How to succeed in e-learning

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Anyone who has looked at the news over the past few weeks will have seen interviews with miserable-looking freshers, forced to isolate in halls of residences, wondering whether they’ll be allowed home for Christmas, and placing plaintive (and often hilarious) messages in their windows. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of universities are announcing they are suspending face-to-face teaching. As exciting as university can be, you can’t really blame the students for wondering what they’re doing there, especially with so much teaching being done online right now.

You don’t need to have read Ellie’s excellent piece on the e-learning sector (although, seriously, you should) to realise that the e-learning and edtech sectors are experiencing a boom right now, and businesses targeting higher education are at the forefront. As the CEO of one start-up told me the other week – “we’ve gone from a minority sport to being absolutely front and centre of every institution’s strategic thinking”.

It’s not just domestic students who need to be catered for. For years, western university systems have been financially heavily reliant on international students. That flow hasn’t quite dried up in 2020, but if you’re a student from China or Vietnam right now, the idea of studying at a western university may have lost some of its lustre. Institutions offering high quality online teaching will, in theory, be able to export their teaching internationally moving forward. Getting distance learning right is a huge revenue opportunity, even if for now it’s just helping universities keep the lights on.

All the same, it’s not quite a gold rush. We’ve been conducting searches in the e-learning sector for several years now, and there remains a real supply-and-demand problem, particularly for high-level commercial leaders. There just aren’t enough of them in the market right now. Setting up a university partnership takes time – these are deals that can yield millions, but can regularly take years to get over the line. Not everyone has the patience for this – even individuals coming from publishing or SaaS businesses.

An understanding of higher education is critical. There are often a large number of stakeholders involved, any of whom can sink a deal if they aren’t happy. While buy-in at Vice-Chancellor or Dean level is often essential, there are also faculty-level decision-makers who need to be convinced. Many of these individuals are often unconvinced by the very idea of online learning; after all, they are being asked to entrust their institution’s good name to an unfamiliar third party. An awareness of these issues, and an understanding of how to reassure academics and bring them round, is hugely important. Individuals who can really get down into the course-level detail may find themselves at an advantage here.

Meanwhile, several providers have revenue models that are established on a revenue share basis, where the value of the deal will be directly proportional to the number of new students they can attract. A high level understanding of digital marketing is also increasingly desirable in this market.

Establishing university partnerships is tough – it isn’t just about sales, it’s about content, marketing, and strong academic understanding all at once. But the rewards are potentially enormous; individuals and businesses who can succeed here should be in for an exciting few years.

Matt D’Cruz

matt@trippassociates.co.uk

Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the mediainformationtechnologycommunications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.