In-depth with the founder of Europe’s largest edtech conference.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet is Co-Founder of EdTech Europe and an SXSW LAUNCHedu advisory board member. He previously wrote about “The Digitalisation of Education” for EdTech Digest. EdTech Europe is Europe’s largest Education Technology conference for thought leaders, innovators and investors. He is an advisor for SXSW Edu, the world’s largest conference on Innovation in Education. Benjamin is also Partner at IBIS CAPITAL (London), a leading European investment and advisory firm specializing in media and education technology. Formerly Europe’s Head of Strategy, Business Development and New
We tend to consider the administration of education as digitalization of content and bringing of smartphone and tablet, within the schools. But I think it’s much more interesting to think about digitalization of education as how it can be a response to the need for a more fluid and fast and sensible transfer of knowledge across the life of a learner, basically.
Ventures for Time Warner, Benjamin directly managed the expansion of a portfolio of entertainment, TV (CNN, Cartoon Network) and digital properties spanning across 25 countries and totaling 650 M euros in revenues. Benjamin is non-executive Chairman of Primo ltd, an edtech company designing and manufacturing connected toys. He is a graduate from Babson, ESCP Europe and The University of Texas at Austin. From his unique global vantage point, he provides perspective on fostering a global edtech ecosystem.
About a year ago, you wrote for EdTech Digest about the true potential of the EdTech industry and how it was starting to emerge, and that we’d witnessed a radical transformation of digitalization in education. That’s a bit general. What is digitalization? I don’t think you’re wrong. At least you’re a very good fortuneteller because it’s vague enough to be correct.
Benjamin: Yeah, exactly! I want to say on this that we were pretty much aware, that it would be a very fast change. An avalanche was coming, a tsunami. You may even talk about a revolution. In my mind, the issue of education is going to be a long-rising tide. That’s going to happen for sure, but I think it’s going to be slow. The reason why it’s going to be slow is because there are a lot of institutions in the way to slow educational technology deployment and digitization technologies and so on.
School districts, parents, pressure on budgets. Why I think it’s getting faster now, although it’s still slow compared to other digital transitions, in other industries, is because we see, probably, EdTech and education in the US or Europe before we start to see it in emerging markets, especially in Asia, in Africa, North America. Where I think it’s interesting is because, in emerging markets there is less institutions in the way, which leaves more room for education technology and digital solutions to take the market. So, you know, that’s why I think 2015, 2016, it was a bit of a pivotal year.
That coincides with, actually, quite an interesting statistic in that, if you look at the issues that the global digital population this year, we have more digitally connected people in the developing world, than in the developed world. This was a tipping point, for us, so that was quite an interesting coincidence.
So that’s one driver. The other aspect which I think is interesting is that while most of the edtech innovation and e-learning has been, so far, based on what your gut feels, and just good education practice, and a lot of teachers that also work for developers, developing their own products, we start to see more and more learning science applied to edtech, a true scientific approach applied to the efficacy of edtech, and how we measure data, and what impact it has. That, I think, will be a key driver in the next generation of e-education. We’re just at the very beginning of it.
Great, okay. And, so a lot’s changed in just a year. Also, there’s been closer collaboration between the UK and Europe, just for some of the things that you put together, some of the different projects and activities. Do you want to talk about the closer collaboration?
Benjamin: Yeah, I mean close collaboration. What we’re trying to do here is create a global corridor of connectivity, to make sure that talent, where it is in the world, and disruptors, are spurred by corporate investors. Our approach with EdTech Global, which is now in Europe and, I think, Asia, in creating those platforms for disruptors, innovators, and investors to meet. We feel that we are a part of making it more free and a bit more active, I guess. That’s what we’re trying to do with our direction.
Okay, good. Would you say a lot’s changed in the past year as far as the edtech scene?
Benjamin: Yeah, we see more interest, for example, from what I call the American edtech success stories, the large edtech startups in the U.S., being interested in Europe, and actually in Ukraine and Asia. We’ve seen a couple of, also, tech exits in this sector. We’ve seen virtual capital being invested in the U.S. All of this has an impact on how attractive the European edtechs and Asian edtechs are. So I think from an ecosystem standpoint, although we complained quite a lot in the past year that there was not enough money invested, I think this year, we definitely see sort of a step change in investment activity. All the investment by the U.S. and China, but I guess it benefits the ecosystem.
Okay. Any lessons that you learned from South by Southwest while you were in Austin, Texas, and anything that you would bring back to Europe with you, or any comment on that area?
Benjamin: Yeah, well, it’s more about the fact that South by Southwest was a very US-centric event, and sometimes even Texas-centric, and I think we really got the impression that this year, more than the previous years, it was really a global event, with much more Asian participation, European participation, and we have that as a partner as well. We really feel that there is a good organization in support of edtech, and part of our job is to create that virtual ability. So, that’s one lesson.
