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4 Trends That Will Shape Education in 2021

By January 11, 2021

I recently caught up with my friend Nathalie Mainland, senior vice president and general manager of Education Cloud at, on four trends driving key implications in the education industry this year.

Nathalie is one of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable ed tech leaders in the industry who seamlessly blends strong business instincts with pragmatic sensibilities. Through her work at and her personal experience having a daughter in college, she’s seen firsthand the shift to today’s learn-from-anywhere environment. Plus, she’s smart, tough, and knows how to make me laugh, so of course, she’s my #1 go-to when I want to get a pulse on education through the lens of digital transformation.

Today, everyone is talking about the “student experience.” It’s certainly top of mind for me as I homeschool my kids in 2nd, 5th, and 7th grade. I’ve also been spending more time reflecting on my own experience during undergrad and grad school, how much the world has changed, and yet how much the student experience has not.

Let’s pause and get clear on semantics.

 School-aged girl drawing on chalkboard

What exactly is the “student experience”?

Nathalie breaks it down like this: “I like to think of the student experience as a journey that’s shaped by every touchpoint a student has with their institution. The experience piece is integral to driving learner success overall and if you think about it, it really starts way before a student even steps on campus for the first time. The very first interaction a prospective student has with your institution creates the impression for the kind of experience they’ll have once they’re enrolled. 

“Most importantly, students expect that experience to be tailored to their needs, whether they’re scheduling an advising appointment on their phone or looking to easily connect with their peers in an online community. Personalization needs to go hand-in-hand with the student experience, especially in today’s environment.”

Why is everyone talking about student experience?

Well, that’s not so simple. According to Nathalie, four undeniable trends are driving the conversation.

Trend #1: 

Einstein pointing to Digital Divide and the Equality Gap

“The digital divide and ever-growing equality gap are creating real challenges for students, especially as many will continue to learn remotely well into 2021. Without access to Wi-Fi or a quiet place to learn, these gaps are likely to continue to grow at a rapid pace and are already leading to wellbeing challenges as well. There is a critical need for support services to surround the learner across K-12 and higher education. How institutions drive personalization here will be key. Oakland Unified School District is doing some incredible work in this space and they are a great example of how to support students holistically during this time.”

Trend #2:

Demand for Easier Access to Education
“There is a growing demand for broader, easier access to education. This is especially true for those that need to reskilll or upskill in the current economy. The challenge is that we’re seeing a lack of new learning models to support students who need that access, and fast. With that in mind, for higher education institutions to survive they will need to evolve. They need to reach new markets, engage digitally, and be one step ahead of students’ needs in order to compete in the education marketplace. Southern New Hampshire University is one institution at the forefront of this and they are constantly evolving to meet students where they are.”

Trend #3:

Need for Differentiated Business Models

“Throughout the year we’ve seen crisis put tuition and fundraising at risk. Schools are going to have to become more efficient and effective in how they transform their business models for new modes of tuition acquisition and retention. And embracing and accelerating digital transformation is at the core. 

A great story is the path that Indiana University has followed by breaking down silos across the institution to develop a single source of truth that can be leveraged across the CFO, CIO, and CMO level to drive their mission. The same is true for fundraising where advancement teams need the right tools to pivot quickly and engage donors in new ways. The Oklahoma State University Foundation story is a great example of turning challenge into opportunity. They made a pivot from donor solicitations to messages of solidarity and empathy this past year and ultimately doubled their gift revenue.”

Student with a face mask talking to her friend about exam results in lecture hall

There is a growing demand for broader, easier access to education.

Trend #4:

Astro stretching arms with text Education is a LIfelong Endeavor
“And lastly, we see education as a lifelong endeavor and the future of work needs lifelong learning platforms. We’re living longer, we are embracing multiple careers, and demand for convenient learning experiences continues to increase. This is especially true now as millions globally are unemployed and displaced economically. The need to learn anywhere and easily validate that lifelong learning is becoming especially important. I think we’ll see Trailhead, Salesforce’s free online learning platform, be used by even more people this year from K-12 and higher education students to adult learners looking to learn a new skill.”

I agree with Nathalie, these trends are undeniable and blowing wind into the sails of educational institutions around the world. But what is the destination? Now, I know Nathalie does not have a crystal ball, but I had to ask…

What does the future of education look like?

“Well, Jon, it’s better! When things evolve, they improve. I like to center my thinking on the student. Whether it’s a student in France, Australia, Canada, or the U.S., what are their needs and how can technology set them up for success so they can achieve all of their ambitions? What we’ve seen this past year is that education is an industry of true resilience and grit. 

“Education institutions have also seen firsthand the power of using technology to scale the incredible efforts of their faculty and staff. I don’t see that going away any time soon. In fact, I see schools continuing to learn from each other, sharing ideas for digital engagement and finding new ways to improve the student experience. I also see so much potential with Education Cloud to power those digital experiences with one connected platform throughout the student journey.”

To learn more about these trends, check out The New U: The Age of Continuous Connections in Higher Education, which features research and case studies from prominent higher education thought leader and reporter Jeff Selingo.

About the Author

Jon Fee, senior vice president of marketing at

Jon Fee, senior vice president of marketing at, leads the talented and passionate global marketing team. He and his team are responsible for bringing the story of customer and program success to life through compelling digital, brand, and physical experiences.

Nathalie Mainland, senior vice president and general manager of Education Cloud at

Nathalie Mainland, senior vice president and general manager of Education Cloud at, has over 15 years of senior-level experience working at technology and education organizations, including Blackboard, Autodesk, and Pearson. Follow her on Twitter @nmainland