International Ed-Tech Opportunities, Challenges Focus of Business Forum

Associate Editor

New York, N.Y.

As countries around the world add technology to classrooms, digital providers are trying to establish footholds in a fast-evolving and increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Through its Education Business Forum, the Software & Information Industry Association offered an overview, and specific insights, into just how complex the global market has become.

Around the world, there are 1.5 billion students and teachers in K-12, and 5 percent of them—about 750 million—have mobile devices for personal computing, said Mike Fisher, associate director for Futuresource Consulting, a U.K.-based research firm that tracks the sale of such devices into education. By contrast, 40 percent of K-12 students in the United States will have mobile devices in school by the end of this year, Fisher said.

At this point, political forces are a “massive issue” fueling countries’ adoption and use of technology in education, he said.

The United Kingdom and Latin American countries have placed an emphasis on educating their students about technology. “In Latin America, they’re trying to develop an IT-literate service economy, and in the U.K., coding is a mandatory part of the curriculum from age 6,” Fisher said. Yet the rapid increase in the purchase of hardware in Latin America’s education systems has not been followed by a huge influx of software platforms.

“It’s been hardware first, learning outcomes second,” he said.

Overall interest in the United Kingdom adopting useful educational technology is growing, buoyed in a large part by government support. A British contingent attended the forum to talk about opportunities in the U.K.

“The government is very pro-business, very pro-digital economy,” said Ian Fordham, the CEO of Edtech UK, “and we’ve got a good four years before there’s a change of government.”

Companies interested in expanding beyond the United States are likely to find potential markets in the United Kingdom, Canada, Northern Europe and Australia, Fisher said. Demand from schools in those markets bears some similarity to what U.S. schools are asking for.

Conversely, Germany and Japan have been much more conservative in their take-up of ed-tech, he said, because of the importance placed on how their students perform on the PISA, or Program of International Student Assessment. They are concerned about adopting ed-tech that might negatively impact their PISA scores, Fisher said.

Education in China Gains Attention

The enormous Chinese K-12 market is expected to grow in the 2020s, after the Chinese government’s announcement in October that it would allow all couples to have two children instead of just one, as has been the mandate since 1979. The new policy will be adopted officially in March, the government said. 

Fisher highlighted major trends in China today. More than half of the world’s whiteboards—54 percent—are being sold there, he said. Rural schools are receiving a major investment from the government to increase their connectivity. And much ed-tech is sold directly to parents for their children’s self-paced learning, he said.

NetDragon Websoft, a Chinese company that bought Promethean World earlier this year, was a major sponsor of the Education Business Forum. Vincent Fung, the company’s Boston-based investment director, introduced the audience to his company and its reach.

Fung shared slides of the company’s Changle, China headquarters—designed to replicate a version of Star Trek’s Enterprise spaceship—and explained that 3,000 people work there and 2,000 live on its campus. The average employee age is 28, and Fung said, “we encourage our employees to think big.”

The company’s interest in education originates, he said, with the size of the market: there are 291 million students in preK to higher education in China, and 80 million in the U.S., of which 55 million are K-12 students.

“We believe learning is for a lifetime. Right now, we’re focused on K-12,” he said. His company hired 1,000 more people this year.

More Chinese investment is expected in non-Chinese ed-tech businesses. “I’d hazard a guess you may see some more Chinese investment coming through soon,” Fisher said.

Australian Company ‘Most Likely to Succeed’

Mathspace, a company headquartered in Strathfield, Australia, won the SIIA’s Innovation Incubator award as “most likely to succeed,” and was the runner up for “most innovative” out of 10 finalists, drawn from more than 40 entries. The annual competition identifies and supports entrepreneurs in their development and distribution of innovative learning technologies.

Mathspace is an adaptive product that uses natural handwriting recognition as it collects data on every intermediate step of every equation a student is attempting to solve.

Daniel Tu-Hoa, senior vice president in North America for the five-year-old company, said his product is sold in the U.K., Singapore, Hong Kong and the United States, where it is part of pilot studies with three Silicon Valley middle schools and in Chicago. 

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