I feel that, usually you get around virtual reality an indication, and there are a couple of gimmicks, but, fundamentally, I think the true innovation that we initiated a couple of years go, I think it’s there and I think it’s still a relatively slow burner in edtech. It takes time before solutions are co-opted by the market. We’ve seen more money invested by large tech players, and it was pretty visible at South by Southwest, and again, that makes the ecosystem moving in the right direction.
Not a drastic change, just an acceleration of a change, I guess.
Okay. You know, an interesting statistic that I just came across, it was this idea that where for $5 spent on entertainment television, $100 is spent on any kind of educational programming. Possibly a PBS statistic.
The idea there is that some of these entertainment companies might start looking to produce content for education. Any thoughts on that?
Benjamin: Yeah. That seems very interesting. Your question is about how do we look like insiders there, and I think it’s a difficult to say. When it comes to workforce trends, and mobile trends, and population and education trends, what I know, looking at the edtech industry globally, is that, as I said, emerging markets will be versatile markets for edtech. The reason for this is because 90 percent of the population under 30 years old is living in emerging markets. When we talk about edtech and digital education, it is mostly targeted at those populations, because they will be the main beneficiaries.
If you had to guess, I’d say that more than 50 percent of the data we collect in the world is in these markets, and add to the fact that they are disadvantaged in terms of education supply, and we do see a stronger consumer market and companies that are niche. I think you have a pretty fair background in emerging markets. So I think you will see a lot of brands and technologies from the West meeting markets in the South and in the East. And that is, for me, where the edtech opportunity is, and the growth of edtech is.
Do you believe there is a disconnect between the investors and entrepreneurs on one side and educators on another?
Benjamin: Yeah. It is probably linked to the pace of change, and most of the traditional tech investors are relatively not patient. I think a lot of entrepreneurs are not, as well. I think the pace of change in the industry, is driven by institution educators, and I don’t think they can accommodate this impatience. So yes, there is a disconnect on the pace of change, and I guess the expectation in terms of return on investment. And that’s why I think the tech sector has been, for a long time, under-invested. If it gets better, I think the amount invested in edtech is still the same amount of money invested in gaming, which is quite an interesting statistic, that we invest in education technology at the same amount that we invest in gaming, although gaming is, I think, 30 or 40 times smaller than the education industry. It tells you quite a lot about where our society places its priorities, I guess.
Okay. When you invite influencers to your conferences, to EdTech X Europe, for example, what sort of invitations are you extending to education leaders themselves, not just the edtech entrepreneurs or the investors?
Benjamin: Our conference has been mostly born on the idea that we need to bring the disruptors and the investors in the disruption, I guess. We are not necessarily an educator’s conference, but we always have a strong representative of the educator’s community. It can be a certain teacher, possibly indicating their strategy, it can be a head of university, wondering how to orchestrate the digitalization of their universities.
So, you’re right. I would say the proportion of probably up to 20 percent educators at our conference. We know that it’s relatively under-represented compared to other conferences, but what we think is interesting is the interaction between those and the entrepreneurs and the investors, which you don’t get at the South by Southwest, there are probably more educators. In fact, our strategy anyways is very skewed towards investors. We are trying to find the right balance, here.
Okay. As we’re talking educators and education, let’s segue into something very academic: a pop quiz.
You’ve already written guest columns here on EdTech Digest. The following words could be the themes to a series of columns. I’ll say a word, you provide some definition and explanation of each.
First word: “Digitalization”.
Benjamin: This one is an obvious one, I think. When you look at the stat I mentioned earlier, that 85 percent of what’s spent in education is spent on teachers and infrastructure, you can see how digitalization can become a game changer. I think what’s important is how those trends link, because if I look at the last trend, which is the acceleration of tech automatons. In the past, certain skills were probably focused on a couple of industries, mostly in blue collars. But that now happens across all sectors, at mainly a fast pace. We talked about IBM Watson, for example, which can replace the work of scientists, oncologists. We talked about the Google driverless cars.
So, certainly, the acceleration of technological change brings huge stress on certain sets of skills, and job displacement. That happens across all categories of populations, from very highly qualified to low skill labor. So, when you think of it, how do you respond to this? If you look at current education, the institution is responsible for maintaining the population at the right level of skills, or even the transfer of skills across generations. Stuff can be outdated.
And the real threat to this is digitalization. That’s why I think it’s interesting, the link between the acceleration of technological change in the society, and the impact it has on job displacement and disposition of education. I think we tend to consider the administration of education as digitalization of content and bringing of smartphone and tablet, within the schools. But I think it’s much more interesting to think about digitalization of education as how it can be a response to the need for a more fluid and fast and sensible transfer of knowledge across the life of a learner, basically.
