Learning and teaching boldly: The EdTech start-up in the room

Paul Somers and Dr Shazia K Jan look at how a partnership collectively pushes the boundaries between higher education and EdTech to address a long-standing and common problem.

Has there ever been a more pertinent time to be deeply considering the role of technology in the future of education? The good, the bad and the in-between. Further to the recent news that one of Australia’s leading EdTech organisations, named Forage, received US$35 million in their Series B funding, it is clear that venture capitalists and the broader ecosystem are imagining what this new future might look like.

Macquarie Business School is seeking to define a novel modus operandi that attempts to piece together some combination of the ‘old’ (pre-Coronavirus) and the ‘recent’ (18 months) to create a new ‘normal’ via a ‘hybrid’ hop skip and jump. Not a trivial undertaking!

In seeking to define this undoubtedly digital future, we know that universities do not operate in a bubble. They are one part of an immensely complex educational ecosystem, the components of which – externally and internally – interact or engage with each other at points where boundaries of their practices overlap. Motivated by a shared interest, it is at these boundaries that divergent ideas converge into innovative solutions to often difficult problems. Therefore, we look not just inwards at what we can do in and of ourselves, but, more realistically, at ways and means in which we can partner with others to assist in holistically developing not just better individuals but better economies and societies.

“In seeking to define this undoubtedly digital future, we know that universities do not operate in a bubble.”

Many of these emerging partnerships in the new normal will be technologically led, not because technology companies are necessarily new but because of the exciting future-focused opportunities they enable and the return on investment therein (need we be reminded that Apple is 45 years old, Google is 23 and even Coursera – a relatively young organisation in comparison – is nearly 10 years old!). The products of these leading EdTech organisations not only reach a significant number of people, but the feedback from parties utilising the product – students, employers, and universities – is glowing. It is not just ten people or organisations who are satisfied with an experience; it is literally hundreds, thousands and millions.

We want to take this opportunity to tell our story of one EdTech partnership – between Forage and Macquarie Business School – which, despite being just over one year old, is thriving. The partnership presents an example of how we are collectively pushing the boundaries between higher education and EdTech to address a long-standing and common problem i.e., bridging the gap between academic and organisational practice at an individual student level and at scale.

university ecosystem

Part I – The product

The Navitas Ventures Global Edtech Landscape 3.0, which maps US$50 billion of investment in 15,000 education innovation and technology teams around the world, provided us with a useful start for our exploration. This comprehensive ecosystem view outlined market maps and profiles across 26 innovation clusters within the education sector. Unsurprisingly, the cluster we were most interested in was ‘Career Planning’, which was located underneath the broader ‘Advance’ category. It was at this stage that we became particularly interested in Forage.

According to Forage’s LinkedIn page, they: ‘believe talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not. We want to build a world where every student has the opportunity to build vital career skills and industry knowledge for free. Forage looks to tear down the barriers between potential and opportunity. We give every student an equal chance of discovering and landing their dream job.’

In seeking to tear these barriers down, Forage partners with leading organisations to create free open-access training courses – also known as virtual experience programmes (VEPs) – for individuals to build their career skills and confidence. In producing outstanding deliverables, which can be viewed by employers, students also stand to be headhunted by these organisations.

We were impressed with Forage’s lofty ambition and well-built technical product, and just as impressed with the numbers they shared with us:

  • 1.5 million student enrolments from 190+ countries and 7200+ universities
  • Partnerships with ~80 organisations – building ~120 VEP’s – alongside prominent global and local organisations
  • Forage is having a significant impact on employer hiring funnels. Forage applicants are 2.2 times more likely to get an interview, 4.5 times more likely to receive an offer, and 4.7 times more likely to accept their offer in comparison with non-Forage candidates
  • US$11.1 million in funding, with their most recent raise of US$35 million Series B funding coming in August 2021

But Forage’s VEPs were publicly available at no cost to students, with numerous universities in Australia and internationally publicizing the programs to students as one of many work-integrated learning options. So, we started to think more deeply about questions like:

  • What value could the university share with Forage?
  • What role could the university play in the partnership?
  • How could the university and Forage co-create a new approach that would benefit our students, us, and Forage?

