The pandemic cast education technology (edtech) into a starring — and some might argue above-its-paygrade — role in education. For many students and overwhelmed parents, virtual learning became synonymous with isolation. Algorithms and Zoom rooms were meager surrogates for authentic connection. Students’ relationships with faculty and friends in the classroom, not to mention chance encounters in the hallway, proved hard to replicate in digital environments. 

It is unfair to hold edtech companies entirely responsible for these shortcomings. After all, virtual learning was put to the test under dire circumstances. A climate of fear and isolation permeated almost every aspect of our lives, including, but certainly not limited to, school. And many of the most promising edtech tools that predated COVID were optimized for use in a blend of online and face-to-face settings, rather than from students’ living rooms.

Although by no means perfect, before the pandemic, technologies in education had been steadily improving for decades. These improvements undergird edtech’s potential to differentiate learning to each student’s needs, pace of learning, and interests. Tools designed to offer better data on how students are faring, combined with on-demand lessons and lectures, hold the promise to personalize learning.

But for many students and educators, virtual learning over the past two years felt anything but personal. The demands of pandemic life spotlighted an aspect of education that the edtech market has largely ignored: the social side of school.

The acute challenge of building online connections during COVID could be construed as an aberration — a blip in an edtech market that has shown few signs of slowing down. But that view would be short-sighted. A desire for more social experiences is not just noise in the market. Rather, it is a long overdue wake-up call for the edtech market to refocus its purpose on providing connection, not just content.

The edtech market at a glance

Even before virtual learning swept through households in March 2020, edtech was booming. In 2019 alone, US edtech investment had peaked at $1.7 billion. And since COVID hit, the global edtech market has continued to balloon at an unprecedented rate, marking what one analyst dubbed edtech’s “roaring twenties.”

Beyond hardware, most of this growing market consists of software tools aimed at organizing and delivering academic content to students and employees. Tools range from learning management systems that catalog assignments and grades, to test prep and language learning tools that dispense targeted training and practice, to full-fledged degree programs delivered online.

Content’s dominance in the edtech market is hardly surprising. Learning skills and acquiring knowledge are cornerstones of education. But alongside delivering content, a small minority of edtech companies offer students something different: deeper connections and new social networks. In my research, we have dubbed this species of tools “edtech that connects.”

These tools offer a mix of more interactive learning experiences and various forms of virtual mentorship, career exploration, and support. A closer look at this corner of the market illustrates the myriad ways in which edtech’s long-term potential is not just academic, but social.

Making learning social

Building edtech tools that deliver content while also fostering connection could address long-standing challenges in keeping students engaged online. Historically, online courses have struggled with high attrition rates. For example, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, heralded for their promise to radically expand access to education, saw an average of 85% of students failing to complete these offerings.

Research suggests that making online coursework more social can help curb attrition.

Some edtech entrepreneurs are taking note. For example, Engageli is a tool built to address the shortcomings of enterprise video technologies like Zoom and Google Meet for teaching and learning. On the heels of campuses shutting down in the spring of 2020, Engageli’s founders set their sights on creating technology that offers “small group collaborative experiences, even in a large-scale environment.” For example, students sit at virtual “tables” where they can talk to one another throughout an online lecture. With pre-recorded lectures on the site, students can opt to “learn with friends,” allowing them to watch an asynchronous recording at the same time and pause to ask questions to fellow students watching the same content. Students can also connect to classmates who were in class to trade notes. “If you miss a class, it’s one thing to watch a lecture,” Andreina Parisi-Amon, Engageli’s VP of Learning and Teaching said in an interview. “It’s another to be able to participate in that same class later.”

Engageli’s founders are not strangers to the dynamics of the edtech market. Co-founder Daphne Koller, whose husband Dan Avida is another co-founder and CEO at Engageli, was an early champion of online coursework. In 2012, she co-founded Coursera, now one of the largest providers of online courses for universities and employers.

The core of Coursera’s successful business has been content and credentials. The model, however, has limits. For Parisi-Amon, who also led teaching and learning at Coursera in its early days, Engageli picks up where Coursera leaves off. At Coursera, she explained, “it was still very challenging to create a community…it wasn’t what Coursera was built for.” That was particularly frustrating when it came to keeping more students engaged who otherwise might struggle in an online context. “Yes, we’ve found really good content, we’ve found really good educators…but how do we continue to expand the number and types of learners who benefit from online learning?” Engageli, she believes, can strike a new chord with learners by offering a smart mix of opportunities for students to connect both in and out of class. “We’re starting to bridge that gap between live synchronous, asynchronous, and nebulous in-between space,” she said.