Excellent, next word: “Globalization.”
Benjamin: Yeah. I think on the issue it’s a couple of things. First, we think of education as more of a local market, and especially if you start to look at K-12, but we start to see convergence of curriculums. What’s interesting is the fastest-growing curriculum in the world is the International Baccalaureate. We know what that brings and definitely standards, and accreditation, are converging as well as studying becomes more global. To use that aspect, we’ll speak to higher education, you see markets starts to be more market-based with the MOOCS. We start to have assimilation of certain skills. If you think, for example, of Linda.com, it provides training for IT skills, for example, to a considerable market base, as well.
I think, you know, this is where it starts to get interesting, is that it’s a much more open and globalized market than it was before. We’re going to see all content, especially on science and math, to be much more exportable, so definitely seeing a trend.
Benjamin: Yeah, personalization is all about efficiency and data collection. We see much more personalized curriculum that helps to target and tailor content. We see a lot about what we call “software creation,” or “software accommodation,” or “team learning” in the world. Software learning, where it’s more of a community creation that can adapt to the content. I see there is a battle here around the personalization of content, which we’ve already seen in the music industry, for example, or the publishing industry, or the TV industry, where you basically have of customizing content. It’s either programmatically personalized through softwares and indications about personalized learning and adaptive learning, or if it’s not programmatically or software led, it can be socially or community led.
We’ve started to see some of the startup companies going toward social learning, and in the direction of social networks, in learning and education. I’m thinking of a company called Brainly, which is a European company that is basically doing it.
Alright, last words: “Privatization” and “Acceleration.”
Benjamin: Yeah, privatization is about – we see more and more private solution out of the native public or state education. I think what’s the most interesting is what’s happening in emerging market, where we see that state education cannot cope with either demographic pressure or the pace of change in the education industry, or the technology. So you start to have products alternatives like low cost private schools, I don’t know if you heard about Birla International Academy, in Africa, which opens 400 schools, and there are schools all across that cost you $5 a month.
So we see, suddenly, education becoming more and more private, and I think it’s because education is slightly rigid, and we are coming back to the last trend, which is acceleration, the pace at which technology is disrupting skills and making skills obsolete. This requires much more fluid education, and that sort of education is, for now, not provided by state education. That creates a gap, and that creates market demand, and so you’ve got private market and private offering and private supply filling that gap.
Benjamin: And you know, my point about the disruption of education is much more about 21st century skills and skill gaps. Which is a huge threat on the global economy, a much bigger threat than any other crisis so far, and I think this is where edtech and e-learning can make a difference. It’s much more about this than tablets and iPads in classrooms.
Okay. What are your thoughts on some of the broader purposes at play here in the edtech sector? You know, it’s really easy for somebody to say, for example, “we want to ensure every single student has digital equity.” And from a corporate perspective, that can translate to, “we want everybody to be our customer.” Is there a win-win situation where we can provide equity, help all students, help a company, and advance the purposes of education—can these purposes coexist in edtech?
Benjamin: I’m not sure I have an opinion on this one yet.
Benjamin: Well, what do you really mean by “digital equity?”
Providing not just affluent suburban students an opportunity, but also providing inner city and rural poorer students the same opportunity and by opportunity is in large part meant, ‘plenty of bandwidth and high-speed connections’ and this goes for both in school and potentially, at home. Not everybody has an equal opportunity in education because they don’t have either the tools or the connectivity. Education happens at school, and it also happens when students are not in school, or after school hours. So, when we’re talking about digital equity, we might be looking at those areas and seeing what we can provide to all students.
Benjamin: I spent a bit of time in Africa, where internet connectivity is low, and if you have students learning foreign languages, you’re using text message and sit-phone because they don’t even have smartphone. I think there is enough proximity for edtech to help pockets of populations that may not have the means to get the latest digital tablets, but there are solutions for those markets; that might not be the state-of-the-art technology. Mobile learning is a good way, because it’s quite ubiquitous, to reach people that won’t necessarily have this broadband connection or have access to digital tools. I don’t necessarily have a strong answer about this.
What are some important forces at work in the edtech sector that deserve closer consideration by those creating edtech solutions?
Benjamin: There are two things in my mind that are really driving forces. One is, we don’t apply enough amount of learning science to edtech yet. It’s still pretty much an experiment. We have not collected enough data on it. The research exists, but the application, the link between the research and the product, is not there yet. There is evidence, for example, that video learning is not necessarily the best way to learn, but it’s how you combine those video and engagement, and drive imagination through peer interaction, for example. There are a lot of findings in learning science, but they have not necessarily applied yet to the edtech solutions and the edtech sector. That is starting to turn, but slowly. I think if we turn edtech into a science, but more an experiment, we see more results. That, I think, is one strong, driving force that drives the future of edtech. Another one is, you look at research, and you look at learning science, and see how it can improve our product, and improve our outcome, and help to measure this data, basically.
