The pandemic taught us many things, but one lesson in particular will stick in the minds of the millions of parents who had to home-school their children – teaching is not easy.
However, while families felt a wave of relief when schools were finally able to open again, the scale of technological advancement became clear – learning really has changed forever.
At the very heart of the edtech revolution is the British business success story, Kortext.
From its Bournemouth HQ, the firm has evolved from being the first eTextbook provider trusted by UK universities, to a full learning and engagement platform, used by 1.7m of the UK’s 2.5 university students.
Led by founder and technologist, James Gray, the firm has built a game-changing digital platform that allows students to study the way they want to – wherever and whenever.
The scale of the global usage is such that now Kortext has so much student behavioural data it can help universities and colleges understand their students’ learning habits, and improve their chances of achieving their potential.
In short, the Kortext platform has revolutionised higher and further education around the world.
However, the most exciting development is in what this means for those who previously couldn’t attend university for economic, health, or other life reasons, as the platform opens up affordable and accessible education to all.
TechRound caught up with the Kortext founder James Gray at his sun-drenched Bournemouth office to find out his entrepreneur journey, and what the future holds for hybrid learning technology.
What is hybrid learning, and how has it revolutionised learning?
Hybrid learning is essentially a flexible mode of study, enabling students to learn both face-to-face and online in a way that suits them.
The prevalence of hybrid and digitally enhanced learning, driven by the pandemic, has been an eye opener in the global education community. Whilst many universities were forced to navigate a sudden pivot toward digital education for learning to continue during the pandemic, it also gave valuable insight into not only what can be done, but also what should be done to widen access and participation and support an increasingly diverse student population, each with their own needs and expectations.
One of the most exciting things we’ve been able to be at the forefront of is how hybrid learning creates new opportunities for those with non-traditional lifestyles, and for whom being on campus all day, every day isn’t an option.
Likewise, it can also offer students a healthier balance between work and home life which, if considered alongside the fact that this year 30% of students have considered leaving their course due to their mental and emotional health, this balance can be crucial to ensuring students complete their studies and reach their potential.
Meanwhile, with the cost of living rising, hybrid learning can provide a more affordable option for some students, removing the need to travel to campus every day.
Hybrid learning and technology go hand in hand, with study platforms like Kortext Arcturus providing a structured digital study space for students to access and engage with their learning content away from their face-to-face lessons. This kind of technology is needed to support the ‘anytime, anywhere’ nature of the remote aspect of hybrid learning.
What digital learning innovations that you are responsible for are you most proud of, and why?
Kortext is focused on driving innovation in three key areas – the experience for students, academics and librarians.
For students, we seek to create enjoyable and engaging learning experiences through the Kortext Arcturus platform, enabling flexible access to course content on any device and equipping students with interactive study tools to help them learn effectively.
With the platform at their fingertips, students can collaborate with their peers, make and share notes, make in-book searches and export references for an easy and effective study experience.
And the content we provide goes beyond eTextbooks – our video library provides students with content to supplement their learning and help them expand their knowledge.
These innovations help universities to improve outcomes and NSS scores by driving deep engagement with course content. In fact, one of our studies has shown that students studying through Kortext read almost twice as much when they use print books.
For academics, our market leading learning analytics enable universities to view student engagement in real time. We provide each academic with an analytics dashboard that delivers data on content usage from number of pages read to number of searches made, right down to individual book or student level.
This data is critical to many of our partner universities, highlighting disengagement where intervention and support may make the difference between a student dropping out or continuing with their studies. This ability to use data as a leading indicator to tailor support and drive outcomes is an essential component and benefit of a digitally connected campus.
As an aggregator, Kortext maintains close relationships with university libraries in the UK and overseas and we are continuing to support them as their involvement in teaching and learning evolves – from providing a gateway to over 2 million eBooks, to enhancing our content acquisition portal to save the library time and money. By leveraging our analytical tools, library staff have everything they need to monitor digital content usage and measure the value of the content they are provisioning.
Ultimately, Kortext offers access to more books and publishers than any other platform, and our customer-driven roadmap means that every platform development we make supports universities’ teaching and learning strategies.
How and when did you identify digital learning would become so important for universities?
In 1991, I formed Coutts Information Services, a rapid book supply service, with my younger brother, and we quickly broke into the university market, which was very successful.
