The acceleration of edtech in a pandemic world

How elearning and upskilling are shaping the post-pandemic future


The coronavirus pandemic has been singular in its impact, yet upheaval often brings unexpected chances. Shivvy Jervis, a London-based futurist and founder of forecasting lab FutureScape 248, and Gori Yahaya, CEO and founder of UpSkill Digital in London, bring unique perspectives to how this disruption is transforming edtech.

Jervis sees scores of developments coming from not just technology and digital development, but also scientific innovation, sociology, behavioral science, and neuroscience which are impacting teaching, learning, and development.

“This is a great opportunity to show resilience, build a recovery and perhaps absorb and embed some of the learnings from this — particularly when we talk about learning and education,” Jervis says, “Whether it’s institutions and students or work-based learning.”

The edtech world is scaling rapidly, especially in tech centers like London where new startups are realizing a tremendous amount of support and funding. Businesses are realizing how crucial it is to invest in their employees, and upskilling has become more than a buzzword. And new ways of learning are opening doors across the world for populations that had previously been barred by tech disparity from any kind of higher education.

The dramatic evolution of learning

Among the most profound ways the pandemic is reshaping the world is in the way we learn, Jervis explains. Genuine technological revolutions have changed the way teaching can be delivered and education can be accessed, and extraordinary new opportunities for learners in every arena are opening up.

“It’s probably the world’s largest collective shift in learning,” says Gori Yahaya, CEO and founder of UpSkill Digital in London. “With the move to working from home, people have had to teach themselves the tech skills they need very quickly — and that’s sparked a curiosity for learning more, and it’s building a new learning culture.”

We’re starting to look at education as something that happens beyond the first 20 years of our life, becoming a continuous enterprise on a non-linear trajectory basis. Younger generations have long modeled this new learning culture, embracing both the freedom that education offers to explore a variety of career trajectories, and new avenues of education, whether it’s an expert’s YouTube channel or a Masterclass.

“The act of learning itself doesn’t always present itself as an official module or training,” she explains. “It doesn’t always result in a diploma.”

As perceptions change, and it becomes increasingly clear that there’s no one-size-fits-all way to learn, there’s been an explosion in the modes and mediums of learning. At the end of the day it’s about effective knowledge transfer, retention, and understanding, whether that means taking an online course that consists of PDF materials, a series of video courses taught by an expert, or playing a gamified app.

Plus, the success of the distributed work force has not only proven to employers that employees can work independently and even more productively, but that video conference technology and online resources are also valuable tools for connection and delivering information. That’s playing out a demand for virtual learning that is accelerating dramatically, especially in businesses that have embraced the need for upskilling and reskilling — the importance of education in future proofing has become more pronounced.

Future-proof education

A diploma has always been one of the keys to the working world, but that’s changed in an increasingly automated landscape. Education demographics are shifting dramatically as employers increasingly require a broad array of eskills.

“Learning and development managers are seeing the culture of learning improve across their organizations. Numbers are going through the roof because we’re at home and desperate to learn more.”

And employees are taking advantage of the kind of online courses that can improve job security or even launch new avenues of employment. People who have been furloughed are now looking at their skills, and perhaps for the first time, truly assessing what they need to learn to be futureproofed.

“Learning and development managers are seeing the culture of learning improve across their organizations, because of that need,” Yahaya says. “And many have seen a high demand for virtual learning. Numbers are going through the roof because we’re at home and desperate to learn more.”

Employers are also recognizing that the most sustainable and futureproof way of staying in business is reskilling and upskilling, seeing just how crucial this is to invest in their workforce and take them along for the journey, rather than displacing them only to make an external hire as roles evolve — and we even see brand-new positions emerge.

“There are many current in-demand job specialties and skill sets that didn’t exist even a decade ago, and this pace of change will accelerate even more,” Jervis says.

There’s no way to really know what’s needed to learn for the future of work, but soft skills are becoming fundamental as well, notes Yahaya — things like cognitive flexibility, adaptability, agility in the face of change, and how you align those with problem solving skills, for instance.

“As automation becomes a part of most job roles, these interpersonal and non-technical abilities will be more and more important in the hiring process,” Jervis adds. “Things like intuition, empathy, people management, and persuasion will be seen as core competencies in a digital economy.”

Breakthroughs in edtech

As modes, methods, and methodologies shift, breakthrough technologies are driving every kind of learning, from emotionally aware software that can perceive the learner’s mood and adapt, to personalized learning systems that respond to our unique ways of learning, as well as hybrid learning realities, where AR and VR mesh online and offline worlds in ways we haven’t seen before. Here are just a few ways technology is reshaping classrooms and workplaces.

Affective computing

How would digital learning change if your computer could know if you were frustrated or bored, or conversely, excited or confident? That’s the promise of affective computing, and its potential to dramatically alter the elearning experience.

In an effort to replicate the power of non-verbal communication, data scientists are developing deep learning neural networks that are able to recognize intent when a person is speaking through sentiment analysis. Facial expression recognition and speech emotional recognition are also key technologies in affective computing.

