In recent history, we’ve been promised self-driving cars, robots that will flip our hamburgers, and virtual personal assistants that will help plan each part of our day. Not only have each of these materialized, but we think they’ll also continue to improve—placing us squarely in the early innings of a fourth industrial revolution. As a result, we will have to re-equip the next generation as technological innovation displaces current processes and redefines our future.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and gamified learning have challenged the education system as new tools are being generated faster than the education system can change. As with any new innovation, adoption can be controversial. In some instances, school districts and teachers are choosing sides, either banning ChatGPT or embracing it, and parents are confused and don’t understand if it’s being used to cheat or enhance learning for their children. Regardless of the alignment among the many stakeholders in the education system, we believe the core value of Edtech boils back down to one group: students.
New tools for new learners
Building in education is hard. Educational products today are “not giving.”
Credit: @itsyngrb on YouTube
According to Truelist, Gen-Z spends an average of 9 hours per day on screens. As of the 2019-2020 school year, 45% of schools had a computer available for each student—and that was before all learning went online during the COVID-19 pandemic. This means many students are in front of screens. All. Day. Long (at least it feels that way!). Screens are used in the classroom, and screens are often used when they go home. When many screens are often filled with TikTok or video games during a student’s free time, how can education be equally as engaging?
As we see it, platforms like Roblox and TikTok have heavily contributed to Gen Z’s culture and how they socialize. For older Gen-Zers, this was Club Penguin or Instagram. These platforms have constantly competed for attention from younger audiences, often taking away from time meant to be studying or learning.
Credit: @medicatedrugs on TikTok
Offering video-driven content, gamified experiences, and constant connection, these consumer platforms have effectively trained new consumer behaviors—which we believe could be leveraged in the Edtech tools for the next generation.
New School vs. Old School
Before we explore the possibilities of Edtech, we believe it is important to highlight what we think Edtech should not be.
Right after OpenAI introduced ChatGPT, many AI Edtech tools started competing for students' attention in the market. For instance, tools promised to correctly answer multiple choice questions for students or completely write their essays for them. We view this as cheating and not the end goal of Edtech.
It’s also essential to note that AI tools are imperfect. Research has shown that large language models, like ChatGPT, can produce artificial hallucinations, creating a risk of misinformation. Builders in Edtech have a serious responsibility to address accuracy and trustworthiness if they incorporate LLMs into their platforms. Read more from the GC team on building responsibly in AI here.
We believe building in Edtech is powerful because it is a great opportunity for founders to make an outsized impact on the world and the development of the next generation. Edtech aims to help students understand the material being taught in schools or beyond in a less cumbersome way. In a perfect world, learning should be a process each person enjoys. Below are some attributes that we think will define the next generation of education technology.
We believe that efficiency is an important incentive to use a new educational technology. Students want to save time and effort. The recent trend of TikTok videos, getting large engagement numbers, and encouraging students to try the numerous AI tools that are available, potentially reflecting students’ desire to save time and effort. The common theme amongst these tools is that they purport to save students’ time and make it easier for them to study for exams, complete their homework, or extract learnings from long pieces of text, audio, or video.
While we acknowledge the risk of AI tools being used to cheat or to otherwise compromise the learning process, we also see promise in this category for products that can help students repurpose the time gained from these tools to study more materials in a more meaningful way. For instance, instead of replaying a recorded lecture to try and understand a concept, students can interact and ask clarifying questions about a particular topic. Alternatively, students can feed large chunks of information to AI and use the tool to extract and focus on the relevant information. We believe tools in this realm are here to stay.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the move to remote learning exposed inequities in household access and the gaps that exist even with basic technology needs. Unfortunately, these gaps pre-date the pandemic. A Georgetown University article suggests that the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program was less likely to be offered at schools in lower-income communities than schools in more affluent areas. This can be due to budgetary constraints or labor limitations, especially as school districts struggle to attract and retain educators in low-income communities. Our portfolio company, Elevate K-12, has historically helped address this teaching shortage through technology as it enables Gen-Zers to learn and digitally interact with teachers who are not physically in the classroom.
We envision a future in which AI could potentially be used to distribute information we know to be factually accurate in a way that is equitable. Tools like ChatGPT have the potential to be a 24/7 teacher who has infinite patience to answer any questions students have about any subject. It allows students, especially those previously without a qualified instructor, to ask questions and gain clarity on subjects that interest them.
