outcomes would decline. Over time, however, technologies improved and students demanded a more integrated online experience to match their preferred methods of communicating. As a result, more schools opted for a hybrid approach—either by enhancing the classroom experience with online learning or offering online courses that ran in parallel to the traditional campus experience and were managed by third parties. This is the first time many universities will have to rely on a fully online experience for their undergraduate population. Doing so could dramatically accelerate the long-term acceptance of online learning.
How has the online learning market evolved?
Adam Nordin: With scarce bandwidth and rudimentary data compression, early online lessons typically lacked live, synchronous interactions. Still, these solutions enabled participants to transcend geography and shift time, opening up a significant market for working adults and others who could not accommodate a traditional campus experience. Today, online learning can offer live virtual classrooms—aided by ample bandwidth and advanced cloud-based collaboration technologies— that rival, or even exceed, an in-class experience. And since many students prefer the flexibility and feel of a technology-based experience, they’re pushing their institutions to embrace it. Future innovation through AR/VR will enable students in classrooms and in online settings to collaborate in virtual environments. Add in your own personal avatar and an interesting setting—like learning about gravity while on the moon—and you have an environment with dramatically amplified engagement and retention.
How are companies and investors approaching online learning and the edtech sector more broadly?
Adam Nordin: We’ve seen strong capital flows into this sector over the last three to five years. Not only are the edtech technologies more advanced, but the structural barriers to adoption are falling. Previously, investors looked at edtech as a niche industry. Today, investors are approaching edtech as an asset allocation category. We’re also seeing more interest from long-term investors, such as pensions and sovereign wealth funds, as well as family offices, all of whom appreciate the long-term secular drivers for the space.
Are there other drivers for a more virtual experience operating in parallel?
Adam Nordin: First, younger students expect a more digital experience and are increasingly judging their university choices on this factor. Second, most colleges are under mounting fiscal strains, the result of 10 years of declining net tuition (after grants and scholarships). So capital efficient solutions that can accommodate students and drive incremental tuition revenues without requiring costly physical infrastructure are more valuable than ever. It’s not just the Provost that weighs in on the debate of online versus traditional higher education—the CFO and President are now involved. Finally, given that collaboration technologies in the corporate sector have also advanced significantly, we’re likely to see higher education institutions adopt many of these enterprise-level technologies, in the same way we saw the healthcare industry adopt software and data analytics.
What technologies are increasing the efficacy of the online learning experience?
Adam Nordin: In short, data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence are enabling both students and teachers to gain a more customized and enriching experience. Learning assessments can detail precisely how, why and on what dimensions a student needs to focus to succeed. Professors hosting live-streaming classes have rich, personalized data that show each student’s entire performance profile, complete with their challenges and focus areas, enabling them to drive an individualized discussion with every student.
Is it possible for online learning to replace in-person classes?
Adam Nordin: There will always be a place for the traditional campus experience, but online learning is here to stay. Remember that what we used to call the “non-traditional student” (i.e., over 25 years old, a working adult, sometimes a single parent) is rapidly becoming the majority. As a result, we are also evolving how we use higher education to remain competitive. Learning will be a continuum, and technology will enable us to access it in smaller, more flexible and more relevant chunks.