Could a Netflix-inspired subscription model be key to finding edtech’s next unicorn?

A conversation with Dmitry Krasovskiy, PhD, head of education and learning services at EPAM Systems, exploring the sector’s growing appetite for education ‘on-demand’

Name: Dmitry Krasovskiy, PhD

Job title: head of education and learning services, EPAM Systems

Professional bio: Dmitry Krasovskiy is a visionary edtech professional who received his PhD from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology – a leading European technology university. He started his career in computer games development, before moving to online gaming. He has worked with the edtech community for the last 17 years, helping companies transition from print to digital. On top of this, Krasovskiy has been a professor of computer science for many years and has always been a big proponent of online digital education.

Social media: linkedin.com/in/dkras

Q. How is the traditional B2B model that previously shaped the edtech market now changing?

The edtech market is enabling direct-to-consumer models that put the learner at the heart of the education process. Traditional B2B models in education sell directly to universities, instructors, bookstores or e-commerce providers who then market the materials to students. Learning companies are now optimising and augmenting their omni-channel marketing and sales to bypass third-party providers and directly target learners.

Q. In what ways should the edtech sector evolve to serve the needs of students who want to direct their own learning paths?

It’s important for the edtech sector to understand the needs of learners. Educational companies are working more closely with learners to aggregate data and create new learning experiences for all stages of their academic and professional careers.

“By focusing on a lifelong learning model, companies can build loyalty with students and gain long-term insights that can help learners direct and own their learning paths”

By focusing on a lifelong learning model, companies can build loyalty with students and gain long-term insights that can help learners direct and own their learning paths. To better serve students and create personalised experiences, the edtech sector will need to harness data analytics and predict the user’s needs.

Q. What are the pros and cons of a subscription-style education content model?

From the learner’s perspective, some advantages of a subscription-based education model are the variety of content offered and the cost of service. Students are paying for access to a seemingly unlimited number of courses they would otherwise pay a premium for as an individual resource. This model is convenient for students because they can easily change their course of study and learning path within their subscription, rather than searching and paying for individual courses outside of the platform. While the variety of content available is a huge benefit, it can also be viewed as a con because users are paying for some content that they will never use.

“Students are paying for access to a seemingly unlimited number of courses that they would otherwise pay a premium for as an individual resource”

From the educator’s perspective, this model caters to a massive audience without needing to allocate a significant amount of funding for course promotion and sales. However, course authors don’t always understand the policies and pricing associated with a subscription platform. Educators must work with the provider to see who signed up for the course and how to access the platform.

“From the educator’s perspective, this model caters to a massive audience without needing to allocate a significant amount of funding for course promotion and sales”

From a platform provider perspective, this model offers predictable cash flow and the ability to generate comprehensive behavioural insights for platform and course improvements. Although, subscription platforms are typically less marginal and require constant reinvestment. Developers must continuously create new features and content to keep users engaged and loyal. 

“Developers must continuously create new features and content to keep users engaged and loyal”

Q. What engagement model should a subscription learning model employ to attract and retain students?

A successful learning subscription model should provide the following three key aspects to attract and retain students:

  1. Relevant content: providers can attract a larger audience by providing content that resonates with the learner’s current needs.
  2. Measurable outcomes: students want to understand their return on investment. Platforms should include data that shows how users improved or achieved new capabilities, in addition to possibly providing credentialing-like certificates.
  3. An easy and convenient user experience: it’s important to provide and maintain an easy-to-use platform that supports on-demand learning across devices. Because a subscription model encompasses a large, diverse audience, providers should incorporate accessibility features and accommodate a range of technical abilities.

Q. What sort of R&D would need to be conducted for such a model to support the sort of personalisation enabled by a platform like Netflix?

For Netflix, personalisation relies on user data analytics based on preferences and historical behaviour. In education, a much more complicated model with more data is needed to offer personalised content that aligns with a desired outcome.