The second aspect is, we don’t take the measure of the skill gap that is widening and widening. That’s true in developed markets and it’s even more true in developing markets. That is a threat for the growth of the global economy, because in the end we will end up with a large amount of the population being obsolete, and not being trained for the future, and not being able to participate in consumer spend or the growth of the global economy. That, I think, is a massive trend. That’s where the disruption is coming from. That’s why you have so much vocational learning services, life learning services, good games that are popping up here and there, to basically see this and provide new skills to people that are out of jobs or with skills that are obsolete. And I think that phenomena are going to accelerate. So, if I had some money, I would probably invest in that sector, as well.
The European approach, and the American approach to edtech: Have you experienced any kind of a culture shock when you observe one and then you observe the other? Is there a differentiator, or are they pretty much going in a similar direction?
Benjamin: From the integrity standpoint, they are very similar. From the business standpoint, they are different, just because in America, you are dealing with one unified market, a large market, so you can apply much more resources because you have a better proximity to scale, and make the big play. In Europe, it’s a bit of a nightmare, sometimes, because you have a segmented market, so there is no such thing as a “European Play” in technology, because in some markets, you’re going to sell to schools, for example. In the UK, you have to do a door-by-door approach, or you have to sell to every school, as there is no concept of “districts’ as you have in the US. If you go in front of Germany, you almost need to sell to the government, which is another nightmare.
They are different in approach, or driven by the differences in market structure, I think America has a competitive advantage because they have a large, unified market. The only other market which has a similar approach to America is China, where we see a lot of activity, a lot of big play, and again, that’s because they have a very large and unified market, and also because they also really believe in education providing better life outcomes, and the leadership, I guess.
Could there be a globalized approach to technology that is helping to transform education? For example, Brainly, their mission is applicable all over the world because students need help everywhere. Is there a global student market; is it possible to sell to anybody and help everybody?
Benjamin: Yeah, I guess that’s true on the consumer side, that’s where you would see your app solution, that can educate globally, for tech reasons. When you start to deal with B2B’s or in the schools, it becomes a little bit trickier. And when you start to deal with content, where we see science is pretty much taught the same way everywhere, and math, so those content of course you could scale well. So if you apply digital solutions to these, that’s pretty powerful. That’s why you’ve got Khan Academy, it’s got potential, that’s why you’ve got Linda.com, for example, which focuses on IT learning, which is pretty global niche as well. It will work.
I guess it depends. Curriculums are different, contents are different, teachers are pretty homogeneous, so depending on which market segment you’re dealing in. At the end of the day, digitalization of content, sophistication of content, data collection, measure of efficacy, all those tech solutions that are platforms where you can scale globally.
What do you see ahead? What excites you the most? What makes you want to stay in this sector and see it through?
Benjamin: It’s just the beginning of it, you know? That’s what we need to understand. It’s just the beginning, it’s going to grow faster and faster, there is more and more money coming to it, and the world needs it because if there is no growth of EdTech and digital delivery of education, we all going to end up obsolete and jobless, and there is not going to be growth.
I think it definitely needs it. Not only do you it in close proximity, and it was a necessity, but we can make a difference there. We start to see a couple of edtechs, a couple of companies that are scaling, so I think the best is yet to come.
Despite reports from various media outlets including EdSurge talking about a coming Winter of EdTech, and also CB Insights and other investor insight sources saying there might be a little bit of a dip that may be happening, is that happening? Are these momentary dips, or could they be longer term?
Benjamin: I don’t think it’s going to change the long-term trend. I look at edtech with a 10-15 year horizon, and not with a quarter or even three-year horizon. And yeah, it might be that there is a slight bubble, but overall, only 2 percent of education that is digitized, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t get to 70 percent, so that’s 15 times closer proximity. There is a widening skills gap. There is a growth of young populations in emerging markets that need access to education, and that can only be provided with digital solutions.
I’m very bullish on the long-term trend. I’m not in this market for just a couple of years, so I’m betting on the long term, and I think that it’s a long, rising tide.
Anything that you were hoping we’d talk about that we didn’t really get to, that you wanted to touch upon?
Benjamin: We tend to underestimate the role that Asia has in education. I think it will be a significant driver of investment and also on the consumer side. Most of the growth of e-education in terms of enrollment, or in terms of students, is actually coming from Asia, and my sense is that Asia will be the continent of edtech, based on the U.S. or Europe.
Well, Benjamin, I’m sure we could talk for another hour. I really appreciate all your insights, and I think they’ll be very valuable for our readers. That’s it for now, but I would love to collaborate with you in the future on all kinds of things.
Benjamin: Yeah! Me too. And again, thanks for your time, and feel free.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]