Education: Best Bets for 2014

Millions are seeking the benefits of a Western education by crossing oceans or logging in to courses from home. That's where entrepreneurial firms come in

Written by Jim McElgunn

Most educational institutions still go through a lot of chalk. Yet the same forces shaking up so many other sectors—thinning borders, personalized services, digital everything—are reshaping teaching and learning as well. Millions are seeking the benefits of a Western education by crossing oceans or logging in to courses from home, and tech-saturated youth are a natural fit for sophisticated educational tools. Still, there’s much to do if the sector is to achieve what these trends have made feasible. That’s where entrepreneurial firms come in.

Online education

Massive online open courses (MOOCs) give anyone in the world free access to some of the world’s best university curricula (as well as to more humble fare, such as remedial classes). Nishikant Sonwalkar, who led MIT’s development of online distance education and now edits the research journal MOOCs Forum, says 20 to 30 million students worldwide are now taking such courses—a number growing by at least 15% each year. Sonwalkar says MOOC providers are looking for many services. One is badging. Say a student in India applies for a job with a Canadian employer who is unfamiliar with the Indian university the student attended. “If a third-party service provided badges confirming he also took five MOOC courses in search-engine design from MIT and ranked among the top 5%, that employer would hire him,” says Sonwalkar.

MOOC providers also need branding help to compete with market leaders Coursera and edX. Authentication services, which verify that a student taking an online test is the same person who presented a passport online when she registered for the course, is another opportunity. And, says Sonwalkar, professors who excel in this medium—”ones from top schools who are very good on camera and can handle five things at once while exciting students’ interest”—are in high demand. You can expect a wave of Hollywood-style talent agencies representing star physics and math professors.

Personalized learning

Education is moving away from the idea of every student being on the same page of the same book at the same time, says Steve Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association, whose members are U.S. tutoring firms. Today, teachers need software platforms that enable them to build “playlists” of curricular items personalized for each child. Tools like online quizzes help teachers assess students’ progress and edit their playlists to address areas of difficulty. Tutoring firms are snapping up this technology, but, says Pines, “the biggest opportunities are in public schools, which are clamouring for solutions to boost individual achievement.” As well, teachers accustomed to old-school lecturing, along with their supervisors, urgently need training in blending traditional and digital methods. “That business is exploding and will grow at an exponential rate,” says Pines.

International students

Canada ranks seventh globally as a destination for post-secondary students from abroad, reports the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Enrollment has soared by 161% since 2000. And the outlook remains bullish: The OECD projects the number of grad and undergrad students studying outside their countries will surge from 4.3 million in 2011 to 7.2 million by 2025.

Canada’s share of this market hasn’t changed much—4.7% in 2011 versus 4% in 2000—while rivals like Britain and Australia have posted big gains. Schools value international students for their financial contributions and because foreign keeners spur others to study harder. Entrepreneurs can help with student recruitment but should focus on the gaps. Don’t waste your time targeting the big schools with established reputations, advises John Hepburn, UBC’s VP international, because they prefer to handle this in-house. Instead, look for institutions that lag in this arena or wish to diversify their source countries. And go where the growth is: International-student enrollment at Canadian colleges has rocketed from 20,000 in 2009 to 50,000 in 2012.

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This story is part of PROFIT’s 2014 Opportunity Guide, full of trends, ideas and markets you can jump on right now

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