These were the questions we were able to explore in great depth with Forage’s executives and broader team at speed.

Part II – The co-created Forage and Macquarie Business School solution

Our partnership model is simple. By mapping course learning outcomes to relevant VEPs we contextualise one within the other to co-create learning experiences. The assessments and student experience of the VEP is shaped by two perspectives, the combination of which significantly magnifies the student benefit:

  1. One perspective is built by the university’s internal subject matter experts working alongside educational designers to understand and map what an optimal student experience looks like; and
  2. A perspective that, of course, is provided by the VEP content itself, which poses organisational problems and corresponding solutions, and which provides the university with invaluable input into for future learnings and programmes.

Combining these perspectives creates a pedagogically effective combination of theoretical and practical evaluation leading to deeper engagement with the VEPs and a more immersive and enhanced learning experience. With students’ and colleagues’ feedback integrated in the learning design of our co-created solution, we are pioneering the development of a unique learning experience and paving the way for future iterations of the partnership model.

To date, over 1200 Macquarie Business School students have undertaken the VEPs in-curriculum and hundreds more will do so during 2021. So far, our students are loving it and so are we! Whilst this achievement is remarkable in and of itself, we will not rest there. Having established a foundation from which to rapidly scale, we have set our sights on obtaining an even loftier outcome for both Forage and the university. Our goal was that by the end of 2021, more students at Macquarie Business School will have completed a Forage VEP in-curriculum than students of any other university across all of APAC. We were successful in having reached that goal, and in doing so we were also short-listed for the 2021 Wharton-QS Reimagine Education Awards (aka ‘the Oscars of Education’)!

Part III – Reflections on the Forage and Macquarie Business School partnership

Some partnerships “just work”, whilst others – despite best intentions and every expectation that they will produce great outcomes – fail miserably. Our EdTech partnership with Forage not only “just worked” but has indeed excelled at speed. This entrepreneurial organisation met the equally entrepreneurial team at Macquarie Business School, and we have both pushed each other to our limits of creativity, strategic thinking, and executional capability. In fact, it led us to contemplate Lenin’s quote that ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’.

Upon reflection, our flourishing relationship boils down to three key areas:
(I) Strategy – Forage recognises our aspiration to lead world-class educational experiences for all our students across the entire globe. From Day one, the conversation was never anchored in “business as usual”.
(II) Scale – Both Macquarie Business School and Forage – from naturally varied vantage points – understand students’ needs and employers’ needs, and we are striving to bridge this gap with efficiency, speed, scalability and sustainability at the core.
(III) Size – Forage is an early-stage organisation delivering the experience of a billion-dollar organisation (or even better). They are fast, nimble, and creative whilst also understanding and appreciating the nuances of an entrepreneurially spirited Business School.

Conclusion

We end where we started, with the question, has there ever been a more pertinent time to be deeply considering the role of technology in education?

Our definitive answer is no. There has never been a better time.

This consideration is imperative, as students, employers, and our broader society are eager to empower individuals to optimally balance academic and practical aspects of education in our technologically cataclysmic world.

We could not be more positively encouraged than we are at present after having worked with one of Australia’s leading EdTech companies, Forage. It is expected that this partnership will continue to evolve, and that it will provide a wonderful blueprint for future partnerships of the university. It is partnerships such as these that will certainly be part of our new technology-led normal, and we very much welcome
ongoing dialogue with exemplary individuals, entrepreneurs, organisations, and more who are eager to join us on this journey.

We are only scratching the surface of what is possible in digitally enabling learning and teaching – in the context of the future of work – and certainly, much of this has been accelerated with the ongoing global pandemic. What does better educational technology for everyone look like? It is what the likes of Forage, Coursera and other leading organisations are achieving today – in deep partnerships with universities, employers, and broader society – but ten times better within the decade.

If you are seeking to build this future, do reach out to us on LinkedIn.

Let’s build!

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    Learning and teaching boldly: The EdTech start-up in the room

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