The NEN Interview: Jannie Jeppesen, CEO Swedish Edtech Industry
Major investment rounds for Astrid, Dugga, Gleechi and Lexplore have put Swedish EdTech firmly in the spotlight in recent weeks. With the national trade association, the Swedish Edtech Industry, also recently publishing their 2021 Industry report, it’s a great time for me to talk to their CEO, Jannie Jeppesen, about what’s happening across the sector.
Our conversation not only highlighted some of the challenges that she and her team are addressing (budgets, procurement etc), but also reiterated why her members are optimistic about the future and are scaling rapidly overseas. Her thoughts on what makes Swedish / Nordic EdTech so distinctive are also well worth reading.
As previously, the transcript of our conversation (edited to bring you all of the very best bits) follows below.
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Many thanks, Jonathan
Jonathan Viner (JV): Hej Jannie! Thanks for talking to me today. Could you start by explaining what the Swedish Edtech Industry is and does?
Jannie Jeppesen (JJ): Founded in January 2017, it is a trade association for EdTech companies operating in Sweden. Our key objective is to increase the quality of Swedish education in the long run, which we do by working with education authorities and other stakeholders.
The Swedish Edtech Industry has 90 member companies, who are focused on the public education sector from pre-school to university. They are representative of the entire digital ecosystem - everything from learning apps to publishers as well as hardware companies and LMS providers.
Lots of our work is focused on improving procurement processes. We also represent and support our members with policy makers to show how we can help deliver their vision of digitalisation for the Swedish education sector.
JV: What was the motivation for creating the association in the first place?
JJ: Well, the Swedish education sector has been digitalising since the 1980s, but the industry supporting that work had no coordinating organisation or support. It realised that it needed to collaborate and present a clear perspective on big, national ecosystem issues.
Also, the end customer (the public sector) is ultimately the same for everyone working in Swedish education. So we needed to work together to inform that customer and their priorities.
JV: Can you tell me a little more about your background and experience before joining the Swedish Edtech industry?
JJ: I have been working with the digitalisation of learning for the past 20 years. I was a teacher, I have been a principal, I’ve worked at a municipality and as a Head of Professional Development for teachers and school leaders - digitalisation and learning were absolutely at the heart of those roles.
I then developed the SETT and EdTech Sweden events but things really took off when I organised a seminar at the Swedish parliament called “Swedish Edtech: the black hole.” At the event, Professor Robin Teigland from the Stockholm School of Economics presented her research on the success of the Swedish fintech industry and highlighted the importance of value networks and geographical closeness. A lot of EdTech companies in Sweden realised that they didn’t have this and that maybe they should start building them - both to add value to their customers and for the businesses themselves.
JV: What would you say is unique about Swedish EdTech? What stands it apart?
JJ: Certainly one unique thing is the experience that we’ve gained over the last 30+ years - we’ve been doing this for much longer than anyone else!
There’s lots in common in the Nordic EdTech value proposition, which is very distinctive globally. Our curricula and pedagogy are all very student centred and that really shows in the EdTech products we produce. Creativity, collaboration and critical thinking are all highly valued in our education systems too.
We also benefit from the wider tech scene, particularly gaming which is big in Sweden and Finland. That has a unique influence on the UX and product design of much of our EdTech.
JV: You mentioned unique experience and the last 12 months have obviously been pretty unique. How have your members responded to the pandemic?
JJ: As you know, Sweden has had a very unique strategy to tackling Covid-19 and haven’t gone into full lockdown. But our members responded quickly when the pandemic hit by increasing their technical capacity and providing lots of onboarding and user support as students/teachers went online. Many of them also provided their resources free to institutions. Our infrastructure proved to be really robust and everything went very well.
It was really important to have a close connection with the European EdTech scene, which helped us to prepare for what was coming based on what our colleagues were seeing in Italy and France.
JV: Do you think that there will be long-lasting change as a result of the pandemic?What are your members saying on that?
JJ: When questioned for our 2021 Industry Report, 50% of our members developed new functionality and 30% changed their long term business strategy and product development plans, as a result of the shutdowns and the changing needs of their customers.
It really has been a huge innovation sprint for our members and EdTech globally. Companies are preparing for a “new normal” that reflects teachers’ changing needs. Teachers have increased their digital know-how, they’re more confident in using digital resources and better understand the opportunities for using them.
JV: Given that municipalities are responsible for buying those materials in Sweden, are they able to move quickly enough to respond to demand from schools?
JJ: I think that the municipalities are now focused on creating a more sustainable digital ecosystem that is better prepared for whatever may come in the future. They’re preparing for uncertain times and we’ll see lots of crisis preparation and scenario planning in the months ahead.
JV: But your industry report suggests that your members believe that only 30% of procurement activity is “OK”. Isn’t this a real problem?
JJ: It’s obviously a really complex area and many of the procurements referred to are for administration systems and learning management systems.
You must also remember that Sweden was one of the last countries in Europe to have a national digital strategy and this is one of the consequences of that. As a result, we have advanced local digital ecosystems, which gives us a large amount of diversity and high competitiveness. But at the same time, we have a lack of national technical standards and limited interoperability.
