Monthly Archives: May 2014

Revitalizing Primary and Secondary Education in Russia

Last weekend I was a speaker/panelist at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum on the subject of Revitalizing Primary and Secondary Education in Russia. Learning outcomes in Russia are rather uncompetitive when seen from an international perspective. I was also surprised to hear that schools in many urban areas run two shifts a day due to a lack of capacity.

Although Sanoma Learning is not currently directly active on the Russian market, we were interested to contribute to the discussion. Firstly, because we believe that education is one of the most powerful instruments known for developing individual talent, reducing poverty and inequality and for laying the basis for sustained economic growth, sound governance and effective institutions across the globe. And secondly since we might be able to contribute to improving Russian learning outcomes in the future.

What can Russia learn from our experience?

I was asked what Russia could learn from our experience. I cannot claim to be an expert on Russian education. However, we are an integral player in a number of education systems that consistently perform very well – including Finland, The Netherlands and Belgium. In addition we are the market leader in Poland which has been one of the rising stars on outcomes in recent years. And we have recently acquired a position in Sweden and are keen to support teachers in raising learning outcomes there too.

On the basis of our experience in these successful systems, we believe there are three cornerstones of excellence in primary and secondary education.

1. Skilled and motivated teachers

The first cornerstone is to make sure the level of skills and motivation of teachers is high. A skilled teacher is like a great leader – the impact is huge. They are the heroes and heroines of education. For example, this means:
a. Getting the best people to apply to teacher training
b. Paying them adequately
c. Making sure they are treated with respect, both in school and in society
d. Not over-managing them – they are professionals. Give them space to run their classes without too many rules
e. Making sure they have access to good learning and teaching materials and are free to choose them based on their professional insights. State-prescribed and created materials tend to lead to lower standards and reduced motivation for teachers
f. Keeping their skills up-to-date.

2. Motivated pupils

The second cornerstone is to ensure that pupils are motivated. The correlation between motivation and outcomes is high. This includes:
a. As described above, recruiting and retaining good teachers who can motivate pupils and classes
b. Promoting equity. It’s important to support poorly-performing students and students in economically less advantaged areas. Furthermore, to include marginalized pupils such as those with special needs or from diverse backgrounds and minorities in the mainstream. Their education should be well resourced. It will significantly improve their life chances and lead to better overall outcomes
c. Ensuring that education is valued in society. Amongst others, this will encourage parents to support learning, and this will raise expectations which typically raises outcomes too
d. Finding ways to personalise the process of learning, for example by using technology, or ensuring the teacher has time for individual intervention, or by providing access to tutors. Personalisation improves engagement and better engagement tends to lead to improved outcomes
e. Using high quality learning materials, that both pupils and teachers appreciate.

3. High quality learning solutions

We believe that the third cornerstone to excellence in education is to provide teachers and pupils with high quality learning solutions. They can make a significant contribution to achieving excellent learning outcomes, in a time- and cost-effective manner, whilst keeping pupils and teachers engaged on the journey of learning. Such solutions could include the following elements (for some parts depending on the ICT status of the school):

a. Close “fit” with the local curriculum, language, culture and ways
b. Excellent instructional design
c. Good user experience
d. Play multichannel
e. Capture data and can give insights, and on that basis can be personalisable and adaptive
f. Deploy a coherent learning path and design – easy to use for both pupil and teacher
g. The teacher should have a high level of freedom to choose from a competitive offering – to find the solution that fits them and their class best.

Our beliefs

So those are our beliefs about the cornerstones of creating excellent education systems. There is probably not a single approach that can be copied and pasted across the globe. But the chances are good that most education systems (including Russia) would benefit by focusing on skilled teachers, motivating pupils and providing high quality learning solutions.

Thank you Jacques!

Last week our leadership team at Sanoma Learning and the local team in Den Bosch thanked Jacques Eijkens for having been a great CEO and founding father of the company. It was truly touching to hear the personal stories and feel the respect and trust that Jacques had built up with the team.

It was about five years ago that I met Jacques for the first time. He was looking to recruit someone for the Learning team to help them to develop the business further. I remember coming back from the discussions with him, Barend de Graaff (CFO) and Mark Marseille (CHRO) thinking that it would be great to work in that team with that boss on that assignment. And also wondering what they feed the people in the South of Holland that makes them so tall 🙂 (answer: lots of cheese sandwiches and milk).

So I joined the company soon after and experienced Jacques as an excellent boss! There are three things that I’ve especially appreciated about working with him and think these things have contributed to the success of our Learning business today:

1. Great coach. Jacques has been a great coach to both the team and the individuals in the team. His feedback to me has been consistently true and insightful and always comes from the perspective of helping me to do my best for Learning. He respects your strengths and challenges you to develop yourself further in a very natural and motivating way.  You know he wants you to be your best.

2. Customer first. Probably borne out of his marketing background, putting the customer at the centre of our thinking has always been front-of-mind and tip-of-tongue for Jacques. We win or lose in the market depending on how well we serve our customers. Especially in a corporate setting it’s of critical importance that we never lose sight of that.

