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5 ways the edtech industry changed in 2021

2021 was a landmark year for higher education technology, as longtime players transformed and start-ups battled for a share of record investments.

Half of the research and software firm HolonIQ’s top 200 most promising start-ups in North America are in the edtech workforce category, and more than a quarter are in higher education. Staples of the edtech space like 2U, Udemy, EdX, Blackboard and DuoLingo all also made major announcements this year while competing in an increasingly crowded market.

HolonIQ attributes the boom to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as K-12 schools and higher education institutions continue to shape their long-term online offerings after the pandemic forced sudden adoption.

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1. EdX, Blackboard now operate under other companies

EdX, a champion of massive open online courses launched in 2012, and Blackboard, a leading learning management system founded in 1997, now are both part of other companies. 

The online course provider 2U, launched in 2002, in November announced it had finished its acquisition of EdX, making waves throughout the education space. Executives said that EdX will retain its brand identity after the transition in a panel following the announcement and operate as a “public benefit” arm for the for-profit company. 2U and edX are set to offer more than 3,500 courses and serve more than 185 nonprofit university partners globally.

The administrative tools company Anthology finished its acquisition of Blackboard in October. Blackboard is a leading provider of learning management system technology, serving more than 150 million users worldwide. When the companies announced the purchase in September, leaders said it was designed so Anthology could offer its customers an “edtech ecosystem” of interoperable tools. The companies in October said Blackboard will keep its name while operating under Anthology.

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2. Big names were acquired

The education software provider Ellucian and the publisher McGraw-Hill were both acquired this June in private equity deals. McGraw-Hill, which announced that digital growth outpaced print losses for the first time in fiscal year 2021, sold for $4.5 billion to Platinum Equity. The sale price for Ellucian was not disclosed.

Some companies went on acquisition sprees. The edtech firm Modern Campus purchased three companies before July. Modern Campus chief executive Brian Kibby told EdScoop the purchases targeted student engagement tools, adding options like interactive online campus maps to the company’s arsenal. The edtech platform UpGrad announced in July that leaders budgeted $250 million for mergers and acquisitions over the next nine months. Recent acquisitions include the professional education providers KnowledgeHut and TalentEdge and the international student recruiting platform Global Study Partners.

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3. Everyone’s eying an IPO

As the edtech sector booms, more companies are going public. Instructure, the company that runs the popular LMS Canvas, raised about $250 million in its July initial public offering. The language learning app DuoLingo’s IPO in July raised about $521 million, and the online learning platform Udemy in its October IPO raised around $421 million.

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4. Funding boomed

HolonIQ lists 32 edtech “unicorns” as of November, which raised more than $21 billion in funding over the past decade. Class, which offers tools to make Zoom meetings more education-friendly, drew celebrity investments and a $105 million Series B funding round in July. The Zoom competitor InSpace in June announced $6 million in seed funding. InSpace is focusing on online meeting design, adding audio features and breakout rooms intended to immerse students.

The online course provider Emeritus, which in August announced a $650 million funding round, told EdScoop the investment would help build out direct-to-business education offerings. Emeritus historically targeted consumers, but company leaders said working with employers can align its offerings with business needs.

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5. Companies innovated and influenced

Blackboard in July announced a “Center for Advancing Learning” to produce analysis and target top education issues, its director told EdScoop. The center plans first to support historically Black and minority-serving institutions, and launch accessibility and online program management alternatives.

Instructure in July announced its “EdTech Collective,” designed to link up the company’s collaborators. Instructure’s online platform also offers merit badges for companies that complete certain tasks, like data privacy documentation, so that potential partners can learn more before opening a conversation.

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