Valuing futures

Ben Williamson

Education technology investors are imagining new visions of the future of education while calculating the market valuation of their investment portfolios. Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

The future of education in universities is currently being reimagined by a range of organizations including businesses, technology startups, sector agencies, and financial firms. In particular, new ways of imagining the future of education are now tangled up with financial investments in education technology markets. Speculative visions and valuations of a particular ‘desirable’ form of education in the future are being pursued and coordinated across both policy and finance.

Visions and valuations

Edtech investing has grown enormously over the last year or so of the pandemic. This funding, as Janja Komljenovic argues, is based on hopes of prospective returns from the asset value of edtech, and also determines what kinds of educational programs and approaches are made possible. It funds unique digital forms of education, investing speculatively in new models of teaching and learning to enable them to become durable and, ideally, profitable for both the investor and investee.

We’ve recently seen, for instance, the online learning platform Coursera go public and reach a multibillion dollar valuation based on its reach to tens of millions of students online. New kinds of investment funds have emerged to accelerate edtech market growth, such as special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) that exist to raise funds to purchase edtech companies, scale them up quick and return value to both the SPAC and its investor, plus new kinds of education-focused equity funds and portfolio-based edtech index investing that select a ‘basket’ of high-value edtech companies for investors to invest in.

The result of all this investment activity has been the production of some spectacular valuation claims about the returns available from edtech. The global edtech market intelligence agency HolonIQ calculated venture capital investment in edtech at $16bn last year alone, predicting a total edtech market worth $400bn by 2025.

But, HolonIQ said, this isn’t just funding seeking a financial return—it’s ‘funding backing a vision to transform how the world learns’. These edtech investments tend to centre on a particular shared vision of how the future of education could or should be, and on particular products and companies that promise to be able to materialize that future while generating shareholder value. To this end, it just announced three ‘prototype scenarios‘ for the future of higher education, ‘differentiated by market structure’, as a way of developing consensus about desirable imaginaries and market opportunities for investment. The scenarios are imaginary constructs backed by quantitative market intelligence that HolonIQ has calculated with its in-house valuation platform. These are, to draw on the economic sociologist Jens Beckert, instruments of ‘fictional expectations’ that investment organizations craft to showcase their convictions and hopes, supported by specific devices of financial speculation that provide a more ‘calculative preview of the future’.

The aim of such instruments of expectation here is to stimuate speculative investments in new forms of education, and stabilize them as durable models for prospective future returns. The vision and the valuation of educational futures are intricately connected, and as Keri Facer recently noted, speculative investment of this kind is about making ‘bets’ on certain ‘valued’ educational futures while ‘shorting’ or foreclosing other possible futures for education.

What bets are being made? These bets are being made, for example, on the vision contained in the 2021 Global Learning Landscape report and infographic from HolonIQ. The landscape is a taxonomy of 1,250 edtech companies that HolonIQ has assessed in terms of their market penetration, product innovation, and financial prospects. As a fictional expectation inscribed in material form, the purpose of the infographic here is both to attract investors—for whom HolonIQ provides bespoke venture capital services—and to attract educational customers to ‘invest’ in institutional digital innovation through procuring from these selected services.

A persuasive vision or fictional expectation of the future of education is contained and transmitted in this infographic. As an instrument of expectation it emphasizes companies and products promising data-driven teaching and learning and analytics; online platforms such as MOOCs, online program management and other forms of public-private platform partnerships; AI in education, smart learning environments and personalized learning; workforce development and career matching apps, and other forms of student skills measurement and employability profiling. The infographic distills both an imaginative educational vision and a speculative investment valuation of the digital future of teaching and learning.

Education reimagined

The vision and valuation of educational futures are currently being joined together powerfully in the UK by an ongoing partnership between Jisc—the HE sector non-profit digital agency—and Emerge Education, a London-based edtech investment company. Jisc and Emerge have recently produced a series of visionary reports and strategy documents dedicated to Reimagining Learning and Teaching towards a vision of higher education in 2030. Together, the reports function as instruments of expectation with the intention of producing conviction in others that the imaginaries they project are desirable and attainable.

All the reports, written by Emerge with Jisc input, focus on the central fictional expectation of ‘digital transformation’ or ‘rebooting’ HE through partnerships with edtech startups, for example, in teaching, assessment, well-being, revenue diversification, and employability. They have produced an ‘edtech hotlist’ of companies to deliver those transformations, and created a ‘Step Up’ programme of partnerships between startups and universities to actively materialize the imaginary they’re pursuing.

The Jisc-Emerge partnership highlights how investment and policy are being coordinated towards a shared aim with expected value for HE institutions and for edtech companies and their investors at the same time. Exemplifying how investors’ fictional expectations catalyse real-world actions, this valued vision of HE in 2030 appears across the partnership’s reports, and especially in the main report also supported by UUK and Advance HE.

The report offers a vision of revolutionary digital acceleration, university adaptation and reimagining as digital organizations, characterized by personalized learning experience driven by artificial intelligence and adaptive learning systems that are modified automatically and dynamically. Universities are told to invest in their digital estates, learning infrastructure, personalized and adaptive learning, and AI. The sector is urged to adopt new data standards for the exchange of learner data, new micro-credentials, forms of assessment and well-being analytics.

The vision of learning and teaching ‘reimagined’ here, with the approval of Jisc, UUK and Advance HE, is highly congruent with the investment strategy of Emerge itself, with its emphasis on investing in a portfolio of ‘companies building the future of learning and work’. The fictional expectations and investment imaginary of Emerge have therefore been inscribed both into policy-facing documents and into its own strategic portfolio of investments.

Portfolio futures

So what this indicates is how edtech investment has become highly significant to how the future of teaching and learning is being imagined and materialized. Education futures are being imagined in parallel with market calculations and speculative investments, inscribed in graphical scenarios and calculative previews as instruments of expectation. Investment portfolios are being fused to policy imaginaries of education by way of shared fictional expectations that coordinate both policy and investment towards the same aims. Certain possible futures are being funded into existence or to scale.

Investment organizations are not just funding fortunate companies, but actively shaping how the future of education is imagined, narrated, invested in, and made into seemingly actionable strategies for institutions. By coordinating both policy and investment portfolios towards shared objectives, they’re valuing and betting on visions of digital transformation that promise prospective investment returns while devaluing and shorting alternative imaginaries of possible HE futures. This begs the question of how other futures of education can be produced, negotiated dialogically by educators, and invested in as a collective portfolio of counter-imaginaries of teaching and learning.

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