Dmitry Krasovskiy, PhD, head of education and learning systems, EPAM Systems

In addition to historical user behaviour data, the model must ensure that the suggested content matches the student’s learning path and progress. Artificial intelligence (AI) R&D and machine learning algorithms should be incorporated in the model’s development to support personalisation that aligns with a user’s abilities and goals.

Q. How would a subscription-based edtech structure ensure and maintain the diversity of content expected from users today?

In order to be successful, subscription-based edtech companies must offer continuous, relevant content that covers many disciplines and interest areas.

“In order to be successful, subscription-based edtech companies must offer continuous, relevant content that covers many disciplines and interest areas”

Companies are experimenting and addressing this expectation for content diversity in different ways. Some companies may acquire smaller organisations that provide a more comprehensive list of course offerings. Others create their own content in-house, which tends to be a more expensive path, but one of the best for ensuring quality and accuracy. There are also companies that leverage crowdsourcing and open-education resources; however, this usually isn’t the most effective method for functionality and quality.

Q. What would a user profile look like and how would the platform differentiate between teachers and students?

Teachers and students have unique user roles and profiles that would capture and reflect different data. Profiling students has become much more comprehensive and complex. For students, the platform would aggregate a much larger data set to provide recommended content. This data can include third-party information from social networks, for example, in addition to their progress and behavioural insights within the platform. Teachers can leverage content usage data and learning analytics to track goal progressions and success rates.

Q. Would there be a chance for teachers to contribute their own content to such platforms, like they can via a YouTube channel?

For this kind of platform to be successful, carefully moderated educational content should be the focus as opposed to crowdsourcing material.

“The process for curating content is much more complex than creating a video for YouTube because the material must pass robust checks to ensure that the information is pedagogically sound…”

The process for curating content is much more complex than creating a video for YouTube because the material must pass robust checks to ensure that the information is pedagogically sound, structured, accurate and supports students’ success and learning paths.

Q. How would you address concerns about tech such as this displacing teachers?

Technology won’t be replacing teachers in the near future. Online education has served as a tool to help educators augment quality learning experiences and reach larger audiences.

“Online education has served as a tool to help educators augment quality learning experiences and reach larger audiences”

However, machine learning and AI have created new opportunities for replicating human behaviour, such as emulating the actions of great teachers. AI improvements are being made to provide informed, tailored feedback to students. This technology can extend the traditional capacity of a teacher and provide a high-quality education to students around the world. While we’re seeing remarkable advancements, this technology should only aid – not hinder – the need for educators in the foreseeable future.

Q. What sort of monthly cost should these services charge users?

Pricing should depend on the quality and scope of content, and the type of measurable outcomes and user experience offered to learners. Users want to know what they are paying for and see their return on investment. By offering more features, content and feedback through a subscription model, students are more likely to pay a larger premium. Overall, the price should reflect the quality and range of services offered to users.

“By offering more features, content and feedback through a subscription model, students are more likely to pay a larger premium”

Q. From a company perspective, how would such models be sustainably profitable?

For this model to be sustainably profitable, companies must find a compromise between how much to invest and reinvest in developing new content and platform upgrades.

“When a company changes to a subscription-based model, it can’t go back. This model requires continuous reinvestment that smaller businesses can’t always afford without proper funding and strategy”

When a company changes to a subscription-based model, it can’t go back. This model requires continuous reinvestment that smaller businesses can’t always afford without proper funding and strategy. Profitability depends on the ability to provide new, engaging content and user experiences.

Q. What key points of advice would you offer an edtech company looking to become, as you describe it, the sector's 'first Netflix-like unicorn'?

For an edtech company to be successful in this space, a variety of relevant content must be created to resonate with the target audience. As the user base grows, more on-demand content will need to be provided on an easy-to-use platform. It’s also important to provide learners with measurable outcomes that prove they’re receiving a return on their investment. Learners who receive high-quality experiences are more likely to spread the word, which can lead to greater business growth and success. 

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