The Most Important Edtech Trends

We asked three experts what education will look like in the near future.

Written by Mae Rice
Published on Dec. 16, 2019
The Most Important Edtech Trends

In 2019, the U.S. edtech industry was worth about a billion dollars. But valuations of expressly educational technology paint an incomplete picture of the relationship between technology and education. Really, almost any gadget or piece of software can play a key role in the classroom. It all depends on how it’s used. 

TikTok isn’t edtech, per se, but high schools have TikTok clubs. 3D printers can build homes and experimental space habitats, but they can also print out educational fossil replicas. Even VR headsets, staples of gaming, open up a world of possibilities in the classroom — though for a long time, a classroom set of them was impractical.

The Oculus VR headsets, for instance, were once bulky, awkward headgear that connected to equally bulky computers via a maze of wires, teacher and edtech expert Nicholas Provenzano told Built In. Over time, though, the devices have grown more streamlined. The latest models are portable and rechargeable, like a phone. 

“You’re seeing these devices become smaller, faster, better,” Provenzano said. “And along with that you’re seeing prices dropping.”

Could 2020 be the year VR becomes a classroom staple? We spoke with three experts, including Provenzano, about where the edtech industry might be headed in 2020. 



shelley osborneShelley Osborne

VP of Learning at Udemy

A one-time high school teacher, Osborne focuses on learning strategy at Udemy, a marketplace of more than 130,000 online courses. She works on Udemy’s employee and instructor trainings, and ensures that the latest science on learning informs Udemy course formats and products. 


paul mummaPaul Mumma

CEO of Cerego

Mumma helms Cerego, whose training platform helps users retain factual information — like Spanish vocabulary, or a sequence of regulations. Adopted in educational and corporate settings alike, it’s designed around cognitive-science-backed learning strategies, like reviewing multiple times rather than in one marathon session. 


nicholas provenzanoNicholas Provenzano

Makerlab leader at University Liggett School and writer at The Nerdy Teacher

As Makerlab leader at an independent Michigan school for K-12 students, Provenzano runs a designated space stocked with tools like 3D printers, laser cutters and robotics gadgets. He  assists students with creative projects, and helps teachers integrate the latest technology into their lesson plans. 



Students will Opt for online courses over in-person ones.

shelley osborneOSBORNE: The future of learning is online. An instructor-led long workshops, where we practice a skill for a day and deep dive — that’s not effective for achieving behavior changes and the actual learning outcomes we want. That’s best done through an online platform where people can access the content on-demand, as they need it. They don't necessarily need a three-hour workshop; maybe they only need a five-minute tidbit to get through that next project.


paul mummaMUMMA: When you look at students who are enrolled in a degree-granting course online, you find that a majority of the students in an online program actually live within 50 miles of the institution that's running that online course. And that seemed kind of surprising, right? If someone lives within 50 miles of — I'll just make it up — Bryan University down in the Scottsdale, Arizona, wouldn’t it be a better experience to drive 35 or 40 miles to that campus?

But on another level, it’s not so surprising. Companies and schools are starting to use technology in such a way that online is a more fair and effective way of learning. I don't think that online learning is the only way people are going to learn in the future, but I think it's reasonable to expect that more and more people will choose online versions of a course or a degree over in-person options.


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The “learning experience ecosystem” will extend beyond LMSes.

paul mummaMUMMA: Schools and companies more and more spend their training and teaching budgets on a collection of digital tools. Even 10 years ago, they would tend to buy one big piece of software, usually a learning management system (LMS). Josh Bersin reports on educational technology — he used to work for Deloitte — and one of his observations was that today, there's a learning experience ecosystem coming together. 

I think that observation is right on. Our customers tend to be really excited about Cerego as a tool to help people retain foundational knowledge. But they might also be thinking about using a different tool for practicing soft skills using virtual reality, and another tool for a live coaching exercise. They’re thinking less, “Oh, the LMS is the only thing I need.” Now they're thinking, What are the pieces that can work together to give the best learning experience?


Mobile will become more central in edtech, and a mobile-first learning product will explode.

shelley osborneOSBORNE: There’s definitely been a significant shift to learners learning on their mobile devices. They’re truly on the go. A lot of our learners are doing it on the commute, on the train into work or on the bus — in that five-minute span. These are behaviors that match what we see in other digital spaces in terms of entertainment consumption, but it’s a new thing in the education space.

paul mummaMUMMA: I think even in the next year we're going to see a really explosive and great learning-focused product that's mobile-only or really, really mobile-focused. Some people kind of roll their eyes at this, but when you look at internet usage in general, more and more people turn to their phones rather than their computers. Like when they have to write a long email or do accounting work, they do it on their phones. I think learning can happen in new and really effective ways that are only possible on the phone. Phones have amazing cameras and sensors. So I think there could be a big mobile-first breakout next year.


