76 Students Weigh In on EdTech: Pain Points, Opportunities, & Favorite Tools

For brief context, my name is Meagan Loyst and I’m an early-stage investor at Lerer Hippeau and the Founder of Gen Z VCs. EdTech is an area I’ve focused on since the beginning (see tweet below) and continue to spend time in (see my “Top 4 EdTech Trends I’m Watching as a Seed Stage Investor” article here, which won an award from ASU + GSV!) — and with this article, I’m going to dive into a new perspective on education focusing on the student experience.

EdTech trends & companies I’m following from seed to growth.

I’ve read a bunch of great EdTech articles over the past few months, but I couldn’t find any that really addressed the student POV — talking to students, understanding the pain points, what tools they’re using, and what they believe the future of education will look like. I believe it’s important to highlight and amplify under-appreciated perspectives in VC, and when talking about the future of education, students have a lot of incredible things to say.

I polled / spoke with 76 students in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, representing 44 programs & 40 unique schools to better understand 3 key questions:

  1. What are the biggest pain-points students are experiencing today?
  2. What are the most popular learning tools among college students?
  3. What are the up-and-coming education tool/app(s) students are using that most people might not know about?

So, who are these students?

The students came from a range of public and private universities all over the U.S., with some representation in Canada (Ivey, UOttawa) and Europe (Oxford, HEC Paris, Imperial College London, University of Southampton, and the Warsaw University of Technology) as well.

Universities represented by the students polled for this article.

The distribution is skewed towards undergraduate students (63%), although we had a good amount of Master’s students (31%) as well. Plus some recent grads, and one law student! As a result, the answers below will mostly be reflecting the college experience.

Q1: Onto the first question… what are the biggest pain-points students are experiencing today?

Engagement was the biggest struggle for students (28%), followed by Distanced Learning (23%), Career Readiness (17%) and Outdated Materials/Curriculum (17%). Note that many of these are also intertwined, as outdated materials and class structure often hinder engagement, as does the struggles of distanced learning.

I’m going to highlight the two areas which I found the most compelling from an investor’s perspective, Engagement and Career Readiness, which both present unique opportunities for the early-stage startup ecosystem.

Engagement: Students are struggling with peer-to-peer and student-to-professor engagement in a virtual/hybrid setting, and women specifically are having a hard time being heard.

As 9/10 of Universities transitioned to a virtual and hybrid learning environment in the wake of COVID-19, engagement was the top pain point (28%) experienced by the students I spoke with.

“Engagement in my Zoom classes is extremely low; I’m often put in breakout rooms where no one turns on their video or microphone, and it’s extremely frustrating/saddening.” — Leila Ashtaryeh, Wharton/Penn Undergraduate Student

Being remote has made it challenging to develop meaningful relationships with the peers in my MBA cohort. There are almost 80 of us and we don’t get much 1:1 interaction with each other outside of our team meetings because of the virtual environment we are in.”— Cornell MBA Student

“Sure, some teachers are better at engaging with students than others, but there needs to be ways — via games, apps, etc. — where students can be more engaged with the material. I imagine the problem is much worse for younger students. I find myself struggling to remain engaged in the new educational setting.” — Josh Labonte, Hamilton Undergraduate Student

Other students mentioned experiencing difficulty with organic discussion, collaboration in class, accessibility of faculty, lack of study groups, and simply sitting still and listening for hours on end with little engagement/discussion.

Another very interesting point that arose from my conversations is that women are often adversely affected when it comes to participation in an online environment. When I looked back at the survey responses and calls with students, only women spoke about how asking questions in a large lecture on Zoom was intimidating or offered specific challenges.

“Last year I was a very active participant and had no problem as a female student raising my hand, interjecting, and participating. This semester, I struggle to a lot more with this because of the online environment. As silly as it sounds, there are days where I feel my skin doesn’t look good, and knowing there are 80 faces are on me when I speak, there are times I don’t want to speak up or stumble through a thought, where in class I definitely would. I’ve spoken about this with my Professor, and his wife mentioned she feels the same way on Zoom. And if a Professor is asking a question, other people, typically men, will speak up quicker and faster, and I don’t attempt it. I don’t feel comfortable interjecting, and some teachers are expecting that — they don’t use the hand raising function.” — Boston College Law Student

For some reason, on Zoom when a woman speaks, people keep speaking over her. When a man speaks, people stop and listen. Now it’s even easier to speak over us in a virtual environment than it was in person — women are having a harder time getting heard.” — Chris McKenzie, NYU Stern MBA Student

So herein lies the big question, where do we go from here and how do we improve engagement in the classroom? Here are the things that seem most important to me:

