Will edtech empower or erase the need for higher education?

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The coronavirus has erased a large chunk of college’s value proposition: the on-campus experience.

Campuses are closed, sports have been paused and, understandably, students don’t want to pay the same tuition for a fraction of the services. As a result, enrollment is down across the country and university business models are under unrelenting pressure.

The entire athletics program at East Carolina University has been furloughed with pay cuts. Ohio Wesleyan University eliminated 18 majors and consolidated a number of programs to save $4 million a year. And Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University lost 1,000 students to online school within weeks of reopening its campus, sacrificing $3.5 million in room and board fees.

And that’s just in the last few weeks.

As universities struggle, edtech is being positioned as a solution for their largest problem: remote teaching. Coursera, a massive open online course (MOOC), created a campus product to help schools quickly offer digital coursework. Podium Education raised millions last month to offer universities for-credit tech programs. Eruditus brought on more than $100 million in the last few months to create programming for elite universities. In some ways, the growth is the story of edtech’s ongoing surge amid the coronavirus pandemic: Remote schooling has forced institutions to piece together third-party solutions to keep operations afloat.

However, while some startups are helping universities offer virtual programming overnight, professors on the ground are warning their institutions to think long-term about what kind of technologies are net positive to adopt.

It’s a stress test that could lead to a reckoning among edtech startups.

‘We’re talking about the next evolution of textbooks’

As the last eight months have taught us, Zoom-based school is a lackluster alternative to the in-person experience. College campuses, thus, are tasked with finding a more creative way to offer engaging virtual content to students who are stuck in their dorm rooms.

Coursera launched Coursera for Campus to help colleges bring on online courses (credit optional) with built-in exams; more than 3,700 schools across the world are using the software.

“Professors would really want super-high-quality branded content that has assessments built into it if they’re going to deliver that learning for credit,” CEO Jeff Maggioncalda said. “That’s not the kind of learning you can get on YouTube.”

For now, though, Maggioncalda says he doesn’t think the death of a physical college campus experience is the future. He’s betting that the product can help colleges save money on faculty costs and reinvest that same money into the campus.

“There will be schools that will continue to offer residential experience, and I think what they’re gonna find is, if your real value proposition is that residential experience, then lead into that heavily,” he said. “But make sure that you’ve got really good content and credentials that are available so that your students don’t have to sacrifice.”

Georgia Tech professor David Joyner says that MOOCs like Coursera “are good for outreach and access, but are not good for accreditation.” Instead, he thinks edtech needs to be built first and foremost for universities to be most effective.

Podium Education, for example, builds courses in partnership with universities to offer for-credit courses. The newly launched startup raised $12 million in October and works with more than 20 colleges. Eruditus, an edtech startup that raised over $100 million in September, creates courses in collaboration with more than 30 elite universities, including MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, IIT and more.

Coursera, Podium and Eruditus are all signaling a future where universities could be getting a plug-and-play model of asynchronously taught curriculum.