3. Feeling for essence. I have always respected Jacques’ feeling for essence. Our business is getting increasingly complex and Jacques has been a good guide in finding the way on our journey. Focus on the things that really matter.

It’s about 9 months ago now since I heard Jacques was intending to step aside. My first thought was that this would be a big shock to the people at Sanoma Learning: he has done an excellent job and is loved by the people in the organization. My second thought was that I share his passion for learning and can bring new skills that can help us on the next step of our journey to the digital future.  I was keen to lead Sanoma Learning – although it will not be easy to succeed such a big man!

I’d like to thank Jacques for his trust and support. And for having been a great leader, a true professional, and for all the fun we have had on the journey so far!

Where are the giants of edtech in K-12 education in Europe?

We’re committed to playing a leading role in renewing education for the next generation and believe we can add value by supporting pupils and teachers on three fronts:

– Achieving excellent learning outcomes
– Enabling efficient ways of working, and
– Supporting engagement and motivation.

Technology can be a key enabler on making progress on each of these three fronts, Today, Sanoma Learning is one of Europe’s leading edtech companies, with roughly € 40 M of pure-play digital and € 100 M of multi-channel sales.

We’re ambitious and like to partner with and acquire other edtech companies to help us to support customers on the three fronts mentioned above. Significant amounts of money are being spent on education each year, of the order of 6% of GDP. This is approximately € 800 bn per year in the EU: the market is sizeable and K-12 is a big slice of that. Yet there are relatively few edtech companies established on the continent today that generate more than € 25 M of annual sales. To be honest, I couldn’t name 10 off the top of my head.

Plenty of talent, ideas and capital

IBIS Capital estimates that there are approximately 3,000 e-learning ventures in Europe today. These companies employ a lot of entrepreneurial talent, many of them working on potentially high-impact ideas. Also, it seems to me that it’s not impossibly difficult to find funding for promising edtech ventures. In the USA in Q1/2014 about $ 500 M was committed in new funding to 99 edtech ventures – the biggest quarter for the last five years.

“The market is rich enough in talent, ideas and venture funding.”

So why hasn’t this large and transforming market in K-12 education spurred the growth of a handful of European edtech giants?

To be frank, I don’t know. Let’s start by looking at the context for K-12 education in Europe today. The great majority of the money in the market is spent (directly or indirectly) by the government through schools, many of which are not yet ready for e-learning. Also, the great majority of overall funding is spent on the salaries of teachers; this is absolutely right – teachers are the most critical factor in providing excellent education.

Within this context I think there are probably three main reasons that make it difficult for an edtech giant to emerge from the European continent on the short term:

1. A rather immature ecosystem
A well-functioning e-learning ecosystem can be built if we can make progress on four dimensions in schools: i) a clear vision on what we want to achieve and committed leadership to make it happen ii) good ICT infrastructure iii) availability of content and software and iv) teachers equipped with the skills to get ICT to work for them and their pupils. Although good progress has been made in many countries on many of those dimensions in the last ten years, most of these ecosystems are still relatively immature. In many ways progress needs to be made on each of these dimensions simultaneously in order for the ecosystem to flourish. There are a lot of data available on this. To name one important element – today there are of the order of 5 devices per household in northern Europe but five pupils per workstation at school. The home is a much more advanced digital ecosystem than the school. Surely this is just a matter of timing? Maybe BYOD tablets will provide the impulse the ecosystem needs? In any case, the early stage of the ecosystem hinders the adoption of educational technology.

2. Long sales cycles but narrow sales windows
The great majority of spending on education in Europe is channelled through institutions. Most of those institutions are organised around an annual cycle. Sales processes into them tend to be long and complex and the window of opportunity rather narrow. If your service is great, but you are not well-positioned to make the sale, the opportunity can be lost until the next year, or for many years. This can be killing for start-ups managing their monthly burn rate and can be a big disincentive to some investors and entrepreneurs.

3. Lack of scale
The final area that is probably hindering the emergence of new European edtech giants is the lack of scale in the market. Education systems tend to be organised very locally and can be prone to political influence. There are relatively few things that scale across multiple countries. Even if your business does brilliantly well in one country, it will be very hard to capture that same position across the continent. Edtech ventures from the USA or China enjoy a clear advantage, with large home markets that can attract significant funding.

How can we improve?

Europe has many natural advantages in the edtech space. For example, it’s home to some world-class education systems such as Finland and there’s a rich start-up scene in a number of leading cities. There’s also a reliable and significant commitment to spending on education.

I’m sure there are lots of smart options about taxes and skills and common standards and so on that the EU is working on in building a big single European market, and I imagine many of those things will help. In addition to that I would like to see us getting more proactive as an industry in two areas. Firstly, it would be good to get more transparency on the market. Which of these new ventures are really starting to fly? Initiatives such as Edtech Europe and Sanoma’s Start-up Challenge help, but are not enough. It’s hard (but not impossible 🙂 ) to see the wood for the trees amongst the 3,000 of today. Who should we partner with? And secondly, are there ways for us to create a European network that can bring scale to the market so that we can more rapidly deploy new technology for the benefit of our customers?

I’m interested to hear your views on this. Feel free to drop me a line if you have inspired ideas.

Looking forward >>