If there’s one dominant refrain after multiple years of emergency virtual and hybrid schooling, it’s likely that virtual schooling is not as good as in-person class (with the exception, that is, of a counter-narrative that for a subset of students, these online options were a welcome reprieve from traditional school). Based on our national surveys of blended and virtual learning in K–12 districts, virtual options largely disappeared as schools resumed in-person classes last fall.
Although a huge range of factors appears to have shaped how schools and universities successfully managed (or didn’t) to shift classes online, reports of underwhelming virtual experiences often pointed to social, not just academic factors. The immensely social sides of school—teacher and faculty relationships, peer-to-peer engagement, and chance encounters in the hallway and extracurriculars—proved hard to replicate in digital environments.
In the wake of omicron and potential other variants, these shortcomings could be construed as a referendum on the long-standing face-to-face versus virtual debate, with face-to-face declared the superior modality, at least when it comes to fostering a robust social experience that typically characterizes school.
But that would miss what we saw prior to the pandemic—and still see—as the immense potential for edtech to radically expand the social side of education: tech tools that foster new connections to coaches, peers, and industry experts whom students don’t have access to or don’t already know.
That value proposition remains intact, and arguably more important than ever, for education systems aiming to produce better and more equitable results for their students in the years ahead.
My 2018 book Who You Know offered a glimpse into a small but growing corner of the edtech market premised on connection over content. You can read our free chapter on edtech that connects here, but the gist of the argument is this: edtech has, over the years, become best-known for offering new inroads to content and coursework, affording students flexibility in where and when they learn. But the upside of edtech extends far beyond content: it also presents schools with the chance to broker networks, which function as a crucial but often hidden currency in the opportunity equation.
Back in 2018, edtech tools in this small but growing space with the greatest promise weren’t aiming to replace face-to-face connections. Instead, they were supplementing those existing relationships by brokering connections otherwise out of reach. And looking ahead, there’s still a long runway for that market to flourish.
Reaching new networks online
“Otherwise out of reach” can mean many things; accessing both support networks and professional connections can be difficult or outright impossible due to factors ranging from geography to cost to exclusive, hard-to-break-into networks.
Critical to understanding this species of edtech is the fact that the connections its best poised to unlock are not the same relationships that schools and universities struggled (and in many cases failed) to replicate online during the pandemic. Deep, mentoring connections with teachers or close friendships with peers that sociologists call “strong ties” are critical, in-person resources that drive healthy development and support learning.
But strong ties aren’t the only valuable relationships in our lives. On the contrary, many resources also reside in what sociologists dub our “weak tie” networks—that is, looser acquaintances who still can offer all sorts of valuable perspectives, information, and supports.
Edtech has a competitive advantage when it comes to scaling the strength of weak ties. At least three types of edtech tools are demonstrating this upside, fostering new relationships with coaches, industry professionals, and peers.
First, tools like Beyond 12, Mentor Collective, College Advising Corps, Matriculate, and Strive for College (to name a few!) connect high school and college students with coaches who can help them navigate transitions and overcome challenges that risk driving them to drop out or stop out. In these cases, a virtual connection to a “weaker tie” is hardly weak at all; connections to online coaches and mentors can be a critical resource helping students persist and succeed. Moreover, when it comes to offering academic and emotional support, some research even suggests that students who are struggling might prefer to talk to a more distant connection whom they don’t feel ashamed to confide their struggles in or feel like they’re letting down. For a more complete list of college access and success coaching tools, check out our market map.
Second, tools like Mentor Spaces, Nepris, Career Karma, Handshake, and Riipen offer students the chance to connect with industry professionals and career supports otherwise out of reach. Given large investments and energy around building more equitable career pathways, tools like these are part of an exciting frontier where edtech can radically transform connections at students’ disposal to access internships and jobs. Crucially, if these connections stick, they stand to level the uneven playing field where students who inherit networks into certain career paths have an outsized advantage. The good news is that research from platforms like Handshake suggests that Gen Z students and recent graduates—especially students of color and women—are themselves bought into forming career connections online.
Finally, tools like Outschool are connecting students to peers and educators who share their interests. Although in-person extracurriculars remain critical drivers of opportunity and connection, Outschool’s pandemic-fueled growth has illustrated a real appetite for interest-driven online learning. Researchers have long studied the benefits of online communities where students can invest in their interests in a like-minded community of peers, not only to drive learning but also to build valuable social capital.
As this “edtech that connects” market gains steam, just like the academic edtech market, we shouldn’t be overly optimistic. Contact doesn’t necessarily amount to an authentic or lasting connection. The former is cheap to scale, but the latter will be the key distinguisher for success as platforms scale. The market remains nascent enough that studies of impact and good measures of relationship quality are still needed. Those measures will be critical to making the case that, in some cases, virtual connections aren’t just “good enough”—they’re great.
The pandemic has revealed just how hard it is to replace our face-to-face connections and activities. But it’s also reinforced the fact that we are, by definition, social creatures. That truth should not escape us when it comes to the future of edtech. Edtech that connects can usher in an era of even more connected learning, exploration, and access.