Expert opinions, TECHNOLOGY

Digital education: How do universities compete with EdTech giants?

The booming market of education services is changing rapidly; EdTech companies that rode the wave of the pandemic are currently setting a new bar in the sector. Digital technologies help them organize a convenient and efficient education process, forcing traditional universities to adapt and try to keep up. What digital challenges are universities facing? How can one adapt promptly to the new reality and not lose the market of additional training for adults?

In 2021, the online education market grew by 80%, Smart Ranking reported. The 115 private EdTech companies in Russia made RUR 73.3 bln, twice as much as compared to 2020. In 2022, the market will continue growing at the same rare as in 2021, experts say.

Universities and EdTech companies compete in the niche of adult education. Their main products are additional training programs and skills upgrade courses. Private companies are flexible towards changes in the demand and preferences of the audience, both in terms of content and the organization of the education process.

For universities, the adoption of new formats is an opportunity to reach a much wider audience than those interested in postsecondary education. To do so, they need to focus on the introduction of a comprehensive digital educational product that will include:

  • a convenient platform for networking, lectures, seminars and exams
  • IT infrastructure that allows students to perform practical tasks and learn technology without limits
  • student support system based on deep analysis and personalization.

Let’s look at the tasks the universities are facing today and how they deal with them.

Task 1: Creating a digital learning environment

The sudden transition to online education in 2020 can hardly be called successful. In May 2020, 73% of students had doubts about the quality of higher education provided in the online format.

Universities are facing a new challenge: to organize hybrid education. They need to launch a seamless education process with the use of both online and offline techniques. And this is not easy.

Educational platforms began developing in the early 2010s, but even prior to the pandemic, advanced universities had used tools for remote communication and joint work, as well as personal accounts and corporate email. Yet, today this is not sufficient as we need to combine isolated tools into a single digital learning environment. Such a project cannot be implemented without utilizing a digital platform to solve all tasks, which include communications, content delivery, student assessment, and storage of academic records and results.

Creating and maintaining such a platform requires efforts to develop IT infrastructure at universities and boost internal IT assessment.

Task 2: Organizing online practical classes

Information technology is one of the most relevant areas of additional education; it is important for IT professionals to acquire practical skills. Students appreciate the opportunity to develop, test and study digital products through the use of advanced technologies. They need room for experimentation, with an opportunity to look into the core of the solution without a fear of breaking or damaging something. Business helps universities in this regard, such as through VK educational centers that operate in top 12 Russian technical universities. Now universities are facing a new challenge: they have to conduct project work in a hybrid format, both in classrooms and remotely.

A digital cloud laboratory, launched at St. Petersburg National Research University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics (ITMO), allows students to conduct scientific research and complete graduate qualifying papers. These papers are normally centered on parallel and distributed computation, while laboratory experiments focus on testing algorithm scalability. This highly resource-intensive task requires a well-developed IT infrastructure.

Task 3: Managing process efficiency

Today, mere efforts to create an appealing program and organize convenient delivery of content to academic course attendees are simply not sufficient; it is also necessary to control knowledge absorption and assess whether the training is efficient for a particular student.  Study problems should be made obvious in real time rather than revealed by the end of the academic semester, and intelligent systems based on big data analytics and machine learning are simply essential here.

A special system has been developed as part of Russia’s National Technology Initiative (NTI) to notify students of a risk of expulsion. The system, to be available to universities through subscriptions, uses AI algorithms to identify students at risk of dropout during the semester through analyzing grades, discipline and attendance, with the data on low-performing students passed to teachers. The pilot project was implemented at Tomsk State University; the service showed an accuracy of 98%.

Cooperation is a short path to success

For universities, creating a comprehensive digital educational product is a sophisticated task that requires knowledge of the market and audience, and demands high costs and expansive IT competencies to build infrastructure as well as to develop and implement advanced digital solutions. Cooperation with technology companies and EdTech market players will help boost the transition to a new market footing.

The use of Platform as a Service (PaaS) allows for facilitating the process. PaaS includes cloud databases, big data analytics tools, self-service Kubernetes clusters, speech technologies, and others. Those allow users to promptly develop various digital solutions and introduce them into the market, and can include mobile applications for students, a virtual dean’s office for teaching personnel, student’s digital record books, digital assistants for teachers and students, an online ‘storefront’ that features information on courses, and much more.

Another form of cooperation is launching joint educational programs, which is beneficial for both parties as the university’s reputation and expansive research resources, combined with advanced tools for organizing educational process provided by a private company, make a valuable product altogether. For instance, EdTech companies are taking active efforts to involve evaluation by market professionals, while IT companies are ready to help expand specialists’ competencies in complex technologies.

Within the next decade, active consumption will redistribute towards Generation Z – while members of the next generation, Generation Alpha, will enter the age of financial solvency and will also make their adjustments in the supply market. It doesn’t take a sociologist to see that these people have a much higher level of digital skills, and opt for a greater product customization and freedom of choice. The new generation of students has values based on interest, security and social recognition, and is less affected by the aspect of obligation. Traditional universities will be losing their audience in case they fail to revise their approaches. Appraisal by technology companies and experience gained by EdTech market players can help them create relevant digital educational products, and most importantly, ensure the continuity of higher education.

By Leonid Anikin, Director of Business Development of VK Digital Technologies

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