Gamified learning could lose momentum...

paul mummaMUMMA: The market appetite for gamified learning is probably highest when the economy's good and people have extra money floating around. If the economy falters, we're going to see less people talk about it. It’s a fun way of trying to get people to pay attention when times are good, but we reviewed a lot of research done by cognitive scientists to see what really helps people learn, and there’s no good evidence that gamifying helps. It might make people feel motivated in the beginning, but there's no evidence that it's a great technique in the long term.


nicholas provenzanoPROVENZANO: I'm hoping that sort of disappears. Sure, Minecraft is gamified, but it just happened to be a game that can be used for learning. There are a lot of edtech companies out there that offer role-playing games. My son does a math one — it’s sort of that app culture where you try to win things that aren't real prizes, they’re just fake things that go on the fake living room wall. Not everything has to be a game. The idea that everything has to have a reward steals the joy of learning. 


...or it could thrive.

shelley osborneOSBORNE: To me, gamification has a pretty significant branding problem. The name misleads people. It's often conflated with purely badges, prizes or competition, but you do not need to rely on outside motivators like that. Game mechanics can motivate and result in a behavior change — but that behavior change is most effective when the student wants to learn intrinsically, within themselves. 

Extrinsic motivators like badges (or grades) don’t even motivate everyone — if you look at Bartle’s taxonomy of player types, there are four archetypal players in a classic gaming experience. Some of them, like the explorer, are more intrinsically motivated. They don’t want to win; they want to discover new things.


Randomized efficacy testing of edtech products will take off in unconventional settings.

paul mummaMUMMA: There’s not a lot of good experimental randomized control trials looking at edtech products. Especially in an academic environment, if you want to run studies that are truly randomized, you often need to work with an institutional review board (IRB). That really slows down the process. Also, people don't like the idea of an edtech tool that's supposed to work, but that’s only given to half of the students. But if you give it to everybody, you can't get a good control group. So there's this psychological barrier that stops a lot of wellbeing institutions from actively denying some people a tool.

But here’s the silver lining: You can conduct randomized controlled trials outside traditional school environment. In a corporate or vocational setting, you don't need IRB approval, and you can make a randomized control group. Just in the last year, a part of the U.S. Army called the Defense Acquisition University, which trains soldiers and civilians, did an honest-to-goodness randomized controlled trial. They gave Cerego to one randomly chosen group and nothing to a control group, and they found that Cerego worked better. That’s an example of where you can get good research. 


More education tools will use augmented and virtual reality.

nicholas provenzanoPROVENZANO: I see further investment in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) products, like Adobe Aero. [Provenzano is an education leader for Adobe.] It’s augmented reality and it’s free. It’s the type of thing I can roll out to a class with iPads, and now I can have them design and build full AR stories and demonstrate understanding through augmented reality. In our high school French classes, for example, students lead virtual reality tours of Paris, where they essentially walk through the streets and narrate what they see in French.

Especially seeing a company like Adobe saying, “Hey, AR, we want to invest in that” — that’s not a willy nilly quick decision. They’re pumping in hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars into making that happen. To see Adobe get into AR and make an app like that available to educators, it’s a really powerful signal.


Companies focused on creativity will lead the pack.

nicholas provenzanoPROVENZANO: Companies that focus on edtech for creation and not consumption — I think that's a trend that we're starting to finally see, and I'm super happy to see it. Adobe is one of those companies. Microsoft’s Minecraft education edition is another wonderful example. There are all these tools that are designed to let kids create digital experiences that demonstrate their understanding of the material. 


Learning will become part of work.

shelley osborneOSBORNE: From a technology standpoint, we're seeing the emergence of all sorts of new skills. New programming languages, or things like data science and AI, are becoming extremely important. Whatever you're doing, I know that new skills are coming for you. According to a Udemy report from a couple years ago, a skill lasts around five years these days. The most important skill is actually the ability to learn, because we’re seeing this constant need to upskill. 

So we really need to think more about the continuous learning space and really injecting learning into the flow of work. Especially because employees increasingly expect that their employers will provide them with learning  opportunities. It’s essential to their continued ability to do their job.

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Images via Shutterstock, social media and interviewees.

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