The future is uncertain, but it is digital


Here’s the logic:

  • “Education is now the number one economic priority in today’s global economy”— John Naisbitt (1998, Megatrends)
  • Developments in machine learning and AI should deliver truly global education technology
  • So that, by 2030, the largest company on the Internet is going to be a currently unknown education-based company.

This is the prediction Thomas Frey (senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute) reached through considering trends in technology over the last decade.

It’s a great job if you can get it (albeit with minimal scope for performance-related pay), but the predictions of very few futurists have actually come to pass. As a boy, my much-loved 1976 Usborne Book of the Future, stuffed with graphic images of the space race, influenced world my adult self would inhabit: in the future, I imagined a flying car on the drive, annual holidays on Mars and moon-based zero-G Olympics. I have now come to terms with a very different 21st Century technological reality; one where an all-encompassing digital world is full of excitement and potential.

Should we take heed of Frey’s prediction and be looking out for and investing in education technology that could dominate on a global scale? The potential of the ed-tech market to mirror ad-tech and produce some corporate behemoths is yet to materialise, but are we on the cusp of this?

The biggest companies in history have all come about at times of massive economic or cultural change, shifts or developments: colonial globalisation led to the Dutch East India Company achieving an astonishing market cap with a modern equivalent of $7.4Tn, standard Oil capitalised on the motorised transport revolution to reach a modern market cap of over $900Bn, while the computer revolution of the 1980’s produced Apple and Microsoft, spring-boarding the tech domination of fast growth and high cap companies.

Are we in such a time of seismic change now? Are developments in machine learning and AI — coupled with Globalisation 2.0 — setting the scene for a new education company to grow to the very largest scale?

Back in 2007 (The Future of Education), Frey proposed eight key trends driving change in education that would effect his prediction:

  1. Transition from teaching to learning: in the future, teachers will transition from topic experts to a role in which they act more as guides and coaches.
  2. Exponential growth in information: information is no longer just text-based, but also graphical, musical, audio and visual and available in enormous volume online.
  3. Courseware vacuum: the learning system of the future will have a single access point for all of its courses and encompass all content.
  4. Gulf between Literates and Super-Literates: courseware will become an alternative to publishing papers or writing books, and will serve as an additional channel for the super-literates to disseminate their understanding of the world.
  5. Touch Points for interacting are changing: classroom-centric education is not necessary for learning.
  6. Learning drivers: worldwide economic development lead more people to be educated more and for longer.
  7. Hyper-individuality: we are much more concerned about finding products that will satisfy our own particular needs.
  8. Consumers become producers: new generations of tools and equipment are allowing people to shift their role from consumer to producer.

Reflecting on these a decade later it seems a pretty good list, much of which was already underway in 2007, but arguably hasn’t yet produced massive change in education technology. Frey went on to scope an open courseware system that could form the backbone of a new global education delivery system. Since he wrote his paper, courseware has developed into a major market with some massive players, but none seem on course to reach the giddy heights that Frey predicted. The ubiquitous lists of ed-tech companies to watch always include courseware companies, but many are subject or education-stage specific and unlikely to match Frey’s blueprint for global domination.

Following up in 2016 (Cracking the Code for the Future of Education), he added that ‘…technology now means we can learn from our peers at a distance. And our peers will increasingly be artificial intelligences.’ This subtle shift takes emphasis away from teachers and educators — or limits them to course and content production — relying on AI to deliver hyper-individuality.

The ad-tech revolution is founded on individuality, was built primarily on the exponential growth in data, and has driven development in machine learning and AI. Ad-tech has created a market where over 1/3 of global ad spend (GroupM, 2016) is now digital and created the possibly unassailable FB/Google duopoly, whereas ed-tech is predicted to only take 1/20 of global education spend by 2020 (EdTechXGlobal, 2016. Key Market Drivers in Global EdTech Review) and has produced no truly dominant players.

Perhaps we shouldn’t compare at all? What strikes me is that almost all ad-tech is simply tech; it is b2b and not content-based, although used in content markets (i.e. by publishers). An ed-tech equivalent is hard to envisage, not least because there are no huge or global equivalents of publishers or retailers who might buy the tech. A global ed-tech business will have to be one aimed directly at learners. This is very much in line with Frey’s vision of a global courseware marketplace.

How might we spot such a company? In my opinion, it will not be a company focused on any specific learning needs or market sector, it will not be app-based, neither will it be a management tool. It will be simple and scaleable, it will rely on data, it will deliver high quality, individual content and it will be open and flexible for participation. And, if Frey is right, it will utilize AI.

Rather than ad-tech, entertainment might be a better hunting ground for models. The transition of Netflix from distributor to producer makes for interesting study. Delivering unlimited, high quality, personalised, content for a low subscription has rapidly garnered them over 100M users. From this base, they are fast becoming a dominant content producer, creating a valuable ecosystem for writers, filmmakers, actors and related roles. A courseware company could follow a similar trajectory.

Let’s also remind ourselves here that the education market is not an investment bubble, and although lucky investors may occasionally find rapid ed-tech returns, this is a long game. The global market in education, coupled with the need to re-skill people from jobs lost to the digital economy, will lead to educational technology game changers. Whether Frey’s prediction that one of these will be the dominant global digital company by 2030 is yet to be seen, but surely the opportunity for this exists.

What we can be sure of is that most predictions will be wildly or mildly inaccurate, so searching for this game changer will not be easy. However, focusing on and investing in good ed-tech will pay dividends in the long run. The future’s not certain, but it is digital.

Here’s my own version of Frey’s logic:

  • “Education is now the number one economic priority in today’s global economy” says John Naisbitt (1998, Megatrends)
  • Education technology that unleashes learners and augments educators…
  • …could by 2030, create the largest company on the Internet.

Now, off to find that flying car.


Garry Pratt: Founder of Teachit & education digital strategist
[published in Education Investor, Sept 2017]







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