JV: According to your report, 55% of your members are now prioritising international business development. Given the above, that’s perhaps no surprise!
JJ: Clearly, it’s important that we have a strong home market for EdTech in Sweden. We’ll continue to argue for innovation and improvement in the procurement process, including more testing and dialogue with stakeholders.
I’d also point out that the free school model in Sweden is a great way for companies to establish their product outside of the national procurement rules. These schools account for approximately 15% of all school-age pupils and are a good way for innovative new ideas and solutions to enter the market and gain first customers.
JV: Testing with stakeholders is, of course, a key part of the work of the Swedish Edtest programme. What impact is that having on Swedish EdTech?
JJ: That programme is really important because it helps companies to build products with teachers, based on their needs and which add genuine value to the teachers and their students. This kind of platform for collaboration and exchanging ideas simply didn’t exist before.
We’ve also seen that all of the teachers who have been involved have increased both their digital competence and their understanding of what to look for in digital resources. They’re also better able to plan their lessons and teaching.
Many of the companies involved have improved their products through working with teachers and some have also won their first reference customers
JV: As I mentioned in last week’s Nordic EdTech News, Dugga, Gleechi and Lexplore have all raised significant investment in the last few weeks. What does this tell us about the state of Swedish EdTech?
JJ: All three companies are very good examples of Swedish and Nordic EdTech. And what they do really well is that they respond to the needs of educators and institutions. Not just in the Nordics but internationally. Gleechi, for example, is really answering the global need to build lifelong learning skills.
We’ve seen Danish and Norwegian companies really going after international markets and moving much quicker than Swedish companies. They have really paved the way and we’re very grateful for that. But now is the time for Swedish EdTech companies to join them.
JV: How are you as a trade association helping them to do that?
JJ: We started many years ago with the Nordic Edtech Award, which highlighted the importance of building scalable, international businesses. We’re also co-founders of The European Edtech Alliance (EEA), which is launching soon, and that’s important as we need to see EdTech as a European venture.
The Swedish Edtech Industry have also hosted a seminar with the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in the U.K. along with Brighteye Ventures, Emerge Education, Lego Ventures and 15 Swedish companies. I’ve also recently introduced Swedish EdTech to 12 German states, with the Swedish Embassy in Germany and our National Agency for Education.
JV: I was astonished to see in your Industry Report that only 1.3% of school budget in Sweden is spent on EdTech resources! Why is that figure so low?
JJ: Yes - it is very low. It's important to highlight this because our budgets for learning content (analogue or digital) don’t compare well to the rest of the Nordics. Our sister organisation for publishers suggests that Sweden spends about 750 SEK per pupil per year, 20% of which is for digital resources. The figures in Finland are something like 1,200 or 1,400 SEK per pupil per year.
Corona has also highlighted that we have groups in Sweden who don’t have access to budget or resources and that we have schools who are lagging behind in their digital development. They have suffered more than most during the pandemic. Our municipalities need to take responsibility for making sure that everyone is connected and has the right access.
JV: Despite some of the challenges facing the sector, your industry report shows that members are incredibly optimistic and positive about the future. Why is that?
JJ: If we look at it from a global perspective, the education sector is really only at the very beginning of its digitalisation journey. And the need for digitalisation in education will only increase after Covid. Our members are confident about the quality of their solutions and see a significant opportunity for them to play in the future.
We have been digitalising, but we haven't digitalised. There’s a long way to go and lots of exciting opportunities ahead.
JV: I was also surprised to see that over 40% of your members have turnover of 5 million SEK or less. Given AcadeMedia’s recent acquisition of Studier.se, do you think that we’ll see more consolidation in Swedish EdTech moving forwards?
JJ: Yes, I think so. To some extent, this will be necessary for the industry to be sustainable in the long term as it’s expensive to invest in developing technology.
But this is a global trend too, so we’ll certainly see it across the Nordics as well.
JV: For those readers who don’t know Swedish EdTech very well, which are the companies that they should be looking out for?
JJ: Oh, that is really difficult for me to say as you can guess, but one I would mention as they have no competitors is Lexplore. It's a research-based eye tracking service that identifies low reading skills early on so that teachers can plan and make the necessary interventions.
Reading and writing is obviously key to success in education. And I think that they have the potential to really make a global change.
JV: One final question. Can you tell me a little more about your involvement with the broader Nordic EdTech ecosystem?
JJ: It is really important that we have open contact between the other national EdTech associations - that’s part of the value network I mentioned earlier. There’s also a key role to play in networking and collaborating to help our companies scale internationally.
But I think the next step is to make our politicians and organisations like the Nordic Council and Nordic Innovation work more closely together. In the Nordics, we’re more similar than we are different and we’ve got a great chance to really learn from each other because we all have different approaches and plans. I’d really like to see more of a triple helix approach where academia / research, government and industry come together to develop highly effective solutions.
JV: Thanks very much for your time Jannie! It’s been great talking to you.
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