It was around the point that academic journals started being hosted online that I recognised an opportunity. I could see the direction of travel and it was never going to stop with journals – there was a myriad of other content just waiting to be consumed digitally. This inspired my interest in eBooks and the benefits they offer.
Coutts Information Services was bought by Ingram, one of the biggest booksellers in the world, in 2006 and I moved to Nashville with my wife to set up Ingram Digital, a component of Ingram’s eBook supply chain, where we helped the likes of Amazon and Apple with their digital book stores.
Inspired by my experience at Ingram and the potential of technology to support and enhance digital learning in the HE sector, I came back to the UK and founded Kortext in 2013 with a mission to empower the next generation of difference makers through teaching and learning.
In just five years, we became the leading learning experience and engagement platform working with over 4,700 publishers to supply over 2 million eBooks and digital content to students in over 100 countries.
Digital learning has been benefiting students worldwide for decades in one guise or another, but the pandemic really accelerated the pace of change. We knew digital technology had the power to enhance the student experience, but large scale implementation of new systems across institutions isn’t easy, with university leaders citing resource issues and out of date legacy systems hindering their engagement with new technology, according to our recent research.
That’s why the ability to integrate seamlessly with digital learning ecosystems is important to us – plugging in to a university’s existing tech stack means we can facilitate digital transformation quickly and at scale for our partners.
What one thing do you know about technology that most people don’t?
Today’s society thankfully better understands the importance of mental health. However, there is a long way to go, and the 2022 HEPI Student Academic Survey revealed that students are struggling with an ever-increasing volume of assignments – and this pressure can have a detrimental impact on mental health.
Ultimately, it’s fair to say that we have a complex and highly personal relationship with our digital devices, and this can sometimes contribute negatively to our mental health.
But, thanks to the technology and data analysis advancements we’ve been able to develop, we can now recognise when a student’s engagement is falling away, which is a proven predictor of potential anxiety and other mental health issues.
What excites me most about our developments in this area is that we can find a way to actually harness a student’s digital behaviour, and utilise this to empower institutions and educators to support a student in real time. This means recognising a student may be struggling early and help them before the issues they are facing become overwhelming. It has the potential to change the world.
Why has edtech become such a desirable tech niche for investors to be investing in?
It’s undeniable that investors are queuing up to invest in edtech, for the simple reason that educating the next generation will always be one of the world’s most important – and therefore recession-proof – sectors. And technology has a huge part to play in helping educators deliver best outcomes for students of all ages.
The direction of travel has been clear for a decade now, but it’s fair to say the pandemic accelerated irreversible change for education across the board. This is perhaps most apparent in higher education, where we can see students are demanding their universities embrace technology in ways, and on a scale, never seen before.
This shows us edtech has moved beyond a ‘nice to have’, and has become a clear essential.
Platforms and services adopted in 2020 that were once seen as a luxury or viewed as a ‘pilot programme’ are now being embedded into teaching and learning, because educators have seen how the right tech can improve their ability to teach.
Likewise, edtech is making education more accessible for all by bridging the gap for students who want to learn, but find it difficult for financial, health, or other life issues. This is breaking down barriers to education.
And investors see all of this. Five years ago venture capital firms were still a little cautious about whether technology in schools and universities could find a place within the public consciousness. Today, we are approached near-daily by investors seeking a route into edtech.
And we’re still at the relative beginning of this journey into a balance of technology and teachers, where AI-powered platforms can support each individual learner’s personal learning journey. It’s unsurprising investors are seizing the opportunity to invest in edtech – there’s an exciting road ahead.
What does the future of hybrid learning look like for universities in five years’ time?
Delivered in the right way, with the right tools, hybrid learning has the potential to create a whole new society of educated citizens, allowing families, students with mobility issues and those from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to learn where the opportunity may not have existed before.
Over the next few years, I think we’ll see further investment in digital infrastructure to create a level playing field, ensuring students can access the networks and devices they need to succeed.
With the help of their edtech partners, I believe universities will invest further in improving the digital learning experiences they offer, from providing their students with free access to digital learning content to driving online collaboration and ensuring that, when students are learning remotely, they still feel connected to their institution, peers and academics.
If the new Lifelong Loan Entitlement currently under government consultation is introduced, we’ll undoubtedly see an influx of learners at all stages of life looking to re-enter education on a modular basis, so hybrid learning is likely to become more prevalent as universities begin serving an even more diverse student body.