Other edtech tools are trying to make classrooms — even brick-and-mortar ones — more relationship-rich environments by fostering stronger relationships between younger students and their teachers. For example, Along, a tool bankrolled by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), aims to help teachers get to know their students through a “digital reflection tool.” In Along, using video, audio, and text messaging, teachers can send students prompts and questions and students can reply directly to their teacher with a brief video or audio recording, or a text message. The tool also offers teachers tips on how they can build what researchers dub “developmental relationships,” which have been shown to drive everything from high attendance to better grades. The hope is that strengthening these connections, in turn, strengthens learning. “When there are strong, one-on-one student-teacher relationships, students feel seen and understood and are able to connect more with the academic material,” said Andrew Goldin, Executive of Gradient Learning, CZI’s nonprofit partner that’s building the tool.

Like Engageli, Along marks an evolution from Gradient and CZI’s first bet in the edtech space, a learning management tool called Summit Learning. Although the Summit platform offered social features and functionality, Along’s laser focus on relationships is unique. For Goldin, it is also grounded in research on the role that relationships play in driving learning. “We know from years of research that students can do this critical work when they have built relationships with trusted adults,” Golden said. “It’s through these connections that students feel more engaged and motivated in school, create their own sense of self, and are primed to have better academic outcomes.”

These are just a few examples of how edtech entrepreneurs are starting to elevate the market with tools that put the social side of learning front and center.

Expanding to networks otherwise out of reach

Collaborating and connecting with faculty and peers can certainly make learning more engaging and effective. But strengthening existing relationships in students’ lives is not the only way edtech can bolster connection.

In fact, our research suggests that edtech’s greatest potential lies in expanding students’ access to people they don’t already know. This can include mentors, peers, and industry experts who are out of reach due to constraints on students’ existing networks – geography, time, and money. These new connections could prove the linchpin to bolstering student success and access to opportunity long-term.

For example, research has long shown that students need coaches and mentors who can offer support and guidance to help them persist through school. But punishing staff-to-student ratios often mean that the need for support far exceeds the counselors on hand. Technology and virtual connections can help bridge that gap. Take Beyond 12, an organization that partners with colleges to offer virtual one-on-one coaching to low-income, first-generation, and historically underrepresented students to support them through college. The model hinges on what Beyond 12’s founder and CEO Alex Bernadotte calls a “high-tech, high-touch solution” — a college success curriculum delivered by virtual, near-peer coaches, themselves recent first-generation college graduates, and supported by a digital app and backend analytics that help predict which students need what sorts of support, and when.

Other edtech tools aim to scale even lighter-touch connections that can serve to expand students’ horizons. For example, Nepris offers teachers an online marketplace for experts that can port into their classrooms. Students can engage in video chats with professionals ranging from geological engineers to screenwriters. These brief chats can usher the real world into the classroom at a rate that far exceeds occasional guest speakers or once-yearly career fairs. “Our vision has not been to forge stronger one-on-one connections,” said Nepris’ co-founder, Sabari Raja. Rather, she wants Nepris to enable “as many connections as possible” for students, with the aim of integrating industry relevance into everyday learning. The approach has research in its favor. Studies from the Opportunity Insights organization at Harvard have shown that early exposure to people working in industries predicts students’ likelihood of pursuing jobs in those industries. And according to research from UK-based firm Education and Employers, even brief chats with industry professionals have contributed to downstream wage premiums.

Technologies are also emerging that can expand older students’ professional networks to help them find internships and jobs. For example, Riipen helps college faculty connect students with short-term projects and internships from over 4,000 companies. Like Nepris, these connections can expand students’ horizons and make learning more relevant to the real world. It can also help employers connect to a broader array of students and prospective hires.

Although diverse in the types of relationships they bring within reach for students, many of these tools share the markers of disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovations are products or services that initially take root in simple applications at the bottom of a market — typically by being less expensive and more accessible—and then relentlessly move upmarket, eventually displacing established competitors. The theory of Disruptive Innovation explains how Toyota overtook General Motors, TurboTax overtook brick-and-mortar accounting shops, and Sony overtook RCA.