It’s coming into play with emotionally responsive chatbots, which are becoming learning coaches and guides that can be deployed inside learning databases in both colleges and companies.

Some early elearning experiments are being done using stylized avatars that mimic body language and human emotion. The avatars respond to a user’s emotional cues with their own emotional reactions. These kinds of bots can offer assistive support to a learner as they move through a learning course or navigate a knowledge portal. It can amplify and support the learning experience, such as helping mitigate frustration if a learner hits a snag, or by keeping a user engaged by offering a personalized, interactive experience and more.

Among the most powerful application of affective computing is as learning aids for children with learning disabilities or autism. It’s being actively used in schools around the world, to help them read social cues or recognize emotions and apply this in their day-to-day lives.

Milo, a child-size robot with an expressive face, can help a child with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) learn to read and connect with the emotions of others in a far less intimidating way than interactions with teachers or peers. Pepper and Nao are designed to create an empathetic link with children to help overcome shyness, a lack of confidence and frustration, improving social skills and self-esteem, especially in the special education classroom, for children who may have experienced peer-to-peer difficulties as they negotiate classroom situations.

Mixed reality

A PwC report predicted that nearly 23 million jobs worldwide would be using AR and VR by 2030 for training specifically – for learning and development within the organization. And according to a report by, AR and VR technologies will boom to $170 billion by 2022, buoyed by the increasing number of use cases across industries.

“With the lockdown stimulating a massive diversification in how we gain knowledge, I do think our realities need to feel more blended,” Jervis says. “Augmenting the digital world enhances our learning.”

In education, VR, which immerses the users in an imagined world, and augmented reality (AR), which overlays digital elements to a live view are pushing the bounds of immersive learning.

AR and VR enable learners to step into a virtual learning environment and interact with virtual elements in real-life setups to simulate and rehearse real-world scenarios. They can also provide an integrated feedback loop, where learners can play back their performance and learn from their mistakes.

Mixed reality can also enable gamified elearning, generating profoundly immersive learning experiences that don’t feel like learning at all.

It’s being used in a wide variety of skills training right now, including flight, combat, policing, skilled trades, athletics, and emergency responders. In medicine, doctors-in-training can rehearse surgery, practice diagnoses, or study human anatomy close up. NASA is using VR and AR to train their astronauts, and support them when completing technical tasks on board the International Space Station

And in classrooms, students can explore other times and other places, or experiment freely in a completely safe chemistry lab. Or it can be used to eliminate phobias — simulating a public speaking experience for a company exec.

Adaptive learning

Few instructors relish a classroom size of 30 children, or a university lecture hall of 300 students, limiting their ability to give individual attention to each. This is where adaptive learning comes in. It can support an instructor, or greatly improve one-size-fits-all online learning, with the ability to provide a one-to-one learning experience that can continuously adjust and adapt to the student’s needs and abilities.

By leveraging AI and machine learning, an adaptive learning platform develops a baseline assessment of the learner. It then executes complex, real-time adaptations based on learner performance and behavior, customizing lessons throughout the length of the course, adjusting and adapting to the user’s needs. The technology offers a fundamentally more powerful and effective way of learning than a standard online course. Constantly learning about the student’s behavior and performance, the platform offers data-driven personalized hints, feedback, remediation, and knowledge reinforcement as learners move through a course.

As a result, learners gain increased autonomy, higher engagement, satisfaction, confidence, and mastery in both offices and in classrooms.

For educators and workplace administrators, these platforms offer data analytics that deliver insights around learning and performance data, so that programs can be adjusted and optimized both individually and for a group.

The thriving London edtech ecosystem

Many of these edtech innovators have their home in London. The city tracks at an impressive second position behind Silicon Valley as one of the best global startup ecosystems, with a busy edtech market. There’s a plethora of venture capitalists, as well as accelerator and incubator programs like UCL Educate. And edtech companies like UpSkill Digital, which delivers virtual training, content development services, and digital skills programs, are thriving.

“There’s no dearth of edtech startups, as well as incubators designed to help accelerate them, and funders that are willing to back them. And in London they end up being scaleups, not just startups.”

A small sampling includes A Cloud Guru, with offices in London, Washington D.C., Melbourne and Austin, which offers on-demand cloud computing training, while FutureLearn enables online learning through free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from leading educational establishments.

Macat, a Fulham-based company, helps people and businesses measure, analyse, and boost critical thinking, with analyses of the world’s most influential books and papers, as well as an assessment platform for users.

Kano Computing, which develops coding kits for all ages, has been named in many different lists of science and tech toys for children, providing a simple and entertaining way to learn about the creation and modification of systems.

Touch Surgery uses holographic surgical headsets to let people train, prep and test themselves on procedures wherever they are. And there’s more.

“There’s no dearth of edtech startups, as well as incubators that are designed to help accelerate them, and then funders that are willing to back them,” says Jervis. “And in London they end up being scaleups, not just startups.”

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