The image above is probably looking familiar to a lot of people working in edtech right now. This particular image shows the website traffic stats for Mangahigh where my brother works in the dev team. Thank you to the team for allowing me to publish these. They have also shared with me their new sign up statistics. These are new account signups per week since January:
1/1/2020 - 44
5/1/2020 - 163
12/1/2020 - 136
19/1/2020 - 175
26/1/2020 - 204
2/2/2020 - 233
9/2/2020 - 401
16/2/2020 - 204
23/2/2020 - 332
1/3/2020 - 368
8/3/2020 - 694
15/3/2020 - 2735
You can see how these statistics might look really exciting for a company. Mangahigh has always done a pretty steady trade. I have known of them since 2011 when seeing a school present at a conference about using their maths games. They are really good for primary all the way through to secondary school students for reinforcing many maths concepts. So it is great to see so many people signing up now that schools are "closed" (except for the key worker children of course) and parents are turning to online resources to support their children with home learning.
But there is a side of these statistics which requires some caution too. Mangahigh are one of many edtech companies who have very generously made their site completely free for schools, parents, and students during school closures due to COVID-19. These huge numbers of sign-ups are, of course, a side effect of that generosity alongside an unprecedented time for us all. Providers of content such as Mangahigh, 2Simple and their Purple Mash platform, Twinkl resources and so on, are all "winning" at the minute with huge sign-ups as they have all started providing their resources for free. It's a true reflection of the wonderful world of edtech and the community within. It's a small world and I have known many of these companies for a long time and know that putting the students and schools first would have been on obvious decision for them all. They would not have taken any persuading to allow this free access to all.
There will no doubt be upsides to this generosity in the long-term for these large established companies as they have great resources and more people will see them and then hopefully some will continue with them when this is all over and they start charging again. Not everyone will - school budgets are still tight - but some will. That alone has led to some backlash from teachers and headteachers who think this is all a big marketing ploy. And yes OK...I am not going to say that there isn't a back-of-the-mind hope for all companies that there will be a good outcome for them later although I know that is not in the front of their mind at all as they are worried about the path ahead themselves as we cross into the utterly unknown.
And I have a worry...and it is a big worry. We must not underplay the intense pressure being put on these companies and the many other edtech and education providers who are offering free resources during this time. They are coping with their biggest ever influx of new customers, while they are also trying to cope with everyone working from home for the first time...AND they will also have staff shortages due to those who cannot continue to work at the moment for a variety of reasons.
It is also highly costly for the companies who are seeing these spikes in usage. For those not in the edtech or tech worlds: every bit of server usage costs £££. For those companies who now need much bigger servers (much of which is hosted remotely and paid for by the size and speed and reliability) are actually forking out a lot of money to keep schools online. They need to do this otherwise these spikes in use will mean the sites crashing completely and even their paid customers will lose connection to the resources. They are also having to hire extra resources where they can staff-wise to quickly create extra help resources to replace the usual in-school training they offer to new schools.
Therefore the expenses of these companies has just sky rocketed. Yet their income and potential income for the coming weeks (/months/a year??!!) has just plummeted through the floor.
These are also big names above. Companies who are generally stable and have enough current subscribers to help keep their staff paid and their offices paid for even though they are all at home. Out there are also smaller and early stage companies who now are seeing a whole wall of panic. I know of companies who have only recently launched after years of creating their products and services. This summer term should be for them the first time they start earning money as they would be selling to schools after the April budget ready for schools to roll out the products in September. For those companies this year is now another write off after the 2 or 3 or 5 years they have been building all their hard work for nothing already. For those who recently got investment they will now have investors (many not in education so do not "get" this time) breathing down their necks demanding they still try and sell to schools.
Imagine how that will play out. Schools are dealing with plenty of issues. Yes Edtech has come to the forefront in learning terms BUT they are deluged with offers of free resources from all and sundry. There are blogs going around with lists of 300-400 companies with free resources. Some of these are always free (but there is of course monetisation happening somewhere for those who are not charities so that is likely to mean giving away your data or seeing adverts pop up or later finding you need to pay to keep your information even if you don't have to pay now) but many are also just making their product free for a limited time during the current climate.
Teachers and headteachers are already starting some backlash too. Some who currently pay for subscriptions are demanding they now get it for free as others are getting it free. Some are saying that every company giving away freebies are somehow in the wrong for trying to capitalise on the situation. I do not want to share my views on those as I understand where they are coming from to an extent...but I do know the companies and know that they are genuinely doing what they feel is right for the time. And I also know that for many smaller companies this could send them under. That is a big worry for me. Some of the smaller companies and newer companies are no less worthy of a long career than those who are bigger. They have some wonderful products. Usually that would become evident in a couple of years. But for many they will fold this year. It will not be fair. It will not be the ones who deserve to fold just because their products are rubbish. It will be any who just got really bad luck with the timing.
Even the bigger companies may end up laying off staff after all this. They absolutely will not want to but it may become necessity. People with lives, and families, and homes to pay for. Whatever you think of the world of paid for edtech, these are people. Potentially people you taught in your school once. People who really love being in education in their own ways. They are not here for the money. If they wanted loads of money they could make it much easier in any other (and I mean ANY other!) industry. Gifted games developers. Intelligent customer service providers. Talented designers. Excellent technical support staff. Knowledgeable sales people who have learnt about education over the years despite never being on the front line. Imaginative marketers who tell stories that warm hearts.
Not every company can afford to make their product free. Even if the product is ready they simply cannot afford the level of staffing required to take on an extra 2,000 customers in one week in the way that Mangahigh is ready for. They do not have the teams of staff ready on the phones to handle the calls from all those new customers who will need tech support and training. So they will just try and still keep plugging away hoping to make a sale. Schools will mostly ignore them as they are looking at all the shiny free stuff instead.
There will be big winners in the coming months. But I am really worried about the losers in this race. They ran just as fast....someone just chucked a roadblock in their lane and it wasn't their fault. I hope the lovely edtech community can help pick them up and support them to limp to the finish line even if it takes a while longer.
Jodie Lopez is an ex-primary teacher who won multiple awards for her use of technology in the classroom. Since leaving the classroom she has worked for multiple education technology businesses, from the multinationals to the one-person start-ups. She uses her teaching experience and her previous life in sales and customer service to help companies to bridge the gap between edtech businesses and the classroom.