Like these disruptive innovations, emerging edtech tools that put new connections within reach are fairly simple applications targeting simple problems. The online interactions they facilitate, such as a 30-minute chat with an industry expert, are brief by standard measures of relationship quality. The mere fact that they are virtual detracts from their quality, as well: video- and text-based interactions, science suggests, are far less likely to foster empathy and trust than in-person conversations.

But the very attributes that make online interactions appear “less than” face-to-face networks suggest their disruptive potential. Over time, tools like Beyond 12, Nepris, and Riipen, along with many others, stand to radically expand the ways students access and capitalize on meaningful relationships that can help them get by and get ahead.

In turn, edtech that connects has the potential to disrupt the social — not just academic — gaps that have long perpetuated opportunity gaps in our country. It can make a dent where affluent students remain at a particularly steep advantage today: access to social capital. Growing up, students from wealthy families enjoy a boon in enrichment and extracurricular spending — like sports, SAT prep, and music lessons — relative to their low-income peers. This investment gap helps explain startling disparities in young people’s access to informal mentors like coaches, teachers, and parents’ friends. Affluent students are far more likely to report access to relationships with non-family adults than their less wealthy peers. Moreover, college-educated parents tend to have broader professional networks that plug them — and their offspring — into the knowledge economy.

Down the line, these many social connections spell access to jobs, an estimated half of which come through personal connections. Edtech that connects can be a crucial engine for opportunity. It could help to ensure that students, regardless of their background, have access to the networks they need to get the jobs they want.

In other words, those that may be eager to bid farewell to virtual learning platforms post-pandemic may want to think again. When technology can span stubborn limitations of space and time, suddenly dreaded screen time morphs into precious face time. Amidst mounting pressure on schools and colleges to ensure more equitable outcomes among all students, fostering deeper and more widespread networks will be a key strategy to answer that call.

Scaling connections, not just contact

If COVID flung edtech into the spotlight — and if investments continue to grow at the clip they are today — there’s immense potential to expand access to new learning and connection opportunities. That spotlight, however, shouldn’t merely paint edtech in a rosy light. It should also bring transparency to a market that has suffered from a lack of reliable, quality data for too long.

Specifically, the potential positive impact of edtech that connects will hinge on how customers of these tools — schools, employers, and students themselves — define quality. After all, markets grow along the metrics by which they are measured.

The mainstream edtech market offers something of a warning in this regard: booming edtech investment over the past two decades has grown far faster than efficacy studies demonstrating what tools work under what conditions. As a result, districts and colleges often buy technology in sincere hopes that it will yield better outcomes for their students, but then fly blind on whether tools are actually producing results, or are even being used. A dearth of reliable, large-scale efficacy data in turn distorts the demand side of the market. In its absence, a wide array of low- and high-quality edtech content and learning tools continue to be peddled out to schools trying to modernize their enterprise.

The small but growing market of edtech that connects could suffer similar distortions. While it’s fairly easy to scale contact, it is much harder to scale authentic connection, online or off. Moreover, measuring connection is not a simple undertaking. The quantity, quality, and structure of networks all determine how well they are suited to supporting students and opening new doors. Confidence and mindsets are also a factor: access to a network is arguably only as useful as a student’s ability to mobilize connections.

Understanding how students themselves experience online connections will be crucial to not only determining quality, but also to reducing unintended harm: mentoring research has shown that a bad mentor-mentee relationship is worse than no relationship at all.

In this sense alone, the stakes for an edtech market that fosters connection are even higher than those of content tools. Quickly opening up new networks online without a close eye on the quality and safety of those connections could backfire. It could scale bias and distrust, having a detrimental effect on students’ sense of self-worth.

But the payoff of tools to deepen and expand students’ networks could be immense.

Not only does edtech that connects offer an overdue remedy for low engagement rates in online learning, but it also offers the chance for schools to organize themselves around expanding opportunity by ensuring more equitable access to networks. In the long run, edtech tools that offer content and teach skills — often touted and led by investors and entrepreneurs who rely heavily on their own networks — will be mere stop-gap solutions in a quickly changing labor market where social capital remains a key predictor of who gets hired. This is not to say that we should live in a content-meager future in which connections trump learning. Rather, edtech that connects offers a chance to double down on investing in building students’ human capital and social capital at once, as mutually reinforcing engines for progress and prosperity.

This piece was originally published in The Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative’s Social Impact Review here.