  1. Improve Feedback Loops: Professors and students alike are navigating uncharted virtual/hybrid territory, and having short feedback loops and forums to make changes iteratively has never been more important. Students want to feel heard around what’s working vs. what’s not, but there’s no systematic way to do so. There seems to be an opportunity, especially around an integration with Zoom or selling B2B to Universities, for a solution that enables this more direct connection between students and faculty and even encourages it through gamification. I believe this would also arm professors with the ability to think about more personalized learning for each student. A great example of this in practice is Class.com (fka ClassEdu), which is built on top of Zoom with education-specific features that help increase real-time engagement between professors and students. Engageli is another company innovating in this space.
  2. Coaching / Training for Educators: Executive training has been having it’s hay-day during COVID — startups like GoSoundingBoard are raising, VC firms like 776 Ventures and Felicis are making 1–2% pledges to dedicate funds to the personal growth of founders they’re backing, etc. In a similar vein, many Universities offer paid sabbaticals to professors to take time off and focus on personal development. With the amount of change that’s transpired in the past few months, I’d be interested to see how Universities are reacting (if at all) to offer training, coaching, and support to professors so they can employ new strategies for a virtual or hybrid setting. And as new technologies continue to be introduced, teachers need to be trained on how to use these products.
  3. New Modes of Instruction: There also has to be a change in mindset around the delivery of education — especially in a virtual setting, reading off of a PowerPoint won’t cut it and students will have a more difficult time retaining the information with increased distractions at home vs. in the classroom. A few students noted the benefits of having a flipped classroom environment, where class time spent with professors is focused on discussion vs. regurgitating material. Startups like mmhmm have also found success among educators & students alike in leveling up presentations to make them more interactive and engaging (and is free for students and educators for their first year as of Dec. 2020).
  4. Build Community: Education has historically always been focused on audience-based learning (1:Many). From my perspective, the future of education also involves community-based learning (Many:Many) where peer-to-peer engagement is an integral part of the learning process. Students are craving connection with one another — especially with online learning — and so technology or programs that help facilitate group discussions and assignments both inside and outside the classroom will be incredibly important in the coming years. I also find this to be true not only on college campuses, but also in alternative education programs like On Deck and as early as high school with Fiveable — I dive into this topic further in an article I published in December linked here.

Career Readiness: There needs to be a shift from theoretical learning to real-life application of skills and experiences to prepare graduates and level the playing field for all students.

I myself am a recent graduate (Boston College, 2019), and although I never experienced virtual/hybrid learning, this is a pain point that’s incredibly personal and resonates with many students I spoke with. Most college classes today are highly theoretical and don’t prepare students with the skills they need to actually land jobs when they graduate — what really matters to employers is job experience, leaving them to scramble for internships. The unfortunate reality is that this often leaves low-income students behind who can’t afford to do unpaid internships/fellowships just for experience or lack the connections to get their foot in the door. Then this inequity just perpetuates as you move throughout school, as it becomes easier to land your next internship once you already have one under your belt. Here are some thoughts from students I spoke with:

We’ve seen a shift toward students having to do outside bootcamps (coding/design) in order to find jobs post-grad because the things they learned in college didn’t translate into real world jobs. In high school, we see a lack of education on future career paths, leading students to feel lost and unsure of the paths they can take for their career.” — Recent UCLA Grad

“As a Finance major, I believe that most of my classes are highly theory-based. Theory is definitely important, but I was hoping that some of my classes would teach me skills that are applicable in financial careers such as financial modeling, valuation, building pitches, analyzing companies, etc. These were all skills that I developed outside of the classroom through internships and self-learning.” — Student at Northeastern University

“From my perspective, the connection and application to real life is missing. Where are the classes that teach you how to do taxes? What It’s like to start a company? I started a company back in my freshman and sophomore year of college and I learned more from those 8 months than I’ve ever learned through my entire career of education.” — Tom Lombardozzi, Student at Elon University

“One thing that’s frustrating is how for some reason, even though there is so much high quality online education readily available for free (Coursera, edX), there still is a problem with gaining proper credit.” — Student at Yale University

Not enough information is given on the actual world of professions. What type of professions are actually available in the world.” — Student at Rutgers University

There remains a huge opportunity in this arena to better prepare students with real-world experience. Here are a few thoughts and opportunities I’m seeing in the space:

