2020 put all of us, and especially our education systems, to the test. The challenges students and educators faced were not just academic, but social. In 2021, I’ll be looking at innovations meeting new demands unleashed amidst the pandemic, especially those aimed at fostering and maintaining connection. 

Looking ahead, here are five big emerging ideas I’ll be tracking:

1. Newor moderately improvedacademic engagement tools. 2020 laid bare a challenge that has long haunted virtual learning: building and maintaining student engagement. I’m hopeful that reckoning will yield greater demand for crucial innovations in online learning that optimize for engagement over traditional metrics like seat time. 

First, sustaining innovations that improve upon the ad hoc Zoom classrooms launched last spring could offer some long-overdue technical improvements. These improvements align with what research suggests make for higher quality online environments: making it more seamless for educators to teach online, with more foolproof tools to organize a virtual classroom, and more intuitive systems for students to navigate coursework. 

Second, more ambitious improvements to the online experience are also worth watching, although are unlikely to scale as quickly as basic enterprise tools. I’ll be keeping an eye on platforms like engageli and Parlay that focus on more peer-to-peer interaction and virtual discussions. I’ll also be watching apps designed to strengthen relationships between students and their teachers and mentors, like Along and MentorHub. These could generate important strides in bringing the social side of learning online while leveraging online data to make that social experience more efficient and scalable.

Social learning platforms could be especially important if targeted at the coming wave of remediation efforts that will likely extend through the summer and well into next year. In that vein, I’ll be keeping an eye out for online models geared toward making up for lost learning and time, but that do so by putting student engagement and connection—not just more content—at the center of their designs.

2. Stronger community-building models that generate trust, both offline and online. Improved student engagement won’t just come from a set of technical shifts or functionalities, but from culture and community-building models that yield higher engagement and persistence rates. Engagement isn’t just a challenge in virtual environments. After all, face-to-face engagement rates, especially as students get older, were fairly dismal to begin with.  

Before the pandemic struck, we were taking a close look at programs with strong relationship- and community-building strategies, like nXu and Climb Hire, among others. The leaders of these programs were healthy skeptics of online approaches and were understandably worried when in-person programming shut down. But they were pleasantly surprised that transitioning online went fairly smoothly, not because of fancy technologies (they primarily use Zoom), but because community- and trust-building protocols in their models were already well established. For players like these, relationship-building isn’t a one and done exercise at the start of the school year or semester; it’s the fabric of daily and weekly practice. This year we’re continuing to build a catalog of case studies on organizations that are both pursuing strong relationship-building practices and beginning to measure the quantity and quality of relationships in new ways.

For many organizations like these, the silver lining of COVID-19 is that it’s revealed how online experiences could yield greater scale and spread in the coming years. On the flip side, schools and postsecondary institutions stand to learn from these innovative models that build higher-trust, more resilient connections that can flex both online and offline. 

3. Edtech to diversify connections. With Zoom fatigue sweeping the nation, enthusiasm for any species virtual interaction could understandably wane once a vaccine rolls out. But for traditional education systems, reverting back to a purely analog world could end up missing the boat on the upsides of tech in students’ social lives: connecting them to people they don’t already know. 

Technology is understandably a poor substitute for maintaining the strong connections we miss seeing each day. In fact, even a millisecond delay on Zoom can negatively affect our interpersonal perceptions. But using technology to foster new connections beyond students’ reach actually plays to tech’s competitive advantage: overcoming time, geography, and cost barriers to growing their networks. I’ll continue to track edtech that connects because I believe it still holds the immense potential to connect students to people—experts, mentors, near-peers—who can help them reach their goals. These tools, over time, could help education systems address the social side of opportunity gaps by disrupting the inherent limitations of students’ networks.

These tools are also proving powerful drivers of outcomes that school systems are starting to pay more attention to: connecting learning to real-world projects and people, expanding students’ professional horizons and connections, and building students’ abilities to connect across lines of difference. This year we’ll be taking a particularly deep look at technologies that expand access to alumni, employer, and peer networks.

4. Supportive and networked pathways toward a more equitable economic recovery. If new models for both teaching and connecting emerge in the wake of the pandemic, they will be put to an even greater test in the year ahead: preparing students for a labor market rife with inequalities that have only worsened during the recession. Pre-pandemic, philanthropists and policymakers were already keenly focused on building new “pathways” that promote economic mobility. Under the duress of the current climate, getting there will require faster, better approaches to improve skill-building, hiring, and career advancement.

Some of this will—and should be—driven by employers. We’re already witnessing the growth of well-intentioned articulation agreements between pathway providers and employers looking to diversify their talent pipeline, alongside important investment efforts to ensure that the future of work is a more inclusive one. These employer-driven partnerships could help scale more equitable recruitment approaches and skills-based hiring models that pave better (and fairer) pathways to opportunity.

But in tandem with these agreements we’ll need educational pathways that expand students’ professional networks along the way, especially if the hope is to set up historically underserved populations for career advancement and longer-term optionality. To that end, we’ll be watching a range of innovative players like Basta, Braven, CrossPurpose, COOP, and others that are helping people break into better jobs by building both strong support networks and diverse professional networks. We’ll also be keeping an eye on technologies like Career Karma that are helping students break into new industries by building networks for support and opportunity online.

There’s another trend to watch along with these “job-getting” models aimed at increasing social mobility: social supports investments that acknowledge that in order to get ahead, you also need to get by. Policies funding wraparound services and basic needs interventions aren’t new, and hopefully, policymakers will double down on sorely needed social supports in the year ahead. 

Through the lens of innovation theory, however, these subsidies might reach their fullest potential if they were delivered in concert with—rather than separate from—academic supports and skill-building pathways. Some of the best examples of these are emerging outside of education systems, such as Family Independence Initiative and Union Capital Boston, which pair cash subsidies to help families get by with a social network infrastructure aimed at helping them get ahead. Approaches like these offer a clue for what more coherent, student-centered and family-centered support models could look like, alongside re-skilling and upskilling investments.

5. New short- and medium-length work-based experiences… aimed at specific outcomes. Innovators aiming to build better pathways into better jobs continue to grapple with arming students with work experiences that give them a leg up in the labor market. At the same time, traditional colleges and universities under scrutiny for their ROI are increasingly looking for ways to integrate—or stack—those work-based experiences into traditional degree programs.

Luckily, a range of work-integrated learning tools has been growing to meet this demand, while also taking advantage of the rise of virtual work to expand virtual experiences. This burgeoning field needs champions—but also watchdogs. 

It’s encouraging that more providers are aiming to bridge work and learning in more scalable ways. It’s also opening the door to long-overdue experiments in different dosages of work experience, in particular shorter projects or micro-internships that entail significantly lower opportunity costs than traditional internships. 

Less encouraging? It’s not entirely clear that customers of these tools and experiences know what they’re buying, and why. The ingredients for preparing students for work are admittedly complex: they can include hard skills, soft skills, professional and social networks, and work experience. Experience may be a proxy for some mix of skills and networks or just an insurance policy that students have honed basic work habits that employers won’t have to impart themselves. If this market continues to grow, getting clearer on those different outcomes will allow consumers to differentiate among products and services. It will also ensure that “experiential” or “work-based” learning doesn’t just become a fad premised on a new set of expensive inputs. This year, I’ll be watching for organizations and researchers such as Brookings and CCWT studying this field, in particular those measuring professional network gains alongside skills acquisition.

As we close in on a year of living in a pandemic, here’s to hoping that 2021 holds more promise for connection, both online and off.

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