Across Boundaries Conference in Boston, 2019.


By Colin Magee | February 11, 2019


Last week LearnLaunch held our signature conference, Across Boundaries, which is also demo day for our accelerator program. Across Boundaries brings together investors, entrepreneurs, and educators from across the world to forge relationships and swap notes on the future of education. Below are the key takeaways from me, Jean Hammond, and Tetyana Astashkina on the conference:


#1 – Smart devices will reduce learning friction and increase data use

A new session on the agenda this year was Alexa for Learning, which explored smart device adoption in schools. We were surprised to learn that higher education institutions are now spending over $12B annually on digital transformations. K-12 education is also moving toward digitally driven systems and many sessions included discussion of data standards and data models.

Two points made by the panelists convinced us that smart devices in education are inevitable and will catalyze the use of data in schools.

First, these technologies are naturally finding their way into the classroom as they become second nature at home. This became clear to Rayna Freedman, President of MassCUE, when she noticed her students hunched over, in their Chromebooks, whispering “Hey, Google.” Rayna emphasized the need to get ahead of these technologies by suggesting “the revolution is here, but nobody is teaching students how to use it.”

The second point made by panelists is that very simple use cases have the potential to be profound. For example, if an administrator wants to check school attendance they currently have to log into the SIS or access a dashboard elsewhere. The small amount of work required to access data dampens the frequency with which it is accessed. With smart devices, that same administrator could ask Alexa, “what’s our attendance today?” without breaking his or her stride. The removal of friction from the process of retrieving information will promote the use of data in countless ways.


#2 – Higher Ed and workforce training evolve under influence of changing labor market demand

Workforce edtech was another topic featured on the agenda with panel discussions that spanned the technology and business sides of innovation in this space.

Workforce education is gaining importance due to the rapid labor market change that results from automation and globalization. In his keynote, Ryan Craig talked about many problems arising within workforce education, as well as, some hopeful trends. For example, the demand for entry level employees with modern skills is placing a healthy pressure on higher education institutions to rethink their position in the market.

Many new programs cater to a wide range of stakeholders, including hiring managers. One recommendation to innovators is not to neglect the user experience of individual employees. Successful learning programs will meet the emerging needs of learners: in context and delivered just-in-time.

A second recommendation for innovators is to bridge learning outcomes and business ROI. “Business leaders are trying to connect the dots between credentialing and business drivers, such as attrition and engagement,” according to Paul Crockett, CEO of Authess.


#3  Global education markets look starkly different than the US

With the skyrocketing valuations of non-US edtech companies – VIPKid, Byju, and iTutorgroup – many panels found themselves exploring the growth dynamics in foreign markets, especially China, India, Japan, Israel.

The up-shot for entrepreneurs is that the compositions of these markets are starkly different. For example, the lion share of spending in the US is institutional, whereas the dominant business model in many global markets is B2C.

The reason for this is the imperative of economic mobility for families outside of the US. In China, over 20% of disposable income is spent on their children’s education. This point was driven home by Vince Chan of Creta Ventures who shared that learning applications are being disturbed on SIM cards via guys on motorcycles in areas lacking telecommunication infrastructure.

The other consideration for entrepreneurs to remember is that the local markets within each country can vary greatly. For example, Vinit Sukija from Learn Capital shared that India, as a country with 29 different states, operates as 29 different markets. “Consumer habits, channels for connecting to customers, even spoken languages are different,” according to Vinit.


#4 – Governments are sponsoring global edtech innovation as an economic driver 

A noticeable difference from past Across Boundaries was the increased presence of global public-private partnerships in both the audience and discussion.

Outside the US, government agencies are becoming a vital source of funding and resources for early stage companies. Enterprise Ireland, for example, is an Irish trade association that sponsored a cohort of companies to attend Across Boundaries. With low unemployment in Ireland, the agency’s mission is to export domestically built edtech solutions to the US and other markets.

We also have a number of companies supported by Cap Digital in France and Austrade in Australia within the LearnLaunch community. The magic to these partnerships is founder-friendly financing, key relationships in target markets, and the credibility of government support. It’s not an uncommon requirement that a percentage of awarded grant money be spent on market research. This support is critical to companies entering the US, which need to compile efficacy research and develop an understanding of the marketplace.

Thanks for reading our recap. We would love to hear your memorable takeaways from #LearnLaunch2019 in the comments.


Colin Magee is an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at LearnLaunch Accelerator. He is a product coach and provides help to education technology companies build products that customers actually buy and use.