  1. Universities can form partnerships with startups that are internship-first, providing experience that’s integrated in coursework: Students are craving this real-world experience, and University-level partnerships offer a way to make these experiences accessible to everyone. This model is truly a win-win, because ideally Universities will see higher job placement statistics and corporate partners will have access to high quality pipelines of talent that already have experience at their company. Companies doing this include Upkey, Forage, and Riipen — each are taking a unique approach in their GTM. My prediction is the next iteration of this will be shorter-form projects like externships that accomplish a similar mission, but might provide a more scalable way of doing so for both students and companies alike.
  2. Universities can bring corporate partners into the educational experience that offer credentials: Although I’m more bullish on the value of internships vs. credentials for undergraduate students, credentials can often have wider application than just students and are popular in continuing/workforce education as well. Pathstream is one startup innovating in this space, which partners with leading companies like Unity, Facebook, and Salesforce to create skills-based course content for University students. Coursera is another, whose Coursera for Campus product empowers any university to offer job-relevant, credit-ready online education to students, faculty, and staff.
  3. We’ll also continue to see the rise of alternative models of education, as evidenced by companies like Outlier which is reimagining for-credit online college courses, and Google’s 6 month career certificates which they see as an equivalent to a 4 year Bachelor’s degree. The coding bootcamp space is quite crowded (Codecademy, General Assembly, etc.), but I believe we’ll continue to see bootcamps that offer real ROI to students on shorter timelines that focus on other fields, like Springboard in UI/UX and Data Science, Product School for Product Managers, or perhaps other fields outside of tech that are more nascent. I’d be curious to see something built here at the pre-seed and seed stage.
  4. There needs to be a more efficient ramp up from high school to college, and highlighting career paths earlier will benefit students. Many students indicated that career readiness should begin in high school, and I tend to agree — we’re already seeing this in other areas of the world. One student surveyed noted that where he grew up in Asia, high schools are specifically tailored towards a specialty or skill (ie: business, science, design, medicine, etc.) and they’re offered a great deal of guidance and data on their strengths and weaknesses to help make informed decisions. I’m not saying that the U.S. will move towards this model; however, finding better ways to offer guidance and highlight career paths in early stages of a student’s journey would be highly beneficial, and perhaps new startups can make this institutionalized at both the high school and college level.

Q2: What tools are most frequently being used by students?

Survey results from polling 76 students on their most frequently used tools. It’s worth noting that Zoom was not listed by many as a tool, but usage is likely much higher by the participants and their Universities based on other questions from the survey.

It was no surprise to see freemium products like Quizlet, Youtube, and Khan Academy leading the way for many of these students. What’s interesting about these companies is they’ve found a way to hook students early in their learning journey, oftentimes in high school, and continue serving them with content/tools as they progress through college and beyond.

Canvas and Blackboard were also unsurprising, as they’re often mandated as a Learning Management System (LMS) at the University level and serve as the single source of truth for all coursework, lectures, etc., and therefore have strong mindshare among students.

There also weren’t as many new startups listed here by multiple students, which in my mind reinforces the fact that it continues to be a long game for EdTech companies to reach true mass and scale.

Q3: What are some up-and-coming tools students are using that most people might not know about?

Although there were several more listed, I only highlighted the companies founded in 2015 or later.

In an effort to highlight newer/lesser known companies in the space, I only included names that were founded in 2015 or later. However, there were some popular EdTech companies that popped up (StackOverflow, Grammarly), as well as some older companies outside of pure education that have found interesting use cases overtime (ie: Canva for making class presentations). In reference to the latter, I particularly enjoyed Jack’s commentary on how he’s using Twitter to further his education:

“I got into real estate this past summer, and found this amazing community on Twitter of real estate folks — a great mix of people who have been doing it a long time, and others who are just getting started. I keep a notebook where I hand-write some of the threads in my own words so that I learn the content better. Social media can be such a powerful tool for education if used correctly.Jack Polivka, Student at Ohio State University

I agree with this wholeheartedly —education is no longer being constrained to the classroom, and has inherently become very social.

  • You’re seeing TikTok rise as an educational tool for Gen Z, who turn to creators on the platform for financial advice, how-to videos, and more.
  • Clubhouse has served as another destination for people looking to learn and converse on specific topics, especially in Tech and VC. For example, I’m the Founder of Gen Z VCs, and we host bi-weekly panels on Clubhouse highlighting emerging trends in the ecosystem from the POV of young investors — thousands have tuned in over the past few months! Cosmopolitan interviewed me here where I share my thoughts on Clubhouse as an emerging platform and my role as a leading voice.

From my perspective, the rise of vertical social networks will make this application of EdTech and learning even more compelling, as the content is inherently going to be more tailored, social, and all of the users will be aligned around a particular interest.

A huge thank you to all of the new friends and students I connected with that offered thoughts on their educational experience ❤ and to Eli, Sophie, and Thea for your thoughts & help editing this article. Talking to students about education proved to be some of my favorite conversations of 2020.

If you’re a founder building in EdTech tackling any of the pain-points listed above, I’d love to meet you. Please shoot me a note at meagan@lererhippeau.com.

I write about EdTech quite frequently — to learn more, check out the “Top EdTech Trends I’m Watching as a Seed Stage Investor” article I wrote in December, or my Building with Purpose series where I interview leading EdTech founders and CEOs like Ankur Nagpal (Teachable), Zach Sims (Codecademy), John Katzman (2U, Princeton Review, Noodle), Taylor Nieman (Toucan) and more.

I’d also love to keep in touch on Twitter :) I often post about EdTech there as well. https://twitter.com/meaganloyst

VC @ Lerer Hippeau | Founder of Gen Z VCs | Advisory Board @ Girls Who Invest

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