At the largest education technology fair in Europe, EdSurge's Betsy Corcoran got to observe not only the state of ed tech in Europe today, but the direction of venture capital and education for the future. The BETT annual show was held at the end of January in London's futuristic ExCeL Center.
BETT began as a vendor fair 35 years ago and has grown to 650 exhibitors. The program also includes lectures and demonstrations. This year, the event also served as venue for a "pitch fest" in which startup companies could compete in pitching their ideas, as if to venture capital companies.
The EdMix "pitchfest" was a first for BETT–and showed a wide skew of ideas from a digital summer camp program, a program for locating tutors, an iPad content creation app called Doceri, and a variety of educational game programs.
Corcoran explains that venture capital has rarely been involved in developing education technology in the United Kingdom. This is partly because the BBC is funded by the government, and its products sometimes compete with private industry development. Since sales of education technology mostly depend on school funding, which comes from tax money, the British government makes it difficult for private companies to compete with the BBC for this limited money. Additionally, government funding priorities keep changing, so the market cannot be counted on to grow.
UK school budgets for technology these days are slimmer. (BETT's organizers paid heed to this downturn by including for the first time, technology targeting learning in the workplace and higher education alongside the traditional grade school displays.)
That puts even these companies which have fought hard for customers in much the same quandary as their US startup cousins: they could use an injection of capital to fuel growth.
But despite these barriers, innovative education technology companies are starting and growing. One important strategy is to look for market share outside of Britain, as a company called Frog succeeded in doing:
Its platforms let primary and middle school students and teachers build apps dashboards. The 13-year old company, which employs about 120 people, released fresh software last year. In a joint venture with the YTL Group of Malaysia (part of a behemoth conglomerate), Frog won a contract to put its software in 10,000 Malaysian schools.
Another exhibitor, Little Bridge, sells a virtual-world program for learning English. Of course, its chief market is outside the UK; it is said to be used in 30 countries by millions of learners. Some BETT companies were doing well with sales mainly Britain, like Oddizzi; this educational program uses Google Earth to teach geography. Founded only last year by a British teacher, it is already in use in over 200 British schools.
BETT's growth has made it a draw for international visitors. This year, they expected 40,000 people to attend the free trade show. Based on past participation, about 30% of these visitors were from outside Britain. Attendance by British educators must have been keen this year, with increasing pressure from business and government to use more technology and teach more programming to students. Education Minister Michael Gove has announced that computer science will become part of the new English Baccalaureate diploma in order to push schools to increase computer education. Many schools are now looking at starting to teach programming in early grades.