COVID-19 has disrupted learning and education for over 1 billion students globally, and I explored the implications to K-12 students in my previous post in this series. Higher ed students and adult learners have been dramatically affected too, with a mass shift to virtual learning and the looming uncertainty of whether university students will return to campus this fall. While there are clear near-term challenges to overcome, I am excited by how this may accelerate some interesting longer-term trends we have observed for a while now in higher ed and beyond.
Even before COVID-19, it was clear that traditional higher education had been failing us for years. University enrollments have declined, outcomes haven’t improved in 20+ years, yet prices have skyrocketed. Americans owe nearly $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. What’s more, a growing skills gap exists between what employers need and what traditional higher ed institutions teach. Exacerbating this is the rapid automation and digitization of jobs in the workplace. To put into perspective, 1.2 billion jobs worldwide are projected to be disrupted by automation and AI over the next decade.
The economic halt caused by COVID-19 has caused 30+ million people to lose their jobs. Many more are furloughed, stuck at home, and anxious about when or whether they can go back to work. The need for workers to upskill and reskill has never been more urgent, and innovators are leveraging technology to meet the challenge.
I predict the pandemic will accelerate an emerging future of higher education – one that looks very different to what exists today. More and more students will pursue alternatives to the traditional undergraduate experience. Online-learning models will become even more mainstream. New models of instruction will emerge, leveraging the pedagogy and academic rigor of traditional higher ed, but incorporating much more input from employers. The social-signaling benefits that a university degree offers graduates will diversify to include many other forms of credentialing that are role-specific and recognized by industry. If this plays out as I imagine, these programs will be significantly more affordable, more accessible, more scalable, and more closely aligned to skills employers need than the status quo.
Conversations I’ve had with dozens of learning and development experts at Fortune 500 companies indicate lifelong, self-directed learning and employee upskilling / reskilling as top priorities for employers. They see a future filled with workers continually engaged in short bursts of targeted training to keep up with rapid technological change.
Several innovative technology providers and companies are already starting to deliver on this hypothesis.
Alternatives for higher education
I believe horizontal marketplaces like Coursera and FutureLearn that partner with leading universities to offer a broad selection of courses, certificates and degrees will grow more prominent. Industry- and interest-specific programs will emerge, too. One such example is Yellowbrick, which partners with both universities and brands to create courses in specific areas such as sneakers, music, sports, beauty, etc. Others, like OpenClassrooms will take things a step further and vertically integrate – they are themselves an accredited, online-education institution in Europe that combines project-driven curriculum, professional mentorship and career coaching. OpenClassrooms is also remaking higher ed’s traditional promise of leading to a good job: The company offers a worldwide job guarantee whereby tuition fees are refunded if a student does not find a job within six months of graduation.
A new generation of technical schools has emerged, including Lambda School, Kenzie Academy, and Springboard. In addition to delivering content and instruction (as the original coding bootcamps do), these schools provide students with a mix of professional mentorship, interview prep, career counseling and other valuable tools that help students achieve their ultimate goal: finding a job. As fully virtual programs, many of these players have actually seen enrollments spike amidst the COVID-19-induced lockdown. To bridge the gap in affordability, they have introduced innovative financing models like income sharing agreements (ISAs) or deferred tuition that help learners avoid the student-debt trap. They have made their programs effectively zero-risk for students and aligned the academies’ incentives with their students’ economic success post-graduation.
The value of these full-stack, online schools is not limited to tech-related roles, and I anticipate they’ll proliferate across many other trade and vocational skills. In particular, they may gain traction in occupations that require skilled, often certified or licensed workers – from teachers to nurses to electricians – and face severe labor shortages. Affordable, convenient programs that help individuals obtain licensing / certification will grow the labor pools in these areas. I expect employers to play a more active role in creating and financing these programs that help solve their labor issues.
Learning in the workforce
Even before this crisis, employers were doubling-down on offering education-as-a-benefit to keep workers’ skills fresh and improve employee retention. For example, Amazon’s Career Choice Program pays 95% of tuition and fees for employees looking to get associates’ degrees or certificates in high-demand fields like computer-aided design or nursing—even if that learning has nothing to do with their job at Amazon. These programs pay off for employers in improved employee engagement and productivity as well as lower recruiting costs.
COVID-19 will likely accelerate this trend, as employers look to keep workers productively engaged. Guild Education already has partnerships with major companies like Chipotle and Walmart, many of whose employees can’t easily work from home. The company is focused on lower-income workers who may have some access to employer-sponsored or government funding, but not enough to afford full tuition to most programs. Now, their retail or frontline jobs have been turned on their heads, and they’re looking for ways to complete their university degrees or upskill themselves for career advancement. Admirably, Guild is offering its education-as-a-benefit not just to existing employees, but to those recently laid off or furloughed.
I believe that access to quality education is just one part of the equation. Workers need to know which skills are crucial to learn, and employers need to keep closer tabs on skills their workforce has now or needs soon. This is where companies like Degreed play a critical role. In its early days, employers used Degreed to track all the learning that their employees had done on their own, be it through their Learning Management Systems (LMS), MOOCs, videos, articles, books, or podcasts. Using all that data, the Degreed platform has evolved to create a skills graph – a tool to inventory the myriad skills that exist in the workforce and reveal critical gaps. Degreed now leverages that graph to match employees to growth opportunities like new projects, teams, or roles that fit their unique skills and goals.
Where ed tech goes from here
We’re seeing a generational shift towards greater flexibility in education and training. The future of education might be less about earning degrees from traditional academic institutions and more about career pathways – shaped by employers and education providers in partnership – to align learning to jobs. Future workers are more likely to train throughout their careers in short bursts of targeted, skills-focused education.
COVID-19 has accelerated these trends, both by keeping millions of people at home with time on their hands, and by making millions of jobs more vulnerable. Startups in the ed-tech space have tremendous opportunities for growth right now. Those that step up today will have the chance to help shape a better, more accessible, and more equitable future for education and workforce learning for the long run.
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