In our view, the natural language interface of ChatGPT unlocks new potential learning opportunities for students who feel like they can ask infinite questions. For students with disabilities, AI tools with a Natural Language Querying interface (like ChatGPT) can be integrated into text-to-speech tools, or provide an easy-to-understand summary for those with physical or cognitive impairments. Some students may be able to forego expensive private tutors and instead interact with AI. Those who are too shy to ask questions in class can directly engage with ChatGPT as if it were their teacher. A great start in this area is our portfolio company Numerade, which provides step-by-step video solutions to STEM textbook questions, allowing students to advance their knowledge outside of the classroom at their own pace.
Of course, the potential for good outcomes in this category rests on our ability to address hallucinations and ensure that Edtech tools are giving accurate information to users.
Personalized and customizable
As we see it, the rise of artificial intelligence has come at a perfect time for education. Gen-Z is the most diverse generation to date and technologically connected. We are constantly exposed to things “For You” (quite literally on Tiktok). For education to be appealing to the next generation, we believe it will non-negotiably have to be personalized. Educational tools incorporating AI can empower students to learn at their own pace, in a style that suits them (i.e., audio, visual, mixture, etc.), and let them be in control. Tools could get to know their users and guide their studies based on their strong suits and weaker areas.
We also see an opportunity for educational products to allow users to customize their experience, leaning into features in consumer tech that resonate with Gen Z audiences. Roblox, for example, encourages users to build extravagant worlds that reflect the world they want to see. In turn, Roblox users—many of whom are under 18 years old—have built amazing model cities and theme parks. We believe this endlessly customizable experience is what students will demand from their educational products. Users have already hacked together their own worlds in Roblox that teach basic concepts like animal names, spelling, math, and more. We believe if students can customize how they learn, they might be motivated to engage more with learning content.
Being social for the digitally native generation does not just have to be formed from IRL interactions. For instance, 56% of Gen-Z have a friend they only know online. Therefore, connecting with peers for the digitally native population can look very different than it did for previous generations.
We believe a successful educational tool will connect students digitally and enable them to feel like their friends surround them as they study in the comfort of their own homes. (e.g., A TikTok video with 1.1M likes depicting a website helping students to study online with their friends.)
Tools like Discord and FaceTime have encouraged Gen-Z to stay connected at all times. This consumer behavior and these tools have made it easier for students to connect synchronously online while being physically apart—leading us to believe that study groups may follow this shift in behavior. Furthermore, live stream videos of people studying have also gained traction globally as students want to feel like they are "studying" with someone else.
In the future, students could study together in 3D rooms (personalized to their style) and engage in peer-to-peer teaching. Alternatively, this could also look like a video game where you learn different concepts from other students around the world. Regardless of what this looks like, students can hopefully feel a little bit less lonely when studying at home.
Digital products can also help facilitate real-life interactions. For instance, our portfolio company, Saturn, is a calendar-sharing tool that allows students to schedule their day and see when their peers are free.
Entertaining and immersive
Gen Z loves video—they consume, on average, 7.2 hours of video per day. This engagement happens across platforms—from Netflix to Youtube to Tiktok and more—and demonstrates that video is here to stay and is the preferred medium for Gen-Z to consume information. We believe this preference will carry over to learning as well. For example, many young people have started to learn about life skills (i.e., personal finance) on platforms like TikTok. It tracks, then, that learning styles are becoming more video-driven.
This means to us that new educational tools will likely have to incorporate video, audio, and text and not only successfully convey topics of interest but do so in an entertaining method as well.
We believe another path for “entertainment” is to gamify the experience. As mentioned before, games like Roblox and Minecraft have demonstrated that students can still learn despite being in a “video game” format. Given Gen-Z’s need for education to be personalized and social, we believe educational products that can enhance this experience with entertainment will be extremely beneficial.
A more entertaining learning experience could also be immersive. To dream a bit about the future, Edtech products could also incorporate VR / AR technology as more hardware, like Apple’s Vision Pro, comes online. Students can transport themselves to speak with the Ancient Greek philosophers in Athens or feel like they are traveling through our solar system. The possibilities are truly endless.
Ultimately, for many Gen-Zers, educational tools need to reflect their preferences for video-driven content, their affinity for gamified experiences, and perhaps even venture into virtual reality in order to stick.
We believe that innovation in Edtech is necessary for digital native generations to ensure that we are prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the modern world. We believe this will require a comprehensive rethinking of the way we leverage technology in and outside of the classroom. It will also require a commitment to inclusivity and equity, ensuring that all students have the chance to succeed and reach their full potential.