"Virtual reality has enormous potential for training"

Educational technologies (edtech) are increasingly capturing the interest of investors and training environments. Pierre Dillenbourg, Vice-President of Swiss Edtech Collider, details how the sector can contribute to the development of local SMEs.

Edtech tools have experienced rapid growth since the 2010s, driven by the emergence of new technical solutions and the challenges of accessing traditional education in certain regions of the world. HolonIQ, a company specializing in economic data analysis, estimates that the average growth rate of expenditures dedicated to the sector is around 16.3% per year since the pandemic, compared to 13.1% previously. In Switzerland, the educational technology sector is primarily composed of very small companies with fewer than 10 employees. However, the tools they develop are attracting more and more investors as well as training environments. Pierre Dillenbourg, Vice-President of Swiss Edtech Collider, which brings together about a hundred startups active in the field, discusses the specificities of these companies in Switzerland and the opportunities they represent for local SMEs.

What is the role of the Swiss Edtech Collider and why was it established at EPFL?

Pierre Dillenbourg: The Swiss Edtech Collider primarily serves as a platform for exchange between startups and other stakeholders such as school principals, vocational education officials, or executives responsible for corporate training. It was also aimed at promoting the edtech sector, which, unlike many other areas of new technologies like fintech, remained relatively less visible in the market.

The choice of EPFL was quite natural. The institution was one of the pioneers in the field 30 years ago and is now one of the world leaders in this matter. It's also worth noting that two out of the three largest online language learning companies – Duolingo and Busuu – were co-founded by EPFL alumni.

What innovations are generating the most interest from investors?

Dillenbourg: Products and services with business-to-business (B2B) sales models, especially those aimed at professional training, are attracting many investors. This was the case with Coorpacademy, specializing in digital corporate training, which was acquired by the Australian firm Go1 in 2022. Services for individuals are also becoming increasingly interesting. For instance, Dynamilis (which received a funding of 150,000 Swiss francs from the VentureKick accelerator in 2022) uses artificial intelligence to address learning difficulties and improve writing skills in children.

Are these tools also of interest to Swiss schools and training centers?

Dillenbourg: Selling edtech products to public schools remains relatively complex, as it requires engaging with each cantonal authority. To implement a new teaching technology on a national scale, it means going through 26 different procedures.

However, examples of technology adoption in public schools do exist. One can mention the robot Thymio, developed by the company Mobsya, through which students can learn programming. This project was part of a partnership between the LEARN center at EPFL and public schools in the canton of Vaud.

Are the services developed by edtech accessible to Swiss SMEs?

Dillenbourg: At this stage, it's difficult to imagine that small companies can afford training systems designed for their specific needs. In practice, it's often the large corporations that provide the latest technologies – like videos or simulations – to their partner SMEs.

On the other hand, professional associations can help deploy edtech tools in SMEs. Let's take the example of a small industrial company that could benefit from a virtual reality system to create a digital twin of its workspace or production processes. Investing in such a system would likely be too expensive for such a company. But if members of the professional association at the cantonal or national level come together to purchase this service, such an acquisition becomes feasible.

You mentioned virtual reality. Does this cutting-edge technology truly address the needs of SMEs?

Dillenbourg: Virtual reality has tremendous potential for training in certain professions. This technology allows for simulating almost any situation without having to use the resources needed for real-world exercises and without encountering potential dangers. The most obvious example is flight simulators, used in the training and practice of airplane pilots for a long time.

Similarly, we have already conducted tests within virtual reality environments dedicated to more conventional professions, such as gardeners or carpenters. For instance, virtual reality has enabled them to visualize the forces involved on roof beams and thus better plan the assembly and disassembly of a roof.



Pierre Dillenbourg, Associate Vice-President for Education at EPFL

Initially a primary school teacher, Pierre Dillenbourg obtained a master's degree in education in 1986 and completed a doctoral thesis in computer science on artificial intelligence in education in 1992. In 2022, he was appointed a professor at EPFL. In 2017, the Belgian-Swiss co-founded Swiss Edtech Collider, of which he became the president. Since 2021, he has been working as an associate vice-president for education at EPFL.

Last modification 06.09.2023

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