Everything’s going digital, and that includes education. From homework management apps to virtual reality geometry lessons, there’s plenty on offer from companies competing for a slice of the sizeable global market for online learning.
Education technology (edtech) exports are worth £170m to the UK economy and the Department for Education (DfE) has unveiled plans to build “the best edtech ecosystem in the world”, with a new edtech strategy. It’s hoped powerful technologies will improve student learning and relieve teacher workload in the face of shrinking education budgets.
Yet, despite a majority female teaching workforce at school level, women are missing from senior edtech roles: a problem highlighted when the DfE recently announced an edtech leadership advisory group in which women from the edtech industry were equalled by men named Chris. That’s not even including group chair, Chris Holmes, and universities minister, Chris Skidmore, who works with the panel.
“Panels should represent the clients and users they serve. The workforce in schools is 70% female, and users of edtech will be 50:50 for students. Diversity must also be in the room when companies are making decisions, designing technology and thinking through strategy. That includes BAME representation,” says Jules Daulby, a literacy, inclusion and assistive technology specialist who co-founded grassroots education movements, WomenEd and WomenEdtech.
Leading the way for female edtech representation globally is Daphne Koller, a Stanford University professor and creator of online learning platform, Coursera. She founded Coursera in 2012 with friend and fellow educator, Andrew Ng, after delivering one of her classes online through video. Seven years and more than 40 million learners later, Coursera now belongs to an elite group of “unicorn” companies, that is, privately held tech companies valued at over $1bn.
“The traditional education system needs to move on,” says Melody Lang, who launched her own purpose-driven investment company in January 2019. An experienced educational researcher and adaptive learning developer, Lang is “driven by making things better”. Mental health, wellness, soft skills and lifelong learning are at the top of her agenda.
“I’d probably be more likely to invest in a founder with experience in education because they know the specific pain points”, says Lang, who invests in eight companies, six of which are female-founded.
Edtech’s first ever unicorn was also female-founded. Lynda was founded by Lynda Weinman, whose company was sold to LinkedIn for $1.5bn. It was an impressive exit by any measure, but particularly so in a male-dominated technology industry where women founders and co-founders get comparatively tiny proportions of investment funding.
“There are some amazing edtech innovations out there, but the key question is: ‘How would this work in the classroom?’” says UK primary school teacher and entrepreneur, Susie Seaton, who created Twinkl from a spare bedroom after work. Struggling for good resources online, she created her own centralised lesson library for teachers with her husband, Jonathan Seaton.
“Today we have more than 500 team members around the world, including at our offices in Sheffield, Manchester and Australia. We have more than 625,000 resources on our website, ranging from interactive presentations to applications that use augmented reality.”
Priya Lakhani, who recently signed a deal with the Belgian government to put her AI-powered learning platform into 700 new schools, says that two years’ teaching “gave me useful insights into some of the challenges facing educators and made me question the traditional model of education”.
With £6m funding and a 60-strong team behind her, Lakhani’s technology is now used “everywhere from leading British independent schools to Lebanese schools educating large numbers of Syrian refugees”.
Edtech is different to other technology sectors, says EdtechX CEO, Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet, because there are comparatively more female-led investment companies (such as GSV Labs and Educapital) where women make decisions about funding. He adds that “women have been historically more involved in education”, which may offer a competitive advantage for being “closer to the opportunities of innovation and disruption”.
Lang finds the edtech industry “very collaborative”, which may appeal to women. Her company doesn’t just invest in teacher-founded technology, but all her investments “have to be impact-led”. For example, Vivi Friedgut’s Blackbullion helps students build financial skills. Margaret McCabe’s Debate Mate, described by Bill Gates as “amazing”, improves social mobility in disadvantaged schools. Finland-based Kide Science, with three women co-founders, improves early science education through play.
Secondary English teacher-turned entrepreneur Siobhain Archer says she created the edtech firm Teachit “because it just made complete sense at the time. It was a response to a need I shared with colleagues.” Starting out as a communal cardboard box in the school photocopying room, the resource-sharing company “grew so quickly that our hosting company asked us to leave in 2001 because we used up all their bandwidth”.
“It’s vital to keep teachers at the heart of any successful edtech enterprise. Too often, the tech leads the process, which means tech for the sake of tech,” says Archer, whose company was eventually acquired by GCSE and A-level exam board, AQA.
“We knew it was important to start with what we knew worked in the classroom, rather than what the technology was capable of. Teachers are expert at knowing what will work.”